Election day for the US mid-term elections is 8 November, but early voting has already started in many states. The stakes are high. US politics is highly polarised between supporters of the Republican and the Democratic parties. At best each party sees the other as immoral, dishonest and misinformed. At worst, Republicans believe Democrats to be Satan-worshipping paedophiles. Democrats believe Republicans to be sexist, racist fascists. There seems little room for compromise.
Republicans want to make the election a referendum on President Joe Biden, a Democrat. Republicans are blaming Biden for rising inflation, and for being soft on crime and immigration. Democrats want to make the election about a choice between sensible government and an extremist Republican party, ruled by Donald Trump, which would take away voting rights, outlaw abortion and oppose any gun control.
In the mid-term elections, all 435 seats in the House of Representatives, where the Democrats now have a small majority of eight, are up for re-election. Thirty-five of the 100 Senate seats (Senators are elected for six years) are also being contested. Currently, the Senate is equally divided with 50 Republicans and 50 Democrats. If a vote is tied, Democrat vice-president, Kamala Harris, has the decisive vote, however, most legislation needs at least 60 votes to pass the Senate. Currently, that rarely happens.
History favours the Republicans
Traditionally, the president’s party does badly in the mid-terms. Democrats lost seats in the 2010 and 2014 mid-term elections under President Barack Obama. Republicans lost in 2018 when Donald Trump was president. A president’s approval rating often indicates how mid-term elections will go, and Biden’s ratings are low. Only 39% of Americans approve of the job Biden is doing, despite a fairly successful first two years in office during which he withdrew US troops from Afghanistan and passed legislation on Covid relief, infrastructure, climate change and gun control, despite strong Republican opposition.
Opinion polls over the past months have closely followed the price of petrol at the pump. As prices rose following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Americans favoured Republicans. In the summer, when petrol prices fell and the US Supreme Court decided that abortion is no longer a constitutional right, support for Democrats rose. When petrol prices increased again this autumn, Americans returned to the Republicans. On current trends, Republicans look set to win back control of the House of Representatives with a majority of 25 to 30 seats.
Control of the Senate depends on five states. Democrats need to keep the Senate seats they hold in Arizona, Nevada and Georgia. Republicans need to hold on to Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. In mid-term elections with an unpopular Democrat president, Republicans would normally expect to win all five states, but their candidates are Donald Trump supporters all of whom, without any evidence, question whether Trump really lost the 2020 presidential election to Joe Biden. While ‘election denial’ is popular among Republican voters, it does not appeal to everyone, and the Democrats have a fighting chance of holding on.
In Arizona, Democrat incumbent Mark Kelly remains favourite to beat Republican Blake Masters, but only just. In Nevada, the race between Catherine Cortez-Masto and Adam Laxalt is locked. Cortez-Masto was the first Latina elected to the US Senate, but Laxalt’s family has a strong political history in Nevada and his campaign now has the momentum. In Georgia, Democrat Raphael Warnock’s Republican opponent, Herschel Walker, is an American football hero, but also a deeply flawed character. Walker’s ex-wife has accused him of physical abuse and threatening behaviour, including pointing a pistol at her head. Walker strongly opposes abortion, but two women have said that he paid for them to have abortions. There are also legitimate questions about Walker’s mental health.
Despite the scandals surrounding Walker, his support among Republicans remains high, but Warnock has a narrow lead. In Georgia, if no candidate obtains more than 50% of the vote there will be a ‘run-off’ election in December.
Republican Ron Johnson is seeking re-election in Wisconsin. Johnson has pushed conspiracy theories about the 2020 presidential election and is a climate change sceptic. His Democrat opponent, Mandela Barnes is prominent in Wisconsin state politics. Despite his oddities Johnson is holding on and it will be a surprise if Barnes beats him. In Pennsylvania, the race to succeed Republican Pat Toomey, who is retiring, is very close. Democrat John Fetterman held an early lead but suffered a stroke in May. Since then, his Republican opponent, TV personality Dr Mehmet Oz, has closed the gap as concerns over Fetterman’s health have grown. The race is too close to call.
If the Republicans win the Senate, it could be seen as politics just returning to normal. But politics in the US is currently anything but normal. Conspiracy theories and a threat of violence have permeated the election. In Arizona, armed vigilantes have been ‘watching’ drop boxes where people who vote early can deposit their votes. Paul Pelosi, husband of veteran Democrat leader in the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, was attacked with a hammer and seriously injured. His attacker asked, ‘Where’s Nancy?’ Ardent Trump supporter and election denier Keri Lake, the Republican candidate for governor of Arizona will not commit to accepting the result if she loses.
There are real fears about violence being triggered by refusals to accept election results. If the Democrats can, against the odds, keep control of the Senate by defeating Trump candidates, it will be a strong signal that Democrats can beat Trump and his supporters again in 2024. If Trump supporting candidates win, it will strengthen his grip on his party and the belief that he is the only Republican that can win back the presidency in 2024. Trump is not on the ballot this year, but Trumpism is.