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November 4, 2022 / Riskline Informer

Consequential US midterm elections highlight pandemic fallout and partisan rancor

Since the storming of the United States (US) Capitol on 6 January 2021, right-wing extremists have doubled down on election conspiracies and violent rhetoric against election workers. These actors see the 8 November 2022 midterm elections as a testbed.

By Paul Mutter

Introduction

It did not take long after the second failed impeachment of former President Donald Trump for inciting the 6 January 2021 US Capitol riot for the national Republican Party apparatus to realign itself with the former president. At the level of the state parties, the alignment was already stronger and has become only stronger since.

Election denial has become an animating feature of the party, a litmus test for candidates seeking the former president’s endorsement; the most prominent dissenters within the party have been censured and primaried out at the state and federal levels. Now, openly refuting the “stolen election” narrative brings ostracism and, increasingly, violent threats. Threats against election officials, whether non-partisan, Democratic or Republican, have skyrocketed and driven hundreds of election workers into early retirement.

These retirements jeopardize the efficient running of elections, which translates into even further violent rhetoric and loss of public confidence as mistakes and delays are amplified into elaborate conspiracy theories and demonizing the opposing side. Multiple states have attempted to institute more restrictive voting practices, in a vain attempt to appease election denialists; the measures enacted are never enough. Worse, far-right groups feel emboldened to station armed “observers” near ballot drop boxes and file frivolous, time-consuming lawsuits simply to intimidate and degrade public trust in elections.

To date, only the former president’s claims of fraud surrounding his own electoral loss in 2020 have held strong with his supporters. Hundreds of local and state elections have taken place since 2020, and while many far-right candidates have echoed his claims of fraud in their own defeats, none of these drove these candidates’ supporters to engage in violent protest to overturn the official results, unlike in Washington, D.C. in 2021.

In advance of the upcoming local and state elections, far-right candidates have again advanced these claims, but the response may be different, and worse, this cycle. Here, the former president is putting his own resources and megaphone behind such claims. Key legal battles prepared by a large, well-funded network operating across key states where margins of victory are expected to be close, namely, Florida, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Nevada and Arizona, intend to see how far they can go ahead of the 2024 presidential election, when former president Trump is expected to run again against incumbent President Joe Biden.

Powder Keg

All of this, however, flies below the radar of the majority of voters. Rising inflation, the result of the continued fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic and the energy crunch caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, has led to skyrocketing consumer costs and unsettling fluctuations in food, fuel, housing and consumer goods prices.

These pocketbook issues continue to dominate the discourse, and historically, voters punish the party in power over such things; the perception of higher crime rates, another hangover of COVID-19, also acts as an albatross around the necks of incumbents. Indeed, this is a global phenomenon, with voters punishing incumbents over record-high inflation all across Europe and the Americas as well. COVID-19 pandemic restrictions have become less salient than they were in 2021, though, as almost none remain anywhere in the world.

However, the continuing relevance of other high-profile issues, such as a controversial Supreme Court ruling, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, that severely limited abortion access, has created a strange dynamic. For example, pro-choice candidates are exceeding their poll numbers in areas where abortion rights are insecure, while pro-choice candidates are failing to reach their poll numbers in areas where abortion rights are more secure.

The dynamic has upended multiple referenda and special elections across the country since the ruling, suggesting that in defiance of past trends, the incumbent Democratic Party may yet hold onto both chambers of Congress. This said, the majority of polling indicates that Republicans are more than likely to seize the House of Representatives and are in a dead heat to retake the Senate. An expanded Senate majority for Democrats is at least as likely as losing the chamber to the Republicans currently in the minority, who are running on the promise of conducting numerous investigations into President Biden, his administration and his family.

Even more consequential than these electoral challenges looking forward to 2024, however, is the threat of major economic disruptions should the Republican Party win one or both chambers of Congress. Republicans are threatening to hold raising the debt limit to entitlement reform; cutting such programs as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. This is an extremely unpopular position, but by actually taking the debt limit hostage, which Republicans only threatened to do in 2011 and 2013, party leaders hope and believe that President Biden will cave.

For his part, President Biden has refused to even consider such cuts to social welfare spending, setting up the possibility for a major showdown unless the Democratic-controlled Congress is able to resolve the issue during the lame duck period between November and January 2023. Such showdowns, then, will be the norm for at least the next two years, on any number of issues, if either chamber changes hands, leaving the federal government even more divided and rancorous going into the next round of elections in 2024.

Summary

With the possibility of a Republican or Democratic upset in the 2022 midterm elections about even, the path forward for the increasingly divided country is unclear as the struggle to establish a new post-COVID-19 “normalcy” continues.

Paul Mutter is our US-based Head of Global Coverage.

Foresight 2023
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