In recent years, midterm elections (national elections where the president is not on the ballot) have served as a referendum on the performance of the incumbent president. This fact does not bode well for Democrats in November 2022. President Biden’s approval ratings are in the mid to low 30’s, the kind of approval ratings that could presage a red wave. While it is true that six months can be an eternity in political time, and that the political dynamics in November could differ greatly from the political dynamics this spring, history provides evidence that such dramatic reversals of partisan fate are rare. Only twice in the past thirty years has the party out of power failed to pick up seats in the midterm elections (1998,2002) and with Democrats holding only a narrow five-seat advantage in the House of Representatives, the likelihood that Republicans will take the House this fall hovers in the range of near-certainty. Even optimistic economists don’t expect inflation to abate between now and November; unprecedented waves of migrants will be illegally crossing our southern border with or without Rule 42 (although the surge will be much greater if Rule 42 is rescinded); and crime rates are up in many categories. None of these trends favor Democrats.
Even in the Senate, where Democrats have fewer seats to defend (14) than Republicans (20) and therefore can channel more resources to endangered incumbents, pundits rate Democratic prospects for retaining the majority as a toss-up. Democrats have additional factors working in their favor in the Senate races. For one, Republicans are retiring in 5 of the 20 races they are defending, and open seats deprive Republicans of an incumbency advantage and lead to more competitive elections. Only 1 of the 14 races Democrats are defending is an open seat. Patrick Leahy from Vermont is retiring, but in a decidedly Democratic state like Vermont, one would expect Leahy’s replacement to be a Democrat. Moreover, Mitch McConnell’s efforts to recruit electable Republican nominees to run in the Republican primaries fell short in some cases. Larry Hogan, governor of Maryland, declined to run for the senate seat currently held by Chris Van Hollen; and Doug Ducey, governor of Arizona, similarly declined to challenge Democratic incumbent Mark Kelly. If a less-electable Republican candidate emerges from the primaries, this will favor Democratic incumbents attempting to stave off political defeat in a toxic political environment. Democrats can still have modest hopes of retaining majority status in the Senate, and majority control of the Senate will be essential if Biden is to continue confirming new judges to the federal bench; but the overwhelming likelihood is that we will have some form of divided government over the next two years. Further attempts to pass BBB (Build Back Better) will be DOA (Dead On Arrival) in the new Congress.
Individual races for House and Senate seats will still offer political drama, but the broader contours of this electoral cycle seem baked-in. What is by no means certain is what kind of Republican Party will return to partial power this fall. In the long run the outcomes of Republican primaries taking place between now and late summer will go far to answer this question, and the results will be consequential not only for the next two years of the Biden presidency, but also for the Republican presidential nomination race in 2024.
Donald Trump is playing the role of king-maker in many Republican primaries, and his success or failure in this endeavor may determine his fate in 2024. If most candidates blessed by Trump emerge victorious in Republican primaries, Trump will further cement his control over the party. If Trump designated candidates fall short across the board, Trump’s aura of invincibility will be punctured and Trump’s return road to the White House will be far steeper. This outcome would encourage potential Republican rivals to challenge Trump if he seeks the nomination in 2024, a prospect many consider likely. If Trump’s endorsements produced mixed results, the implications will be murkier, but such an outcome will demonstrate that Trump’s endorsement is not an essential ingredient for electoral success in the Republican Party. Trump’s endorsement strategy is a risky gamble by the ex-president, and the down-sides of his choice to play kingmaker are already visible.
The most prominent Trump endorsements demonstrate his vindictive nature. Like Richard Nixon, Trump has an enemies list. He endorsed David Perdue in Georgia’s governor’s race because the incumbent seeking reelection, Brian Kemp, certified a Biden victory in Georgia in the 2020 presidential race despite Trump’s pleas (on a recorded phone conversation) that “find” an additional 11,800 votes. Brad Raffensperger (GA Secretary of State) and Brian Kemp’s steadfast refusal to change the election results to favor Trump earned them Trump’s enmity. Currently Kemp leads Perdue by roughly 10% in polling, but Perdue is hoping the Trump endorsement has not yet registered with voters. The primary is May 24th, with a possible runoff on June 21st.
Another Trump endorsement is Kelly Tshibaka for the Alaska Senate seat held by Lisa Murkowski, who is seeking reelection for a 4th term. Murkowski committed the unpardonable sin of voting for conviction during Trump’s second impeachment. New electoral rules in Alaska providing for a non-partisan blanket primary and ranked-choice voting to choose among the top four vote-getters in the blanket primary should favor Murkoswki. In addition, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is channeling seven million dollars from the Senate Campaign to Murkowski’s reelection, setting up an intra-Republican conflict between McConnell and Trump, with the showdown on August 16th.
In Pennsylvania, Trump has endorsed Dr. Oz in the election to replace Senator Pat Toomey, who is retiring. This is Trump’s second endorsement, since his first endorsement, Sean Parnell, had to withdraw from the race due to allegations of abuse in a messy divorce proceeding. The original Parnell endorsement is not the only Trump decision that has misfired. Mo Brooks, an Alabama Republican representative who supported Trump’s attempt to block the certification of the election on January 6th, decided to run for the Senate in this electoral cycle and quickly garnered Trump’s endorsement, only to lose it when his campaign floundered and he fell behind in the polls. In Ohio, Trump recently endorse J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy, after Vance repented of past criticisms of Trump and embraced the MAGA movement. Vance shot up in the polls after Trump’s endorsement, but whether that boost will persist till the May 3rd primary remains to be seen.
The endorsement that might be nearest and dearest to Trump is Harriet Hageman, who is running for the House in Wyoming, challenging incumbent Liz Cheney. Chaney’s outspoken condemnation of Trump’s lies about the purportedly stolen 2020 presidential election, her willingness to vote for Trump’s second impeachment, and her leadership role on the congressional committee investigating the events of January 6th all make her an anathema to Trump. While Cheney has become a heroine to Never Trump Republicans, her ability to win a Republican primary in Wyoming given Trump’s opposition remains in doubt.
These aforementioned elections are only a few of the races with Trump-endorsed candidates. Not only has Trump weighed in on high profile gubernatorial, senate and house elections, he has extended his outreach to state elections for Secretary of State (at the state level, Secretaries of State are usually responsible for overseeing elections), individual state legislators, and even county level officials. The breadth of Trump endorsements may ironically dilute his influence over the future of the Republican Party.
Trump’s attempt to purge the GOP of opponents is reminiscent of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Democratic Party purge in 1938, a rare political overreach by FDR that led to a backlash among Democratic voters who resented the president’s intrusion in what they considered matters of local concern. Had it not been for the rise of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan shifting the focus of the American electorate from domestic to foreign policy concerns, FDR’s political career might have been over following his failed party purge. The question that looms today is whether Trump’s endorsement strategy will succeed or fail. If it fails, his lock on the Republican nomination for 2024 will vanish. Only time will tell, but we will know long before the first votes are cast in midterm elections.