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A Crisis and an Election

May 20, 2022
  • Li Zheng

    Assistant Research Processor, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

May marks the start of the sprint toward the 2022 midterm elections in the United States. This month, both the Republican and Democratic parties will hold primaries in 13 states to test the prevailing political winds. Campaigns are in full swing, with the Russia-Ukraine crisis an unavoidable topic for debate.

If history is any guide, the situation does not seem favorable for the Democrats, who hold only a narrow majority in both houses of Congress. Typically, midterm elections don’t bode well for the president’s party. In the absence of a common enemy, it will be hard for the Democrats to galvanize voters as they did in the 2020 presidential election. In addition, President Joe Biden’s approval ratings have deteriorated since he took office and are now well below those of Obama, who was trounced in the 2010 midterms. These realities put the Democrats on the defensive, while the Republicans seem to have the initiative.

The Russia-Ukraine crisis is an additional variable. It has so far improved Biden’s approval ratings, leading to increased uncertainty for the midterms. In the shadow of the crisis, the election may have more political connotations, probably more predictive of the 2024 general election.

First, the midterm elections will reflect the true views of the American people regarding Biden’s middle-class diplomacy. Since the start of the Ukraine crisis, the administration has basically emphasized the role of values and alliances, focused on punishing rivals in economic, technological and other fields that are less escalation-prone and refused to intervene directly in conflicts overseas. It is also trying to apply these tactics to other strategic competitors. In the Republican view, Biden’s approach is not tough enough to deter America’s opponents, nor has the administration done enough to deal with the domestic impacts of economic and technological sanctions.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, is among those opposing middle-class diplomacy. Rubio is also under pressure for the 2022 midterm election. He has been on camera frequently since the start of the Ukraine crisis, demanding more aggressive pressure on Russia from Washington. Republicans have had a slim electoral advantage in Rubio’s state since 2012; however, there are many swing voters without hard, fixed political positions.

The Democratic Party decided in 2021 that Representative Val Demings will challenge Rubio and has made ample preparations for that. If the Democrats score an unexpected win, the Republicans will lose a critical piece for 2024, whereas if Rubio wins by a margin larger than expected, he could become one of the most aggressive troublemakers in Congress, blocking Biden’s foreign policy agenda to build up his standing for 2024.

Second, the midterms will show the strength or weakness of Donald Trump and his voter base. After his defeat in 2020, Trump has continued to “Trumpize” the Republican Party, building momentum for 2024. Multiple contests in the midterms will feature a Trump factor. For example, members of the Trump administration, including Paul Junge (Michigan) and Madison Gesiotto Gilbert (Ohio), are running for election to the U.S. House; anti-Trump Republican Liz Cheney competes against Trump supporters in the Wyoming primary; and author J.D. Vance is running for a Senate seat in Ohio. More representative and worth-watching is the Senate race in Pennsylvania. With the retirement of a Republican senator, some heavyweights have joined the open election, including Trump’s celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz and former hedge fund chief executive David McCormick.

Oz, who closely mirrors Trump in his personal history, political positions and supporters, is a contradictory figure with a successful but winding record. His performance in the primary and — if he prevails — in November will be a direct reflection of how American society now feels about Trump, testing the overall effectiveness of Trump’s campaign machine and the influence of money in politics.

In the 2020 election, Pennsylvania was a key battleground state. The electoral bases of the two parties are of similar size, and the race has drawn extensive attention in the U.S. If Oz wins, Trump and his followers will be more confident, and over the next two years Trump’s supporters in Congress will be fanning populist sentiment with more high-profile domestic and foreign policy propositions that are drastically different from those of Biden. This will lead to greater uncertainties in America’s policies on Russia and Europe.

Finally, the midterms will try American society’s patience regarding the many problems and troubles confronting it now. The crisis between Russia and Ukraine has aggravated the development predicament of the U.S. On one hand, the country is entering an economic expansion cycle with a warm job market and an emerging industrial policy. On the other hand, rising wages and overheated investment have fueled inflationary pressure, particularly in energy consumption.

The Russia-Ukraine crisis has raised the dual risk of a global recession and an energy shortage, making it harder for U.S. policymakers to achieve multiple goals at the same time. Once again, it is America’s underclass that will feel the pressure. If those people lose patience with Biden’s road map, the Democrats may well lose the 2024 general election.

America’s midterm elections will test the overall impact of economic factors on public opinion, particularly in the swing states that have suffered most from inflation. Democratic Senator Catherine Cortez Masto’s campaign for reelection in Nevada may be the most typical. Masto has a political stance quite like that of Biden. The consumer industry in her state is sensitive to energy prices and inflation. If Democrats do not perform well in swing states, Biden will have to rethink his plan for the next two years, focus more on domestic issues and seek more compromises to tame inflation.

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