Control of Congress and key governorships are at stake in midterm elections

Republicans are favored to occupy at least one chamber of Congress and shift the balance of power in Washington as voters head to the polls in the country’s first major test of democracy since the Jan. 6, 2021 uprising.

Democrats hope concerns about democracy and abortion rights will help them maintain their 50-50 control of the Senate and also win several key gubernatorial elections. But Republicans are optimistic that inflation, crime and other everyday concerns coupled with President Biden’s low approval ratings will give their party an edge.

History and opinion polls favor Republicans, particularly in the House of Representatives, where Democrats currently hold 220 seats, just two more than the 218 needed for a majority. In midterm elections since World War II, the president’s party has almost always lost seats.

A Republican victory would likely give Rep. Kevin McCarthy, a Bakersfield Republican who now serves as minority leader, the speaking post he has coveted for years. It would almost certainly end the political career of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), one of the most momentous speakers in history.

Election forecasters assume that the Republicans will probably get between 12 and 30 seats in the House of Representatives – a comparatively small yield by historical standards, but more than enough for a majority. A bigger win is possible: In the final weeks of the election season, GOP campaign committees have poured money into races in blue states like California and New York, putting Democrats on defense in an area where Biden had won solidly two years earlier.

But some Democratic incumbents in battleground or Red states appear to be stronger in areas the president narrowly won, like Kansas’ Rep. Sharice Davids and Michigan’s Rep. Dan Kildee.

“This is a very unique cycle,” said David Wasserman, a congressional forecaster for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “It’s not an anti-incumbent election. It’s a split screen ‘red state versus blue state’.”

The two parties are virtually deadlocked in the general congressional vote, with voters favoring the Republicans by a point in the latest poll average.

The Senate, where Democrats will hold the crucial vote with Vice President Kamala Harris, is harder to predict. That’s largely because several candidates who have won Republican nominations as a result of supporting former President Trump and his supporters have struggled to gain an advantage over potentially vulnerable Democratic incumbents.

In Georgia, for example, former soccer star Herschel Walker was in a close race with incumbent Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock. Arizona tech investor Blake Masters has consistently outperformed incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly, though the race has remained close. And in New Hampshire, retired Army General Don Bolduc has always trailed Democratic Senator Maggie Hassan.

In Pennsylvania, Mehmet Oz, a Republican and well-known former TV personality who won Trump’s support, trailed his Democratic opponent, Lt. gov. John Fetterman, but the race has gotten closer as the election approaches.

Another Senate marquee race is taking place in Nevada, where Senator Catherine Cortez Masto faces a powerful challenge from the former prosecutor. Gen. Adam Laxalt.

The election comes just days after an attack on Paul Pelosi, the Speaker’s husband, fueled fears of more widespread political violence. Trump continues to spread the lie that he won the 2020 election. He has promoted candidates who have helped him reinforce that rhetoric and, in many cases, has promised to change state and local electoral rules. Even before Tuesday’s elections, several states passed more restrictive election laws and saw local election officials replaced by ballot deniers.

According to a tally by the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank, more than 340 candidates championing Trump’s bogus electoral conspiracies are on the ballot for federal, state and local offices. That includes contenders for governor and secretary of state in Arizona and Michigan, who could upend the way elections are conducted in key battleground states for the 2024 presidential election.

Elaine Kamarck, a longtime Democratic strategist who is now a Brookings Fellow, said the refusers run on platforms that vary in their potential disruption.

“If you change your early voting dates from 10 days to 5 days, I don’t think it will do terribly harm to our democracy,” Kamarck said. Even more troubling, she said, “are the changes in who gets to certify elections and the politicization of election authentication.”

But even as Biden has repeatedly argued that democracy is at stake, he has not been welcomed onto the campaign trail in some of the toughest races by Democrats. Many voters blame him for the country’s high inflation, which was most visible at the pump for much of the year.

Democrats attempted to address the nation’s purse scare by dubbing their legislative achievement of the year the “Inflation Reduction Act.” But the branding doesn’t seem to have helped, in part because the various stipulations — which included investments in clean energy to combat climate change and efforts to lower prescription drug costs for Medicare patients — didn’t immediately take a toll on rising prices.

“If you call it that, you better hope inflation gets cut or you’ll wear it. And now they’re going to wear it,” said Scott Jennings, a Republican strategist and former adviser to GOP Senate Chairman Mitch McConnell.

A loss of control of one of the chambers of Congress could severely jeopardize Biden’s agenda. Many Republicans say they plan to probe him and his cabinet secretaries, and some have threatened impeachment. McCarthy has also proposed cutting aid to Ukraine.

Losing control of the Senate would mean Biden could no longer count on confirmation of his appointment to federal courts and executive agencies.

Republican control of the House would likely strengthen McCarthy, but his influence over a potential speakership may be weak given his party’s internal divisions. Lawmakers like Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, whose conspiratorial rhetoric once marginalized her, may see their influence heightened as McCarthy seeks to thwart internal revolts. That increases the potential for a return to the brink, risking further government shutdowns and potential defaults on the nation’s debt.

Congress will soon have to raise the national debt ceiling — a move that is routine but always politically explosive. Unless the debt limit is raised, the federal government risks defaulting on its obligations, a move that could cause financial chaos.

House Republicans increasingly appear to be trying to use the debt ceiling to extort concessions from Democrats, possibly including cuts to Social Security and Medicare.

Democrats could use the lame duck’s session until January, when a new Congress is sworn in, to stave off some of the fighting.

“Some of what the medium-term implications for the president mean will depend in part on how large the House majority is for Republicans,” said John Hudak, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution.

“If the majority in the House of Representatives is 15 or 20 seats…it’s going to be difficult,” Hudak said. “He’s under endless investigation, they’re going to pass a lot of legislation that he has to veto, and so on. But if the majority in the House of Representatives is smaller, in the single digits, I think the chances of Republicans speaking with one voice will be pretty limited.”

Even if Republicans control both houses of Congress, they will hardly be able to pass major legislation of their own except in situations where a mandatory measure like the debt ceiling gives them leverage. The House of Representatives is more conservative than the Senate and could pass legislation without the support of Democrats. But Senate rules require 60 votes for most actions, and Republicans almost certainly won’t get close to that number. Plus Biden still has a veto pin.

Many presidents have weathered large midterm losses and are coming back to win second terms, in part by campaigning against opposition party obstinacy. But a big loss could put even more pressure on Biden, the oldest president in history, who turns 80 this month, to forego a re-election campaign. He has said repeatedly that he is seeking re-election.

Pelosi has remained mom when it comes to her future, and it’s unclear if — or how — attacking her husband would affect her decision on whether to retire or seek to lead House Democrats for another term.

If this term is Pelosi’s last, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) is on the list of potential successors as Democratic leader, but Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (DN.Y.) has long been considered the most likely choice. Schiff could also choose to run for the Senate in 2024, with Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) unlikely to seek re-election.

Times Contributor Seema Mehta in Los Angeles contributed to this report. Control of Congress and key governorships are at stake in midterm elections

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