Voters are casting the final ballots in races that will determine control of the narrowly divided House and Senate, as well as governor’s mansions across the country, amid concerns about inflation and gas prices that have created serious headwinds for Democrats.
Republicans have run against the party in power by blaming Americans’ economic insecurities on President Joe Biden and Democrats. They’ve already promised to launch investigations into the administration and cripple its agenda if they win the House majority, and many of their nominees have echoed former President Donald Trump’s election falsehoods, leading to Biden’s repeated warnings about threats to democracy.
But it’s the economy that’s been top of mind for voters this fall. With all 435 House seats in contention on Tuesday, Democrats are on defense even in seats Biden would have won comfortably two years ago. His low approval ratings – paired with the historical challenges that face a president’s party in their first midterm cycle – have made Republicans bullish about their chances of building a sizable majority in the chamber, where they only need a net gain of five seats. Between Labor Day and Election Day, nine of the 10 House races that saw the most ad spending featured Democratic incumbents – a sign of the peril the party in power finds itself in.
Control of the Senate, which is currently split 50-50 with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tie-breaking vote, remains on a razor’s edge as Democrats cling to seats in battleground states including Nevada, Georgia, Arizona and New Hampshire. Republicans only need a net gain of one seat to win the majority.
But as they try to hold off Republicans, Democrats are also trying to pick up seats to guard against their losses. Their best opportunity is in the perpetual pivot state of Pennsylvania, where Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and Republican Mehmet Oz are vying to replace retiring GOP Sen. Pat Toomey in what became the most expensive Senate contest in the country this fall. Democrats are also trying to defeat Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, a close ally of Trump who remains the Senate’s most vulnerable GOP incumbent, as he faces off against Democratic Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes.
The economic blows of the Covid-19 pandemic, followed by soaring gas and grocery prices, have forced many working-class Americans to dip into their savings and cut back on everyday expenses, creating a sour mood within the electorate as voters brace for a potential recession. In a recent CNN poll conducted by SSRS, three-quarters of Americans said they felt like the US was already in a recession.
Though there are many factors driving inflation – including lingering supply chain issues and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine – voters are also registering their disappointment with Biden, whose approval rating was 41% in the latest CNN poll.
The frustration with Washington’s inability to significantly lower costs has left Democrats on shaky ground even in reliably blue states like California, Oregon and New York. The latter two feature surprisingly competitive gubernatorial contests. And there are more than enough contested House seats in those states alone for Republicans to win the House majority.
Democrats had hoped that the Supreme Court’s late June decision overturning abortion rights would help them reverse the unfavorable tide. But while the ruling helped closed some of the enthusiasm gap between Republicans and Democrats, it may not have had as much of an effect than Democrats had hoped in some key races.
Biden, as he’s stuck to stumping in mostly blue states, has repeatedly warned that “democracy is on the ballot” after Trump promoted scores of Republican candidates who echoed his lies about the 2020 election. But like abortion access, the fragility of democracy has consistently ranked lower than the economy and inflation when voters are asked about their biggest concerns heading into the election.
Still, talk about the threat to democracy has been prominent in some gubernatorial and secretary of state races because of the prospect that pro-Trump election denying candidates could end up capturing positions that will allow them to administer the 2024 presidential election.
The midterms will serve as a critical proving ground for Trump, who has cast a long shadow over the Republican Party as he’s used appearances for the nominees he elevated to tease his likely presidential run in 2024.
Appearing in Ohio on Monday night for his hand-picked Senate nominee J.D. Vance, who has been in a surprisingly tight race against Democrat Tim Ryan in a state Trump twice won, the former president said he’d be making a big announcement at his Mar-a-Lago resort on November 15. CNN had previously reported his aides were eyeing the third week of November for a campaign launch – timing that would allow Trump to take credit for GOP successes in the midterms. He’s hoping that a good night for his candidates – including a full slate of election deniers in Arizona – could help him build momentum for a third White House bid.
Ahead of a potential rematch with Trump, Biden’s dragging approval ratings have made him an unwelcome presence on the campaign trail in swing states. He spent election eve rallying in Maryland for Democratic gubernatorial nominee Wes Moore and in New York several days earlier for Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul.
Republican momentum in the closing stretch of the campaign – especially in the race for the House – has put the White House on notice about the potential coming frustrations of governing in a divided Washington. The GOP has already promised relentless investigations and hearings focusing on the Justice Department, the administration’s border policies, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the president’s son, Hunter Biden. In an exclusive interview with CNN on Sunday, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy left the door open to beginning impeachment proceedings against the president.
A divided government in Washington could allow Biden to wield his presidential veto to frustrate Republican plans of prolonging Trump-era tax cuts and any attempt to pass a national ban on abortion. But it could also trigger fiscal showdowns and the threats of government shutdowns. A clash could also be looming over raising the debt ceiling.