The Midterm Elections in the USA

There are 3 losers and 4 winners in the US-midterm elections of 8 November

The Republican Party is both winner and loser. While it has won a majority in the House of Representatives with some certainty, and may even be able to conquer the Senate, it has still not managed to dominate in the election to the extent that had been predicted. Since the American Civil War, the party of the White House incumbent – with only three exceptions! – has regularly lost a substantial number of seats in Congress in the first mid-term election. The long-term average of these losses is above twenty seats. One of the three exceptions benefited George W. Bush in 2002, the year after September 11. Democratic presidents Clinton and Obama, on the other hand, each received a real drubbing in the midterm elections two years after taking office. The Republicans didn’t manage that this time. This has severely damaged their expectation of being able to clearly dictate the agenda for the period leading up to the next presidential election.

The Democrats are also both winners and losers, only in the inverse order. They have lost their legislative majority in Congress. Active legislative work will not be possible for them in the next two years. But they lost less than most of them had firmly believed. Many Democratic grandees did not turn up at the election parties at first, expecting only a vale of tears. But then the evening got better and felt like a victory compared to the forecasts. Maybe the Democrats can hold on to their slimmest of majorities in the Senate. Maybe they could even have defended their majority in the House of Representatives if they hadn’t tripped themselves up by their divisiveness in New York, where the intra-party tug-of-war between progressives and establishment is particularly fierce. In the gubernatorial elections, they did not lose, but gained State Houses. However, they will have to defend themselves under constant attack from a partially radicalised Republican majority in the House of Representatives from January onwards, when the new Congress will begin its work. 

President Biden is a clear winner. His performance, at times bumpy, at times appearing decrepit, at times hampered by the eternal strife within the Democratic Party, has masked the fact that he has accomplished more legislatively in two years than either President Clinton or Obama did in eight. Even if he cannot count on further legislative successes, he already has a lot to show for the next presidential election. This makes his position within the party as good as unassailable; if he wants to run again in 2024, no one will be able to deny him that.

Former President Trump is the big loser of this election. Many election strategists from his own party accuse him, behind more or less closed doors, of having prevented the supposedly compelling big election victory of the Republican Party through his exquisite selection of particularly unsuitable candidates. There is a lot to this. If the Democrats manage to hold the Senate, then in retrospect it was due to their victory in Pennsylvania, where a popular lieutenant governor won against a TV celebrity chosen by Trump, even though he had a stroke during the campaign and in the most important debate it became apparent how much he, John Fettermann, was still struggling with the effects of this illness. Trump, who cannot admit to any mistakes, has meanwhile accused his wife Melania of foisting this unfit celebrity candidate on him. It doesn’t get more ridiculous than this. Trump himself is contributing to the undermining of the myth of “Trump, the fighter” by another narrative, the narrative of “Trump, the loser”. In 2016, he had won the electoral college, but not a popular majority. In 2018, in the midterm election, he lost over 40 seats in the House of Representatives, far above the average; in 2020, far behind in the popular vote, he lost the Presidency; in 2022, still on election day, he talked grandiloquently of a “red tsunami” – red is the party colour of the Republicans – which he had done much to prevent.

So far we have three winners, three losers. The fourth winner, I know this will surprise many now, is American democracy. It has once again shown itself to be resilient. We Europeans should not underestimate its resilience. 

The first thing that stands out is the extraordinarily high voter turnout; never before have so many Americans voted in a midterm election. Turnout was also high among young people, most of whom voted for Democratic candidates. Millions of women mobilised themselves and others to vote because they wanted to make a statement by casting their ballots against the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling (Dobbs decision). Parallel to the election, abortion was on the ballot in four US states (Vermont, Michigan, California, Kentucky); in all four cases, the pro-lifers lost. There were also majorities for progressive “ballot propositions” in South Dakota, New Mexico and Arizona or Connecticut.

Helpfully for Democratic stability, some of the worst Trumpians were defeated cleanly and visibly across the nation in high symbolic contests. Of course, one can still shake one’s head in disbelief at who was elected or re-elected. Senator Johnson of Wisconsin, for example, who to this day has not acknowledged Biden’s election victory, but has defended the January 6, 2021 storming of Congress. But in Michigan, another example, where Governor Whitmer had come under exceptionally fierce attacks because of her Corona policy and because of Trump, the Democrats managed a “clean sweep” for the first time in over 40 years. The most prominent of the progressive Democrats were all re-elected. In Georgia, the Republican Governor and the Republican Secretary of State, who had consistently and clearly opposed Trump’s attempts to manipulate the election results in 2020, were re-elected.

More than two-thirds of all Americans believe that democracy is in danger in their country. They see this danger on the other side of the political spectrum respectively. Interestingly, at least according to one poll, voters on average think that the Democrats are more radical than the Republicans. Where concern for democracy is used only as a means to delegitimise the other side, it is obviously not a productive force. President Biden and President Obama, however, as outstanding Democratic campaigners, managed in the last weeks before the vote to articulate the danger to democracy without hate-biting, without denouncing the entire camp of their political opponents as enemies of democracy. With all the acrimony of the political debate, they have thus made it clear where the fundamental common ground must be sought. I do not claim that American democracy has left its challenges behind. But it is alive and kicking. If it continues to do so, American democracy will successfully resist the authoritarian temptation.

Where do we go from here? Domestically, I expect the following developments:

I assume that the Democrats will maintain their narrow majority in the Senate. This will enable them to push through important appointments – for federal judgeships, for example.

The Republican majority in the House of Representatives will be so narrow that the likely majority leader Kevin McCarthy will have to rely on the votes of the extremists, lunatics and maniacs in his caucus. For example, the vote of Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene from Georgia. These right-wing extremists will demand influential positions in Congress for themselves and massively influence the agenda. It is likely that they will try to initiate impeachment proceedings against President Biden; that they will initiate special investigation proceedings into, for example, the (alleged) business dealings of President Biden’s son Hunter or into the judicial investigations against Donald Trump; and so on and so forth.

It is likely that the GOP will try, as they have done several times in the past, to turn budget votes into blackmail manoeuvres in favour of their own particularly ideological causes. Perhaps they will also take on Biden’s climate policy again. I do not expect a meaningful legislative agenda from them. Moreover, they would not stand a chance against the President’s veto power. Their hobby horses will not cross the finish line. Washington will become, even more than it is at present, a place of completely toxic political theatre, which will rob the oxygen from the search of solutions to the real problems of the USA.

It is entirely possible that the Supreme Court, with its cemented conservative majority, will make a whole series of decisions over the next two years that restrict long established freedoms in a way comparable to the Dobbs decision on abortion. Of course, Democrats will mobilise against that. They will have to. But for their 2024 prospects, I think it matters at least as much that they develop their own economic narrative. In the midterms, Democrats mostly ducked economic debates for fear of Republican polemics about inflation and the cost of living. They should change that.

Republicans will energize the radicalised part of their base and at the same time antagonize a growing part of America. This may prove to be a tactical advantage for the Democrats in 2024, if they do not offset the follies of the Republicans with ongoing self-harm. Discipline in the political majority is hard enough. Discipline when you are in the minority in the House against widely extremist positions requires extraordinary political wisdom. And finally, there is the well-known saying: “I am not a member of an organised political party. I am a Democrat!”.

As for the Republican presidential nomination for 2024, I am betting on Donald Trump. Admittedly, there are currently many commentators who say that he is particularly weak right now because of his responsibility for the unsatisfactory election results from the Republican point of view. That is true. But something else is decisive. Trump was weak after the election defeat in 2020, and he was weak after 6 January 2021. Both times many believed that Trump was finished. But because all the other Republicans of relevance were scaredy-cats, opportunists, couldn’t make up their minds, didn’t want to risk anything, were wetting themselves, he overcame these phases of weakness. I think it will be the same this time.

Three men could be dangerous to Trump within the Republican Party if they would choose to take on the fight with him: Kevin McCarthy, the likely Speaker of the House, Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, and Ron DeSantis, who was just brilliantly re-elected as Governor of Florida. If they were to join forces, Trump would surely be toast. I don’t believe any of the three has the willpower, backbone and political orientation to engage in the bludgeoning confrontation that would then be expected. “Man or mouse?” is how one Republican Never-Trumper put the question in The Atlantic magazine, addressed to Governor DeSantis. I fear the answer is already clear. Trump publicly attacked DeSantis in the rudest possible terms immediately before the election and has since threatened him, mob-style. DeSantis would harm himself greatly if he tried to become President. DeSantis has so far responded by keeping quiet and keeping smiling. That won’t do.

However, and this is the big but: by turning the Republican Party, the venerable party of Abraham Lincoln, into an authoritarian sect, Trump cannot overcome the fact that his overall course continues to lose popularity in the nation. Trump as the Republican presidential candidate in 2024 means, in my view, the best chance of victory for the Democrats.

Then there is also foreign policy. Many observers say not much would change here. I think there’s a lot of wishful thinking involved. The Biden administration’s massive financial and military support for Ukraine is in doubt among right-wing Republicans and left-wing Democrats. Even if Kevin McCarthy did not dare to deny support against Russian aggression altogether, it is quite conceivable that he would use the issue as tactical leverage, creating uncertainty. We Europeans will therefore have to grapple with the idea of how to ensure, through increased contributions of our own, that Ukraine is not abandoned.

More generally, I expect that Biden’s ability to act on foreign policy will be quite limited by the constant political melee into which the Republicans will force him. On trade policy, Biden is less open to the EU than Obama was, although Obama also played hardball in the TTIP negotiations. Biden’s basic protectionist stance will by no means weaken under Republican pressure, but rather become stronger. Biden will also, this lies in the nature of things, increasingly focus on the Indo-Pacific region with a view to the 2024 presidential election, concentrating in particular on the hegemony race with China.

In all of this, there are significant challenges for the EU. Between the extremes of illusory autonomy and comfortable reliance on the US, the EU will have to work harder to identify its own strategic priorities. The EU should certainly deepen cooperation with the US vis-à-vis China, but it cannot fully adopt the US perspective. That is why it needs all the more consistent cooperation with other democratic and multilaterally minded partners. Relying on the principle of hope vis-à-vis the USA in trade policy matters would be a mistake. We must make it clear to Washington that partnership and solidarity are not a one-way street. Finally, to the extent that the US is once again becoming more complacent on climate policy and neglecting cooperation with countries of the global South, the EU must assume leadership responsibility and make better offers to prevent Beijing and Moscow from gaining even more influence. For this to happen, the Global Gateway Initiative must finally get off the ground. 

The argument that we don’t really know how to assess the prospects of the transatlantic relationship, given the threat of Trump’s return, has always been the expression of a dangerous wait-and-see attitude. After the midterms, I would say that Trump’s return has become less likely, but, for heaven’s sake!, we Europeans should not be complacent. The challenges posed to the transatlantic relationship by the fundamental shifts in international politics must be actively shaped, no matter who the US President is. The support for Ukraine since 24 February this year is a positive example of how things can work between transatlantic partners: More European unity + more European capacity to act + more European sovereignty + more transatlantic cooperation + more cooperation with third “like minded” partners. This is not equally true in other fields of politics. There is still much to be done.