In less than three months, Americans will vote in a midterm election, but while the president is not on the ballot, there is still a lot at stake.
For one, the election will decide the majority in both chambers of Congress. Currently the Senate is split 50-50 while Democrats hold a slim four-seat majority in the House of Representatives. Republicans could win majorities in both chambers.
With the Senate evenly split, Vice President Kamala Harris, who chairs the Senate, tips the chamber to the Democrats. However, with the majority relying on a tie-breaker vote, every senator has more power than usual. Two maverick Democrats have made good use of this power, making life a real headache for Chuck Schumer, the senator from New York who is also the Democrat majority leader.
One of the mavericks is Joe Manchin, former governor of West Virginia and now his home state’s senior U.S. Senator. Manchin is known for often voting against his party’s radical wing. In December 2021, he stopped a major piece of Democrat legislation, the so-called “Build Back Better” act, which was little more than a massive spending boondoggle aimed at advancing inefficient green energy and expanding government.
Senator Manchin voted with President Trump about half the time. He supported Trump’s America-First based trade policies, in opposition to the mainstream of his own party.
Manchin’s current term in the Senate does not end until 2024, but his refusal to tow the party line—alongside Democrat Senator Kyrsten Sinema from Arizona—has made it all the more important for the Democrats to win more seats in the Senate. That, however, is unlikely to happen: if there is any movement in the party balance, it will favor the Republicans.
There are three hotly contested Senate races this year. One of them is in Arizona, where Blake Masters, a former tech-industry venture capitalist, is running as a Trump-endorsed Republican to unseat incumbent Democrat Mark Kelly. While polls are scant, Masters does appear to have at least a toss-up chance, if not better, to defeat Kelly.
In Nevada, Republican challenger Adam Laxalt is hoping to oust incumbent Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto. Theoretically, the Republicans could also gain a seat in Georgia, where Republican Herschel Walker is challenging incumbent Democrat Raphael Warnock. Most polls point to a small lead for Warnock, but some suggest the race is a statistical dead heat.
The Senate majority comes with major political power. The Senate approves or disapproves the president’s nominees for the U.S. Supreme Court. While it is unlikely that President Biden will get to appoint another justice after Ketanji Jackson, it is worth noting that Justice Clarence Thomas is 74 years old and has served on the Court since 1991.
Justices are appointed for life, and several of them have served past the age of 85 (with two celebrating their 90th birthday while on the Court), but it is not out of the realm that Justice Thomas chooses to retire in the next few years.
Justice Thomas is widely recognized as a conservative and an originalist, meaning he interprets the constitution as literally as possible. As shown by the Court majority’s ruling to end Roe v. Wade, the case that gave federal protection to abortions, the balance between originalists and liberals is very important.
This balance would not matter if the legislative branch, i.e., Congress, did not dodge its responsibility for controversial issues by referring them to the Court. The recent abortion ruling was the Court’s way of sending that responsibility back to Congress.
A more liberal majority, of course, would be more willing to be activist, or, as the saying goes, legislate from the judicial bench. Therefore, with the U.S. Senate approving or disapproving of Supreme Court appointments, the outcome of the Senate election in November is eagerly anticipated by both sides of the political aisle.
The Senate majority also matters for foreign-policy reasons. Treaties between the United States and other countries must get the stamp of approval from the Senate. The Biden administration recently announced that it would terminate America’s tax treaty with Hungary; the outcome of the Senate election could decide the actual content of a new treaty.
While forecasts for the Senate suggest anything from a renewed tie to a 53-47 Republican majority, the opinion polls show almost unanimously that they will take back the House of Representatives from the Democrats. Most of the polls indicate that Republicans will add 15-20 seats to their current 213. A good example is the CBS News Battleground Tracker, which shows Republicans at 230 seats after the election. This is 12 more than they need for a majority and 25 more than the Democrats would get.
Others indicate a larger majority. According to fivethirtyeight.com, which tracks elections and opinion polls, Democrats would not be helped even by winning “all the races currently designated as toss-ups, plus hold on to all the seats they’re favored to win” in November. In other words, if Republicans win a big enough margin to avoid recounts in some of the currently tied races, their caucus could grow well beyond 230 seats.
If Republicans take both the House and the Senate, they will have to work with a Democrat president. It is difficult to predict how this would work, but recent history suggests it could lead to a legislative gridlock. Not since Bill Clinton was president in the ’90s have the legislative and executive branches of government been able to overcome the fact that they belong to different parties.
That said, a Republican majority in the House would have jurisdiction over federal government spending. Given the growing risk of a new sovereign-debt crisis—which may or may not originate in Europe—it matters a great deal which party controls the public purse. In that situation, Republicans are much more likely to want to take preemptive measures to rein in spending, while the Democrats would prioritize tax increases.
The House majority also matters because it controls the congressional investigative power. The Democrats have demonstrated with the January 6 committee just how far they are willing to stretch that power: the committee was not properly constituted, violating House rules and thereby possibly making its subpoenas illegal. Yet it has been used to pursue what some have called a witch hunt against President Trump and some of his supporters.
By gaining a majority in the House of Representatives, Republicans can put a stopper to this kind of abuse of power, but they could also choose to turn it against the Democrats.
Which brings us to another dimension in the races for the House and Senate, namely the civil war of sorts within the Republican party. The two factions, one loyal to former president Trump and one loyal to the older neocon establishment centered around former president Bush, have been fighting each other for months already, first and foremost in Republican primary elections around the country.
In some cases, this ‘civil war’ has absurd consequences. In Pennsylvania, a race is underway for an open U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania. Donald Trump endorsed Mehmet Oz, a celebrity physician, who narrowly defeated Dave McCormick, a former hedge-fund executive who worked for president George Bush Jr. Despite support from the party establishment—also known as the neocons—McCormick lost narrowly to Oz in the Republican primary.
The fact that Oz has Trump’s endorsement may explain why MItch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, appears to be unwilling to support Oz in the general election.
So deep is the rift within the Republican party that the neocons would rather lose a seat to the other party than let it go to a Trump loyalist.
Another Republican primary election with national repercussions is the one raging in Wyoming between incumbent Republican Representative Liz Cheney and her Trump-backed opponent Harriet Hageman. With a primary coming up on August 16th, Cheney trails Hageman badly: one recent poll put Hageman ahead with 52% of the likely primary votes against Cheney’s 30%.
Liz Cheney is doing poorly because Republican voters in Wyoming feel that she betrayed President Trump. When she accepted to serve as vice chairman of the January 6 committee, the prevailing opinion is that she lent herself as a political hack job to the Democrats.
Cheney sees the fight differently: she is firmly convinced that her service on the committee is for the protection of the U.S. Constitution. However, this has not swayed many voters in a state that Trump won by 70% in 2020. The resentment toward her is often striking. Normally, when voters are asked if they would vote for a candidate they oppose, their answer is a simple “no.” In Cheney’s case, the answers range from absolutely-not to over-my-dead-body-go-suck-a-lemon.
Donald Trump has made it a top priority to see to it that Cheney is not re-elected, but his main goal in this election is to get as many of his ideological friends as possible into Congress. His America First agenda is distinctly different from the neocon ideology that, e.g., Cheney and McConnell represent. The agenda includes scaled-back free trade to protect American jobs, fewer military engagements around the world, and a more traditional approach to public education without the radical, Marxist critical-race-theory agenda that the Biden administration is pushing.
Neocons tend to support unlimited free trade and are very favorable to U.S. military engagements around the world. They say little if anything about the radicalization of public education.
Outside Washington D.C., there are some interesting battles being fought at the state level. Contrary to what European media tends to report, many trends in American politics are decided at the state level. The states, which have a high degree of independence vs. the federal government, often serve as policy laboratories where new ideas are tried out; state lawmakers often look to other states for new ideas.
Republicans hold a majority in both legislative chambers in 29 states, while Democrats hold the same majority in 17 states. In three states, Alaska, North Carolina, and Wisconsin, the majorities are split. One state, Nebraska, has a unicameral state legislature, with a Republican majority.
Of the 50 state governors, 28 are Republicans and 22 are Democrats. Come November, voters in 36 states, with 20 Republican and 16 Democrat governors, will get to choose whether to re-elect an incumbent or vote in a new governor. It is unlikely that any of them will change, with the exception of Kansas where incumbent Laura Kelly, a Democrat, has made herself unpopular. She has fought the Republican legislature over COVID mandates and been dismissive of parental concerns regarding the teaching of so-called “critical race theory” in public schools.
The Kansas governor also vocally opposed a ballot initiative called “Value them Both.” Its purpose was to amend the Kansas constitution to make explicit that abortion is not a right in Kansas.
The Value them Both initiative was in part a reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of the Roe v. Wade abortion ruling. That ruling returned the issue of abortions to Congress and to the states, and Kansas was the first state where a formal abortion-related ballot initiative was tried in a referendum. The vote, which was held on August 2nd, ended in a win for the pro-abortion side, partly because the Value them Both amendment was clumsily written and difficult to understand.
While the vote was a pro-life loss, the abortion issue is likely going to affect the gubernatorial election in Kansas in November. Based on voter turnout in the primaries for the two parties, Republican candidate Derek Schmidt is likely to unseat the incumbent Democrat. If he does, a new pro-life initiative could make Kansas a constitutional pro-life state.
Overall, the Democrats have tried to make abortion a national issue, and it will certainly play a role in some congressional races, in states where there is no clear pro-life majority. However, as Kansas has shown, it is more likely to play a role in state elections.
Sven R. Larson is a political economist and author. He received a Ph.D. in Economics from Roskilde University, Denmark. Originally from Sweden, he lives in America where for the past 16 years he has worked in politics and public policy. He has written several books, including Democracy or Socialism: The Fateful Question for America in 2024.