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A nailbiter for sure – US midterm election has some surprises in store

A nailbiter for sure – US midterm election has some surprises in store
Voters wait in line to cast their ballots at the Desert Breeze Community Center polling place on 8 November 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo: Mario Tama / Getty Images)

It’s the 2022 midterm election in the US and the Red Wave has not washed over the land. While Republicans appear likely to control the House of Representatives, it won’t be by much and they may not have gained the Senate at all. Not such a great night for Donald Trump and his tribe after all.

On 8 November, millions of Americans went to their voting stations to pick members of Congress – both the House of Representatives and Senate — as well as 36 governors, many hundreds of state legislators and other state and local officials. In many states, they also had opportunities to voice their preferences on a wide range of referendums and initiatives such as state regulations on abortion or other contentious issues of social policy. In fact, millions of Americans had already voted by the time election day rolled around through absentee, mail-in or advance voting, helping to confuse pollsters and pundits alike as to what was going to happen once all the votes were counted.

Nevertheless, in recent weeks Republican strategists and a growing number of pollsters had begun to see signs of a so-called Red Wave. In 36 of the past 39 midterm elections the party holding the White House had seen substantial losses in congressional seats. Had that occurred, it would have been a massive triumph by Republican candidates across the country, upending Democratic control of both houses of Congress, and thus hamstringing any thoughts that President Joe Biden would have the political strength to push forward his legislative programme for the remaining two years of his term of office. 

An attendee holds up a ‘Make Nevada Red Again’ sign at a Stronger Nevada PAC’s General Election Results watch party in Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, 08 November 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Caroline Brehman)

Such Republican control of the Congress (or even just one of the two houses) could effectively put an end to congressional examinations of former president Trump. Moreover, it would be likely to restrain any new efforts to initiate major federal infrastructure and industrial investment programmes; it would encourage a yet more protectionist stance vis-a-vis China; it would possibly lead to attempts to constrain or restrict military and economic aid to an embattled Ukraine; and it would almost certainly set up corrosive investigations of the overseas business dealings of the incumbent president’s son, as a way to torment his father constantly, until 2024. 

It might even lead to another dangerous showdown over the federal debt ceiling, with Republicans emboldened to push the debate right to the edge in order to demand restrictions on other federal spending in exchange for continuing permission for the federal government to issue new debt. Depending on which Republicans ultimately gain congressional seats, it might even trigger the kind of legislative push for sunset rules for a wide array of the social benefit programmes such as Social Security and Medicare that have been standard parts of the government for many decades.

Read in Daily Maverick: “American midterm election puts democracy in the crosshairs

One thing it has done, perhaps inevitably given the nature of America’s political system, has been to goose the political universe into the 2024 presidential nomination race, as of right now, and going forward, full speed ahead. When he wasn’t bemoaning his loss in 2020 at the polls and accusing everyone of cheating and finagling the results, Donald Trump had spent the past year-plus trying to hold onto his position as titular head of the party by throwing support behind a series of candidates in Senate, House of Representatives, and governors’ races, hoping to create a cadre of office-holders thoroughly beholden to him, and who would be willing to do whatever he asked them to do politically. 

However, the failure of that Red Wave to occur meaningfully in this midterm election already has begun to produce a realisation that Trump’s political feet are at least partially made of clay. A number of the candidates he had pushed hard for were not successful, while others just barely scraped by. In fact, some Republican candidates who had eschewed Trump’s support – such as governor Brian Kemp – actually won anyway. Kemp scored a resounding victory over Democrat Stacey Abrams. 

A voter casts their ballot at the Hillel Foundation on 8 November 2022 in Madison, Wisconsin. (Photo: Jim Vondruska / Getty Images)

Most importantly, perhaps, was Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s big victory over Charlie Crist. Despite Trump’s earlier claims that he had been DeSantis’s political godfather, the governor had basically declined Trump’s campaigning on his behalf and even managed to leave out his name in speeches. The battle for the 2024 presidential nomination may be said to have begun right there between – at least – those two men.  

Read in Daily Maverick: “Americans set to deliver verdict on Biden, Democrats in midterms

Others like university and professional football immortal Herschel Walker, a candidate for senator in Georgia, appear to be headed for defeat by incumbent Senator Raphael Warnock. One footnote here is that if no candidate wins by 50%+1, the top two candidates in that race – in this case, Warnock and Walker – must undergo a run-off election in several weeks. (There are a few independent candidates pulling small but crucial numbers of votes from the total cast, making this eventuality possible.)

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Similarly, in Pennsylvania, Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman defeated Republican candidate Dr Mehmet Oz, despite a strong endorsement from Trump for Oz, and in spite of Fetterman’s somewhat concerning medical circumstances – he had suffered a stroke mid-campaign. Because that Senate seat had previously been held by a Republican, that consequent “flip” in party affiliation for the seat has set up the possibility that Democrats may yet retain control over the Senate. 

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As of midday on Wednesday, the Democrats had claimed a hold on 48 seats out of 100, while Republicans could lay claim to 47. (There had been a total of 35 Senate seats contested in this midterm election because with their six-year terms, every two years, one-third of the Senate is up for election.) If the Democrats can gain two more – or even three – seats, they will continue to control the upper house of Congress. (The past two years, in tie votes the vice-president has cast a deciding vote.) 

People vote as poll workers assist at a polling place at Galleria at Sunset on 8 November 2022 in Henderson, Nevada. (Photo: Mario Tama / Getty Images)

An election worker scans ballots at the Philadelphia Ballot Processing Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, US, on 8 November 2022. (Photo: Kristen Harrison / Bloomberg via Getty Images.)

New generation of leaders

To the extent Trump’s hold on the party has begun to waver a bit, it opens the door to a growing gaggle of other Republicans quietly – or not so quietly in the case of DeSantis – and eagerly positioning themselves as the new generation of leadership for their party. Their policy positions can usually be described as a kind of Trumpism, but, crucially, without the crassness, arrogance, bumptiousness and duplicitousness of the original version, and with much more political experience as well. Simultaneously, even while the Red Wave is not apparent, the loss of the House may also give some fuel to quiet discussion among Democrats about the possibility that they, too, need a new leader for the 2024 campaign, and that Joe Biden should consider not running again and instead make way so his party can find a more youthful champion to lead them against Trump or a Trumpian v.2.

At this point, with a number of races yet to be called, the final deposition of the next Congress remains to be seen, but in broad aspect, even though the Republicans hammered hard on economic issues, other issues, local questions, and the personalities of the candidates also played roles. In the near future we shall try to examine the final results in more detail and look at the way the new Congress is likely to grapple with actual policies, national issues and concerns. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Johann Olivier says:

    A remarkable election. A possible huge relief for liberal democracy and the West. Many of the ‘nuts’ did not win, but enough did to cause ongoing concern. However, the final count is not in. The US Senate is still in play, giving pause to celebration.

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