In a month’s time, the United States will hold its quite unique, nationwide midterm elections. All congressional districts, thirty-five Senate seats and thirty-nine gubernatorial seats are contested. Up until midsummer, the Republican Party was highly likely to take back both houses of Congress with results many deemed nothing short of a potential ‘red wave’. Such a scenario would be quite ordinary given how well historically the party in opposition, especially the Republicans, perform in midterm elections. Joe Biden’s unpopularity and the United States’ economic calamity all destined the Republicans to prevail. Then the Supreme Court made a decision to overturn Row v. Wade that provided women with a nationwide constitutional right to abortion. The Supreme Court’s decision turned the political landscape upside down, making this year’s midterm election result the hardest to predict in decades.
An Easy Win
Midterm elections rarely provide US politics enthusiasts with much excitement. In the past seventy years the opposition party managed to retake Congress on all occasions except for the presidencies of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Jimmy Carter. Electing members of Congress in the middle of a presidential term is usually a handy opportunity for the electorate to send a signal about its discontent. The successes of the opposition are often amplified by a low turnout rate (often in the 40s) compared to the presidential election. The likely midterm defeat puts pressure on presidents to push ahead with their legislative agenda in the first two years of their term. The case of Joe Biden was not dissimilar at all. The past two years were quite action-packed and, to say the least, quite controversial.
The Biden administration’s programmes led to levels of federal government spending unseen for decades
Although Biden’s presidency is rarely characterised as radical, especially in comparison with his predecessor’s, but if we look at the economic policy record of the administration, we might reach a wholly different conclusion. The Biden administration’s programmes (American Rescue Plan, Build Back Better Plan, Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Inflation Reduction Act, etc.) led to levels of federal government spending unseen for decades. According to the Congressional Budget Office, Biden’s programmes will add an extra 2.3 trillion to the already hardly sustainable US Government debt in the following decade. According to the CBO projection, US government debt will reach 180 per cent of GDP by 2050. Further ambitious spending plans (massive green energy financing, student debt relief, etc.) only exacerbate the situation.
Exorbitant government spending accompanied by a supply side shock caused by the war in Ukraine resulted in the inflation rate peaking at 9.1 per cent this June. Gas prices also reached their maximum at five dollars per gallon at the same time. To be fair, employment figures are quite robust, with the unemployment rate reaching pre-pandemic levels. Still, Biden’s job approval ratings on the economy and inflation stand at a staggering low of minus 12.8 and minus 31.4 respectively. Therefore, it doesn’t come as a surprise that Republicans were enthusiastic to campaign on economic issues and the cost of living. The strategy proved to be quite successful. In mid-June, Republicans led Democrats in generic congressional polls by more than three per cent.
Besides the economy, Republicans also had a clear advantage when it came to such issues as crime and border security. The US crime rate is still dramatically higher than its pre-pandemic levels, especially with regard to violent crime and homicides. Illegal border crossings hit record highs, with 2.3 million illegal immigrants having been arrested in the past eleven months. The number is half a million higher than last year’s record. Biden’s approval rating on crime and immigration stands at minus 19.0 and minus 23.4 respectively.
The numbers mentioned above suggested a clear victory for the Republican Party with high chances of taking back both the House and the Senate in this year’s midterm election. As Biden’s overall disapproval rivaled that of his predecessor, Donald Trump at this point of his presidency, this year’s electoral contest was clearly the Republicans’ to lose. Then the Supreme Court made a landmark decision by overturning Roe v. Wade, which may turn the midterms into a single-issue election, one the Republicans will have to fight an uphill battle to win.
Culture War Reloaded
Abortion is a highly divisive issue in the United States. Opinion on the desired legality or illegality of it remained constant throughout the past thirty years, with around 60 per cent of adults supporting its legality in all or most cases and 40 per cent arguing against it. The pro-abortion, often called pro-choice stance has an advantage in all demographic subgroups except for white evangelical protestants and those who describe themselves as conservative Republicans. Besides, abortion is a highly partisan issue in America. Around 40 per cent of Republicans have a pro-choice stance, whereas 80 per cent of Democrats support women’s right to choose. Surprisingly, support for the anti-abortion, or pro-life stance is not so different amongst women and men, with 35 per cent of women and 41 per cent of men being pro-life.
The Supreme Court’s decision was deemed controversial immediately
Women’s constitutional right to abortion was determined by the Supreme Court’s decision in 1973. At the time, the Supreme Court ruled that the United States Constitution conferred a right to abortion, which basically overruled any restrictions some states had previously introduced. The Supreme Court’s decision was deemed controversial immediately, with its critics arguing that making abortion legal in all states is a classic example of judicial activism. Furthermore, some raised concerns about federal overstep with regard to states’ right to choose whether they want to restrict the right to abortion. Still, the majority of the public did not support the overturning of Roe v. wade, as many saw it as a major step in the field of civil and human rights.
The Supreme Court’s decision in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case this summer sparked widespread celebration and outrage at the same time. Women’s rights groups and leading Democrats, including President Biden criticised the decision whereas religious groups and leading Republicans praised it. Outrage was aggravated by the fact that the decision couldn’t have been made had President Trump not appointed three conservative judges to the Supreme Court.
As the numbers above show, making abortion a decisive issue when Republicans lead Democrats only by a thin margin is nothing short of a political gamble. Many believe that whichever party wins the midterm elections this November will attempt to pass federal laws either to restrict or extend the right to abortion. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham went as far as to propose a federal bill that would ban abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Graham’s proposal left even some Republicans baffled, as many fear that campaigning on such a divisive issue might cost Republicans precious votes in the midterm election.
Red Wave Delayed?
Republicans’ lead in the generic congressional polls melted away following the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision. Currently, the Republicans are still likely to take back control over the House, but the Senate still remains up for grabs for both parties with Democrats having a slightly higher chance of winning. Decelerating inflation and a small reduction in gas prices also reduce the possibility of a red wave in the midterms. The biggest risk for Republicans is a significantly higher turnout amongst those who are less politically active but have a strong view on the abortion issue, especially amongst women and younger voters. Already available voter registration figures show this danger is very real, with huge numbers of women turning up to vote this autumn. Some Republican strategists highlight that diverting campaign communication from high inflation and high gas prices and focusing on abortion instead is a major political mistake. Poll numbers have confirmed these concerns so far. However, with still one month to go, it would be unwise to make very strong predictions about this November’s electoral outcome. What is certain is that voters see this year’s midterm elections even more consequential than usual. A higher turnout and potential crossover voting might surprise us all this November.
The expressed in the opinion section are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Hungarian Conservative’s editorial board.