It was the warning shot Joe Biden was hoping for.
With 100 days until the midterm elections, voters in Kansas – a hotbed of conservatism that resoundingly backed Donald Trump for president – voted decisively on Tuesday to protect reproductive rights in their state.
In the first political test of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v Wade, Kansans showed up in record numbers to deliver a referendum result that surprised both Democrats and Republicans, and rocked America’s political landscape.
The victory transcended partisan and geographical lines, with voters of all stripes viewing the ballot question – which sought to remove abortion protections from the Kansas constitution – as an attack on freedom and personal rights. As US President Joe Biden put it on Tuesday, when it comes to abortion: “The fight is not over.”
But on November 8, a much broader fight looms. Two years after Trump lost the White House and Democrats scored a narrow Congressional majority, Biden and his party are at risk of losing their political advantage.
For most Americans, the midterm elections represent the first electoral chance to express their approval or displeasure with the president of the day.
While Biden is not on the ballot until the presidential election in 2024, his performance will be, with races in all 435 seats in the House of Representatives, along with 34 out of the 100 seats in the Senate.
Until recently, the conventional wisdom was that the Democrats were set for a wipeout, which would make it even harder for Biden to advance his first-term agenda.
Not only does history shows that the president’s party is almost always cursed with midterm losses, Biden’s approval rating has hit record lows amid sweeping dissatisfaction over everything from soaring petrol prices and inflation rates, to his immigration policies and his fitness for the job.
Polls suggest that nearly up to 75 percent of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track. One survey, conducted by the New York Times and Siena University last month, found almost two-thirds of Democrats don’t want the 79-year-old president running for a second term, citing his age and job performance as their main reasons.
“People are angry about gas prices, they’re upset about food prices which are still very high, and they’re angry about inflation generally,” says veteran political analyst Larry Sabato, the founder and director the Centre for Politics at the University of Virginia.
“Presidents don’t control the economy most of the time, but if people are angry they’re going to want someone to blame.”
But while the Democrats still face significant headwinds, a confluence of events in recent weeks has given both sides of politics pause for thought.
First, as the Kansas vote suggests, the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling has activated Democrats and given the pro-choice movement a campaign narrative that appears to resonate across party lines: personal freedom.
Second, the Biden administration has had some tangible wins: unemployment falling to 3.5 per cent on Friday, the killing of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri; the likely passage of an economic bill that will see the president deliver on election promises such as confronting climate change, making corporations pay higher taxes, and lowering drug prices.
And third, candidates who espouse Donald Trump’s false claims that the last presidential election was stolen are steadily advancing through their primaries. This has worried the old guard in the Republican Party who fear that some of those nominees are too extreme to appeal to mainstream voters, particularly in the suburbs where elections are often won or lost.
As David Axelrod, a political consultant and former chief strategist to Barack Obama, put it earlier this week: “I think if you asked anyone six weeks ago – Democrat or Republican – they’d be predicting a Category 5 hurricane (against the Democrats) come November. Now they’re thinking, well, maybe it will only be a Category 3.”
The latest case study of Trump’s brand of election denialism emerged in Arizona on Tuesday, where three Republicans who back his lies won important positions in the critical swing state.
Among them is Mark Finchem, who has previously identified himself as a member of the Oath Keepers militia group, which is now under scrutiny for its role in the January 6 Capitol attack.
With Trump’s endorsement, Finchem won the Republican nomination for Secretary of State in Arizona – a post that gives office bearers the power to oversee, and potentially even overturn, future elections.
Venture capitalist Blake Masters – a 35-year-old who wants to ban “critical race theory” from schools, has called for the jailing of COVID adviser Anthony Fauci, and has accused Supreme Court judge Ketanji Brown Jackson of being a “paedophile apologist” – will be the GOP’s candidate for the highly sought-after Senate spot.
And in the race to be Republican nominee for Arizona governor, former television anchor Kari Lake – now a leading voice behind Trump’s “stolen election” theory – narrowly beat an establishment candidate who had the backing of former vice president Mike Pence.
Tuesday’s primary victories in Arizona added to Trump-endorsed election deniers also winning nominations in Michigan, Nevada and Pennsylvania.
But this has made some Republicans nervous, particularly as Trump’s role in last year’s Capitol attack comes under sustained scrutiny by the January 6 committee, and could soon become the subject of a justice department investigation.
Biden, meanwhile, has problems of his own. He insists he will run in 2024 although many in his party are not convinced he will – or should.
“I don’t believe he’s running,” said leading House Democrat Carolyn Maloney during a debate in New York this week.
He has also sought, somewhat unsuccessfully, to pin the blame for rising energy costs on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine in February.
And his approval rating, currently at around 39 per cent, is now the worst of any elected president at this point of presidency since the end of World War II, according to FiveThirtyEight’s trend data.
In some key battlegrounds, this has become such a concern that candidates have refused to campaign with him. In June, for example, when Biden travelled to Ohio to tout a program benefitting union workers, Tim Ryan, who is running for the Senate, and Nancy Whaley, who is seeking the job of state governor, did not attend, citing “scheduling conflicts”.
In Georgia – the once Republican state that delivered the presidency to Biden in 2020 – Senate candidate Raphael Warnock has also sought to distance himself as Republicans use attack lines such as the “Biden-Warnock Agenda.“
And then there’s the vexed question many are asking: is the president still fit for the job? By the next election in 2024, Biden will be 82, and by the end of his second term, 86. While supporters insist he remains “intellectually engaged”, his age has become an uncomfortable issue for some White House insiders, who note his tendency to mangle his sentences, lose his train of thought, or struggle with names and teleprompters.
Last September, while unveiling the new AUKUS submarine pact, he even appeared to forget Scott Morrison’s name, awkwardly describing the then Australian Prime minister as “err … that fella Down Under”.
Sabato, the founder of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, an online political newsletter that predicts outcomes for US electoral contests, agrees that it would be “unwise” for Biden to run again, but adds: “The Democrats lack an obvious successor as vice-president Kamala Harris would be too controversial. ”
(Harris’ critics are far less polite, claiming she lacks policy substance, is disliked by sections of her own party, and could struggle to win over certain voters as a woman of colour.)
Nonetheless, Sabato predicts, a midterm landslide is looking increasingly unlikely at this stage. In the Senate, where Republicans would need to flip states such as Georgia, Arizona and New Hampshire to regain control of the chamber, the poor calibre of Republican nominees could result in Democrats holding on. The House, on the other hand, was more likely to swing to Republicans, but it may not be the wipeout Democrats fear – partly thanks to Trump.
“The more he’s in the news, the better Democrats look,” Sabato says.
Time will tell if he’s right. President George W. Bush’s Republicans suffered a “thumping” in the midterms of 2006, Barack Obama’s Democrats had an infamous “shellacking” in 2010, and Trump’s Republicans were smashed by the so-called “blue wave” in 2018. Will Biden, as expected, inevitably follow the same pattern?
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