WASHINGTON: It is only two years since US President Joe Biden was swept to power in one of the most fraught elections Washington has witnessed, but all eyes are already on the next nationwide vote.
Biden isn’t up for re-election until 2024, but candidates vying for positions large and small - from county commissioner or tribal chief to US senator - will be sweating the outcome of Election Day on November 8.
As Democratic and Republican nominees duke it out in the final days of the campaign trail, here is a guide to what’s at stake.
WHAT ARE THE MIDTERMS?
US voters decide every two years who gets the majority in both chambers of Congress - and whether the president will get any new policies passed or if the opposition will be able to frustrate the agenda.
All 435 seats in the House of Representatives are on the ballot, as well as 35 of the 100 Senate seats.
Governors’ mansions are also up for grabs in 36 states, and there are elections for state-level lawmakers, secretaries of state and attorneys general.
Those more local contests will affect state policies on a range of issues from abortion access to voting rights and Covid-19 restrictions.
THE HORSE RACE
In a typical midterm, the party in the White House suffers double-digit losses in the House - 26 on average since World War II - and around four Senate seats as voters seek a check on the president’s power.
For much of 2022 the traditional indicators were pointing to business as usual, with Biden’s approval rating hovering around 40 per cent, the pandemic dragging into a third year and inflation at a 40-year high.
But Democrats have been emboldened by a summer sea-change in the political outlook, buoyed by a spate of legislative achievements, unpopular Republican curbs on abortion and falling gas prices.
Neutral analysts expect a modest gain for House Republicans of 10 to 20 seats - enough to win back control of the chamber but not enough for a commanding majority.
The Senate remains a toss-up. Analysts see a continued 50-50 split as the most likely outcome, meaning Democrats would keep control with Vice President Kamala Harris’s tie-breaking vote.
THE TRUMP FACTOR
Like Biden, former president Donald Trump is not on the ballot but he remains a headache for Republicans - both for his mushrooming legal woes and his endorsements.
The issue that has sucked much of the oxygen out of the room in the final months is the hoard of government secrets that were found at his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida in a search by the FBI.
A civil investigation of his family’s finances, a criminal probe of his attempts to overturn his election defeat and the barrage of misconduct allegations from the 2021 US Capitol insurrection hearings could discourage moderate Republicans from turning out.
Meanwhile, Trump has inserted himself front and center in the election, making more than 200 endorsements, often of election conspiracy theorists and far right candidates in swing states.
Senior Republicans have privately bemoaned the quality of Trump-backed Senate candidates in several tight races.
THE ISSUES KEEPING AMERICANS UP AT NIGHT
Victory at the US ballot box hinges on offering the right answers to the questions that matter most to voters. But their shifting priorities have proved difficult to pin down in this year’s midterm election.
Democrats made significant headway in recent months arguing that moves to curb voting rights and abortion access amounted to fundamental threats to freedom and democracy that ought to count for more than partisan politics.
But Republicans have managed to return the campaign to a more traditional tussle over the economy and law and order, with inflation stubbornly high, violent crime soaring and the immigration crisis showing no sign of abating.
With Election Day just two days away, here are the issues animating American voters.
With grocery prices spiralling, gas ticking back up and economists making dark noises about a looming recession, the economy has figured at the top of almost every poll of voters’ priorities in the final weeks of the campaign.
Inflation stands at a vertiginous 8.2 per cent in the United States.
The margins of power in both the House and Senate are close enough that it could take days to know who will have a majority of seats.
Although it is a global issue over which presidents have very limited power, Republicans have blamed Democrats for exacerbating price hikes through runaway spending.
The number of people who rate inflation as extremely important in Monmouth University’s polling has increased from 37 percent in September to 46 percent.
In a Harvard CAPS-Harris Poll survey of around 2,000 registered voters, 48 percent said inflation was more likely to make them vote Republican, while 36 percent said it pushed them towards Democrats.
Law and order is not new ground for Republicans, who have been hitting Democrats particularly hard on the issue since violence and vandalism marred nationwide racial justice protests in 2020.
Violent crime as a whole is soaring - up 28 percent from 640,836 incidents in 2020 to 817,020 in 2021, according to FBI data.
More than three-quarters of voters said violent crime was a major problem in a recent Politico/Morning Consult poll, and a Fox News survey showing similar levels of concern placed the issue second behind inflation.
In Pennsylvania, one of the country’s closest Senate races, Republican hopeful Mehmet Oz accuses his Democratic rival John Fetterman almost daily of being “soft on crime.” Republicans have adopted the same tactics in other swing states, including Nevada and Wisconsin.
Voters believe strongly that democracy is imperiled, according to a recent New York Times/Siena College poll, yet they frame the issue differently from the media.
Almost three-quarters of registered voters agreed that democracy was “under threat,” yet their concern was institutional corruption - the kind of low-level greed that undermines public confidence in officialdom.
They did not appear anywhere near as worried about the themes preoccupying the Washington press pack, such as the multiple allegations of misconduct against Donald Trump, the US Capitol assault and election denialism.
In fact, the widely-praised work of the House committee investigating the 2021 attack on the US Capitol, and Trump’s culpability in the violence, has not affected the former president’s approval rating.
Migration into the US from Mexico has been surging past last year’s record-breaking levels, its deadly consequences laid bare by the discovery of more than 50 dead migrants in an abandoned lorry in Texas.
Economic catastrophes, crime and natural disasters in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and a handful of other countries has been fueling the influx, which Republicans say is the source of America’s fentanyl crisis.
Immigration has been ranking high to mid-table among voters’ priorities, often placed fourth behind inflation, crime and threats to democracy.
A Monmouth University poll in September showed just 31 percent of Americans approving of the job Biden is doing on the issue, compared to 63 percent who disapprove.
Reproductive rights once appeared to be the issue that would decide the election. Voter registrations, particularly among women, surged after the US Supreme Court ended federal protections for abortion access in June.
But it has lost momentum as a campaign issue more recently, sparking concern among Democrats that they may have relied too heavily on the subject in favor of “kitchen table” fare like inflation.
It’s not clear that the issue is a straightforward winner for liberals in any case.
In the Harvard CAPS-Harris Poll, 41 percent said abortion was more likely to get them to vote Democratic but almost as many - 38 percent - said it would turn them towards the Republicans.
BEST OF THE REST
Several more peripheral issues have dropped in and out of polls on voters’ priorities, important enough to get a mention in debates and the occasional campaign ad but not seen as a dealbreaker for support in the midterms.
These include racial equality, gun control and the climate crisis - perhaps the most pressing issue of all, despite its singular inability to turn heads during election campaigns.
In a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll roughly half of registered voters said climate change was “very important” or “one of the most important issues” in their vote for Congress.
HOW CONGRESS MIGHT LOOK: GOOD, BAD, AND THE UGLY
The midterm elections will determine whether Republicans or Democrats control each house of Congress, and the results will have a profound impact on the next two years of President Joe Biden’s White House tenure.
Here’s what could happen next for his administration:
DEMOCRATS KEEP THE SENATE, KEEP THE HOUSE
This best-case scenario for the Democrats was always considered a long shot, and forecasters like FiveThirtyEight say there’s now just about a one-in-five chance of Democrats keeping the House of Representatives. Biden promised to codify abortion rights and pass an assault weapons ban if his party kept control of Congress, and he would likely double down on plans to fund child care and community college and revamp immigration.
However, the first two years of Biden’s presidency proved one-party control of Congress and the White House does not mean the president gets what he wants. Votes on non-budget issues like abortion and immigration would still likely need 60 Senate votes to pass the ‘filibuster’ rule, and Democrats are divided on funding social programmes.
DEMOCRATS HOLD THE SENATE, LOSE THE HOUSE
This scenario would hobble Biden’s presidency by ushering in a flood of House-led investigations, and likely prevent the passage of any big new spending bills, which the House can block with a simple majority.
When one political party takes control of a majority of the House’s 435 seats, lawmakers from that party become heads of House committees, and set their agenda.
House Republicans likely to head committees on everything from homeland security to the judiciary have already said they plan to investigate Biden cabinet members and COVID-19 funds; others want to take aim at his son Hunter’s overseas work and the FBI’s investigation of former President Donald Trump.
The House can start impeachment proceedings, and some Republicans have said they’d like to impeach Biden, though the “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors” he would be charged with are unclear. Any impeachment would then progress to a trial in the Senate, where a Democratic majority is likely to shut it down.
Republicans have also pledged to flex their new muscles in the House by proposing spending cuts to Biden priorities such as multibillion dollars’ worth of military aid to Ukraine or environmental initiatives. They would likely use the threat of partial government agency shutdowns or refuse to raise the debt ceiling if a Democratic-led Senate spurns their initiatives.
The first shots could be fired early in the 118th Congress that begins Jan. 3 over funding the government for the remainder of the fiscal year, or through Sept. 30.
A more heated fiscal battle comes later in 2023 when the US Treasury Department is expected to breach its $31.4 trillion borrowing limit. If a debt limit increase is not enacted by Congress in a timely way, Washington would descend into an historic default that could send global financial markets and economies reeling.
Retaining their hair-thin control of the Senate would give Democrats the power to keep appointing judges at a rapid clip and curb House Republicans’ ability to roll back Biden’s agenda and pursue their own. The Senate Majority Leader, picked from the party that holds a majority of the Senate’s 100 seats, decides what the chamber votes on, or never considers.
DEMOCRATS LOSE THE HOUSE AND SENATE
The worst-case scenario for Biden and his party would likely see his agenda completely frozen for the next two years, a Republican focus on unwinding legislation passed during his first two years and maybe an impeachment trial.
Republicans likely would push hard for deep domestic spending cuts and making some tax cuts from the 2017 tax bill set to expire at the end of 2025 permanent. Some have suggested “reforming” the gigantic Social Security program for retirees and Medicare health insurance for the elderly and disabled Tempering those efforts, Biden will have the power of the presidential veto to block legislation and attempts to roll back his agenda. Bills that pass Congress go to the U.S. president to sign into law, and he has already pledged to use the veto, including on any bill that makes abortion illegal nationwide.
Overriding his veto takes a two-thirds majority in the House and the Senate, and Republicans are unlikely to have a big enough majority to make that happen.
Republicans are not expected to win enough Senate seats on Nov. 8 to overcome the 60-vote filibuster, making bills on abortion or immigration hard to pass in the first place.
However, Republicans could employ a special “reconciliation” procedure for tax and budget-related measures that both parties have used to advance their agendas in the deeply divided Congress.
Whether a House Biden impeachment process proceeds to a Senate trial would rest on the shoulders of the Senate Majority Leader, likely to be Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell. McConnell has already pledged to block any Biden Supreme Court pick in 2024 if he’s in charge.