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Foreign Policy

Effects of U.S. Midterm Elections

Nov 17, 2022
  • Li Yan

    Deputy Director of Institute of American Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

America’s midterm elections were held on Nov. 8, and the Democratic Party clinched its majority in the Senate, with at least 50 seats. A runoff result in Georgia is not needed. On the House of Representatives side, Republicans appear to have won control by a slim margin.

The much-touted “red wave” the Republicans had anticipated did not materialized, with the Democratic Party far outperforming expectations. Historically, those who voted for the incumbent president in the presidential election tended to vote for the opposition party in the midterms — perhaps out of psychological compensation or an inclination to balance power between Congress and the White House — so a loss of seats by the dominant party has been the norm.

This “pendulum effect” has generally turned midterms into a nightmare for the sitting president’s party. This year’s elections, however, broke with that trend. While the Republican Party won more votes than last time, receiving greater support in such traditional “swing states” as Florida, and winning in some “deep blue” Democratic districts, its performance fell far short of expectations. It will have only a slight advantage if it takes over the House. For the Senate, the Democrats flipped a key seat in Pennsylvania, which, combined with wins in Nevada and Arizona, allowed them to maintain control.

Elections for governors, secretaries of state and other top offices at the state and local level, likewise saw no overwhelming Republican victory. Key Republican leaders — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and others — openly conceded that their party drastically underperformed.

The midterm election outcome means the momentum of fierce partisan competition will continue to dominate U.S. domestic politics. On one hand, against the backdrop of high politicization, Republican control of the House will be a tremendous drag on the Biden administration’s ability to execute policy. Predictably the Republican Party will likely launch counterattacks against the Democrats surrounding such significant domestic issues as immigration, abortion and inflation. And there will be conspicuous constraints on Biden’s major legislative moves in the socioeconomic field. There is also the possibility that the Republicans will attempt to impeach President Joe Biden in retaliation for the two impeachments of Donald Trump by a Democratic House.

Republican Kevin McCarthy, who may become the new speaker of the House, has on multiple occasions openly indicated that Republicans would carry out a series of investigations of Biden. And Trump, who is attempting a comeback, will inevitably add fuel to the fire. It is thus inevitable that the the parties, which remain in overall equilibrium, will see a fierce standoff and sink into a political impasse.

On the other hand, partisan competition will also escalate as the country heads into the presidential campaign season for the 2024 election. Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor who just scored an overwhelming victory in the midterms, has been considered a powerful candidate for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination. Such people, with unbridled political ambition, will surely launch fresh offensives against the rival party while striving for support within their own so as to showcase personal position and gain public exposure.

At the foreign policy level, the midterms won’t trigger any fundamental changes in U.S. foreign strategy, but they will nevertheless bring many delicate influences. As the Biden administration’s National Security Strategy showed, both parties’ foreign strategies are increasingly converging, to the point that there is no fundamental difference between the the 2017 National Security Strategy of the Trump administration and the current Democratic administration’s judgments about the international environment, security risks or the use of policy tools. The two parties are conspicuously similar in their desire to preserve U.S. global hegemony.

It’s worth noting that Republican control of the House may make U.S. foreign strategy even more hawkish. A more forceful Republican Party on such issues as Iran nuclear negotiations and the DPRK nuclear issue may put pressure on the Biden administration as it sets its strategy. Meanwhile, the “non-interventionist” ideas in the Republican Party could constrain the Biden administration’s radical diplomatic agenda. Currently the most outstanding issue is U.S. military assistance to Ukraine. Many Republican members of Congress have stated that the U.S. should not offer Ukraine endless aid and believe the Biden administration’s policy has not only worsened America’s financial burdens but also may sink the U.S. into an endless external quagmire.

As progressives within the Democratic Party hold the same opinion, the Biden government’s Ukraine aid program may face substantial hurdles. Considering the potential danger of the Ukraine crisis escalating, overall U.S. policy on the matter may also change.

As for America’s China policy, the midterms have again consolidated domestic hostility against China. Republican control of the House may accelerate the legislative process of China-related bills. This is no longer a phenomenon peculiar to this year’s elections: Both parties have hyped up China-related topics. During this year’s elections, many candidates incorporated the notion of a “China threat” into their personal political platforms, and both parties have seen their candidates accusing rivals from the other party of having “China connections.”

The Republican Party was already dissatisfied with the Democrats’ slow progress on such major China-related legislation as the Taiwan Policy Act, and has opposed some of the Biden administration’s moves to dilute legislation that may agitate China too much. In recent years, congressional influence on China policy has continued growing, and the next session of Congress will surely consolidate the trend, at least in the House.

Meanwhile, since the executive branch and Senate will be held by Democrats and the House of Representatives will likely be held by Republicans, there may be more dissonance between branches of government on the promotion and implementation of China policy, adding more complexity to China-U.S. relations.

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