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The US midterm elections are now almost history, so what’s next for America?

The US midterm elections are now almost history, so what’s next for America?
US President Joe Biden delivers remarks during a Democratic National Committee post-election event at the Howard Theater in Washington, DC, US, on 10 November 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Will Oliver)

With the extraordinary results in the US’s midterm elections now largely counted, it is time to reconnoitre what comes next for the country’s political and policy spheres.

The US midterm elections took place on 8 November, and although final results are not yet entirely compiled, we can begin to draw conclusions from the not-quite-final results. That, then, provides an opportunity to sketch out some early thoughts on the future of the remainder of the Biden term of office and to ponder the success of such plans. 

The results of these elections were a stunning repudiation of what had been presumed (or at least hyped by Republican, partisan pollsters) to be an incoming electoral “red wave”, as well as a rebuttal to the tradition of incumbent presidents being embarrassed by midterm electoral results. These elections were also supposed to be in tandem with the impact of the veritable colossus that was presumed to be Donald Trump (and, perhaps, to a degree, even Trumpism as a kind of inchoate ideological framework). They were going to be the backdrop for Trump to announce his next try for the presidency as well, this coming week. 

us midterm elections

Election workers sort ballots at the Maricopa County Tabulation and Election Center on 9 November 2022 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo: John Moore / Getty Images)

But, in truth, that wave never made landfall. The leading Republican candidates most closely embraced and endorsed by the former president have largely crashed and burned. This time around, the electorate declined to buy the myth Trump was selling, even generating an unusual degree of introspection by Republican political pros.  

In Senate and gubernatorial electoral contests, voters — instead of voting for candidates genuflecting before the false god of 2020 election denialism and the idea the economy was in peril, that crime and immigration threatened to overwhelm the nation, and that the price of petrol would doom Democratic Party candidates — significantly proved unwilling to follow the script.

Instead, for many voters, there was continuing unhappiness about the Dobbs v Jackson Supreme Court decision that had nullified a guarantee of reproductive/abortion rights at the federal level, and a growing concern over dangers to the country’s democratic traditions by vigilante and extremist violence. There also appears to have been a slowly growing appreciation of the impact of the Biden legislative victories related to the economy that, taken together, became more important for many voters than the Republican fearmongering over inflation, crime and immigration in many state races.

A barely noticeable red ripple

The result was a barely noticeable red ripple. In 36 of the past 39 mid-term elections, the incumbent president’s party took a beating — but not this time. In fact, with some significant victories in state governor races, the likely addition of one seat in the Senate to the Democratic column, holding Republican gains in the House to a marginal change, and various referendums in several states regarding reproductive rights, the Biden administration’s rhetorical gamble to focus on threats to democracy seems to have paid off. 

As a result, the Democratic Party now will have a majority in the Senate with the vote from the vice-president available for any tie votes, and the remaining race in Georgia is subject to a run-off on 6 December. If that goes Democratic as well, the party will have a small but secure majority. With the Senate in Democratic Party hands, it will remain largely supportive of the president’s judicial, senior official and ambassadorial appointments, as well as of any treaties that come to the body for a vote.  

In that Georgia race, incumbent Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock’s vote total has placed him in the lead, but because he did not achieve a 50%+1 win over his opponent, Herschel Walker, Georgia state law now requires a run-off. (A Libertarian Party candidate gained a few percentage points as well.) Walker was one of Trump’s most eager acolytes, but his inability to capitalise on that support, plus rising popular unease with his awkward fumbles about his personal life and a glaring ineptitude on the campaign trail may well doom him to defeat, despite Georgia having been a Republican-leaning state for many years. 

In the House of Representatives, with its 435-member body, the Republicans had hoped to achieve a stunning, even massive reversal of the current dispensation in which the Democrats have been holding a very modest majority. But as the count continues in the remaining seats, even the slimmest of majorities may yet be beyond the Republicans’ grasp.  

us midterm trump

Former US president Donald Trump and former first lady Melania Trump. (Photo: EPA-EFE /Cristobal Herrera-Ulashkevich)

If the Democrats pull off a miracle and actually hold the House of Representatives as well, it will represent the most unlikely of results, the retention by an incumbent president’s party of control of both Houses of Congress during midterm elections. This would be despite the relative unpopularity of that president (although polling has been showing a gentle uptick in Biden’s support and it is higher than that of the titular head of Republicans, Donald Trump).

All of this will serve as an obstacle for Kevin McCarthy’s hopes to become the next Republican Speaker of the House as it is possible one of the more outrageous members of the party’s “2020 election deniers caucus” will challenge McCarthy for the party’s leadership in the House of Representatives. In fact, this may happen regardless of whether or not the Republicans actually end up with a slender majority. Either way, expect the Republicans in Congress to be a faction-ridden bunch, bickering over how obsessively they should oppose anything proposed by the president, or if they still owe some sort of fealty to the former president.

‘Ron DeSanctimonious’

Meanwhile, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis pulled off a stunning defeat of his Democratic opponent, the veteran politician Charlie Crist, and DeSantis also pulled Republican candidates on the rest of the ballot to victory all across Florida. 

DeSantis had at one time been ‘mentored’ by Trump when he was first making the jump from junior congressman to gubernatorial candidate, but feuding between the two men has now broken out into open verbal sparring, especially as the governor is increasingly being spoken about as a potential presidential candidate who would put an end to any ideas Trump has for gaining that nomination for the third time. Despite the fact that there is very little that separates the two strictly on policy ideas, there seems to be a world of difference between the two men in their personal styles, demeanour and deportment.  

This growing rivalry has provoked Trump to dub DeSantis with one of those patented, deprecating monikers he doles out to those he wishes to destroy — in this case, it is Ron DeSanctimonious. Trump has a real way of finding a demeaning nickname that sounds ‘right’ and sticks in people’s minds. And, mind you, DeSantis, beyond being whip-sharp, is a pretty sanctimonious fellow. In his campaign, he issued a television commercial in which he effectively anointed himself as God’s chosen warrior. Even Trump never went quite that far.

us midterm trump

Former US president Donald Trump speaks at an election rally at Dayton International Airport in Vandalia, Ohio, on 7 November 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Mark Lyons)

Meanwhile, given the Republicans’ debacle in this electoral cycle, a number of its more rational office-holders, political strategists and supportive commentators (even including longtime supporter and media mogul Rupert Murdoch) are pointing at Trump and calling him out as yesterday’s man. Thus, the Republicans’ fight for the nomination has now been joined over how it will play out in 2024.

The Democrats are, soon enough, going to have a bit of their own internal bickering over whether they should nominate a man in his eighties for a second term as president, once 2024 rolls around. It is useful to recall that the first primaries and caucus battles for that nomination are now less than a year and a half away. Pressure about this is likely to continue to rise, especially if it appears the other team is headed towards finding a new champion who is a generation or more younger than the incumbent president — or the previous one. 

Biden’s policy choices and agenda

With this political landscape in mind, what does it mean for Biden’s actual policy choices and agenda? One friend of this writer, who has had a long career as a congressional aide and corporate representative, noted: “The small [Republican] majority in the House will give the yahoo caucus more sway. There is a risk of the idiots holding up the debt ceiling vote in order to force draconian spending cuts in social programmes. I expect that the Democrats will try to do the debt ceiling [vote] in the lame-duck session while they have the votes. 

“I really don’t see much happening in the new Congress. Even if something passed in the House, the filibuster awaits. I heard one commentator suggest that Biden has decided to push filibuster reform for the purpose of codifying Roe. I am fairly confident that Ukraine assistance will be continued because most Republicans support it, including [Republican Senator and Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell (although there is a Senate revolt re his leadership brewing).”

Looking beyond domestic politics, my informant added: “I see no hope for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, based mostly on the results of the Israeli election. I think there is hope for more brokered deals between Israel and the Arab states. Republicans generally support such deals so long as the [Christian] evangelicals agree. I do wonder what support we may give to the uprising in Iran. I think that could be bipartisan.

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“I do think the new year will bring crazy investigations in the House including [about] the Afghanistan withdrawal. But without majorities in both Houses, I don’t see progress on climate change. Biden has shown a willingness to use all of his executive powers and then some (ie, student loans) so I think he will do the same in foreign policy where a president is less constrained by the Constitution. Look for him to continue to try to strengthen Nato.”

And a Washington-based international lawyer correspondent added he was uncertain, “if the election will have much impact on foreign policy, since most Republicans still support aid for Ukraine (though a growing faction wants to revisit those decisions). 

“Everyone in government still seems obsessed with China and the possibility of a war over Taiwan at some point in the next few years. There is also mounting concern over Iran’s nuclear programme. But, again, I don’t see why GOP control of the House (if that materialises) would change much of this. Interestingly, foreign policy was not an issue in the midterms at all. It was hardly mentioned by anyone.”

Still, the extraordinary (and largely unanticipated) midterm electoral results are already leading some commentators to argue Biden’s hand has been strengthened vis-à-vis foreign interlocutors — and away from a sense that his administration is weak or irresolute.

This may already be coming into focus through the president’s current schedule of international meetings, including that quick visit and speech in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, for the climate summit, then in Cambodia with the Asean leaders meeting to bolster support vis-à-vis China, and finally in Bali, Indonesia, for the G20 meeting, including a push to others to hold fast against Russia over its Ukrainian invasion.  

But much will depend on the way the Republican congressional caucus in both Houses decides to respond to their shellacking — and the way contenders for their party’s nomination for the presidency choose to frame their respective positions as they jockey for consideration as the 2024 nominee. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Chris Engelbrecht says:

    I find it intriguing that this commentator, and many others of equally high standing, make no mention of the single reason why the US midterm results confounded pre-election predictions: the youth vote, especially from ‘Generation Z’. The statistics show that it is solely the result of the overwhelming support of this voting group for Democratic candidates that produced the unanticipated result. This energizing of the youth vote is a direct consequence of the youth-driven climate activist movements like Fridays for Future and its US counterparts – especially the Sunrise Movement – who have put incredible energy, intelligence, and sheer hard work into getting young people in the US to vote for their future interests in far greater numbers than ever before. Biden’s action on student debt forgiveness helped immensely in persuading Gen Z to back the Democratic Party by actually going out and voting. Biden himself acknowledged the role played by Gen Z in producing these stunning midterm results. Globally, this generation is pushing harder than any other to effect the socio-economic changes that are vital to mitigate (in as far as it is still possible) the enormous mess that my (boomer) generation has bequeathed on the planet. Their votes in the midterms were part of the greater global strategy to right many wrongs of the past. Please, Brooks: give credit where credit is due. Thank you for your great journalism in general; long may you continue.

    • brooks spector says:

      regarding age cohorts’ impact on the outcomes, I think we also need to examine more deeply — as the data becomes available — on voting differences by sex, race, ethnicity as well. this initial data on young voters would seem to ignore that the next age cohort upward also went Democratic. nevertheless, as I understand it, that initial judgement comes from exit polling, rather than deeper digging. the dimensions of who voted for whom will probably differ by state as well. I can remember that despite the assumptions made about young voters, back in 1972, young people as a whole tended to vote, in the majority for Richard Nixon, rather than George McGovern, defying assumptions about young voters.

      • Roelf Pretorius says:

        Well, the young voters are the future voters. So, as in 2020, Joe Biden has shown himself to be a formidable strategist. I am not convinced that the Dems can ignore this, and I am also not convinced that his age necessarily has to count against him. At 80, he is immensely capable and all that experience he has can hardly be seen as a drawback. Besides, with him in the chair, VP Harris has ample time to learn the tricks from the old fox, to take over if something happens to Biden. She is very capable herself, and in 2020 drew a vast majority of the other demographic group that forms a majority of the voters, namely women, to support the Democratic Party presidential campaign. And she is relatively young too.

  • Mark K says:

    I believe your country needs a new constitutional convention and then a new constitution that’s fair and fit for the 21st century, sir. The amendments simply haven’t kept up with the pace of change.

  • Roelf Pretorius says:

    I would say that the USA (and the rest of the world) should not rest on their laurels about the Ukraine war issue. Putin’s troops are now consolidating themselves on the south side of the Dnipro, and Russia is likely to do its’ utmost to strengthen its ammunition racks for another try later on, maybe after the winter. So the NATO countries had better not back off, but now even accelerate the assistance for Ukraine with weapons of every type and purpose, so that when Russia starts with its’ tricks again, it runs into an overwhelming backlash. That seems to be the only way to convince Russia to withdraw – when they only experience pain and no satifaction any more, and the only way to stop the pain is to withdraw.

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