How will the U.S. midterm elections change American politics?

The Signal

How will the U.S. midterm elections change American politics? David A. Hopkins on the likely return of Republicans to power in Congress.
Alejandro Barba
Alejandro Barba
Early voting is already underway across the United States in this year’s midterm elections, with less than three weeks to go until election day on November 8. Plenty of mystery remains about what the results will be after an unusual campaign: How much will the Supreme Court’s historic decision to end a nationwide right to abortion have helped the Democratic Party, even as inflation and President Joe Biden’s unpopularity hurt its candidates? Will the Republican Party manage to recapture both chambers of the U.S. Congress or just retake one? Yet unless the results diverge dramatically from pre-election polling, one thing doesn’t seem particularly unclear: Republicans will win a majority in the House of Representatives, where Kevin McCarthy will presumably be the next speaker. What are they intending to do with that power?
David A. Hopkins is an associate professor of political science at Boston College. As Hopkins sees it, Republican leaders have proposed a conventional conservative legislative agenda—cutting taxes and regulations, opposing Democratic expansions of the government—but they won’t be able to implement much of it with a Democratic president remaining in the White House. What they will be able to do is block Democratic legislation, launch investigations into Biden’s administration and his family, and exercise new political leverage over the essential functioning of the federal government. According to Hopkins, there’s potential that congressional Republicans will be able to damage Biden politically—or be seen as overreaching and make him look more sympathetic to voters. Whatever happens, Hopkins sees a generational change in the Republican Party that’s making it more populist and Trump-like by the year, as its members await the former president’s decision about whether to seek the White House again in 2024.
Graham Vyse: How do you understand the key aspects of the agenda U.S. Republicans will pursue if they win back power in Congress?
David A. Hopkins: Their agenda will have two parts: The first is about legislation and policy; the second, investigations. The Republicans’ legislative ambitions mostly relate to standard conservative policies, as they laid out in their Commitment to America policy platform introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives—though there’s more of an emphasis there than there has been in the past on cultural issues. Of course, Republicans won’t be able to achieve any of their legislative ambitions on their own, given President Joe Biden’s ability to veto legislation. But they will be able to use the subpoena power of congressional committees—and the public attention you can get from that power in conducting oversight hearings—to investigate their political opponents, including the Biden administration, Biden’s family, and the technology companies they accuse of discriminating against conservative users.
The last time there was both a Democratic House and a Republican president in the United States, the president was impeached twice. The last time there was a Republican House and a Democratic president, the Republican speaker got run out of town by his own party. So if you’re the presumptive speaker in the next Congress, Kevin McCarthy, one lesson you’re likely to take from recent American history is that there will be tremendous pressure from within your party to attack major Democratic and liberal targets. Now, that might not mean impeaching President Biden, but it certainly might mean investigating his family—or trying to impeach a cabinet official or some other senior member of the administration. Another lesson you’re likely to absorb is that if you don’t satisfy your party’s quests for political retribution, you could easily end up on the firing line yourself.
Vyse: Republicans are widely expected to investigate Joe Biden’s son Hunter in particular. What will they hope to achieve with that?
Hopkins: There’s some reason to believe Hunter Biden may have broken the law—that he may have had international business dealings that included some corruption or misconduct. He may have committed tax crimes or made some false statements. So that’s one explanation for why they’d investigate him.
Another explanation is that Hunter Biden has become a frequent subject of focus in conservative media. If you’re someone who’s consumed that media, you’ve heard accusations that he’s been given preferential treatment and that the liberal media has systematically hidden evidence of his crimes in order to protect Joe Biden and help Democrats win elections. Regardless of what Hunter Biden may or may not have done—and may or may not be in legal jeopardy for—investigating him is appealing for congressional Republicans because it allows them to seem responsive to the demands of the conservative media and their base voters.
Vyse: How much political benefit is that likely to yield for Republicans?
Hopkins: Well, it’s probably not going to affect whether someone would vote for either Joe Biden or his Republican opponent in 2024. A lot of things are happening in Washington, D.C., and the average swing voter isn’t aware of most of them. That said, it’s possible that Republicans could benefit somewhat if they embarrass the president and make him look bad publicly.
It’s also possible that their investigation could backfire and help Biden by making him a more sympathetic figure. The Republicans could look like they’re overreaching by going after a family member who doesn’t hold a public office, though Republican leaders might be willing to run that risk on account of the pressure they’re getting from their own side.
Heidi Kaden
Heidi Kaden
More from David A. Hopkins at The Signal:
Conservative voters have come to understand politics as largely a symbolic, cultural battle. They don’t necessarily want a lot of policy changes; that’s not necessarily what they’re asking for. A lot of what they’re asking for—and what conservative media encourages them to ask for—are gestures of superiority over Democrats and the left.”
There’s not much reason to expect any big bipartisan legislation aside from appropriations bills that have to pass to keep the government functioning. One exception to that rule could be another major national crisis, as there was with the pandemic. On foreign policy, McCarthy hasn’t been clear on the extent to which he supports continuing U.S. aid to Ukraine. And there are good reasons for him to be coy about that issue, because it divides his party to some extent.”
The Senate’s Republican caucus has generally been one of the least Trump-influenced factions of the party, and we’ve seen some bipartisan agreement in the Senate in recent years on issues like infrastructure and semiconductor research. To the extent that new senators would be more like Trump and see the Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell as an opponent to be vanquished, that could create some new and interesting dynamics.”

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