By Arab News
By Kerry Boyd Anderson*
The US midterm elections held this month yielded an unusual result. The president’s party usually loses many seats in Congress in midterm elections. This strong historical trend, plus low approval ratings for President Joe Biden and high inflation, led many analysts to predict very strong results for Republicans. However, the Republican Party significantly underperformed expectations.
Democrats maintained their slim majority in the Senate. Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives, but their margin is small; they won 219 seats compared to Democrats winning 212, down just nine, with four House elections so far undecided. By comparison, in the 2018 midterms, when Donald Trump was president, Republicans lost 40 House seats; in 2010, during Barack Obama’s first term, Democrats lost 63 House seats.
The midterm elections always offer important lessons for both political parties. This year, there are some key takeaways to understanding the election and what comes next.
First, Congress will be divided over the next two years and is unlikely to achieve much in terms of legislation. US politics has become increasingly polarized and the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, further poisoned relationships among many members of Congress. Beyond essential funding bills, little bipartisan action is likely. Republicans will use their control of the House to make life difficult for Biden; they have promised to hold hearings to investigate his administration, his allies, and his son, Hunter Biden.
Second, although Republicans will have a majority in the House, their slim margin will create headaches for party leadership. The most likely candidate for speaker, Kevin McCarthy, already faces opposition from other Republican House members. In order to accomplish anything in the House, party leaders might have to choose between negotiating with more centrist and extreme segments of the party or seeking support among moderate Democratic members of the House. The former will be difficult and the latter appears very unlikely.
Third, while Democrats’ majority in the Senate will remain small, their win in that chamber is important. Democrats will have little opportunity to move legislation through Congress but, through the Senate, they will maintain significant influence in foreign policy and in judicial nominations.
Fourth, voters in swing states rejected the more extreme elements of the Republican Party, particularly candidates who enthusiastically embraced Trump and his claims about the last election. As Nate Cohn at The New York Times has noted, this trend varied by state. Democrats fared badly in New York, for example, while Republicans performed very well in Florida. However, as Cohn noted, Democrats did well in several key swing states where the outcome was important for the future of elections or abortion access; in states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan, voters rejected extreme Republican candidates.
Many analysts expected voters to prioritize economic issues, especially inflation, which would likely benefit Republicans. Indeed, many Americans are worried about the economy. However, in many competitive races featuring controversial Republican candidates, voters prioritized countering political extremism. While polls suggested that few voters were prioritizing “threats to democracy,” voters in swing states rejected extremism in broader strokes: Controversial candidates who denied the results of the 2020 election, wholeheartedly backed Trump, opposed any access to abortion or refused to condemn the attack on the Capitol.
The attack on Paul Pelosi, husband of the Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, on Oct. 28, and many Republican politicians’ unsympathetic responses, might have reinforced these concerns. Notably, voters who split their ticket — voting for more moderate Republican candidates and against more extreme ones — played an important role in some tight races.
Fifth, Republicans must decide how to interpret their party’s failure to produce big wins at a time when the political environment should have favored them. Some members of the traditional party establishment have placed the blame squarely on Trump. They argue that he promoted inexperienced and extreme candidates who performed poorly in competitive races. These Republicans are keen to find a new leader for the party.
Some traditional Republicans who want to return the party to a pre-Trump “normal” are hopeful that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is the man to do it. DeSantis embraces Trump-style rhetoric but is a popular governor with military and political experience. As Jim Geraghty of the conservative National Review recently wrote, DeSantis “fights for policies, not to prosecute vendettas.” However, the Republican base seems to have little interest in returning to the pre-Trump era. Furthermore, it is not clear that DeSantis wants to return to an old normal. Some of his supporters see him as a new “MAGA” leader, offering a way to continue the movement beyond Trump.
Meanwhile, Trump accepts no blame. In his Nov. 16 announcement that he will run again for president, he focused on Republicans regaining control of the House and on how his administration had been ushering in a “golden age” until Biden ruined it. He is continuing to claim credit for Republican victories, while blaming others for Republican losses (or refusing to accept them as losses). Some of his supporters believe that Republicans will do much better when Trump himself is on the ballot, turning out his base to vote.
Other Republicans are suggesting new paths as they draw on lessons from the midterms. Sen. Josh Hawley, for example, argues that the Republican Party needs to reject many of its standard positions from the past and fully embrace a populist approach focused on the interests of “America’s working people.” How Republicans interpret the last election and prepare for the next one will determine much about US politics over the next two years.
• Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 18 years of experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica.