04.11.2022

4 Days Out: A Democrat Perspective on the Midterms by Niles Francis

We are now just 4 days out from the highly anticipated midterm elections, which may prove to be the most consequential off-year elections in a long time. There are a multitude of topics on voters mind which may influence their decision, and Democrat and Republican candidates have very different ideas of what the most important issues facing the country are. Read on to hear what Niles Francis has to say about the Democrat perspective on the upcoming election....

Elections in the United States are unique in that federal and state-level elections are held every two years. On one four-year cycle, there are presidential elections, when the presidency, all 435 seats of the United States House of Representatives and roughly one-third of the Senate are all up for grabs. On the other four-year cycle are midterm elections, which occur roughly halfway through the president’s four-year term in office. All House seats, one-third of the Senate and the vast majority of state governorships are on the ballot in midterm election years.

It’s typical for Congress to change hands in midterm elections when voters become fatigued with the party in power after two years. This year, President Joe Biden and his Democratic allies in Congress are fighting to defend razor-thin majorities. Republicans only need a net gain of five seats to recapture control of the U.S. House. The Senate is currently split 50/50, but Democrats are the majority party because Vice President Kamala Harris is able to cast tie-breaking votes as President of the Senate.

This year’s midterm elections are particularly interesting because they are taking place after a process known as redistricting. This is a decennial process when congressional, state legislative, and other political boundaries are reconfigured to account for the population changes from the previous census. A state’s congressional apportionment is determined by its population, so some states could gain additional House seats depending on how much their population has grown.

In many states, the boundaries are redrawn by state legislators and approved by governors. The party that controls state government almost always uses the process to draw maps that favor their candidates. This centuries-old tactic of manipulating district boundaries to favor one party is commonly referred to as gerrymandering.

However, not all state legislatures are in charge of redistricting. Some states have bipartisan or independent panels that redraw political states. In other states, the judiciary can step in if maps are ruled unconstitutional or if the legislature and the governor come to a stalemate.

Redistricting is already having an impact on the House battlefield. Traditionally blue states like California and New York lost House seats in reapportionment, while Texas and Florida – states that lean Republican – gained two House seats each.

Republicans have tried to maximize their advantages in states where they control state government. In Florida, the legislature approved a map supported by Gov. Ron DeSantis that eliminated two minority-opportunity districts – one in North Florida and one in the Orlando area. In Georgia, Republicans are trying to undercut recent Democratic gains in the metro Atlanta suburbs. The new Georgia congressional map turned the Democratic-friendly 6th district into a conservative stronghold, likely making the seat a guaranteed flip for the GOP. And in Texas, where Republicans faced declining margins in metro areas like Dallas and Austin, the party shored up vulnerable members from suburban districts to try to stave off Democratic gains.

The challenge for Democrats is that many of the states where they could have theoretically drawn gerrymanders of their own either have bipartisan commissions or were subject to judicial intervention. California, for example, has an overwhelmingly Democratic state government, but state legislators have no role in redistricting. The process is completed every ten years by an independent commission consisting of voters from across the state. In both New York and Maryland, Democratic state legislators attempted to pass egregious gerrymanders, but their Republican rivals successfully sued to invalidate the maps. Judges stepped in and imposed maps that created several competitive districts. The only mid to large-sized state where Democrats were successful in passing a gerrymander was Illinois.

Some states will now have several competitive congressional races after a decade of gerrymandering. Michigan’s maps, which were drawn by Republican legislators ten years ago, were redrawn by an independent commission – creating as many as four new competitive districts. And in Pennsylvania, a stalemate between the Democratic governor and the Republican state legislature resulted in the maps being drawn by courts.

Many American political pundits and analysts assumed that redistricting would decide control of Congress. But the push-and-pull of gerrymandering gains and losses mean that it won’t have a significant impact on the overall national environment.

A major decision by the United States Supreme Court is looming large over this year’s elections. Last summer, the high court reversed nearly half a century of abortion rights when it overturned Roe vs. Wade, a case that established abortion as a constitutionally protected right. The fallout from the decision was swift: several Republican-controlled states passed laws banning the procedure, even in cases of rape and incest. Democratic-controlled states like California and New York moved quickly to enshrine abortion rights into their state constitutions. Democratic prosecutors are regarded as the last line of defense against these abortion bans, with some saying that they will not prosecute any cases under these laws.

Abortion is a deeply divisive issue in the United States. Some are willing to ban abortion after twenty weeks, while others aren’t willing to ban it at any point during a pregnancy. However, poll after poll suggests that a total and complete ban on abortion is a dealbreaker for many voters.

Democrats, who face a historical disadvantage in this year’s elections, are hoping that the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade will galvanize voters who typically don’t turn out in midterm elections. President Biden has even said on the campaign trail that Democrats will codify abortion rights if they are able to expand their majorities in Congress.

Despite this, economic concerns continue to be top of mind for many moderate and independent voters. Out-of-control inflation is impacting everything from gas prices to groceries and household utilities, all across the country. The Federal Reserve is continuing to raise interest rates in order to combat the rising prices.

Republican governors are campaigning heavily on the economy. In Georgia, for example, Gov. Brian Kemp is casting himself as the last line of defense against Biden’s economic agenda. He has suspended the state fuel tax and is promising additional tax rebates if re-elected. He has warned voters that his Democratic opponent, Stacey Abrams, will be a rubber stamp for the Biden Administration’s “harmful” economic policies.

While there is no question that the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling has energized the Democratic base, it remains to be seen if that outrage will be enough to outweigh broader economic concerns.

Interestingly, Democrats are not touting their recent legislative victories in the lead-up to the midterms. President Biden scored a major victory in early 2021 when his Democratic allies in Congress passed the American Rescue Plan, which provided financial relief for Americans and businesses recovering from the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Biden also signed a bipartisan infrastructure package – something that many of his predecessors failed to deliver on. Democrats also passed the Inflation Reduction Act last summer.

But voters aren’t hearing much about these bills from Democratic candidates on the campaign trail. This isn’t unprecedented: Democrats avoided campaigning on the Affordable Care Act (also known as ObamaCare) in 2010 and 2014. Republicans hardly ever campaigned on their 2017 tax reform. It’s notable that this cycle, Republicans aren’t heavily attacking these bills the way they hammered ObamaCare – and there are no promises from Republicans that these bills will be repealed when they take control of Congress.

There could be several reasons for this dynamic. This year’s midterm elections are largely being driven by kitchen table issues and culture wars. Republicans could believe that Biden’s legislation doesn’t anger their supporters the way ObamaCare did. Democrats, conversely, worry that these legislative victories aren’t strong enough motivating factors for their voters.

Another X factor in the midterms is Donald Trump. Former Presidents usually keep low profiles after they leave office, but Trump has maintained an active presence in the national spotlight. From criminal investigations to an FBI raid on his Florida estate, the January 6 congressional hearings, and campaign rallies for Republican candidates, chances are American voters have heard Trump’s name on the news several times since he left office.

Since his 2020 defeat, Trump has been on a mission to reshape the Republican Party. He has launched efforts to defeat Republicans who did not echo his unfounded claims of widespread fraud in the 2020 election. For the most part, he has been successful: many of the Republicans who voted to impeach Trump after the January 6 Capitol attack will not be returning to Capitol Hill when the new Congress convenes in January. He also got many Republicans across the finish line in several Senate and governor races, from Arizona to Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan.

But Trump has also suffered some setbacks. In Georgia, he launched a personal effort to defeat Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who certified Joe Biden’s narrow Georgia victory and refused to side with his unfounded claims of widespread voter fraud. Kemp was challenged by former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, while Raffensperger faced a challenge from far-right Congressman Jody Hice. Perdue was handed a humiliating defeat in the May primary, while Raffensperger surprised even some of his supporters by pulling off an outright win over Hice. Both men are now widely regarded as favorites for re-election, as their feuds with the former President have helped broaden their appeals to suburban moderates and Republican-leaning independents who voted for Democrats in the 2020 election.

While some Democrats seek to distance themselves from President Biden, most Republican candidates in competitive races are not shy about their loyalty to former President Trump. In Arizona, Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly highlights instances where he disagreed with Biden as his Republican challenger, Blake Masters, attacks him as a rubber stamp for the Biden agenda. Masters, on the other hand, was endorsed by Trump in the Republican primary and has joined him onstage at campaign rallies.

It's unclear whether Trump’s involvement will be a net positive or negative for Republican candidates in November. What is clear, though, is that he remains a very powerful figure in Republican primaries. He successfully ousted some of his most vocal critics within the party. Some of his most prominent supporters, including Kari Lake (AZ), Doug Mastriano (PA), and J.D. Vance (OH) managed to win competitive primaries in key swing states.

As for the general election, Democrats are trying their hardest to ensure that the attention is on Trump as voters head to the polls. Democrats would love nothing more than for a defeated, twice-impeached former President who is facing criminal investigations in multiple jurisdictions to be the ballot question. But fortunately for Republicans, it’s more likely than not that economic concerns will outweigh any headlines that the former President makes in the final weeks.

Democrats are hoping to expand their majorities in both chambers. This is particularly important in the Senate, where an archaic Senate rule has prevented them from passing some key parts of the President’s agenda including voting rights, police reform, and codifying abortion rights. An expanded Senate majority could smooth the path so that these initiatives can be enacted.

If Republicans win control of either or both the House and the Senate next month, it will be incredibly difficult - if not impossible - for President Biden to secure more legislative wins ahead of his expected 2024 re-election campaign. For instance, House Republican leaders have said that you will not see more aid to Ukraine passed if they win control.

When Republicans took control of the Senate in 2014, perhaps their biggest accomplishment was blocking President Barack Obama’s nominee to fill a vacant seat on the United States Supreme Court. They went on to confirm only a very few of his nominees to various judicial posts.

With a Democratic Senate, President Joe Biden has been able to seat a record number of judicial nominees for a first-term president. That trend will almost certainly come to a screeching halt if Mitch McConnell is the Senate majority leader.

A Republican-controlled House could also launch wide-ranging investigations into the Biden administration as retaliation for the January 6 committee. Expect to hear a lot about Hunter Biden, the President’s son, if Republicans take back the House.

With all this in mind, a Republican Congress will not necessarily negatively impact the President’s re-election chances. Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were easily re-elected after suffering historic midterm losses. If a Congress controlled by the opposition party is not necessarily an end-all scenario for the party that controls the White House, Democrats may fare well in the weeks to come.

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