As of Wednesday, less than 300 days remain until the next U.S. federal election, when voters will cast ballots for all 435 seats in the House of Representatives and one-third of the members of the Senate, with huge implications for the second half of President Joe Biden’s four-year term.
While it may seem to people outside Washington that it is too early to start thinking about an election so far off, there is no doubt that key figures in Washington are already weighing their every move with an eye on how it could affect voter sentiment in November.
That particularly applies to President Joe Biden, who is struggling with an approval rating that has been hovering between 40% and 45% for several weeks as the coronavirus pandemic rages and inflation drives up the cost of living of Americans at a rate not seen in nearly four decades.
In congressional elections, called “midterm elections” because it takes place at the midpoint of the president’s four-year term, the results are generally greatly affected by public perceptions of the president.
“There’s no reason to think that this year’s November midterm elections will be any different than they usually are, and that’s a referendum on the performance of the president and the president’s party,” he told the Voice of America William Galston, senior fellow in the Governance Studies program at the Brookings Institution.
At stake is control of Congress
Control of both the House and Senate is at stake. Democrats have nominal control of both chambers, but are severely limited in enacting their proposals due to a 50-50 split in the Senate. Democratic Vice Chairwoman Kamala Harris can cast tie-breaking votes, but the body’s filibuster rule allows Republicans to block most legislation from coming to a vote in the first place.
In the House, Democrats hold a slim 222-212 majority, with one seat vacant. Republicans are favored to win enough seats to take over the House in November.
In the Senate, the likely outcome is unclear. Of the 34 seats up for election this cycle, 20 are held by Republicans and 14 by Democrats. The vast majority are considered “safe,” meaning that the incumbent is likely to be re-elected. The six races generally considered competitive are split evenly, with three held by Republicans and three held by Democrats.
As difficult as it is currently for Biden to move his agenda through Congress, the loss of control of either the lower House or Senate to Republicans would virtually guarantee the end of his legislative agenda in the second half of his term.
Referendum on President.
Historically, midterm elections are tough for the president’s party. In all but three midterm elections since the Civil War of 1861-65, the incumbent president’s party has lost seats in the House.
“The best predictor of how a party will do is the incumbent president’s job approval rating,” he told the VOA Charlie Cook, founder of Cook Political Report. “And the further below 50%, the harder it is. So if you have a president who’s at 42% or 43%, as President Biden is, that’s not a good thing.”
“Sometimes you can oversimplify things in politics, but I think the midterms benefit from oversimplification,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
“Historically speaking, unless there’s some kind of major external circumstance or extraordinary circumstance, you wouldn’t expect the party of an unpopular president to do well in a midterm,” Kondik told the VOA. “And I think what we could say from a January standpoint is that Biden’s numbers must improve or the Democrats are in real danger of losing particularly the House and also the Senate.”
In the absence of some great unifying event that inspires Americans to cross political boundaries, the 2022 elections will take place in an atmosphere of extreme partisan rancor. After the 2020 election, in which former President Donald Trump falsely claimed he was robbed of the presidency, many states passed controversial new election laws that could make contested results more likely and more difficult to resolve.
“If there’s a close election in a major race, say it’s a Senate race that could determine control of the Senate, will the losing side be willing to accept the legitimacy of the outcome or convinced that the process was somehow rigged against that?” asked Rick Pildes, an election law expert and Sudler Family Professor of Constitutional Law at New York University School of Law. “We’re in a culture of tremendous distrust on both sides of the spectrum.”
Pildes noted that the situation is exacerbated by an aspect of the U.S. electoral system that is markedly different from most other democracies.
“In the United States, we don’t have independent institutions to oversee and administer our elections, unlike many democracies,” he told the VOA News. “We have partisan elected officials administering most of the election process and there is great concern now that the losers will convince themselves, in a close election, particularly if elected figures from the other party have control of the process, that something about the process was corrupt.”
If there is controversy, it will most likely be in a small handful of campaigns, said the Brookings Institution’s Galston.
“At this point, so many of the elections occur in jurisdictions that are dominated by one party or another that we may not see many close elections, either at the congressional district level or at the state level,” he said. “I don’t think it will reach the intensity that we saw after the 2020 presidential election.”
Abortion ruling as wild card
One event that could have a significant impact on the election is an anticipated ruling on a controversial state abortion law expected from the Supreme Court early this summer, according to Kondik of the University of Virginia. The ruling will decide whether states are free to enact abortion laws far more restrictive than Supreme Court precedent has allowed.
“I think a big issue to look at is abortion, whether, in fact, the Supreme Court allows states to heavily restrict abortion or restrict abortion more than they can do now,” he said. “So, if you’re looking for an issue that comes to the forefront in the 2022 election, that would be one to watch. Abortion is a very polarizing and important issue in American politics.”
With support for limiting or even abolishing abortion rights concentrated among Republicans, and most Democrats supporting greater access to abortion services, a decisive ruling that moves the needle in either direction could galvanize voters, driving more voters of one or both parties to the polls in greater numbers.
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