WASHINGTON — Campaigning politicians say it all the time: the coming election will be the most important in a generation.
These days, amid the cultural division, political gridlock and social instability in the United States, every trip to the polls — including midway through a president's term — feels more consequential than the last.
"I am always a bit concerned, upset, chagrined that when we have an election, the world has to worry about the outcome," Bruce Stokes, a visiting senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund in D.C., told a recent discussion panel.
"When we are electing a Congress or a president, that Congress and president has a disproportionate influence on what happens in the world."
The legacy of Donald Trump has loomed large over the 2022 midterms, but so too have the initial struggles of Joe Biden, his Democratic successor. Voters gave Democrats control of Congress in 2020, but barely.
Change is in the wind for Nov. 8.
The relentless Republican march of earlier this year, initially powered by a drumbeat of high inflation, low presidential approval ratings and lingering economic uncertainty, has slowed significantly since the spring.
The Supreme Court's stunning decision to effectively abandon federal protection for abortion rights sent shock waves down the campaign trail, energizing Democrats and mobilizing women.
Biden, too, found his stride with key legislative wins, including — with an assist from Sen. Joe Manchin — the climate, tax and health package known as the Inflation Reduction Act. It included a welcome reprieve for Canada: made-in-America tax incentives for electric vehicles were replaced with credits that would apply to EVs built north of the border, too.
But most political observers aren't betting on a surge of Democratic support. The party in the White House has been savaged in eight of the last 10 midterm elections. With Biden's approval rating hovering around 41 per cent, experts don't expect that to change this year.
BALANCE OF POWER: In the House of Representatives, where every seat is up for grabs in November, Democrats occupy 221 out of 435 seats, while Republicans have 212. Two seats are currently vacant.
The Senate is divided evenly — 50 seats on each side, giving the deciding vote to Vice-President Kamala Harris. Senate rules require 60 senators to vote in favour of ending debate on most bills in order to escape a filibuster, however, which means a simple majority often isn't enough.
Only 35 Senate seats are up for election this year, including 21 Democrats and 14 Republicans. Experts don't see a huge swing happening, but when the Senate is evenly divided, it only takes one seat changing hands to shift the balance of power.
REDISTRICTING: Every 10 years, state legislatures redraw their congressional districts to more accurately reflect the shifting population map — a process known as redistricting. When it's done to benefit a particular party, it's known as gerrymandering. In the U.S. these days, the two terms are largely synonymous.
Both parties do it, but this year, more Republicans than Democrats have been holding the redistricting pen, and are likely to benefit in November. A Politico analysis of the new congressional map found Republicans having an advantage in 10 more districts than they did in 2020, compared with just one for Democrats.
DOWN-BALLOT RACES: American voters typically make multiple choices in the voting booth, electing not only senators and members of Congress but state legislators, law enforcement officials and judges as well. In an era of election denial and state governments passing abortion laws, the so-called "down-ballot" races that rarely get much media attention are more significant than ever.
Capri Cafaro, a former Ohio state senator who teaches politics at American University in Washington, D.C., said it will be important to look at secretary of state races, because they have jurisdiction over elections.
"That could really shift the dynamic on election integrity, and what is perceived as running a free and fair election, depending on who's at the helm."
STATES TO WATCH
Pennsylvania: Arguably the main event of the 2022 midterm season, voters in this perennial battleground state will choose between Republican celebrity TV host Dr. Mehmet Oz and Pennsylvania Lt.-Gov. John Fetterman, the hoodie-clad, plain-spoken Democrat who was sidelined by a stroke for much of the summer. This time, instead of deciding who gets the White House, Pennsylvania may decide who controls the Senate.
Ohio: J.D. Vance, the venture capitalist and author of "Hillbilly Elegy," is one of several Trump standard-bearers in 2022, including Oz and former NFL running back Herschel Walker in Georgia. After a bruising primary and a late-day endorsement from the former president, he's running in a state that Trump won handily in both 2016 and 2020. Thing is, he's not winning: polls suggest Vance and Democrat Rep. Tim Ryan, a straitlaced congressman making a play for the Senate, are in a dead heat.
Georgia: The expanding franchise of celebrity first-time campaigners continues in the Peach State, where football legend Walker is doing battle with Raphael Warnock. The Georgia reverend's run-off win the night before last year's Jan. 6 riots on Capitol Hill made him the first Black senator from the Deep South and helped the Democrats win control of the Senate. Walker, a favourite of Trump, has been dogged by domestic abuse allegations, dubious claims about working in law enforcement and rambling, nonsensical campaign commentary. On Monday, media reports accused the self-proclaimed abortion opponent of pressing an ex-girlfriend to get the procedure in 2009 — reports Walker strenuously denied. Polls suggest a close race with Warnock nursing a narrow lead in a state that requires a run-off election if neither candidate cracks the 50 per cent threshold.
Arizona: Republicans had high hopes of wresting a win away from incumbent Sen. Mark Kelly and his impeccable pedigree: the former Space Shuttle pilot, who replaced the late John McCain in 2020, is the husband of former Rep. Gabby Giffords, who became a prominent gun control advocate after narrowly surviving an assassination attempt in 2011. But GOP candidate Blake Masters, another Trump endorsee, is lagging his big-spending Democratic rival in a campaign experts consider emblematic of the double-edged sword that is the support of the former president.
Nevada: Another toss-up, another seat Democrats are desperate to keep. Despite the glitz and glitter of its locale, this one lacks the star power of some of the other must-win races: former state attorney general Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, the incumbent Democrat, against former state attorney general Adam Laxalt, her Republican challenger. As a result, it might be the truest barometer of how key factors like inflation and gas prices, abortion and the growing influence of Hispanic voters will influence the outcome.
Wisconsin: Two-term incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson personifies the post-Trump dilemma for those Republicans loyal to the former president. Wisconsin narrowly opted for Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016, then pivoted to Biden in 2020. Ironically, Johnson has proven vulnerable to Democratic efforts to use his Trump affiliations against him, depicting him as a billionaire denizen of the D.C. "swamp" who lacks the working-class bona fides of his challenger, Mandela Barnes, the state's first Black lieutenant-governor. The Cook Political Report has the Wisconsin Senate rate "tilting" Republican; polls suggest a dead heat.
North Carolina: Another purple state that's leaning Republican and could determine which party holds the balance of power in the Senate. Republican congressman Rep. Ted Budd is hoping to move to the upper chamber, as is former state Supreme Court justice Cheri Beasley. With Budd another Trump type who voted against certifying Joe Biden's election win, Democrats see North Carolina as an opportunity to turn a red seat blue — and both sides are ramping up their ad spending as the campaign nears the start of the four-week sprint to the finish.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 4, 2022.
James McCarten, The Canadian Press