Why Democrats can be optimistic about the midterms – but not complacent
OPINION: The ruling party usually falters in the November elections. But this time could well be different
I’m as surprised as anyone to be feeling cautiously optimistic about the upcoming American midterm elections. My natural tendency is pessimism and, under normal circumstances, midterms tend to go badly for the party that holds the presidency. (Of course, the past few years of American political life can hardly be described as ‘normal’ for many reasons, few of them good.)
Yet here I sit, facing a number of indicators that Democrats may perform well on 8 November in both House and Senate races.
If they do, Joe Biden’s administration may be able to shepherd through some much-needed reforms – not least to the US’s flawed voting system itself. Whether this is possible will depend on the precise balance of power in the Senate, and whether a sufficient number of Democratic senators is willing to abolish the filibuster, a rule that requires 60 of the 100 senators to allow a final vote on a bill – making it easy for the opposition party to obstruct the ruling party’s agenda and block legislation.
Republicans, who currently make up exactly half of the Senate, have been flagrantly abusing the filibuster for decades, and abolishing it would require a mere parliamentary procedural change that the ruling party could enact on its own – but conservative Democratic senators Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin are steadfast in their opposition to the change.
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With that in mind, let’s start with the bad news about Democratic prospects for victory in November.
Because of the filibuster, the Senate failed to pass the voting rights legislation desired by the Biden administration earlier this year, while Republican secretaries of state and state legislators have pushed through a wave of voter suppression in GOP-controlled American states.
Biden’s proposed legislation would have created national standards for early voting and voting by mail, in addition to restoring provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013, which had provided for federal oversight of changes to electoral procedure in certain southern states known for preventing their African-American populations from voting under Jim Crow.
Many of these states have returned to suppressing the vote, now using subtler methods than those employed in the 1960s and prior. Current tactics include deliberately and unnecessarily onerous ID requirements that disproportionately affect the minority communities that vote heavily Democratic; restrictions on early voting and voting by mail; the deliberate placement of too few polling places in primarily minority neighbourhoods, which leads to hours-long lines to vote; and rules against providing food and water to the people waiting in these lines.
Elsewhere, thanks to the support of a handful of Republicans, Congress does seem likely to pass federal legislation clarifying the procedures for certifying presidential elections in the hopes of preventing another 6 January insurrection.
The proposed legislation explicitly states that a vice-president has no legal power to refuse to certify vote totals from certain states. In the aftermath of the 2020 election, citing false ‘election fraud’ claims, the Trump team floated a crackpot legal theory that to do so was in the vice-president’s power and put heavy pressure on then vice-president Mike Pence to halt the certification of Biden’s victory. Pence refused, leading some of the insurrectionists to demand that he be hanged.
Of course, that such legislation is even necessary raises the spectre of the 6 January storming of the Capitol and the very real possibility of future political violence from the authoritarian Right. We cannot simply assume the midterms will proceed smoothly, without incidents of voter intimidation or worse.
But now let’s turn to the good news.
While the Republican party continues to attempt to impose minority authoritarian rule on an electorate that mostly does not support its policies on matters such as abortion and LGBTIQ+ rights, the Democrats have recently won a few key victories in referenda and special elections. Most notably, these include a vote in favour of abortion rights in Republican-controlled Kansas and the election of Democrat Mary Peltola to a House seat in Alaska – the first Alaskan native to serve in the House of Representatives, and the first Democrat to represent Alaska in that institution since 1972.
Trump’s unpopularity seems to be weighing Republicans down, though those who criticize him are still punished by the party
What’s more, the polls have shifted in the Democrats’ favour. While this is likely aided by Biden’s recent policy and legislative successes – student loan relief, prescription drug relief, and government investment in American production – Republicans’ pushing of a theocratic agenda on all Americans may be playing a more significant role, driving many away from the GOP, at least for this election cycle. Despite the sharp rebuke Kansans delivered to the Christian Right and the GOP in their abortion referendum, Republicans are still openly working to pass a national abortion ban.
Meanwhile, in the wake of an FBI raid on Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence, which revealed he was illegally storing classified documents there, the former president’s deep unpopularity also seems to be weighing Republicans down, though those who openly criticize Trump are still punished by the party.
But while at this point in the election cycle, the picture is far less bleak than I had anticipated only a couple of months ago, the Democrats cannot afford to take any victories for granted. Those in the party are quick to recall that polls are fickle things – too many Democratic politicians and voters were lulled into a false sense of security by polls favouring Hillary Clinton over Trump ahead of the 2016 presidential election.
Voter turnout, which is always essential to Democratic wins, also tends to be significantly lower in the midterms than in presidential elections. But if the abortion issue has the same impact in November that it had in the Kansas primaries, I think Democrats have a real chance – so long as they organize intensely at the state and local levels to get out the vote and overcome voter suppression. It is clear that intense grassroots organizing made all the difference in Kansas.
Despite the improved outlook, the Democrats look more likely to lose control of the House while maintaining the Senate than to maintain control of both chambers – a result that would still stymie the Biden administration’s agenda even if his party makes gains in the Senate.
And even if the Democrats can expand control in the Senate while also maintaining it in the House, this wouldn’t mean an end to the US’s crisis of democracy – but it could give us a chance to get the government on the right track, if only Democratic leaders can find the wherewithal to take the necessary steps.
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