As the dust settles from last week’s primaries and the Democrats clock their greatest legislative achievement of the Biden presidency, a few trends have emerged that are shaping the midterms and the narrative surrounding the campaigns.
First, despite the rhetoric, Democrats do not have a legislative issue. They have a messaging issue. Second, the fight for abortion rights could be the Democrats’ strongest chance at holding the Senate. Third, Trump’s hold over the GOP may not be as strong as many believe.
Democratic messaging: In normal times, President Biden’s recent legislative victories would be hailed as a monumental success. However, in the current political climate, even these policy wins may not overcome the prevailing narrative that the Democrats under Joe Biden’s direction have failed to deliver for the American people. Historic investments in the nation’s ailing infrastructure, climate mitigation and adaptation, manufacturing, reskilling and more all point to a transformative first two years in office.
Unfortunately for Biden and the Democrats, they are not operating in normal times. Partisan political inflation, the cost of objective policy victories versus the payoff one gets for achieving them, is running at a level that will likely prove too high for Democrats to hold the House in the 2022 midterm elections. However, up against weaker GOP candidates than expected, Democrats are now more likely to hold the Senate than lose it, according to FiveThirtyEight.
Abortion rights: The momentum is with the Democrats for the first time in months. The most recent data show inflation may have peaked; gas prices are dropping across the country; and perhaps all in time for voters to notice a tangible difference come November. On top of these larger economic trends, support for health issues looks to be swinging in the Democrats’ favour. Voters in Kansas soundly defeated a ballot measure which would have granted sweeping control over abortion rights to the heavily GOP, anti-abortion-leaning state legislature. Deep in conservative territory, voters from across the demographic and geographic span turned up in record numbers to reject the measure.
One major factor contributing to the narrative of a positive bellwether for the Democrats’ chances in November is the variety of voters who turned out to vote on this issue. Across the state, voters in more rural areas that heavily participated in the GOP primaries also split their vote on the traditionally conservative and pro-life stance on abortion. While the turnout was unusually high for a midterm election, roughly 50 per cent, the more liberal cities alone could not have delivered such a wide margin of defeat for the measure. Without the rural votes, it is very likely this ballot measure would have passed.
GOP divide: There were few surprises in the crucial 2 August House primaries. One outcome of note was Rep. Peter Meijer’s loss in Michigan’s third congressional district. Meijer was one of ten House Republicans to vote to impeach former President Donald Trump. Meijer lost to John Gibbs, a Trump-backed far-right commentator. The race, however, was very close, with Meijer losing by only 3.6 per cent, or roughly 4,000 votes. This shows that while Trump can still punish his political enemies, this was by no means a blowout and his sway within the GOP may not be as strong as some believe.
In Missouri, a tale of two Erics took place. Republican Eric Schmitt won the GOP primary race with about 45.7 per cent of the vote. Former Republican Governor Eric Greitens, who stepped down in 2018 after allegations of sexual assault were made by his hairdresser and his ex-wife accused him of assaulting her and their young son, came in third place, with only around 18.9 per cent of the vote.
Just before the election, Trump formally announced an endorsement for “Eric”, which led to a huge amount of confusion over which Eric he was referring to. It’s now been revealed that he called both Erics before the election and told each he had endorsed them. The confusion was fed by leaks from debates in Trump’s inner circle, with opposing camps within his orbit battling for the former president’s support.
However, a much larger story was playing out behind the scenes. A massive GOP establishment effort to back Schmitt, who is seen as the candidate with the best chance of holding what should be a safe GOP senate seat, was underway. The most powerful Republican donor in Missouri, Rex Sinquefield, joined forces with the GOP governor of Nebraska to sink Greitens’ chances of winning. Had Greitens won the primary, many establishment Republicans feared he could cost them their shot at capturing the Senate majority come November.
This rebuke of the extremist candidate can be interpreted in multiple ways. Is it a rejection of Trump’s radicals? Or is it simply a pragmatic approach to increase the odds of winning the Senate majority come November? The answer is there’s likely a bit of both going on, indicating that the establishment has not given up total control of the party to Trumpism at this point. The implications of this divide within the GOP could have far-reaching consequences as the runup to November intensifies.
Even with a divided GOP, the Democrats are facing a monumental uphill climb in the midterms. The Senate majority may be saved, but the House is all but certainly flipping to GOP control. With the loss of control over both houses of Congress, President Biden’s agenda will stall out, robbing the administration of nearly all future substantive legislation. They’ll enter the 2024 presidential election with the legislative wins they’ve banked over the first two years of Biden’s presidency, and will have to hope that’s enough to sway voters.