Pendulum swings back towards Democrats two months before do-or-die midterm elections
The Republican campaign to conquer the US Congress in 2022 is now significantly more in play than it was just a few months ago. The economy, reproductive rights, university debt relief and Donald Trump’s increasingly problematic circumstances will all have unpredictable effects.
Back in January, and on through the spring and into early summer in the US, the fortunes of President Joe Biden and his Democratic Party in the upcoming midterm election looked grimmer by the day. The election, scheduled for 8 November, will determine which party controls the US Congress.
This, of course, will largely dictate the chances of any legislative agenda for the incumbent president. Loss of control of both of the two houses — the Senate and the House of Representatives — or a seriously convincing loss of either of them will mean, as far as legislation is concerned, that the Biden administration will become ever-more ceremonial, and less and less effective politically, domestically and internationally.
With a razor-thin majority in the House, where the entire membership is up for election, and with a 50-50 Democratic-Republican tie in the Senate, where the vice president’s vote will be needed to pass anything if the vote is a tie, Democratic strategists must have been having sleepless nights about November.
By contrast, Republicans had to restrain themselves from crowing audibly, in advance, over a likely but still putative red wave that would sweep through the election this year and drown those Democrats.
They found themselves visibly chortling over the president and his party’s dimming fortunes because of significant inflation (including food prices), dramatically rising petrol prices (just as the summer vacation/travel season was about to start), a continuing border/immigration crisis, memories of the awkward — even chaotic — departure of the US military in Afghanistan, and a seemingly pervasive sense from polling that the country’s circumstances were headed in the wrong direction.
The Republicans could even take heart that one of the key issues so many of them have ardently supported for decades — the revocation of a broadly inclusive abortion rights regimen as a result of the 49-year-old Roe v Wade Supreme Court ruling — was now an accomplished fact. Mission accomplished.
That was then; but this is now. And things seem to be running the other way — and maybe they will flow even more strongly in the Democrats direction in the next two months. Maybe.
Democratic strategists, politicians, activists and ordinary voters are starting to think they might, just possibly, be able to hold the line on Republican victories in marginal districts, even capturing a few Senate seats at the same time.
What has happened to give birth to a possible shift in the chances of Democrats? Let’s begin with that Supreme Court decision. For Republicans, achieving a major reversal on reproductive rights is akin to the apocryphal dog that chases a moving car. The real question is not who is racing fast enough to reach the car; rather, it is what in the world Fido will do with the car once he catches it.
For years, reversing Roe v Wade was an article of faith for Republicans, but that project was largely fought in the abstract, with lawyers and briefs, with opinion pieces and in lobbying efforts at the state level.
Now, however, the storyline has become (and apologies to those for whom these scenarios will be rather terrifying) about the very real impact of this decision on a 12-year-old rape victim forced to carry a child to term because a hospital cannot figure out whether they are legally allowed to terminate the pregnancy.
Or there will be the saga of a woman who learns that her unborn child will be born, but that birth will come with a roster of congenital problems, dooming the child to a lifetime of pain, suffering, surgeries and an inability to have circumstances anywhere close to a normal life. And that doesn’t even begin to describe the impact on the baby’s family — or the crushing burden of medical costs the family will be forced to bear.
Instead of an abstruse discussion about the “right to life”, it will be real-life dramas like these that will become the storyline for this issue — either in political messages or played out in the minds of millions of voters as they think about the real consequences of what has been achieved.
Support for reproductive rights is largely a Democratic position, and it has already rebounded to their credit in a referendum in Kansas. Kansas — a state that has been reliably Republican in most elections for years. No, Dorothy, even Kansas no longer seems to be Kansas anymore.
It may be reasonable to predict that many of the candidates in tough races will digest these results and thoughts, align themselves with what they believe to be the winning side of this debate and with the renewed activism of many women — and then work for legislative efforts to enshrine reproductive rights for women nationally.
Gambling on the economy
Meanwhile, although the rate of inflation continues to be troubling, the ultrasensitive price of fuel has been steadily decreasing from its early summer peak. In addition, the Federal Reserve bank has been taking increasingly aggressive steps to apply the brakes on inflation (even if it risks tipping the economy into a noticeable recession), and unemployment is staying at near-historic lows. Job growth is continuing at impressive levels as well.
The economic news, now, is not nearly as bad as it might have become by this point from the perspective of doom and gloom earlier in the year. Added to that is the Biden administration achieving some real legislative victories, including a major climate policy measure (once West Virginia’s Joe Manchin moved gently towards the Biden plans). This brushed away an earlier zeitgeist that Biden was too welded to bipartisanship in the national legislature to achieve success, with his administration doomed to fail.
Most recently, the Biden administration has announced measures to provide forgiveness of up to $20,000 of university tuition loans provided by the government if the student and family’s income is below a certain level, and $10,000 if income is higher.
This is a gamble. Yes, it was a specific campaign promise in the 2020 election, but the plan is open to attack on two sides. The most leftwing of Democrats are grumbling it is too little, whereas Republicans (and some Democrats) are arguing that this is a freebie for rich, lazy philosophy majors, and that it will raise the inflation rate.
The facts of the matter, however, are that much of the debt in question is owed by working-class (and significantly black and Hispanic) students. A significant share of that debt is for those for-profit schools from which many of the debtors never graduated, but for which the debt remains. Relatively little of that debt is held by the undeserving rich, and economists have calculated that forgiving such debt is unlikely to be a measurable influence on inflation rates.
Still, Republicans are already flighting ads specifically designed to incite a kind of class warfare about this initiative — especially in response to the view that the loan forgiveness plan was designed (after much anguished debate among the Biden administration) to appeal for the support (and the votes) of those holding such debts and their families, or others who supported such an initiative.
Now, nearly at the end of the primary elections that will determine who faces off in the November election, Republicans have clearly picked some senatorial candidates (largely blessed by former chief executive Donald Trump) who are less-than-stellar candidates — and some who are clearly embarrassing as candidates, such as Herschel Walker, JD Vance and Dr Mehmet Oz. Defeating such figures may be enough for the Democrats to improve their margin in the Senate by a seat or two.
In the House, in four special elections to fill vacant seats, Democratic candidates have done significantly better than the Republican candidate for president did in 2020 (although Democrats only won one of those races).
Taken together, the auguries are pointing slightly, but confusingly, towards a continued Democratic hold on the Senate and a loss by that party in the House, but with far less carnage than was anticipated earlier.
Still to be determined, of course, is how the war in Ukraine (and the unity of the Western coalition) plays out by election day, along with the quasi-confrontation with China over the circumstances of Taiwan. Naturally, the state of the economy — and people’s perceptions about it — will be a major influence on races all across the US.
Still, the biggest issue domestically may well be how Trump’s increasingly fraught situation plays out. If it becomes increasingly clear his obdurate, illegal holding of a huge stash of government documents (including many that were at the highest level of security classification) can plausibly be seen to have put the US and its government at risk, Trump’s influence may largely evaporate in the midterm election, as he becomes too hot to embrace by Republicans in many of the districts up for grabs.
Instead, there would be an unseemly scramble by many Republicans to magically create some distance from him after earlier being supplicants for his endorsement. Thereafter, a madcap scramble for his legacy for the 2024 election erupts as well.
If the old saying is that a week is a lifetime in politics, be prepared for many surprises and sudden switches, still, between now and November. DM