The Democrats in the US avoid the ‘blowout’, but Biden will be paralysed and likely to turn to foreign aggression in compensation, argues Terina Hine
It could have been worse. Pre-election polls showed the midterm referendum on Biden’s presidency could have been a rout; the relief in the Democratic camp is palpable. Tuesday’s elections did not produce the ‘tsunami’ Republican wave many predicted, but it is far from a full-blooded endorsement of Biden or the Democrats.
Assumptions were made that seats won with tiny majorities in 2002 would easily swing red (Republican). But the predicted GOP victory has been elusive. With the upper house of the US congress (the Senate) split 50/50 prior to Tuesday’s polling and the Democrats needing to lose only five seats for the Republicans to gain control of the lower House (the House of Representatives), the election was the Republicans to lose. Retaining control of either house was always going to be an uphill struggle for the Democrats, and history was not in their favour. The incumbent party rarely does well in midterms.
Although the final results may not be announced for days, it is already clear that Biden has managed to avoid the trouncing Obama received at the same point in his presidency, when he lost 63 House seats. It is currently estimated that the Republicans will gain somewhere between eight and fifteen seats, a long way from the sixty many had predicted. For the Senate, the outcome is more finely balanced; at the time of writing it looks set to remain evenly split with the Vice-President retaining her decisive vote. Georgia, currently too close to call, will be the deciding state.
Biden’s fumbling performance on the campaign trail did not seal his fate, perhaps because it was already factored in; he has, after all, never had the oratory skills of Obama or Clinton. It was Biden’s economic record that was expected to sink the Democrats, with inflation at historic levels and inequality at an all-time high. However, the President’s low approval rating (consistently less than 50%, most recently at 40%) did not transfer to low voting numbers. Remarkably, the better than expected results for his party have led one senior White House official to declare their man will run in 2024. Please God, no.
Biden may have avoided a decisive defeat, but his lacklustre campaign and negligible legislative achievements can hardly be classed a success. Expectations were low and the alternatives, in many cases, were both anti-democratic and genuinely crazy. Reports of a greater number of split-tickets (votes for candidates from different parties on the same ballot) than is the norm provide evidence that candidates’ characters may have been an issue. Many of those pushing ‘the election was stolen myth’ failed in their own electoral challenges. Of course, this will not prevent candidates or their supporters casting doubt on the validity of the results.
A number of commentators have indicated that turnout was key in scuppering the Republicans. While inflation was the most important issue for voters, higher than usual turnout in university districts within states where abortion was on the ballot may have played a significant role in getting out the vote. The abortion issue appeared decisive where there was a vociferously pro-life candidate, and was cited in the exit polls by 27% of voters as the issue ‘mattering most in deciding’ their vote. And, of course, concern about women’s rights and concern about the economy are not mutually exclusive.
In the New York governor’s race, the incumbent Democrat, Kathy Hochul, pulled off a surprise victory against an $11 million campaign to get the pro-life, Trump-supporting, Lee Zeldin elected. That Zeldin was ever thought to stand a chance of winning in New York is shocking and speaks volumes about the Democrat offering. But Zeldin was clearly too extreme for New Yorkers, and a woman’s right to choose appears to have trumped the Democrats’ insipid record in office as the deciding factor.
A growing theme of the election is that Republicans not reliant on Trump did better than those riding the Trump coattails. Against the odds, it is Trump not Biden who appears to be the loser of the midterms. His muted response on the morning after was a far cry from the bullish rally in Dayton, Ohio on election eve, when he indicated he would run for President in 2024.
Trump’s chances of securing the Republican nomination were looking good; he was first choice for over half of Republican party members, while his main rival, Ron DeSantis, governor of Florida, was supported by less than a quarter. But on Tuesday, DeSantis secured a decisive ‘historic, landslide victory’, while many of the Trump-endorsed candidates were less fortunate. Trump-nominated candidates in some crucial battleground states won with only very narrow margins and huge amounts of funding, while more moderate Republicans secured decisive victories.
The key state of Pennsylvania, fiercely fought and tipped to go Republican, was held by Democrat John Fetterman, while the Trump-endorsed contender for state governor lost by a significant margin. Being on the Trump ticket was not the guaranteed win his acolytes believed. On Wednesday morning, Fox News was decidedly more pro-DeSantis than pro-Trump.
How the election ultimately plays out will depend on who ends up in control of the Senate, but the loss of the House (assuming that is what happens) is no small matter. The Democrats achieved little when they had control of both houses, and will achieve less now. It will be the death of the 6 January committee (on the 2021 attack on the Capitol) and the governing party will have their hands tied when it comes to legislation. The White House will be inundated with subpoenas and investigations, ranging from the supposed cover-up over the origins of Covid and the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan to the nefarious affairs of Hunter Biden.
And once the results are finalised, the impact of this democratic exercise will be felt around the world, for it will only be in the foreign-policy arena that Biden will retain any real power. Hawkish to the core, Biden’s track record is as an aggressor, happy in provoking both China and Russia, and seemingly impervious to the dangers of nuclear war. Next year, as the US economy falls into recession, as mortgage repayments climb higher, and real incomes fall further, the Democrats will have no answers but distraction. The fractious mudslinging expected between Republicans may help, but no doubt Biden’s Democrats will fall back on the old failsafe of picking fights abroad.
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