By Seema Sirohi
With midterm elections just a week away and voter anxiety about inflation, gas, and food prices at peak levels, polls show the Democrats are likely to lose control of the House of Representatives while barely clinging on to the Senate.
The heart of the problem remains the Democrats’ failure to effectively convey their main message—that Republican candidates represent a “threat to democracy” with their conspiracy theories that the last election was “stolen”, which ultimately led to the storming of the US Capitol. Voters are more worried about rising prices and inflation.
President Joe Biden’s approval ratings are under water at 40-42 percent, some of the lowest for a president ahead of the big battle. Many Democratic Party candidates are shunning him as a star attraction, especially in competitive races. Former president Barack Obama is filling to wrap up the case for Democrats instead. His staff is flooded with requests to make videos and attend fundraisers.
Trouble is brewing even in deep blue states such as Oregon, where a three-way contest could result in the victory of Christine Drazan, the first Republican to-be governor in decades, riding on issues of homelessness and street violence by protestors. In New York, the story is the same—Democratic candidates struggle and try to walk back from extreme positions they took last year such as the calls to “defund” the police.
A few weeks ago, there was optimism in the Democratic Party about retaining its slim majority in the House because of the anger against the US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, which ended the federal right to an abortion. Women were galvanised. They registered to vote in greater numbers to show their outrage against Republicans who were busy enacting, proposing and otherwise ending abortion rights in various states in the wake of the court’s verdict.
Other issues propelling the Democratic Party narrative this summer were demands for gun control after the school massacre in Uvalde, Texas, in May, and threats to democracy following revelations of the “Jan. 6 hearings” by the House Select Committee. The Committee tried to establish that former President Donald Trump was not only responsible for egging his supporters to attack the US Capitol on 6 January 2021, he actively sowed doubts about election results. Electing Trump-endorsed Republicans was a threat to American democracy, Democrats told voters.
But as summer turned to fall, gas prices and inflation were on top of voters’ minds while abortion rights became a second if not a third-tier issue. As for threats to democracy as an “existential” issue, Democrats are barely using the arguments in their political ads themselves because strategists determined voters were more concerned about issues that affected their own lives now rather than events that took place in Washington more than a year ago.
It’s true that bad economic news has dominated the headlines with persistent talk of a recession next year. None of it is reassuring to American voters. As a result, Biden’s hefty legislative record of getting major tax, climate change and health care bills through the US Congress stands obscured.
The war in Ukraine and OPEC Plus countries announcing cuts in oil production from November have added to the bag of woes. Biden has been forced to release more and more oil from the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve to stabilise prices and offset volatility.
The White House has released around 165 million barrels of crude this year, which the Republicans see as a dangerous depletion of a national asset for avoidable reasons. Capitalising on Biden’s troubles, some Republican candidates have questioned America’s continuing support to Ukraine. A Pew Research Center poll found only 38 percent of Americans were extremely or very concerned about Ukraine’s defeat, down from 55 percent in May.
Congressman Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader, said recently that his partywouldn’t write “a blank check” to Ukraine if they won because people “sitting in a recession” wouldn’t want that. The US has spent more than US $60 billion in economic and military aid for Ukraine with bipartisan support since Russia invaded the country in February. But the consensus is showing signs of fraying.
Historically, US voters have not favoured the party in power in midterm elections but Democratic Party messaging has fallen particularly flat this time around. Biden’s August announcement to cancel up to US $10,000 in student loan debt for those making less than US $125,000 a year faced a backlash because it could end up costing taxpayers US $400 billion down the line. The Supreme Court rejected an emergency petition to block the rollout of student debt relief giving a sense of relief to the White House but the case is expected to go into the appeals process.
The reaction has surprised Democrats, especially because there hasn’t been any sustained opposition to what a Democrat called “corporate handouts” that Republican presidents routinely give to businesses. But in the real world of politics and messaging, the American people have accepted huge tax breaks for the wealthy as a given but they object to government help for the less wealthy.
Republican political ads have exploited the resentment of those who didn’t go to college at all and feel the student loan forgiveness gives another advantage to those who were fortunate enough to attend university. The real issue here is the unseemly cost of higher education in the US but tackling that would mean shaking too many high-powered stakeholders. Neither political party wants to handle that.
If the House turns Republican as expected and the Senate remains under Democrats, the next two years would mean more gridlock in Washington both on domestic and foreign policy fronts. In addition, more Trump-like Republicans getting into the system at lower levels as state secretaries who oversee elections would mean more trouble. A poll last month showed that 61 percent of the Republicans believe the 2020 presidential election was stolen. Many such doubters are running as candidates.
None of the above is good news for American democracy and for those who worry about its health.