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Larry Donnelly: Will the midterms be a tough day or a bloodbath for the Democrats?

Our columnist says the leaked Roe V Wade draft and Republican candidates endorsed by Donald Trump may prove costly for the Biden administration.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

EVERY FOUR YEARS around this time, I attempt to persuade Irish watchers of politics stateside that the campaigns and elections at the federal and state levels that unfold near the halfway point of presidential terms are at least as important as the race for the White House. My admonitions usually fall on deaf ears.

2022, however, may be different. Extraordinary developments in the United States and globally – an appalling war in Ukraine, massive inflation, the prospective reversal of the seminal Roe v Wade precedent, etc. – are likely to concentrate more attention on what happens when voters cast ballots on 8 November in my infamously divided homeland.

Even casual observers will be aware that the midterms, in which all seats in the House of Representatives and a third of those in the Senate are up for grabs, are almost invariably bad for the incumbent president, whether Democratic or Republican.

Since World War II, the commander-in-chief’s party has lost an average of 26 seats in the House and 4 in the Senate. Moreover, turnout is lower – circa 40% of eligible individuals participate as compared to in the vicinity of 60% in presidential elections – and these Americans tend to be whiter, older and wealthier.

Struggling in the polls

At the moment, the aggregated generic congressional polling on RealClearPolitics.com shows that the GOP is up slightly on the Democrats (46.4% to 43.2%). Additionally, President Joe Biden continues to struggle to please the independent and floating voters whose oscillating preferences typically tell the tale. His job approval rating stands at just 43.7%.

In this milieu, an obvious question arises: Will the midterms be a tough day or a bloodbath for the Democrats?

It is true that the oppressive inflation in the US is hurting them. The blame for the huge rises in the price of consumer goods does not lie exclusively at the politicians’ feet, but many people are understandably frustrated. They are angry at the sitting president and will take it out on Democrats.

Notwithstanding what most would regard as President Biden’s solid leadership in the wake of Russia’s attack on Ukraine – buttressed by a pledge not to send US troops into combat – it is improbable that Democrats will reap rewards because the conflict is thousands of miles away and an America First mindset is prevalent in the citizenry.

Abortion

The recent leak of a draft opinion overruling the 1973 Roe v Wade decision, which was written by Justice Samuel Alito and was endorsed by a bare majority on the US Supreme Court, has simultaneously outraged pro-choice activists and provided some progressive strategists a glimmer of political hope as they shape messages and raise funds for office-seeking Democrats.

No matter one’s personal view on the topic of abortion, the leak of the yet to be finalised document is objectively bizarre and unfortunate. It has done more damage to what has sadly become a tarnished institution. Theories abound online as to whether the culprit is of the left or the right.

Meanwhile, pro-choice pressure groups and leading members of Congress, such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senator Elizabeth Warren and Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, charge that women’s rights are imperilled and exhort grassroots Democrats to galvanise and push back determinedly in the midterms. They posit – perhaps hyperbolically, but shrewdly – that conservatives have a host of freedoms, including access to contraception, in the firing line.

The Supreme Court’s jettisoning of Roe v Wade could certainly work to their party’s advantage. Against that, though, a CNN survey this month reveals that 26% of respondents would only support candidates who they agree with on abortion. 56% said that it was among multiple issues they would take into consideration.

On these crucial figures, my first strong suspicion is that the former category is comprised fairly equally of advocates for and foes of legalised abortion. My second is that many of them are already habitual voters.

Young people – who otherwise might not be bothered to go to the polls – and that oft-referred to demographic of suburban women – who otherwise might back Republicans out of economic self-interest – are the optimal audiences for Democrats on this front.  They definitely can tilt the balance in close-run fights.

But in short, and despite the fact that the bulk of Americans would rather Roe v Wade be preserved, this seems more of a wild card, albeit a useful one, than a game changer for Democrats, especially given that there are approximately six months to go and further potentially upending “surprises” could materialise. And it is worth noting that abortion opponents will be motivated, too.

The Trump effect

Joe Biden’s predecessor is also a wild card in the midterms. Donald Trump hasn’t left the scene. Far from it. 39 of the 40 GOP contenders he has endorsed to date in 2022 have prevailed in the primaries. The most well-known of these is JD Vance, author of the bestselling Hillbilly Elegy about his hardscrabble upbringing in Appalachia. Vance had been languishing. Yet after garnering Trump’s imprimatur in the final stretch, he surged and captured the nomination for an open Senate seat in Ohio.

The New York billionaire remains a force to be reckoned with and his eternally outsized presence will be felt relentlessly. Naturally, his favoured runners have had to kiss his ring and express sentiments that may come back to haunt them.

Some in battleground states and districts will have to subtly scale back the sycophancy. JD Vance, for example, would be well-advised to emulate Governor Glenn Youngkin, who executed the necessary high wire act flawlessly to pull off an upset last year in Virginia.

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There’s manifestly a lot to take on board when endeavouring to get a handle on US midterm elections. That is a turnoff for millions there, never mind those looking on and scratching their heads from afar. As a comedian once joked in a contemporaneous gig: “Tomorrow is what they call the midterms and you can cut the indifference with a knife.  It’s the day Americans leave work early and pretend to vote.”

Nonetheless, the midterms are undeniably significant for all sorts of reasons. On this occasion, they will effectively dictate the future trajectory of the Biden administration and establish the contours of the 2024 presidential contest. Accordingly, I will revisit the midterms regularly from here until November.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.  His book – “The Bostonian: Life in an Irish American Political Family” – is published by Gill Books.  It is available here and at bookshops.

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About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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