A battle for America’s new reality

In less than two months, millions of Americans will head to the polls to vote in the 2022 midterm elections, determining who controls the US Congress, the fate of Joe Biden’s policy agenda, and the leadership of states across the country.

The highly anticipated event is a crucial barometer of the national mood halfway into a presidential term, and almost always a referendum on the incumbent administration.

Women are expected to come out in force in the midterms, following the Supreme Court ruling to roll back abortion protections in federal law.Credit:AP

But the 2022 midterms won’t just be the first electoral chance voters have to express their satisfaction or anger with Biden’s performance.

This election is also a battle between realities. On the one side, Biden and the Democrats have finally gotten traction on Capitol Hill for a series of long-sought reforms on the economy, climate change, manufacturing and even unions. In Biden’s words, the Democrats seek to “build back better” after not only the impact of coronavirus but years of political neglect on domestic issues.

On the other side, Donald Trump has overseen a transformation of the GOP that has upended America’s political culture. Even after being impeached twice and subject to numerous lawsuits and investigations, for many, the effort to “make America great again” recasts politics as a fight against “woke” liberals, Washington elites, and perceived witch-hunts against the former president.

Until recently, Biden’s low approval ratings had fuelled expectations of a “red wave” that would see the Republicans easily take back the House, and potentially regain the Senate.

But as the campaign enters its final sprint, ongoing revelations about Trump’s conduct – coupled with hot button issues such as extreme abortion bans in multiple states, volatile inflation rates, or the threat to American democracy more broadly – have made this election much less certain.

Going dark: US President Joe Biden describes the effect of MAGA conservatives on America.

Going dark: US President Joe Biden describes the effect of MAGA conservatives on America.Credit:AP

“Generally speaking, you can say that in the last six to seven years there’s been nothing normal about American politics,” says veteran election analyst Charlie Cook, founder of the non-partisan newsletter The Cook Report.

“This has not been a normal midterm election because there’s really been no precedent for what’s unfolded.

“I think it’s going to be less of a referendum on the president, and more of a choice between the two parties.” And the question voters will be asking, says Cook, is: ‘Who’s going to make my life more normal?’”

Biden won’t be on the ballot until the presidential election in 2024 – assuming the 79-year-old runs for the White House again – but the midterms will nonetheless set the political stage for the next two years.

All 435 seats in the House of Representatives will be contested, along with 35 of the 100 seats in the Senate – the critical chamber that determines everything from future Supreme Court nominations to the governing party’s election commitments.

There will also be 36 state governors up for re-election (the equivalent of Australian state premiers), as well as state contests for secretaries of state (the chief elections official in each jurisdiction).

The midterm election landscape is complicated by Trump, as he lays the groundwork for an expected presidential run in 2024 amid a string of legal challenges – from the FBI’s seizure of classified documents to his role in the January 6 attack on the US Capitol.

‘Save America’: Former president Donald Trump has ominous visions of what’s happening in America.

‘Save America’: Former president Donald Trump has ominous visions of what’s happening in America.Credit:Getty

The former president has also endorsed a string of Republican candidates who mirror his extremist rhetoric or embrace his false claim that the 2020 election was rigged, which itself potentially complicates the election outcome.

Should these candidates win, Congress and state legislatures across the US will effectively be filled with Trump acolytes who could help overturn future elections.

Different rules for radicals: Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano.

Different rules for radicals: Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano.Credit:AP

Among them is far-right politician Doug Mastriano, who was at the Capitol on January 6 and is now vying to become the governor of Pennsylvania, a crucial swing state. He has already suggested he would overhaul the state’s electoral system if he wins.

In Arizona, election denier and Oath Keepers militia group member Mark Finchem is the Republican candidate for secretary of state, which would put him in charge of overseeing ballots. And in Georgia, the state where Trump demanded officials “find” the extra votes he needed to win the seat in 2020, Herschel Walker – a former NFL running back who has repeatedly refused to say that Biden was lawfully elected – is now running for the Senate.

While Republicans are trying to keep the focus on Biden’s handling of the economy, rising crime rates, and illegal immigrants flooding the Mexico-US border, Democrats are pointing to another frame for understanding American politics.

They are running a markedly more aggressive campaign centred on Trump and his extremist followers.

“Equality and democracy are under assault,” Biden warned last week in a speech that urged Democrats, independents and “mainstream” Republicans to reject Trumpism. “MAGA Republicans do not respect the Constitution. They do not believe in the rule of law. They do not recognise the will of the people.”

For Democrats, this year’s midterms are nonetheless an uphill battle. Firstly, history suggests the party that wins the White House generally suffers Congressional losses two years later.

But the challenge is circumstantial as much as structural. For much of the year, record inflation and the soaring price of fuel and food has made life harder for Americans. Among some Democrats, there’s also been growing frustration that they weren’t getting enough returns for showing up in record numbers to install Biden as president in 2020.

“We delivered their seats, we delivered a Democratic congress, we delivered a Democratic presidency,” Women’s March managing director Tamika Middleton lamented recently. “So we are telling them in no uncertain terms that we expect them to do what we elected them to do.”

However, by the time the election campaign officially began last week, the momentum had shifted.

While Biden’s approval rating still remains low – the latest Gallup poll has him at 44 per cent – he ended his summer with a string of legislative and political wins: record investment on climate change; plans to lower prescription drug prices and boost of domestic semiconductor manufacturing; and a bipartisan gun reform bill that once seemed out of reach.

Whether those translate into support at the polls is an open question.

The Supreme Court’s monumental decision to overturn the constitutional right to abortion may be yet a bigger factor. As Republican-led states began invoking “trigger laws” banning women from terminating a pregnancy – sometimes even in cases of rape or incest – women have begun to register to vote in droves, signalling an intention to show up at the polls in November.

In Kansas, for example, where residents recently defeated a constitutional amendment that would have removed abortion protections in that conservative state, women represented 69 per cent of the people who registered to vote after the Supreme Court made its ruling on June 24 – according to an analysis by TargetSmart, a data and polling firm led by Democratic political strategist Tom Bonier.

In some battlegrounds, Republican Senate candidates have been scrubbing their websites and softening their stances on abortion restrictions as November nears.

Violent insurrectionists loyal to then-president Donald Trump outside the US Capitol in Washington on January 6, 2021.

Violent insurrectionists loyal to then-president Donald Trump outside the US Capitol in Washington on January 6, 2021.Credit:AP

“In my 28 years of analysing elections, I had never seen anything like what’s happened in the past two months in American politics,” Bonier wrote in an opinion piece in The New York Times this week. “Women are registering to vote in numbers I never witnessed before.”

But while there’s no doubt the political winds are shifting, the question is whether they can shift enough for Democrats to defy the odds in November.

In a sign of how unpredictable these elections are, Democrats have spent almost $US20 million ($29 million) boosting the primary campaigns of far-right Republicans candidates in eight states in the hope voters will ultimately reject them in November, the Washington Post reported. The strategy, which could backfire, has divided the Democrats.

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According to Cook, the fortunes of both parties over the next few weeks will largely depend on factors such as gas prices and inflation, and which party can best woo the 10 per cent of Americans who identify as independent voters. Turnout is also a factor: voting is not compulsory in the US and fewer voters generally show up in midterm elections than presidential races.

And while Trump remains the dominant force among the GOP’s base, some insiders fear his countless controversies are a potent reminder to many Americans – including the independent voters and suburban women that both parties desperately need – of what they rejected two years ago.

“On a macro level, Democrats aren’t ahead – it’s just that things aren’t going against them any more,” Cook says. “We’ve seen big changes in the last 60 days, but we could see more big changes in the next 60.”

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