As of Wednesday, there were 300 days until the next federal election in the U.S., when voters will cast ballots for all 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and one-third of the members of the Senate, with enormous consequences for the second half of President Joe Biden’s four-year term in office.
While it may seem to people outside Washington that it’s too soon to begin thinking about an election that far away, there is little question that key figures in Washington are already weighing their every move with an eye on how it might affect voters’ feelings in November.
That applies particularly to Biden, who is struggling with an approval rating that has been hovering between 40% and 45% for several weeks as the coronavirus pandemic rages and inflation drives up the cost of living for everyday Americans at a pace not seen in nearly four decades.
Called a “midterm election” because it takes place at the midpoint of the president’s four-year term, the results are usually affected heavily by public perceptions of the president.
“There's no reason to think that the midterm elections in November of this year will be anything other than what they usually are, and that is a referendum on the performance of the president and the president's party,” William A. Galston, a senior fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies program, told VOA.
Control of Congress at stake
Control of both the House and Senate is very much in play. Democrats have nominal control of both chambers but are severely constrained in enacting their proposals because of a 50-50 split in the Senate. Democratic Vice President Kamala Harris is able to cast tie-breaking votes, but the body’s filibuster rule allows Republicans to block most legislation from coming to a vote in the first place.
In the House, Democrats hold a slim 222-212 majority, with one seat vacant. Republicans are favored to win enough seats to take over the House in November.
In the Senate, the likely result is unclear. Of the 34 seats that are up for election this cycle, 20 are held by Republicans and 14 by Democrats. The overwhelming majority are considered “safe,” meaning that the incumbent is likely to be reelected. The six races generally considered competitive are split evenly, with three held by Republicans and three by Democrats.
As difficult as it presently is for Biden to force his agenda through Congress, the loss of control of either the House or the Senate to Republicans would all but guarantee a shutdown of his legislative agenda in the second half of his term.
Referendum on the president
Historically, midterm elections are tough on the party of the president. In all but three of the midterm elections since the 1861-65 Civil War, the party of the incumbent president has lost seats in the House.
“The best predictor of how a party is going to do is the incumbent president's job approval rating,” Charlie Cook, the founder of the Cook Political Report, told VOA. “And the more under 50% it is, the tougher it is. So if you've got a president that's at 42%, or 43%, as President Biden is, that's not a good thing [for Democrats].”
“Sometimes you can oversimplify things in politics, but I think midterms benefit from oversimplification,” said Kyle Kondik, the managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
“Historically speaking, unless there's some sort of big outside circumstance or extraordinary circumstance, you would not expect an unpopular president’s party to do well in a midterm,” Kondik told VOA. “And so I think what we could say from the vantage point of January is that Biden’s numbers need to get better or Democrats are in real danger of losing particularly the House and also the Senate.”
Absent some grand unifying event that inspires Americans to cross political boundaries, the 2022 election will take place in an atmosphere of extreme partisan rancor. After the 2020 election, in which former President Donald Trump falsely claimed that the presidency had been stolen from him, many states passed controversial new election laws that could make contested outcomes more likely and more challenging to resolve.
“If there's a close election in a major race — let's say it's a Senate race that could determine control of the Senate — will the losing side be willing to accept the legitimacy of the outcome or be convinced that the process was rigged in some way against it?” asked Rick Pildes, an election law expert and the Sudler Family Professor of Constitutional Law at the New York University School of Law. “We're in a culture of tremendous distrust in advance [of the election] on both sides of the spectrum.”
Pildes pointed out that the situation is exacerbated by one aspect of the U.S. election system that is notably different from most other democracies.
“In the U.S., we do not have independent institutions to oversee and administer our elections, unlike in a lot of democracies,” he told VOA. “We have partisan elected officials … administering most of the election process and there is great concern now that the losers will convince themselves — in a close election, particularly if the other party's elected figures are in control of the process — that something about the process was corrupt.”
If there is controversy, it will most likely be in a small handful of races, said Galston of the Brookings Institution.
“At this point, so many of the elections occur in jurisdictions that are dominated by one party or the other that we may not see that many close elections, either at the congressional district level or at the state level,” he said. “I don't think it's going to reach anything like the intensity that we saw after the presidential election of 2020.”
Abortion ruling as wild card
One event that could have a significant impact on the election is an anticipated ruling on a controversial state abortion law, expected from the Supreme Court in the early summer, according to Kondik of the University of Virginia. The ruling will decide if states are free to enact far more restrictive abortion laws than Supreme Court precedent has allowed.
“I think one big issue to watch is abortion — if, in fact, the Supreme Court allows states to heavily restrict abortion or restrict abortion more than they're able to do now,” he said. “So, if you're looking for an issue to come to the forefront in the 2022 election, that would be one to watch. Abortion is a very polarizing and important issue in American politics.”
With support for limiting or even abolishing abortion rights concentrated among Republicans, and most Democrats supporting expansive access to abortion services, a decisive ruling that moves the needle either way could galvanize voters, driving more voters from one or both parties to the polls in greater numbers.