Larry Donnelly: The economy and independents will dictate the outcome of the US midterms

AT THIS STAGE, just over a week prior to the midterm congressional elections in the United States, the relentless spin from advocates for the two major parties about what is going to happen and why in the battles for control of the US Senate and House of Representatives is tiresome for avid followers of American politics.

“Women are mad as hell that a Supreme Court – packed by Donald Trump with religious extremists masquerading as jurists – has taken away their right to bodily autonomy and we are going to defeat politicians who are against choice. And we must stop Trump’s party now because Republicans are only getting started with their radical ‘rewind the clock’ agenda. Simultaneously, they are putting the interests of the wealthy and privileged before the needs of ordinary working Americans.”

This has been the constant mantra of Democratic activists who cite high turnout figures in early voting and a sharp surge in the numbers of those registering to participate as favourable signs for progressives.

“The policies of the Biden administration have fuelled the rampant inflation that is wreaking havoc with the lives of millions of Americans. Meanwhile, liberal Democrats want to defund the police and are to blame for an escalation in instances of violent crime. They refuse to secure the southern border and think that left-wing school boards and teachers’ unions, not parents, should be charged with educating young children about morality.” Republicans, who have an inherent advantage as the smaller party in the midterms, are on message and things seem to be trending in their direction.

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Which way is the wind blowing?

This columnist’s assessment as to what will probably transpire has vacillated widely in recent months. What had looked like an absolute landslide for the GOP morphed into a potentially historic strong showing for their adversaries, yet my impression this weekend is that the Republicans once again hold the better hand.

The House of Representatives is all but gone. When it is put to them, Democratic operatives, on condition of anonymity, admit that it is merely a question of how big the new conservative majority will be.

Journalists are already speculating about the unenviable task that speaker-in-waiting Kevin McCarthy, a Californian and current minority leader, will have in reconciling the differences between competing factions within his party when in power.
The Senate is on a knife edge. Despite the Republicans’ opting to nominate objectively weak and flawed candidates in places such as Pennsylvania and Georgia, the opinion polls indicate that the contests are a toss-up.

In Ohio, centrist Congressman Tim Ryan has run an outstanding race. Regardless, he will require an awful lot of luck to vanquish the well-funded Hillbilly Elegy author and Trump acolyte, JD Vance, in a state that is increasingly reddish.

The upper house could ultimately go either way. If I had to offer a guess from this remove, though, it would be that Republicans will prevail by a whisker. The precedent of midterms past is on their side and the reality is that many pre-election forecasts in the last decade have not captured the extent of their appeal.

Moreover, they are arguably closer to the prevalent mood in the country. Pew Research data released on 20 October reveals that, for 79% of likely voters, the economy – in particular, the large rise in the prices of gas and other consumer goods – is very important. Additionally, there are Americans for whom abortion access is also very important, but it is a finite grouping that is not growing. And just 38% approve of Joe Biden’s job performance.

Crucially, there are the sentiments of women and men who don’t align with the Democrats or the Republicans, who tend to decide late and who typically determine the results of hard-fought campaigns in the US: independents. According to Gallup polling conducted in September, they comprise 43% of the American electorate in 2022. 48% of them are leaning Republican, as compared to 44% who intend to cast ballots for Democrats.

‘It’s the economy’

Similarly worrying for the latter’s standard bearers are the findings of a Harvard Harris survey. In it, respondents said the most pressing matters confronting the nation are inflation, the economy and immigration.

In reply to a separate query, they perceive that Republicans are primarily focused on these same three issues. Conversely, they believe that January 6th, women’s rights and the environment/climate change are the three key priorities for Democrats.

If the GOP manages to win both the Senate and the House on 8 November, it may well be because Democrats, instead of utilising the disgraceful ransacking of the Capital Building and the reversal of Roe v Wade shrewdly, overegged both and took their eyes off the ball when it comes to what is so hurting ordinary Americans in their daily lives. To be sure, Democrats were wise to seize the unique opportunity the Dobbs decision presented.

Initially reeling and uncertain as to how to react, Republicans have since tried to turn the tables by asking their pro-choice foes to identify any restrictions on abortion they could support. Those who can’t have been credibly portrayed as out of step with how the vast swathe in the middle sees the complex subject.

In a politically brilliant – albeit deeply cynical – online ad funded by a conservative non-profit organisation, an elderly woman counsels a young, aggrieved, female relative that there are more serious problems in the US. And these, not overwrought fears about women’s rights being stripped away, should be to the fore in her mind when she votes.

In the final stretch, Democrats should emulate what Congressman Ryan has done quite effectively in his quest for promotion in Ohio. Emphasise the traditional, “bread and butter” values that collectively constitute the party’s very reason for being.

Defend the rights of women, minorities, the LGBT community and labour unions unflinchingly. But don’t take the bait when it comes to culture wars. As Ryan says when they surface: “I’m not that guy.” It may be too late to save face on this occasion. As has been contended repeatedly in this space, however, recalibration of the manifesto is desperately warranted.

Analyst Charles Cook asserts sagely that the midterms could hinge on who benefits from “the last gust of political wind.” If Democrats don’t get an apparently necessary gale, it means the de facto end of the Biden presidency and two years of an obstructionist US Congress that says no to everything – with the possible exception of meritless, vindictive impeachment proceedings.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston lawyer, a Law Lecturer at the University of Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.

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