Although the final tally of the US midterm elections will not be finalised until December, it is clear that the expected ‘red wave’ Republican victory failed to materialise and was more of a ripple. It seems likely that the Republican Party (the GOP) will retake a majority in the House of Representatives while the outcome of elections to the Senate is too close to call. This does not mean that these elections are of no consequence. They will have a significant impact both domestically and internationally. Moreover, they will not end the highly polarised situation which exists in the US. They may also have important repercussions for the 2024 presidential elections and, in particular, for the Republican Party and the future of Donald Trump.
Most commentators expected the Republicans to take a clean sweep and make major gains in the House of Representatives and possibly take control of the Senate. In addition, they expected that Trump supporters would make substantial gains in elections to key state positions, allowing them to shape future electoral laws, regulations and official results. Biden went into the elections claiming that the future of US ‘democracy’ was on the ballot but expecting major losses.
In the event, it seems likely that the Democrats will lose approximately 20 seats in the House of Representatives and possibly one or two in the Senate. This the Democrats are counting as a victory. Losses in the midterm elections by the party not in government are usual. Incumbent presidents’ parties have lost ground in 36 of the 39 midterm elections to have been held since the US civil war. However, the Democrats’ losses in this election are far less than those suffered by previously governing parties. In 1994 the Republicans gained 54 House seats against Bill Clinton and 63 against Barack Obama in 2010.
In Pennsylvania, Democrat John Fetterman won election to the Senate, turning previously Republican counties to the Democrats. Significantly he conducted a populist working-class orientated campaign taking up issues such as the minimum wage and health care.
Elections a blow to Trump
These elections were a blow to Trump who was looking to a big Republican win to launch his bid to win re-election in 2024. With typical Trump verbosity, he declared, “Well, I think if they (Republicans) win, I should get all the credit. If they lose, I should not be blamed at all.”
In fact, those candidates endorsed by Trump fared worse than the average Republican, including Doug Mastriano for Governor and Mehmet Oz for the Senate in Pennsylvania, and Daniel Cox who ran for Governor in Maryland.
The cost of living crisis, the economy and inflation were key issues for most who voted in the elections. However, according to exit polls, 27% also viewed the question of defending abortion rights as a key question. There was a much higher turnout of women and younger voters than in most recent elections. The polarised situation was reflected in the second highest turnout for fifty years in midterm elections. Significantly in Kentucky, a conservative bastion and home to Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell, an amendment from the ruling Republicans to the state constitution giving no right to abortion was rejected. Democrats and their allies spent $450 million on ads supporting abortion rights. Had the Supreme Court not ruled against Roe v Wade in June the outcome of the election may have been different and possibly resulted in a lower turnout and bigger Republican gains.
In some Democrat strongholds like New York the Republican candidates often ignored the abortion issue or said they would not attempt to amend state law where abortions are permitted.
The whip of counterrevolution saved the Democrats from even bigger losses, as the choice before many voters was between far-right extremist MAGA (Make America Great Again) pro-Trump candidates and an unpopular Democratic President, who has defended the interests of capitalism and is presiding over an economic crisis, spiralling inflation and cuts to living standards. Millions rallied to the banner of ‘lesser evilism’ for fear of what the alternative would bring.
The capitalist Democrats featured abortion and the threat to ‘democracy’ but failed to offer any programme of significance taking up the class and social issues. The ‘left’ of the Democrats capitulated to Biden and the Democratic leadership under the guise of lesser evilism and the need to defeat the Republicans and Trump, but failed to put forward an independent position. Sanders, hunkered down and acted as a “left” cover for the Democratic Party establishment. In New York where the Democrats suffered losses Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez attacked the local Democratic Party leadership for attacking the “left” but has failed to advocate or build an alternative to the Democratic Party.
However, these elections do not signify the end of the polarisation in the US. At the time of writing at least 210 Republicans who question Biden’s legitimacy as President have won seats in the House and the Senate or state elections for governor, secretary of state and attorney general. Further clashes are inevitable especially as the US economic situation worsens and living standards are attacked further.
At the same time splits and divisions within the Republican Party are already opening up. Alongside opposition from the more traditional conservatives Trump can be challenged by competitors from the populist right. He has alienated a section of the base of the GOP which is beginning to search for an alternative standard bearer. Ron DeSantis, re-elected Governor of Florida taking nearly 60% of the vote, is a potential Trump challenger. In Florida he increased his vote amongst Latinos, even winning former Democratic areas.
Ridiculed as “DeSanctimonious” by Trump, he is evidently seen by him as a potential threat. DeSantis’s right-wing populism is not a turn to ‘moderation’ by the Republicans. Yet his less erratic conduct can make him potentially a more dangerous right-wing Republican threat. The highly polarised situation in the US and divisions within both parties are set to intensify following these elections.
Political and social polarisation to deepen
The Democrats and Biden are celebrating the fact that they did not suffer even greater losses. However, this will not resolve the depth of the political and social crisis they and US society face. Even a limited Republican victory in the House of Representatives will allow the Republicans to torpedo much of Biden’s agenda. The investigation into the 6 January attempt by Trump supporters to overturn the election result in 2020 could be scrapped together with other legislative proposals from Biden’s administration. They may also attempt to reduce the US commitment to fighting the war in Ukraine. A battle is likely over the debt ceiling which will have a crucial impact on the economic situation in the US and potentially on the global economy. Biden’s regime is poised to begin a ‘lame duck’ Presidency for the next two years. This at a time of deepening economic, political and social crisis in the US and internationally.
The prospect of a deepening economic recession in the US, together with the war in Ukraine and the sharpening conflict between US imperialism and China, will be reflected in increased turmoil, clashes and division between the capitalist Democrats and Republicans but also within both parties.
A “lame duck” presidency under Biden can also lead to further trade union and other crucial social struggles erupting as little is to be expected from Washington in the next two years.
The Biden presidency has seen falling approval ratings as his regime has failed to offer decisive measures that resolve the economic and social crisis facing US workers, the poor and middle class. It was partially saved in these elections by the backlash from abortion rights being attacked and threats posed by a potential Republican sweeping victory.
The Democrats offer no way forward for the working people of the US. At the same time, they are not able to confront and offer a real alternative to the MAGA Trumpistas or the DeSantis right of the Republican Party. The need for a new party of the US working class that can offer an alternative to both capitalist parties and the system they represent is more urgent than ever. The impending struggles that are poised to erupt in the US in the coming years offer the opportunity to build such a party. Unfortunately, previous opportunities to do this have been lost by Bernie Sanders and others who remained within the Democrats. New opportunities that will arise must not be lost again. The need for such a party is now more urgent than ever.