Amb. Giorgi Badridze, Senior Fellow at Rondeli Foundation
The 2022 November midterm elections in the United States attracted unusual national and global attention. The Republican leaders and their supporting media promised a dramatic takeover of Congress, one which was supposed to pave the way for the triumphant return of Donald Trump in the 2024 Presidential elections (named alternatively a “Red Wave” and a “Tsunami”). The Democrats, meanwhile, tried to mobilize their electorate by claiming that the very future of American democracy was at stake.
Indeed, the general expectation was that the Republicans would retake both chambers of Congress. However, while the Republicans gained a slim majority in the House of Representatives, the Red Wave did not materialize. Moreover, the Democrats managed to keep the Senate (and could still increase the majority after the run-off in the state of Georgia). To understand the context and the implications of this year’s midterm elections, we need to take a look at the history and the current architecture of the American political system.
When the founding fathers of the United States were constructing the American political system, they were determined to ensure that no single man or a party would ever assume a monopoly on power and turn the Republic into anything even remotely resembling a dictatorship. Therefore, not only did they introduce a strict separation of powers by creating a system of checks and balances among the legislative, executive and judiciary branches, but they organized elections for President and Congress in a way that no single phase of an election could easily shift the balance of power in favor of a single party.
The US Congress consists of two chambers – the House of Representatives (“the House”), elected from 435 single-mandate electoral districts nationwide, and the Senate, consisting of 100 Senators representing the states (two senators per state). The term in office for the House Representatives is a short two years, while Senators are elected for six years. However, to make sure that a single election cannot easily give total control over the Senate to any one party, only one third of the Senate seats are up for grabs in any one electoral phase. This means that elections to the Congress take place every two years, in which all 435 House seats and only one third of the Senate seats are contested. Moreover, the Congressional elections are synchronized with the elections for President, which means that every four years, elections for the two branches of power coincide, while the next Congressional election, two years into a newly elected president’s term – known as “midterm elections,” serves as an indirect vote of confidence for the President. If a president fails to ensure national support after two years in office, his party usually gets punished at the midterms. At least this is how it was until this year, when the long-established trend was broken.
Usually, when a president is as unpopular as Joe Biden was in October (Gallup estimated his approval rating at 40%, with 56% of Americans disapproving), his party is doomed in the midterms. And yet, not only did the widely advertised “Red Tsunami” not happen, the Republicans barely won the House majority with its current 221 seats (a majority requires 218 seats, with a few results pending), and failed to retake the Senate – the Democrats already have 50 seats (which gives them control over the Senate due to the extra vote of the Vice President) with an additional potential Georgia seat which is left for the run-up.
So what prevented the Republicans from capitalizing on the weakness of the Democrats? It could be hard to explain this with the economic performance of the Biden administration (the economy is usually the most decisive factor behind voters’ choices), but despite some gains in job creation, inflation is at a 40-year historic maximum (7.745% in October, down from 9% in June), which is not a beneficial factor for a ruling party.
So, what happened? This may sound like conventional wisdom, but it is not enough for an incumbent to be unpopular to force voters to support a change. The alternative should be credible and more attractive than the existing option, and this is exactly where the Republicans have their greatest problem. Even Donald Trump’s recent avid supporters identified him as the main reason for the Republican setback in the 2022 midterms. And not without merit: the GOP’s worst performance in both Houses (as well as in the elections for the governors and state secretaries) occurred with candidates personally endorsed by the former president, while his main potential rival for the nomination for 2024 candidacy, Ron DeSantis, won his reelection as Governor of Florida with ease. In a way, the 2022 midterm elections not only resulted in a vote of confidence for President Biden, but an undermining of the candidacy of Donald Trump as a Republican nominee for the 2024 Presidential election. Many Republican voters, and especially independents, simply were not comfortable with Trumpism, which encouraged and exploited Far-Right extremes in the party. Governor DeSantis is not known for particularly liberal views himself, but it suggests that the Trump era in the Republican party might be coming to an end, as the GOP’s conservative wing looks for a more moderate new champion.
The former president refused to acknowledge the new reality, and went ahead with the announcement of his 2024 White House bid, despite requests from the party to delay (or probably reconsider) his nomination. Under different circumstances, a candidate with greater loyalty to his party would accept his responsibility and move on to make sure the party has a leader with a better chance at winning the 2024 election. But, as in 2016, Donald Trump is more likely to blackmail the GOP by threatening to go independent and split the Republican vote (thus guaranteeing their loss) than acting in the interests of the party.
In short, the Republican party was savoring the prospect of a triumphant victory in the midterms and was all set to retake the White House from an unpopular president presiding over a historic high inflation (even if the Democrats manage to find a substitution for 82-year-old Biden in 2024). But in reality, they discovered that the GOP had a real problem of their own. After all – if the Republicans cannot gain more sits in the midterms against the backdrop of skyrocketing inflation, than their prospect of winning in 2024 is even bleaker. This problem is largely associated with Donald Trump personally. While the average voter’s fatigue with Far-Right extremism might apply to a wider reality than just Trump’s personality, he embodies an imminent danger for the Republicans: Trump may have proven to be unelectable as president, but if the party denies him the nomination, he will likely not hesitate to split not just the Republican vote in 2024 but the party altogether, taking with him the Far-Right faction. As mentioned above, in 2016, Trump’s blackmail worked on the party establishment, his having already wooed a large part of the grassroots, but this time it is hard to imagine that he would be able to enter the same river for a second time. Also worth emphasizing is the fact that Trump’s prospects of winning the nomination are far from zero – the simple majority rule in the primaries still gives him a chance – and if the party fails to counter him with a single popular candidate, this chance might not be insignificant.
This, however, should not give the Democrats reason for complacency: They have their own problem with credibility in the eyes of the average voter, who does not always recognize some of the current democratic priorities as their own. They should acknowledge that the fact they avoided catastrophe in the House and achieved success in the Senate does not necessarily owe to the fact that their agenda was embraced by the public. They must take a harder look into the reasons why they are losing some of their traditional voters, including among the Latinos and African Americans. And the elephant in the room is, of course, the issue of leadership. After all, President Biden is already 80 years old and will be 82 in 2024.
The 2022 midterms were watched with anxiety worldwide, particularly by Europe, which is experiencing the gravest crisis since World War II. Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine has dramatically upset the post-Cold War paradigms and illusions. Once again, Europeans find themselves in a position where they are depending on the American leadership, meaning the political developments within the US have critical implications for the outcome of the war and long-term security on the European continent and, indeed, worldwide. Several Republicans made cutting the US military and financial aid for Ukraine a part of their campaign, while the former president’s son Donald Trump Junior reacted to the incident on the Polish-Ukrainian border by tweeting: “Since it was Ukraine’s missile that hit our NATO ally Poland, can we at least stop spending billions to arm them now?” This indicates that a real Republican victory in the midterms under the Trump flag would have had immediate implications for the war effort in Ukraine by blocking or complicating the arms supplies and financial aid given by the Biden Administration, and paving way for a Trump presidency with an even more dramatic shift in US foreign policy. The newly elected House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, too, had pledged to put tighter controls on future financing of the war effort. A Republican majority in the House cannot completely block the American military and financial support for Ukraine (especially the measures that are envisaged by The Ukraine Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act of 2022), but we might see them stall some of the efforts made by the administration for new funding.
With the world entering one of the most dangerous crises since WWII, the internal turbulence within American politics could not have come at a worse time. So far, the Biden Administration has performed better than many would have expected by providing leadership during this crisis, however the issue of succession in the Democratic party looms large. After swinging to the Far-Right, the Republican party is now facing an even greater problem of leadership, one which could prove to be existential, defining both the future of the party’s unity and its very identity.