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Larry Donnelly: There are two conflicting narratives emerging ahead of the US midterms

Our columnist looks at the key battles in the US ahead of November’s vote.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

WE HAVE MOVED well past the period in the United States when political insiders and addicts, who are suffering from post-presidential election withdrawals, engage in banter and speculation about how the congressional midterms will unfold.

With little more than five weeks to go before voting day – Tuesday, 8 November – races across the country are in the final stretch in the land of the perpetual campaign.

And the American people are now paying attention, partly because they can’t turn on a radio, television, computer or smartphone without hearing and seeing political ads for Democratic and Republican contenders. The messaging and themes in them are geographically dependent.

In reddish Ohio, where Congressman Tim Ryan is running for an open seat in the US Senate against Donald Trump’s choice, the Hillbilly Elegy author JD Vance, Ryan throws a football at placards featuring free trade deals and the “defund the police” slogan in order to cement his centrist bona fides.

united-states-senator-patty-murray-democrat-of-washington-offers-remarks-during-the-senate-democratas-policy-luncheon-press-conference-at-the-us-capitol-in-washington-dc-tuesday-august-3-2021 Senator Patty Murray Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Meanwhile, the long-time Democratic incumbent in the state of Washington, Senator Patty Murray, stresses her ardent pro-choice stance and describes the reversal of Roe v Wade as a “horrifying reality” that she will stand up against aggressively.

Polarised politics

Across the board, Republican officeholders and aspirants assert that their opponents are left-wing radicals on the social issues which are uniquely to the fore in the US, are weak on national security, are failing to protect the southern border and are to blame for rampant inflation.

Some bring Joe Biden, whose approval ratings are still low, into the equation and seek to link their Democratic rivals to the 79-year-old president.

Advocates for the two parties tout viable paths to strong showings for their respective teams. Democrats point to tightening polls and, in particular, the politics of abortion.

They claim – and the surprising setback to pro-life forces on a referendum during the summer to amend the state constitution in deeply conservative Kansas suggests – that women and young people are registering to vote in extraordinary numbers and are highly motivated to elect candidates who will fight to preserve access to abortion.

The jettisoning of the US Supreme Court’s precedent, they insist, is the sort of seminal happening that will precipitate an exception to the general rule that the sitting commander-in-chief’s party loses seats in the midterms. Additionally, President Biden has had some major legislative triumphs that will make a genuine difference in the lives of millions of grateful Americans. Finally, many GOP hopefuls have had to kiss the beleaguered Mr Trump’s ring and lend credence to the lie that he was robbed in 2020 to garner his imprimatur.

Republicans, on the other hand, argue that, given present circumstances, the historical pattern will not be upended. Specifically, the price of petrol at the pumps has come down, but inflation is widespread.

Moreover, conservatives may have been temporarily shocked by the vigour of the post-Dobbs ruling mobilisation. Nonetheless, they maintain that even those who disagree with the 5-4 decision do not believe in abortion in the late stages of pregnancy. As such, Democrats who won’t identify any restrictions on the procedure they can support are easily painted as extremists on the complex subject. And it’s not just abortion that will be on the ballot.

Lastly, operatives say that the opinion polls are not reliable and skew Democratic owing to distrust among grassroots Republicans of media outlets and a consequent refusal to respond to pollsters’ queries. Further, they allege that there is a pronounced disconnect between the results of surveys that are put to cohorts of intending voters and the eventual tallies when the actual votes are counted. Turnout demographics are typically dispositive.

The eternal battle

There are persuasive elements to the conflicting narratives espoused by each side. It is a fact that there is tremendous energy in the progressive movement and that previously non- or apolitical people are getting involved due to their conviction that the government should not deny pregnant women the right to choose. And Biden’s successes in progressing his agenda on tax, health care and climate change should benefit his colleagues. Trump’s ongoing legal travails could help, too.

It is likewise true that these midterms are an inherently uphill struggle for Democrats, that the soaring cost of living is hurting many who will take out their frustrations on the party in power, that the overwhelming majority won’t make up their minds solely on abortion and that Republicans have tended to outperform expectations in recent years.

In this milieu and from this remove, my own sense is that the Democrats have a good chance of retaining control of the US Senate and that the Republicans will probably wind up in charge of the House of Representatives. There are two things I will be monitoring keenly. Each should tell us a lot about how these midterms will go ultimately and could have significant future implications.

First is the aforementioned Ryan vs Vance matchup. If Ryan manages to pull off an upset victory – a sizeable IF – Democrats will have cause for celebration and he will have taught his party a vitally important lesson: how to win in Middle America.

Collage Maker-29-Sep-2022-05.09-PM Ryan and Vance Source: Alamy

He has been an unashamed economic populist while steering clear of the culture wars. “I’m not that guy” is his standard refrain when they surface. His rhetoric mightn’t be music to the ears of well-heeled donors clustered on the coasts. Yet it is crucial to a realistic fifty state strategy.

Second are the fortunes of the cadre of Latinos who Republicans have nominated in House districts with large concentrations of Hispanic Americans. How well they fare will not only give a signal as to whether their party will have a majority next January, but also provide a tangible measurement of the extent of the continuing drift of this fast-growing, increasingly influential ethnic grouping to the political right. I repeat myself: this is the biggest story in US politics in 2022.

Watching the warring narratives play themselves out over the coming 38 days or so will be fascinating. According to realclearpolitics.com, Republicans are a single percentage point ahead nationally. The contest is on a knife edge. And there’s always the potential for an October surprise. Stay tuned.

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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About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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