For better or for worse, elections have consequences. That has now been proven yet again, even though the federal government is experiencing some of the slimmest partisan margins in its history.
With former President Trump still in the background, the Biden administration quickly set out with a wide-ranging agenda to implement its vision for America. However, much of this has been stalled with the COVID-19 pandemic still with us and its continuous viral variants, an economy expanding amid inflation and foreign policy challenges that seem to present themselves daily.
Welcome to 2022, a mid-term election year that may even eclipse the 2020 presidential election when it comes to intensity.
Much is on the line as the Biden administration and Congressional Democrats try to pass their agenda. Democratic legislators attempted to pass the Build Back Better (BBB) social infrastructure plan in order to make good on their promises to voters. The bill failed in December when Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) announced that he could not vote for the legislation due to its high regulatory and tax burden, at time when inflation was on the rise.
While President Biden was able to gain initial legislative victories with the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan and the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the bipartisan spirit in Congress quickly waned, as Republicans recoiled against using budget reconciliation as a vehicle for the sum total of Democrats’ spending priorities, as well as their public policy vows to voters during the 2020 elections.
Democrats in Congress continue to operate with razor-thin majorities. The House is currently made up of 222 Democrats and 212 Republicans (with two vacancies, Former Rep. Devin Nunes [R-CA] and the late Rep. Jim Hagedorn [R-MN]). Under House rules, a tie vote is considered a defeat, so Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) can only afford to lose four of her members on any vote. The 117th Congress also started off with a 50-50 Democratic/Republican split in the Senate, with Democrats controlling the chamber due to Vice President Kamala Harris also serving in her constitutional role as president of the Senate in breaking tie votes.
With war in Europe, runaway inflation and cratering consumer confidence levels, Congress took a massive step in early March and finally passed a budget. The $1.5 trillion package will get the federal government through to the end of this fiscal year, which ends on Sept. 30. A massive, 2,741-page bill – the omnibus legislation doled out the pork and represented the triumphant return of earmarks (which had not been used in more than 10 years), with more than 4,000 of them sending money to pet projects across the country, and may help contribute to goodwill with voters in November.
Since most of the recent partisan skirmishes over the debt ceiling have been postponed until early 2023, the focus of the Speaker and Majority Leader will be to pass whatever components of Build Back Better they can before recess. These legislative efforts are expected to include lowering prescription drugs, addressing inflation, increasing competition in agribusiness, as well as other Democratic priorities.
Congress is hoping to institute a short calendar this year to allow official business to be wrapped up early, so incumbents can be allowed to return to their districts.
On the political front, Republicans are enthusiastic about their chances in November. While President Biden received an initial boost to his approval after his state of the union address, his numbers have reset a bit since then. At the time of writing, the average of recent polls in early March, shows the President at 43% Approve – 53% Disapprove. His numbers have been underwater since early August and have not recovered in the interim.
In addition, Republicans are leading the generic Congressional ballot by 3% and voters (by a margin of 62%-29%) believe the country is on the wrong track. Add voter discontent on a myriad of issues such as inflation, crime and foreign policy – it does not portend well for the Democrats in power.
Traditionally, midterm elections are representative of “buyer’s remorse” for the voters. Many times, the political party occupying the White House bares the brunt of the electorate. As a result, Republicans will look to past elections in 1994 (where they picked up 54 seats in the House and 10 seats in the Senate) and 2010 (when they won 63 seats in the House and 6 seats in the Senate), winning control of the legislative branch, when there was a Democrat in the White House. While historic performance brightens the outlook for Republicans, it does not tell the entire tale.
In 2022, all 50 states entered a redistricting phase based on the results of the 2020 census. This means the districts of all 435 seats in the House have been redrawn going into the midterm election. At the time of writing, these maps have helped contribute to the retirements of 31 Democrats and 16 Republicans in the House, guaranteeing that 11% of its membership will be represented by new faces, even before the first vote is cast. While the Senate does not have to contend with redistricting, five Republicans and one Democrat have announced their retirements, providing that 12% of the chamber will be represented by new senators.
Back to the districts — gerrymandering is the time-honored craft of drawing districts to benefit one party over the other. Republicans do it. Democrats do it. Both will insinuate that only the other party does it. At the time of writing, all but five states have completed their redistricting process. Florida, Louisiana, Missouri, New Hampshire and Ohio are the only states left. Currently:
Florida: The legislature has adjourned, and Gov. DeSantis (R) has indicated that he will veto the map that is on his way to him.
Louisiana: Governor John Bel Edwards (D) vetoed his state’s new Congressional map based on concerns that only one Black-majority would remain in a state where one-third of citizens are Black. A lawsuit has been filed asking state courts to draw a new map.
Missouri: The Missouri House passed a new Congressional map in January, but it has been stuck in the Senate ever since. In the meantime, a Republican Congressional candidate has filed a lawsuit that attempts to get lawmakers engaged in passing a new map.
Ohio: In Ohio, a decision is being weighed by the state’s Supreme Court as to whether the latest redistricting plan stands up to legal muster. Ohio is running out of time to keep its May 3 primary on track, as ballot names need to be set in the coming days.
At this point, the battle for the Senate continues to be a focal point, given the national political dynamics, combined with a few Republican retirements in swing states.
The Senate races to watch:
Arizona: Sen. Mark Kelly (D) will be facing re-election just two years after he defeated Sen. Martha McSally (R) to complete the unexpired term of the late Sen. John McCain (R). In an unusual development for normally Republican-leaning Arizona, the state is now represented in the Senate by two Democrats (the first time since the early 1950s), Sen. Kelly and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema. Some pundits see an opportunity for a course correction, even though Sen. Kelly, a former astronaut and husband of retired Democratic Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, is the strongest candidate Arizona Democrats have had for the seat in some time. While the Republican nominee won’t be decided until Aug. 2, candidates include current Attorney General Mark Brnovich, businessman Jim Lamon, Thiel Foundation CEO Blake Masters and Arizona Corporation Commission member Justin Olson.
Georgia: Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) will find himself in a similar situation as his colleague from Arizona, having won a Senate seat in a special election from a Republican appointee. Sen. Warnock defeated former Sen. Kelly Loeffler (who was appointed to serve the remainder of retired Sen. Johnny Isakson’s [R-GA] term), 51-49, in one of the most expensive races in history – with Sen. Warnock raising $138 million for his campaign.
The historic victory essentially handed control of the Senate to Democrats. In 2022, Sen. Warnock’s seat will again be a priority for Republicans. Former football great Herschel Walker, Atlanta construction executive and Air Force veteran Kelvin King and banking executive/former Navy SEAL Latham Saddler have all announced their candidacies, with a total of seven now in the GOP primary. This race, along with the re-election effort of Republican Governor Brian Kemp facing off against former Sen. David Perdue in the primary and 2018 Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams, will put Georgia back at the epicenter of American politics in 2022.
Ohio: The race to succeed retiring Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) has clearly been one to watch. There are no less than seven Republicans vying for the nomination in the Buckeye State. The current candidates include former Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel, Attorney and Hill Billy Elegy author J.D. Vance, former Ohio GOP Chair Jane Timken, State Senator Matt Dolan, and businessman Mike Gibbons. There has been a lot of attention on those seeking the endorsement of former President Donald Trump to help break away from the rest of the pack, which in a recent survey by Trump pollster Tony Fabrzio, shows that J.D. Vance could rise to the top, should he receive it. Recently, Jane Timken has received significant endorsements from Sens. Joni Ernst (R-IA), Deb Fischer (R-NE) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV). On the Democratic side, Rep. Tim Ryan and attorney Morgan Harper are locked into a primary battle for the nomination.
Pennsylvania: In this 2022 bellwether Senate race to elect retiring Sen. Pat Toomey’s (R) successor, Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman led all candidates in the fourth quarter with $2.7 million raised ($5.3 million on hand), followed by Rep. Conor Lamb (D) with $1.355 million ($3.0 million on hand) and Republican Dr. Mehmet Oz with $669,000 raised (he has also personally loaned his campaign $5.2 million) in the top three. A few weeks ago, hedge fund executive David McCormick announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination. While he did not have to report his fundraising numbers, McCormick has already bought $4.2 million in television airtime, while Dr. Oz has bought $7.6 million. This race for this seat will be incredibly expensive and hard fought – on both sides of the aisle.
Wisconsin: Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) made the long-awaited announcement that he will seek re-election to a third term in America’s Dairyland. Sen. Johnson said that he would only serve two terms when he was first elected in 2010, defeating well-known Democratic incumbent Russ Feingold. While Sen. Johnson is the only current statewide Republican in Wisconsin, it is a state that has become increasingly red in federal elections over the last few cycles. Former President Donald Trump won the state by 0.7% in 2016 and lost it in 2020 by 0.6%. This will be a battleground election in 2022.
Last cycle, Democrats were able to exact some key upsets in the Senate and play a fair bit of defense in the House to hold control over Congress while winning the White House. However, this has not delivered the policy victories they would have liked.
In 2022, with the anticipation that Republicans will make additional gains and win control of Congress, Democrats will have to pass as many priorities as they can before January. Should Republicans take both chambers, this will significantly change the political dynamic in working with President Biden. The president may tap his four decades in the Senate to find compromise with the new majority to get things done.
As more incumbents announce their retirements, this could result in their replacements being more ideological and less willing to compromise, causing additional challenges for their respective party’s leadership. From a purely political standpoint, the 2022 cycle should be one of the most exciting in recent memory – and another historic one for the history books.