Road map to the 2022 US midterm elections

 US President Joe Biden

In the United States we’re getting deep into the midterm election cycle. The basic political facts of 2022 remain the same as they have been ever since President Joe Biden was elected in 2020 with tiny Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress.

Historically, the president’s party has fared badly in midterms, and that alone makes it likely that Republicans will win majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives. That’s even more the case when the president is unpopular, as Biden has been for the last several months, although he may be recovering a bit.

Republicans have had two modest setbacks over the last year. In the House, redistricting has been less successful for the party than many observers anticipated. A few states have yet to finalise their new congressional district lines, but it appears that Republican hopes that redistricting would give them a decisive edge have fizzled.

I wouldn’t put too much stock in that, however. The effects of redistricting are often overstated. If Biden remains unpopular, there should be a pretty large swing toward the Republican Party.

In the Senate, however, the setback is perhaps more important. Republicans have had a lousy recruiting cycle: They’ve had a number of retirements, failed to recruit big-name candidates, and face a few contested primary elections that could produce weak candidates.

It’s possible that none of that will cost them any seats, and partisanship has made the quality of individual candidates less important than it once was, but if recruitment failures push even one or two seats into the Democratic column, that could be enough for Democrats to retain their edge.

Biden’s approval rating
The best indicator of what happens in November will be Biden’s approval rating in the summer and fall. Last spring, I identified five potential wild cards: Covid-19, the economy, former President Donald Trump, cheating and Republican dysfunction. Let’s check in on how they look now.

Two dangers for Democrats are intertwined. The omicron wave has faded, but we have no idea what the pandemic will look like in the summer and fall. I’d still say that Biden and the Democrats will probably be punished if the pandemic news is bad, but it’s unlikely they’ll be rewarded if Covid stays under control because by then it will seem like ancient news.

But perceptions of the economy could nevertheless be influenced by the pandemic. Over the last several months, economic perceptions have run far behind economic statistics, even including high inflation. It’s possible that the pandemic has introduced economic complexities that the usual stats do not convey. It’s also possible that the pandemic just put everyone in a sour mood.

If it’s the latter, that should be easing now, and perceptions may improve — unless, of course, sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, or other events, crush economic growth and the strong jobs market.

GOPs dilemma
The next two are risks for Republicans: Trump and their party’s dysfunction. Trump continues to be the loudest Republican voice, obsessed with his claim to have won the 2020 election and bullying the party into focusing on it rather than on things that voters might care about.

The Republican Party doesn’t know how to push back. That’s what appears to have cost them several potentially strong Senate candidates, and risks giving them a few very weak ones.

Normally, I’d say that the out-party just isn’t very important. Midterms are usually about happiness, or more often unhappiness, with the president. And that’s probably still the case this year. But there’s more uncertainty than usual.

And then, unfortunately, there are questions about Republican efforts to do what Trump tried in 2020 and undermine fair elections.

Election laws passed by Republicans in several states make voting more difficult; the changes produced some problems administering the recent Texas primaries, and the same could be the case in Georgia and elsewhere.

More threatening than that is the possibility that Republican judges could decide some elections based on far-fetched and anti-democratic doctrines. I’m more concerned about this than I was a year ago. We shouldn’t overreact to what are still only potential threats to free and fair elections. But there’s no way to ignore them.


Jonathan Bernstein is a noted columnist covering politics and policy.

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