Written by Gisela Grieger with Rita Mendonca Barbosa Amorim.
On 26 October 2022, EPRS held an online roundtable on the 2022 US mid-term elections, which discussed the likelihood of a shift in power in the United States House of Representatives and the US Senate, as well as the domestic and foreign policy implications resulting from such a change.
Etienne Bassot, Director of the Members’ Research Service of EPRS, welcomed the participants and the audience. After providing introductory remarks he passed on the floor to keynote speaker Miapetra Kumpula-Natri, (S&D, Finland), First Vice-Chair of the European Parliament’s Delegation for relations with the United States.
Miapetra Kumpula-Natri approved the Biden administration’s focus not only on Asia and notably on China, but also on the European continent that faces President Putin’s war against the West. She stressed that, in the run-up to the mid-terms on 8 November, the manifestation of extreme social conservatism in the US has mobilised the defenders of liberal values: of equality and women rights. However, she added that high inflation and fuel prices might outweigh concerns about abortion rights as the top political issue for many voters. Miapetra Kumpula-Natri emphasised that her greatest hope was that the mid-terms would be better than the 2020 presidential elections, so that Americans would regain trust in democracy. On EU-US trade relations, she raised concerns about recent US laws, such as the Inflation Reduction Act, that contain ‘America only’ provisions, highlighting that tensions with the US administration require cooperation grounded in democracy.
Elena Lazarou, acting Head of Unit of the External Policies Unit of EPRS, presented the panel: Bruce Stokes, Visiting Senior Fellow, German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF); Sarah Paden, Vice-President and National Political Director, Progressive Policy Institute; Mark Strand, President of the Congressional Institute and former Chief of Staff to US Senator Jim Talent; and Leslie Vinjamuri, Director, US and Americas Programme, Chatham House. Elena Lazarou set the scene by summarising the reasons for Europeans’ focus on the US and on the mid-terms. Opening the panel discussion, she highlighted the great interest on this side of the Atlantic in US politics and in parliamentary cooperation with the US Congress.
Bruce Stokes emphasised that the US is an increasingly unstable democracy, since 10 of the last 12 elections resulted in a change of power in the White House, the House of Representatives or the Senate. He stressed that the US was deeply divided along party lines on almost every issue, including the economy, health care, violent crime, and climate change. Some 68 % of Democrats say that climate change is an important issue, but only 9 % of Republicans agree. Democrats want politicians to protect women’s rights, and abortion remains an important issue that may galvanise voters to vote Democrat, perhaps offsetting the Republican advantage in other voter segments. Importantly, 81 % of Democrats and 79 % of Republicans believe that the other party’s agenda would destroy America, another reflection of the deep polarisation of US society. As a result, Bruce Stokes concluded that building bridges in the new Congress could be extremely difficult. As for voter intentions, Republicans who previously trailed Democrats in national-level Congressional generic ballots that ask voters which party they would support in the election, have turned the page to lead these polls. A 26 October 2022 model suggests that Democrats would lose 20 to 30 House seats, enough for Republicans to take control. According to Bruce Stokes, the races in Georgia, Nevada and Pennsylvania will determine who will control the Senate.
Sarah Paden argued that what happens in the mid-terms is determinative of the 2024 presidential elections. She explained that state elections are important to US citizens when it comes to ‘bread and butter issues’ and that legislation is increasingly passed through state legislatures every year, in comparison to legislation passed by Congress. She focused on two developments: first, a new type of Republican candidate has emerged that is more extreme then Trump himself, with the new activist wing of the Republican Party becoming the mainstream, which has consequences for the political discourse. Second, a new breed of Republican election deniers have stoked very divisive rhetoric about the ‘stolen’ 2020 election and the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s presidency, are among the candidates for key roles in the US decentralised electoral system. Given the considerable latitude states have in the administration of elections, the success of election deniers could play a significant role in the next election cycle.
Mark Strand pointed out that, historically, the president’s party loses House seats in the mid-terms, adding that there were only two exceptions in recent history. In 2002, when George W. Bush won seats in the House after 9/11 and in 1998, when Republicans sought to impeach Bill Clinton and Democrats kept control of the House. He explained that this logic does not hold true for the Senate, since Senate races are more personality-driven. He stressed that Democrats currently hold a very narrow majority in the House and that the Senate is divided 50/50 with the Vice-President (who is also the president of the Senate) breaking the tie. Democrats only need to keep their 50 votes to maintain control of the Senate. Republicans, by contrast, would need to pick up one seat to flip the majority. In addition, Mark Strand indicated that Americans are quite comfortable with a divided government, since they are naturally suspicious of concentrated power. He added moreover that Americans are in a very angry place. It has been over 20 years since more people were satisfied with the way things are going in the country than it is today. According to the polls he presented, a majority of voters say that the government is corrupt and rigged against people like them and this sentiment is also shared by independent voters, who are most likely to determine the outcome of this election. Polls show that there is an immense polarisation between Democrats and Republicans, with both parties unwilling to work together, and cooperation even seen as a political danger. As a result, Mark Strand concluded that Americans are concerned about the future of democracy as a whole and believe that democracy is in danger of collapse.
Leslie Vinjamuri turned to foreign policy issues, arguing that the number one foreign policy issue is climate and that there is more bipartisanship on that than less. However, Donald Trump ensured that climate change and science remained fundamentally and deeply contested in significant and substantial parts of the Republican Party. According to Vinjamuri, although Europeans are worried about the competitive aspects of the Inflation Reduction Act, the law is a highly consequential achievement, including on climate. She argued that the mid-terms would not lead to a reversal of Biden’s climate policies, because Republicans would not gain the two-thirds majority required. However, a Republican majority in the House would lead to increased Republican oversight activities and provide a platform for rhetoric empowering climate denialism in a way that could be consequential in the run-up to the 2024 presidential elections. She argued that despite bipartisan consensus on China, if Republicans gain a majority in the House, the Biden administration’s two tracks – to compete and to cooperate with China – would become much more difficult to sustain, as Republicans would double-down on competition, turning the discourse into a more ideological one. On Russia, she posited that, if the Republicans gain a majority, there is a great chance that US support to Ukraine would decrease. However, US voters seem to support US aid to Ukraine and this would hold, especially if Russia continues to strike civilian targets in Ukraine.
Several questions were raised during the Q&A session related to the policy implications for transatlantic relations of a shift of power in the US Congress, on China, and on climate issues. Bruce Stokes argued that if Republicans gain control in Congress, President Biden could veto Republican-led legislation, enacted by both chambers. He added that the establishment of a Republican-led select committee on China could lead to a further deterioration of US-China relations and could impact the EU’s willingness to cooperate with the US on policies towards China. Moreover, Stokes reminded the audience that Republicans have also expressed their interest in investigating the dealings of Hunter Biden, Joe Biden’s son, with both China and Ukraine, which could have repercussions for Congressional approval of support for Ukraine.