US midterms: in review
In light of the recent US midterm elections, Charlie Gershinson investigates what happens and what it could mean for the upcoming 2024 elections.
Just over one year ago, the Democratic party was fearing the worst. The 2021 gubernatorial elections had led to a Republican winning Virginia’s governor’s mansion (a state which Joe Biden had won by ten points only one year prior) while only narrowly holding the governor’s mansion in New Jersey. Amid a chaotic withdrawal from Kabul and unrelenting inflation, Republicans were salivating at the idea of a landslide Republican majority in the House, gaining up to sixty seats, and knocking over the Democrats’ threadbare majority in the Senate.
Republicans were looking forward to repeating their obstructionism which worked impeccably well for the latter six years of Barack Obama’s presidency by scuppering legislation and the appointments of judges and other executive positions. Even journalists were expecting a Republican landslide up until Election Day on 8 November, despite dramatic events unfolding such as the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Instead, they were prematurely writing Democrats’ political obituary as Democrats performed a stunning upset and secured the best midterms for the governing party since the post 9/11 midterm of 2002.
Even journalists were expecting a Republican landslide
The dreams of a massive majority for Republicans, the party have instead, at the time of writing, gained only nine seats to make 222 – four more than the requisite majority of 218. Meanwhile, the election of Lt. Gov John Fetterman of Pennsylvania over celebrity Dr. Oz saw Democrats potentially increase their majority by one or maintain their tie in the Senate, depending on the December 6th runoff election in Georgia.
It is worth putting into context how historically good this election result was for the Democratic Party. In 2010, Obama’s first midterms, Democrats lost sixty-three House seats and six Senate seats. In 2018, while Republicans were able to make gains in the Senate through gains in deep-red states such as North Dakota and Indiana, they still lost forty seats in the House. The loss of only single digit seats in the House by itself is a remarkable achievement by an unpopular president who was considered even in his own party to be a use to an end as perhaps the only candidate able to deny Donald Trump a second term.
Perhaps more significantly, of the several Republican candidates in swing states running on a platform of denying the 2020 election, none won. Election-denying Gubernatorial candidates in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Arizona lost alongside Republican candidates for Secretary of State. This ensures that, if a Democrat were to win any of these states and indeed the election, a constitutional crisis many times greater than the aftermath of the 2020 election, and enabled by state officials, would not ensue.
Given this stunning upset against conventional wisdom and – in the final weeks – the polls themselves, it is worth discussing how this came about. While many pages of analysis are yet to be written and the final data is yet to be compiled, there are two clear trends. First, the aftermath of the overturning of Roe v Wade was much more consequential than many anticipated. While the conventional wisdom suggested that inflation would be the top thing on voters’ minds, it seems that for many it was the rescinding of reproductive rights which swayed many voters’ minds. Of the multiple referenda and ballot initiatives concerning abortion, the pro-choice position succeeded regardless of where it happened. Everywhere from Kentucky to California saw reproductive rights upheld at the state level. In Michigan, this seemed to have had a consequential effect with a Democratic sweep not only of statewide positions but also the state legislature for the first time since the 1980s. The second reason is a punishment of Republicans, rather than Democrats, for their increasingly extreme ideology concerning ambiguity over their standpoint on democracy and plans to potentially repeal social security and Medicare. This overall led to a massive gender gap where more women voted and voted Democratic and Democrats narrowly winning independent voters.
With the narrow loss of the House, is Biden’s legislative agenda dead? Most likely, but not necessarily. Firstly, the Republican House leader Kevin McCarthy must win over both the centrist, establishmentarian wing of his party and the nationalist Freedom Caucus simultaneously to be elected Speaker with 218 votes. At the time of writing, five Freedom Caucus members have already refused to vote for McCarthy and more may be on the way, making it almost impossible for him to win. With countless ballots potentially on the horizon, a moderate Republican or even a Democrat could potentially take over the Speaker’s Chair. A coalition of moderates and Democrats could also be formed to force bills on the floor which include Biden’s legislative agenda.
The retention of the Senate is also vitally important. This allows Democrats to have free reign on the appointment of federal judges, including on the Supreme Court, should a vacancy arise potentially forcing the balance of the Court away from the right.
Considering Democrats were contemplating electoral Armageddon up until Election Day, how could this stunning turnaround occur? One explanation is that Democrats were able to aim their resources at swing districts which could potentially get them to maintain their majority. In the most expensive district race in the country, Democrat Elissa Slotkin won Michigan’s seventh district by five points. Jared Golden held onto his Trump-voting House seat by six points.
What does this mean for 2024? It is certainly too soon to tell. Similar analysis purely based on the 2010 elections would have predicted a Republican landslide in 2012 rather than Obama’s handsome re-election victory. What we can infer is the electoral prospects of one man: Donald Trump. All but a handful of his endorsed candidate from New Hampshire to Arizona to Pennsylvania lost the election as independent voters were repelled by the controversial policies, particularly election-denial, which attracted Trump’s endorsements. As Republicans come around to the revelation that independent voters are in favour of basic respect for democracy and voting rights, they should equally realise that any hopes the Republicans have of reclaiming the White House in 2024 ends if Donald Trump, whose mind remains warped by his 2020 loss, claims the nomination.