“The storm is coming,” according to Donald Trump in his latest nod to QAnon, the far-right conspiracy hive. Nobody will be less delighted about that than Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader, whose party’s chances of regaining Congress are waning by the day. Midterm elections are normally a referendum on the party in power, which ought to be bad news for Joe Biden’s Democrats. But history is an increasingly useless guide. There is nothing normal about today’s US politics.
If, as McConnell dreads, this November’s elections are turning into a referendum on Trump rather than Biden, the party chiefly has itself to blame. This is especially true of the Senate, where a batch of Trump-endorsed candidates is befouling Republican hopes of the one-seat net gain it needs. The libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel has also played a role. His bets on controversial figures such as Arizona’s Blake Masters have made McConnell’s task harder.
Until a few weeks ago, it was taken for granted Republicans would win a clean sweep in November. Three things have changed. The first is that Democratic voters are suddenly energised. Much of this was triggered by outrage over the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe vs Wade, which at a stroke converted an abstract worry into an actual blow to tens of millions of women.
The backlash is not limited to Democrats. The hefty defeat last month of the Kansas ballot initiative to ban abortion took place in a heavily conservative state with high turnout. Democrats have won two special elections since then, and sharply cut Republican margins in another two. History tells us that midterm “shellackings” are preceded by defeats in normally safe districts for the incumbent party. That is not holding. If the term “woke” has significance this cycle, it applies to women. America’s anti-abortion movement’s big advantage in a moderately pro-choice country was always its single-mindedness. That baton has changed hands.
The second thing to have changed is that Trump keeps hijacking the narrative, which is great for “Maga” Republicans but bad for the party. It is sometimes forgotten that Trump has never won the popular vote. He lost by 3mn in 2016 and 7mn in 2020. McConnell wants the conversation to be about inflation and woke liberals. Trump wants it to be about Trump.
The more Trump re-enters voters’ minds — with the help of the FBI and the Department of Justice — the worse are Republican prospects. In June Democrats trailed Republicans by more than two points. Now they are in the lead. Biden’s approval rating has likewise started to recover. He has been helped by falling petrol prices, mostly because of growth slowdowns in China and Europe. His party has also shown it can pass serious bills even in a 50:50 Senate. But Trump’s greediness for attention outweighs all else.
Finally, Republican selection has been abysmal. Candidate quality matters a lot in statewide elections, less so in the gerrymandered (by both parties) House of Representatives, which Republicans are still likely to recapture. Take Pennsylvania. Doug Mastriano, the Republican candidate for governor, funded buses to take protesters to Capitol Hill on January 6, 2021, and has vowed to ban abortion in his state. Mehmet Oz, the state’s Republican Senate candidate, has ten properties, and only one in Pennsylvania. Like Trump, who endorsed both candidates, Oz is a wealthy TV star. But he lacks Trump’s political genius. In an ad that went viral he complained that Biden was to blame for the fact that vegetable “crudités” were too costly.
The mental antics of Herschel Walker — endorsed by Trump against the party’s preferences — also stretch credulity. Walker’s supposed advantage is that he is a black sports star running against the African-American Raphael Warnock, a Democratic pastor, for a Georgia Senate seat. Walker struggles to produce coherent thoughts. He claims that global warming is caused by bad air from China and that the existence of apes disproves the theory of evolution. A critic of fatherless families, Walker had three children out of wedlock. The one quality Trump likes about such figures — their devoted loyalty — is what gives McConnell ulcers.
Republicans have won before in spite of their taste for fringe characters. In the 2010 Republican midterm defeat of Barack Obama’s Democrats, candidates such as Christine O’Donnell, a former dabbler in witchcraft, were not enough to change the result. There are many O’Donnells running as Republican nominees this time. Americans may be angry but that does not make most voters stupid, whatever their ideology. In 2010 O’Donnell said: “They call us wing nuts. We call us ‘we the people’.” Her second sentence is still wrong.