Associate Professor David Smith is a senior lecturer in American Politics and Foreign Policy. He is jointly appointed between the United States Studies Centre and the School of Social and Political Sciences.
Midterm elections in the United States elect the House of Representatives, a third of the Senate, and thousands of state legislative and executive offices. For all their magnitude and importance, these elections attract far less attention than presidential elections and have much lower turnout.
But the November 8 2022 midterms, taking place in one of the most closely divided Congresses in history, could have far-reaching consequences.
Democrats currently hold the House of Representatives by a margin of just 10 seats out of 435. This is the narrowest House majority since 1955. They have no majority at all in the Senate, which is split 50-50, relying on the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris.
This makes it historically unlikely that the Democrats will hold on to the House. Since the Civil War, the president’s party has lost seats at every midterm election except for 1934 (the Great Depression), 1998 (Bill Clinton’s impeachment) and 2002 (the first election after the September 11 terrorist attacks).
Republicans only need to gain five seats to take the House. This outcome is widely expected but far from certain, and Democrats can take some comfort from some encouraging results in special elections earlier in the year.
The Senate could be more favourable to Democrats, despite Republicans needing just one seat to flip it. Because only a third of Senate seats are contested at each election, one party often needs to defend far more of its seats than the other. This year Republicans are defending 20 seats compared to the Democrats’ 14, and a lot of these races are extremely close.
Under these circumstances, some forecasts slightly favour Democrats to retain control of the Senate. But given the tightness of key races, it could well come down to contingenciesthat are hard to predict.
Each party wants voters to focus on different sets of issues. For Republicans, the job is straightforward. Voters often treat midterm elections as a referendum on the president, even though the president is not on the ballot. While Biden’s approval ratings have recovered somewhat this year, they are still in the low 40s, a historically bad sign for the president’s party.
Inflation has dominated economic news for the last year and now there is talk of a recession. Republicans have harnessed increasing disquiet over crime, asylum seekers at the southern border and pandemic school closures. With such advantageous conditions for Republicans, commentators as recently as June were predicting a “red wave” election that would wipe out Democrats in both houses.
But developments over the American summer shifted the focus away from these problems. In June, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade, the almost 50-year-old ruling protecting abortion rights across the United States. Republican legislators in some states quickly enacted new laws restricting or banning abortion, while Democrats initiated legislation in other states to protect rights that many had taken for granted.
There was little doubt that politically, the abortion issue helped Democrats as Republicans staked out increasingly extremepositions. A ballot initiative in Kansas, usually seen as a reliably “red” state, saw 59% of the population vote to keep the state’s constitutional protection for abortion.
The Supreme Court’s decision reflected the conservative super-majority installed by former President Donald Trump, and brightened the spotlight Democrats were already shining on the former president. The House Select Committee’s hearings into the January 6 riots, which are continuing, had a peak of just over 20 million TV viewers in June. They were presented with graphic and moving evidence of Trump’s culpability in the violence.
In August, an NBC News poll found 21% of Americans rated “threats to democracy” as the most important issue in the midterm elections, compared to 16% saying cost of living issues and 14% saying jobs and the economy.
It is hard to maintain the kind of attention these issues got over the summer. More recent polling suggests that economic issues have once again become the central focus of attention, which will hurt Democrats. Republican candidates have quietly toned down their opposition to abortion and removed endorsements from Trump from their campaign websites.
Biden has found it hard enough to advance a legislative agenda even with unified Democratic control of Congress. If Democrats lose either house, it will make almost any further major legislation essentially impossible because of the veto power of both houses and the president.
If Republicans win the House of Representatives, they will quickly put an end to the House Select Committee investigating the January 6 riot. As Democrats move to subpoena Trump himself as part of that investigation, Republicans are planning retaliatory investigations and subpoenas. Kevin McCarthy, the likely speaker of a Republican controlled House, has already threatened that the House would investigate Attorney-General Merrick Garland over the August FBI raid on Trump’s Mar-A-Lago residence. Numerous Republicans have said they should impeach Biden. The president will also be concerned that a majority Republican House might reduce military aid to Ukraine.
If Republicans win the Senate, Biden will face a lot of problems making appointments that need to be confirmed by the Senate. In particular, he will probably lose any chance of making another appointment to the Supreme Court. The last time a Republican-majority Senate confirmed a Democratic President’s Supreme Court nominee was in 1895.
But the most significant consequences could be for the next presidential election in 2024. Trump has continued to claim that the 2020 election was fraudulently “stolen” from him, and hundreds of Republican candidates across the 2022 midterms have echoed these claims. This was how many of them secured Trump’s endorsement, and their nominations. Some of these candidates are seeking statewide positions that could give them immense influence over the 2024 elections, especially the offices of governor and secretary of state, which have ultimate responsibility for certifying election results in most states.
Much to Trump’s chagrin, no governor or secretary of state refused to certify the 2020 election results, despite the pressure he applied to them. But this year’s Republican candidates in key swing states include Pennsylvania’s Doug Mastriano, who attended Trump’s January 6 rally and supported efforts to overturn the state’s election results in 2020, Arizona’s Kari Lake, who has said she would not have certified her state’s 2020 result, and Nevada’s Jim Marchant, who plans to lead a coalition of “America first secretary of state candidates” to get Trump elected in 2024.
Even state legislative races in the 2022 midterms could have huge implications for the 2024 elections. The Supreme Court will soon hear a case that could dramatically expand the power of state legislatures in elections. It could remove the ability of state courts to review electoral boundaries and electoral rules set by legislatures, even if those conflict with state constitutions. Republicans currently have unified legislative control over states that account for 307 out of 538 electoral college votes, a number which could expand or shrink this election.
These mid-terms show that no election in America is a discrete contest. State elections shape national elections. The institutional power that this year’s elections confer has major consequences for future elections. Although neither Biden nor Trump are on the ballot this year, they will be in voters’ minds as they go to the polls.
This article was first published in The Conversation as The United States is gearing up for midterm elections. What are they and what's at stake? Associate Professor David Smith from the United States Studies Centre and Government and International Relations in the Faculty of Art and Social Sciences is an expert in American politics and foreign policy. Top image: Adobe Stock Images