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Inflation, fears about democracy driving 2022 midterm wave

Most pundits agree Democrats will lose control of the House in November. But the GOP's road to take the Senate as well is filled with potholes — namely inexperienced candidates.

(CN) — Election Day is less than two weeks away, and the campaign ads and awkward family debates continue to dog voters. But unlike typical midterms elections, topics like abortion and inflation make it increasingly difficult to tell whether Congress will head in favor of Republicans, Democrats or both.

“If this were a conventional election cycle, that would be very bad news for Democrats who have a lot of voter anxiety, polls show, with respect to the economy and inflation,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a professor of political science and international affairs at the University of Mary Washington.

Indeed, polls indicate the economy and inflation are at the forefront of voters’ minds this year, with inflation up 8.2% through September according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

To combat the spike, the Federal Reserve has steadily raised interest rates to the highest levels since 2008, hoping to quell inflation by making it costlier to spend with a mortgage or loan. However, inflation has continued upward despite rising interest rates, and Wall Street has taken a beating as a result.

But while Republicans have the upper hand with voters when it comes to the economy, certain U.S. Senate races could make it hard for the GOP to sweep both chambers.

“I think it's clear that Republicans have not necessarily nominated the best choice they could have had,” Farnsworth said, noting first-time candidates like television host Dr. Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania and former football running back Hershel Walker in Georgia.

“More experienced candidates, candidates with less baggage would have been more helpful to Republicans,” Farnsworth said.

Wilfred Codrington, a law professor at Brooklyn Law School, shares similar sentiments for different candidates.

“I do think that Republicans are revealing themselves to have another tough election where the environment otherwise might be favorable to them,” he said of the GOP’s Senate candidates. “They have poor quality of candidates. So, for example, I don't think J.D. Vance is really ahead like he should be based on voter behavior and voter beliefs in Ohio. He should have a much larger lead than over Tim Ryan.”

But in the House of Representatives, Codrington sees things going the Republicans' way.

“I'm not confident that the Democrats will retain the House and I think that there's some element to this that it might be the economy and the fact that midterm elections tend to go against the incumbent president's party,” he said.

According to a recent poll from Monmouth University, the Republican party has a slight edge to control Congress, with 40% of Americans saying they want the GOP in control versus the 35% who prefer Democrats. This contrasts with Monmouth’s August poll following the U.S. Supreme Court’s gut of Roe v. Wade, when 38% of voters said they wanted Democrats in charge and only 34% preferred Republicans.

Other polls suggest Americans are more divided when it comes to Congress. According to the Pew Research Center, 41% of voters say they favor Democratic candidates in their districts, while 40% support Republicans. Should Republicans win both House and Senate, one expert warns it could spell trouble for the Biden administration down the line.

“It's consequential because when the House goes to the Republicans, which seems likely, item No. 1, they're going to start investigating Joe Biden, his son [and] probably voting out an impeachment,” said Carl Luna, director of the Institute for Civil Civic Engagement at the University of San Diego. Luna also predicts an attempted national ban on abortion, budget stalemates and the possibility of defunding aid to Ukraine.

“The incoming potential speaker Kevin McCarthy said that he's going to be looking very closely at continuing, he said, blank-check policy in Ukraine,” Luna said. “And that could have huge geopolitical implications.”

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Experts also say reproductive rights may come into play with voters.

“I think this is a pretty straightforward election,” said David Dulio, a political science professor from Oakland University. “The economy is always going to be a top of the list issue for a lot of voters, but the Supreme Court's decision in the Dobbs case injected abortion into that conversation for many, many Americans.”

Since the Supreme Court overruled the right to an abortion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, over a dozen states including TexasIdahoFlorida and South Dakota have banned or restricted the procedure. But while some judges are blocking near-total bans, certain states are looking to strengthen the right to abortion through their constitutions. 

California’s ballot will include an amendment to the state Constitution to redefine reproductive freedom to include the right to have an abortion and use contraceptives. Michigan, Vermont and Kentucky are making similar moves, while on the other side of the issue Montanans will vote on a measure to define infants born at any stage of development as legal persons requiring medical attention.

The Pew and Monmouth polls suggest other topics are at the forefront of voter minds, including the future of democracy in the U.S.

As a result of the 2020 election, voting policy changes have made it on to seven states' ballots seeking to either change voter requirements or make voting more accessible.

Connecticut will vote on a constitutional amendment to allow no-excuse early voting. Michigan may adopt a constitutional proposal to allow nine days of early voting, the provision of prepaid return envelopes and more. 

Such measures stand in stark contrast to voting restrictions implemented in Texas and Georgia last year, The Lone Star State banned drive-thru voting and 24-hour voting centers, and Georgia restricted access to drop boxes in counties that happened to have the highest number of Democrats and voters of color.

“I don't think that this is one of these elections where it feels like Donald Trump is on the ballot or voters are sort of voting against Trump,” Codrington said. “But there are a number of candidates who are embracing Trumpism and election denying and explaining that they're not going to accept the legitimacy of an outcome if they lose. And it has been a redistricting year, so I think a lot of concerns about the viability and the openness of democracy are driving voters.”

Luna agreed, pointing to an increase of organized groups pushing for poll watching, some who already don’t trust the outcome of the 2022 elections. As such, he says some states could wait as long as January to see final election results.

“For some, this is going to be proof of concept of how to disrupt the 2024 election,” Luna said. “So, while everybody's voting their immediate concerns of high gas prices and pocketbook, they really should keep a better eye on what's going on around our democracy. Because what does it gain a man to get $3 a gallon gasoline, but to end up without a democracy that works?”

But while voters across the political spectrum are worried about democracy, polls indicate they also worry about crime — particularly conservative voters.

Maye Henning, a professor of American politics at the University of Portland, sees the emphasis on crime or illegal immigration as a campaign strategy for GOP candidates to win over some voters. “It's possible that this is part of a campaign strategy to take the emphasis off of abortion where many Republicans have found themselves more on the defensive side," Henning said.

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