A Sigh of Relief, but Not Out of the Woods by any Means: US Midterm Elections 2022

Susan Pashkoff reports on the US midterm elections.

 

The “Red Wave” that was expected didn’t happen, so the Democrats were able to keep control of the Senate. In fact, they flipped the Pennsylvania seat, which was won by a Progressive Democrat, John Fetterman. The Democratic Party has lost the House of Representatives, and while there are still races that haven’t been called, it will be a very close result. This means that there are limits to what the Republicans in the House can pass (a small majority may be able to pass legislation, but this can be blocked in the Senate). 

However not all Democrats support the right of abortion and reproductive freedom (forget reproductive justice), recognise the racism inherent in the Senate filibuster and want to end it, support  trade union struggles over wages and working conditions or recognise that climate change and environmental issues require a strong response against the fossil fuel industry, a shift towards sustainable green energy, green and accessible housing, and a just transition towards sustainable production. Many don’t want to help fight racism in the criminal justice system and make sure everyone has the same rights under the law.

So while the Dems remain in control of  the Senate and having limited  losses in the House means that the Republicans are hampered, it doesn’t mean that we are going to see the end of economic, political, and social injustice in the US.

Holding onto the Senate doesn’t mean that the Democrats will have everything their way, as there are still two Senators (at least) who, while nominally Democrats, often vote against the party and cannot be counted on when the filibuster needs to be overturned. In fact, they have refused to overturn the filibuster repeatedly on incredibly important issues and have limited what can be passed in terms of environmental regulations, economic stimulus policies, and the passage of the Women’s Health Protection Act, which seeks to enshrine women’s bodily autonomy on a federal level. It is fascinating that Biden, who always supported the filibuster when he was a Senator, is starting to question the wisdom of keeping it. 

RaphaelWarnock.png
Raphael Warnock

Even if Raphael Warnock wins the run-off for the Georgia Senate seat in December, they will not be able to break the filibuster with 51 seats. This is because Sinema (AZ) and Manchin (WV) have opposed removing the filibuster generally or specifically. So unless they abstain on a vote on the filibuster, then, and only then, could Vice President Harris vote and break the tie. But their abstention is not guaranteed by any means, as they have not done so in the past. So, even if  Warnock is victorious  in Georgia, there is a very slim possibility that they can eliminate the Senate filibuster, but that depends on Sinema (Arizona) and Manchin (West Virginia) abstaining or voting in line. The probabilities are so low that they are irrelevant; barring this, change will not happen, and this will hold for any new legislation coming out of the Senate. So even winning the Senate does not eliminate the problems of the filibuster in the Senate unless the Democrats can cope with losing their seat in West Virginia and a better alternative can be found for Sinema in Arizona. This is a complicated set of “ifs” and the Dems seem reluctant to just give up the West Virginia seat as even primarying Manchin seems beyond them … 

However, a simple majority will be sufficient to amend legislation that has already been passed, which is useful but requires a different type of tactic to get around the filibuster. If the Democrats had actually passed a full Medicaid expansion, for example, that would have been one way to address the health care problem in the US. Also, if a SCOTUS judge dies or resigns, a simple majority in the Senate is enough to appoint a new justice to the SCOTUS. However, unless a lot of right-wing justices die or resign at once, this won’t have much of an effect.

Given the economic situation and the Democrats’ failure to pass desperately needed legislation to address inflation, rising unemployment, and an expected recession in the US, this should be considered a win for the Democrats.

Attempting to blame Joe Biden for the economic crisis was a bit rich (you can’t stop an economic package attempting to deal with an economic crisis and then complain when everything goes shite and expect to be taken seriously), and many voters simply didn’t buy it. Inflation is an international problem, and the manner in which most Central Banks are dealing with it is problematic, as rising interest rates would be effective if inflation was due to rising consumer demand, but now inflation is being driven by rising profit rates and profit margins for the most part. The policy of increasing interest rates will choke off the economy, and if you are trying to stave off a recession, it is a contradictory policy.

Rising interest rates impact both producers and consumers as the costs of borrowing increase, and this also impacts housing (both mortgages and rentals as landlords use the excuse of rising interest rates to increase rents). Already, production and transportation costs are going up because of inflation in the energy sector. Wages, pensions, and other benefits are also being cut. So, what is needed to address the recession and inflation requires additional fiscal policies to stimulate the economy, as the Central Bank’s monetary policies are working contrary to what is needed to address a recession and inflation that derive from breaks in supply chains, speculation on futures markets, and incredibly high rates of profit in the fossil fuel sector.

Positives coming out of the Midterm Elections

There are several positives that we can see from the midterm election results which include ballot measures/citizen initiatives on abortion, anti-slavery, and attempts to impose or remove restrictions on voting.

There is also the fact that Trump-endorsed candidates who were 2020 election deniers in various parts of state government (e.g.secretary of state, governors) lost or won with reduced majorities. This is important as they can affect vote counting at the national level (it is important to remember Trump and his cronies’ attempts to replace legitimate electoral college votes with an alternative slate backing him). There was an actual candidate list for America’s First Secretary of State. Far-right candidates for secretary of state who lost in swing states include Mark Finchem (AZ), Jim Marchant (NV), Kristina Karamo (MI), Kim Crockett (Minnesota), and Audrey Trujillo (NM).

However, the number of votes received by these far-right candidates in swing states is a problem; they lost, but they received a large number of votes given what they advocate. At the moment, the Wisconsin Secretary of State (Amy Loudenbeck) race is still too close to call. While election deniers Diego Morales (IN) won (despite the fact that he is under investigation for voter fraud and other crimes) and Chuck Grey (WY) won unopposed, it was with decreased numbers.

The results for governor are a bit more mixed, but Trump supporters were defeated in New York, Maine, Kansas, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. In the Arizona Governor’s race, far-right election denier Kari Lake lost to Katie Hobbs, but it was very close. The Arizona Republican Party seems to have abandoned its old libertarian beliefs and hopped on the far-right bandwagon, but it has cost them; the Attorney General race remains uncalled and features another far-right Republican candidate, Abraham Hamedah. The victories in the Pennsylvania governor’s race by Josh Shapiro over Trump-backed Doug Mastriono (with open antisemitism) and the Senate race with John Fetterman against Mehmet Oz were big losses for Trump and his supporters. Shapiro’s win as Governor has the additional positive that the PA governor appoints the secretary of state, so that is a double-win. But these were not easy victories; the election results were far too close for comfort.

Ballot Measures

Ballot measures are a form of direct democracy and give a good idea of what voters in states think; given voter suppression, gerrymandering and the nature of the first past the post voting in a two-party system which limit democracy, they are a tool to not only bypass legislatures, but to counter them.

Ballot measures and citizen initiatives are used to amend state constitutions, protect civil rights, and address state-wide tax policy. They have been used recently to get around legislatures that are passing laws that enable voter suppression, anti-abortion legislation, and the easing of gun controls. Their role in protecting civil rights under siege from right-wing legislatures and addressing low state minimum wages is important.

The ones that were prominent during the midterm elections on civil rights (e.g., voting, abortion, marijuana legalisation, Equal Rights (e.g.Nevada passed a very strong equal rights amendment to their constitution), health care (e.g., South Dakota voted to expand Medicaid, health care debts were capped in Arizona, gun ownership policies were both restricted and tightened depending on the states).

We also saw attempts to either tighten voting regulations (allowing only citizens to vote in state elections in Ohio, which passed, and a ballot in Arizona calling for an increase in the requirement on voter IDs, which failed) or loosen them (e.g., allowing early voting, extending mail-in voting), which appeared in Connecticut and Michigan. Nevada passed a motion allowing ranked preference voting.

The nature of these has altered somewhat given the attacks on voting rights, abortion rights, and access to healthcare by refusing to expand Medicaid (South Dakota; this is the 7th time that a Medicaid expansion has been passed by states as a ballot initiative). Oregon’s Ballot Measure 111, recognising the fundamental right to affordable  health care has passed. There are also issues relating to the tightening or loosening of gun control.

Before the overturn of Roe v. Wade, there were several citizen initiatives to ban abortion in South Dakota, all of which failed. After failing with citizen initiatives, the Christian-right turned to the Republican-controlled legislature, which enacted an abortion ban that was signed by the governor before Roe was overturned (in fact, the law was in violation of the Hyde Amendment). Many of these ballot initiatives are built by grass-roots campaigns, like Michigan’s Proposal 3: the Right to Reproductive Initiative.

Before the overturn of Roe v. Wade, there were several citizen initiatives to ban abortion in South Dakota, all of which failed. After failing with citizen initiatives, the Christian-right turned to the Republican-controlled legislature, which enacted an abortion ban that was signed by the governor before Roe was overturned (in fact, the law was in violation of the Hyde Amendment). Many of these ballot initiatives are built by grass-roots campaigns, like Michigan’s Proposal 3: the Right to Reproductive Initiative.

Finchem.jpg
Mark Finchem

In the context of non-representative elections due to voter suppression, gerrymandering, and first-past-the-post elections with a two-party election system, this is a way to reintroduce the democratic process. But citizen initiatives have been so successful in getting around the Republican-controlled state legislatures that they have been creating rules and regulations that make it harder for these to get on the ballot (e.g., increased numbers to get on the ballot) and then to win once they are on the ballot (e.g., Florida now requires that ballot measures have 60% of the vote to pass; in 2021, they were considering making it 67%). Another possibility is that the ballot measure can be overturned through legislation (Florida) or that the state can simply ignore it (Florida again). Three ballot measures appeared on the Florida ballot, and none passed the 60% threshold. These are potential ballot motions for 2024, and as of November 2022, none have been certified to appear on the ballot.

As I said in an earlier article here on the attack on democracy in the US:

Florida formally allows initiatives, but if opposed to Republican policy, like raising the state minimum wage, allowing former felons to vote and legalising medical marijuana, the initiatives are ignored by or overturned by the Republican controlled legislature. Despite the initiative allowing former felons to vote passing in 2018, the Florida Legislature (2019) added a new requirement demanding former felons pay all court-ordered fees, fines and restitution. This is a revival of Jim Crow legislation used to prevent black people from voting; but the state miscalculated badly as there are not only black felons despite the disproportional imprisonment of people of colour. A new citizens’ initiative is being proposed which will allow all to vote despite debts, but it needs to get on the ballot and win 60% of the vote to pass (it did not appear on the current ballot).

I will explore only some of the ballot measures in the 2022 midterms, but let’s begin with some general good news. Two states (Nevada and Nebraska) had ballots increasing the minimum wage to $12 and $15, respectively, which both passed. In Washington DC, an important measure raising the wages of highly exploited employees from $5.05/hr that receive tips has won which will gradually bring their wages in line with those of non-tipped employees by 2027. Additionally, several cities have ballot measures increasing the minimum wage (which, weirdly, do not appear on the list of ballot motions on the MSM):

  • In California, Duarte and Inglewood are voting to put the minimum wage for healthcare worker to $25
  • Portland, Maine is voting to increase the minimum wage to $18
  • Tukwila, Washington is voting to bring wages in line with that of Seattle-Tacoma

Abortion

Abortion appeared in 5 states as ballot measures; MichiganVermont and California had ballots protecting reproductive freedom which passed. While abortion rights were not under threat in Vermont and California, the state constitution has been amended in Michigan to recognise the individual right to reproductive freedom (individual right to make all decisions about pregnancy, “including prenatal care, childbirth, postpartum care, contraception, sterilisation, abortion, miscarriage management, and infertility”), and this overrides the abortion ban passed by the Michigan Legislature. The re-elected Michigan Democratic Governor Gretchen Witmer ran on a pro-choice platform, and the Dems now control both the State Senate and House.

Both Montana and Kentucky had ballots trying to weaken abortion rights. In Kentucky, abortion is banned except when the life of the pregnant person or potential permanent harm to the pregnant person is threatened. The Kentucky ballot measure was an attempt to change the state constitution to say that citizens do not have the right to an abortion and that the state does not have an obligation to provide funding for an abortion. (what happened??)

The Montana Referendum 131 said Montana “establishes that infants born alive at any stage of development are legal persons and require medical care to be provided for any infant born alive after an attempted abortion, induced labour, or other method.” It also institutes criminal penalties for any health care provider who does not comply. It is a strange provision, similar to some of the foetal protection bills passed, for example, in Ohio (which require the replanting of an ectopic pregnancy; currently medically impossible).

Given that living people in Montana have no guarantees of access to health care, this is a fantastic exercise in foetal fetishism, and it failed miserably. Perhaps the next time they should include guarantees for healthcare for everyone in Montana, but as we know, living people are not an important consideration for Christian fundamentalists. Fortunately, it was defeated.

The Democrats held the Senate, which means that any promised national abortion bans from the Federal Legislative Branch have withered on the vine, at least for the next two years. Given Biden’s historical opposition to abortion, his support for the Hyde Amendment, and his inability to coherently respond to the overturn of Roe v. Wade, I, for one, am happy that we do not have to depend on his veto to block a national abortion ban. In a press conference following his meeting with Xi of China, Biden announced that the Democrats do not have enough votes to codify Abortion Rights legislation nationally. The fact that they ran their election on protecting abortion rights and that was the second stated reason in many exit polls (including swing states) why people voted Democrat means nothing, and the fact that they are not even going to try says everything about Joe Biden and the Democratic Party leadership’s lack of commitment to ensure women’s bodily autonomy. They could at least pretend to try …

The overturn of Roe v. Wade played a very important role in getting out the vote. Exit poll after exit poll demonstrated that abortion played a very strong role, and this goes way beyond the results on ballot measures. So, the Republicans got rid of the national right of women to bodily autonomy, but the fact that voters stated that abortion was one of the top determinants of voting demonstrated that the fight to ban abortions state by state will not be the easy ride that right-wing Christian fundamentalists and the Republican party believed. 

Given that it was known that support for Roe was over 60% nationally, this should not be too much of a surprise; but just because a majority supports abortion doesn’t mean that this will translate in all states (that was their hope), and we are seeing voters reject abortion bans or further restricting of abortion rights. This will not happen in all states, but there is a possibility that if there is a ballot measure guaranteeing abortion rights, then voters may overturn the bans that have come into effect since the overturn of Roe v. Wade. That is, of course, if Republican-controlled state legislatures do not make it impossible to practice direct democracy by setting impossible rules and regulations to prevent their operation.

Anti-Slavery Ballot Measures

After the 13th Amendment was added to the Constitution in 1864, making slavery and involuntary servitude illegal, a loophole was left. This loophole was used to re-enslave many people who had been freed from slavery. The 13th Amendment says:

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

If you read the history of the Texas Penitentiary System (see Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire by Robert Perkinson), you can see how this exemption worked in practice. It was in Texas that the penitentiary system developed. Slavery formed a large part of Texas’ history, and understanding how the state shifted when slavery was made illegal is essential. Arresting former slaves and forcing them to labour in penitentiaries enabled the practice of slavery to survive. This system was adopted in other states, and imprisoned people are essentially enslaved as they have no say in whether or not they labour; this is not the only civil right that the imprisoned lose, but it has survived unquestioned for the most part. 

Inevitably, given the disproportionate numbers of black people convicted of crimes, this practice has affected black people more significantly. As Naomi Corlett argues:

Today there are over 2 million people in prisons across the country, which is a 500% increase over the past 40 years. On top of this, 5 million more people are under some type of community supervision. Black people make up about two-thirds of the prison population, although they are just over 14% of the total American population. Black men are also six times as likely to be imprisoned as White men, with around one-third of Black men being expected to serve a sentence in their lifetime.

Forced labour in prison is practiced in a number of states; moreover, private prisons routinely force prisoners to labour for very low remuneration (pennies on the dollar) if there is any remuneration for their labour. The Federal government itself uses forced prison labour; inmates earn from $0.34 to $1.15/hour which is way below the paltry federal minimum wage.

Prisoners are forced to work in a number of states, and they benefit from it as prisoners produce many sorts of goods that go to the states and benefit the privately owned prisons. Corporations have taken advantage of this to get free labour rather than hire people through the labour market. Needless to say, this policy creates an incentive for states to imprison people as well, as they get their labour for free and do not have to pay for it.

There is a campaign to change the 13th Amendment to eliminate this exemption, and there were 5 states that had ballots on this issue in this election period. So, the ballots called for ending slavery and involuntary servitude in prisons. However, there is no guarantee that this will end the practice of enslaving convicted prisoners, but this campaign at least will start discussions around the issue. If passed, this could force states, private corporations using prison labour, and private prisons to pay for their labour, and could allow prisoners to challenge their forced labour. 

The anti-slavery ballots passed in Alabama, Tennessee, Oregon, and Vermont. The measure in Louisiana failed, but this was due to problems with the wording of the ballot measure, leaving an ambiguity in the measure, and prison-reform advocates called for people to vote against it. They will submit another ballot measure that words iy so that any ambiguity about making slavery or involuntary servitude illegal is eliminated.

This practice affects wages outside of prison as well as forcing prisoners to labour; when you see corporations benefiting from prison labour, you should know that all proceeds go straight to profits and limit their costs of production. This is an appalling practice that impacts everyone and when states complain about the costs they will have to pay and how expensive it will be if the practice is forbidden (see Governor Newsome of California for example, who earlier this year argued against a California Senate anti-slavery amendment – which would have appeared as a ballot motion if it passed – saying it would be too expensive), remember that they could hire labour to do this by paying proper wages rather than enslaving convicts.

Negatives

Breathing a sigh of relief makes perfect sense given the situation and how many Trump supporters and election deniers were on the ballot for both state and national elections. I admit to smiling when I saw Finchem lose the battle for Arizona secretary of state; I caught a glimpse of him while he berated a newswoman on the BBC who asked him about the problem with ballots in Maricopa County, and honestly, if I were her, I would have deliberately disconnected him from the show just for the aggression, abuse, and misogyny he unloaded on her when she questioned his account of what happens in Maricopa County. An American fascist got to appear on the BBC due to their “balanced reporting” rules, and the Beeb actually subjected a reporter to abuse for an absurd policy. Since I missed his name, I googled “far-right white supremacist” running in Arizona who wears a cowboy hat, and he just popped right up. Needless to say, I switched news channels so that I would not have to watch a repeat of that performance on NBC.

We need to recognise is that while this election was not a victory for Trump supporters, this does not mean there is a return to “normality” in US politics. American democracy is still under threat; voter suppression and gerrymandering played a role in the election results. 

Trump-Desantis.jpg
Reuters/Gaelen Morse, Marco Bello

Those on the far right in the Republican Party may have lost this election, but that does not mean that they will abandon the political landscape in the US. Although many of these far-right Republican candidates lost, they still won a large number of votes, and that should make anyone stop and pause before declaring that the threat of the far-right is over. The Republican Party is not only Donald Trump; it is a party of the hard right and the far right (and Trump is only responsible for the latter).

The political divisions in the US spilled over into elections to various state’s Supreme Courts’ elections. According to Andrew DeMillo a massive amount of money was spent by PACs to ensure that when abortion rights are under attack, the state Supreme Courts will protect reproductive freedom. For right-wing PACs, the issues were over crime and criminal justice, and control over future redistricting in states on the right. The politics of the far-right will be playing a strong role into the future and as we have seen in the struggles over women’s bodily autonomy, the hard-right and far-right are very patient.

Georgia is an interesting case; both Brian Kemp and Brad Raffensperger won their races for governor and secretary of state, respectively, despite refusing to change election results to give Trump the state in 2020; this does not mean that they are not on the hard right (the same holds for Liz Cheney, who lost her primary), it just means that they were doing their job correctly. Marjorie Taylor-Green won the 14th election district with 66% of the vote. Raphael Warnock has still not lost his Senate seat to Herschel Walker; he is in a run-off for that seat. Do we know whether the 81,176 people who voted for Libertarian Candidate Chase Oliver did so because they found Walker repulsive, or because Walker was insufficiently libertarian?

Additionally, redistricting, gerrymandering, and voter suppression did play a role in elections both to state and national houses of representatives. Politico examined the impact of redistricting by Republicans, Democrats, independent bodies, and the courts, and the impact was significant. Republican redistricting in 18 states allowed them to gain 131 seats compared to 42 Democratic wins, giving them a net gain of 5 seats compared to 2 for the Democrats.

In Florida, gerrymandering by DeSantis eliminated 2 minority districts in the northeastern part of the state near Jacksonville (he literally eliminated 2 minority districts by absorbing them into nearby white districts). There are two lawsuits pending: one a Federal lawsuit against Florida’s secretary of state for violating the 14th and 15th Amendments to the US Constitution due to discrimination against black voters; as well as a state lawsuit arguing that the gerrymandering violated the Florida Constitution’s Fair Districts Provisions. Appeals on the use of the gerrymandered maps were filed immediately, and there are questions arising around the injunctions against the use of DiSanto’s maps.

The Appeals Court also refused to halt the racialised gerrymandering as well. These objections were filed, but that did not impact the use of these maps; as Politico pointed out, it is not only the egregious elimination of two minority voting districts; there is a shift of boundaries in closer election districts, like that of St. Petersburg, which was linked to Clearwater, which shifted the seat to the Republicans.

Ron DeSantis did very well both at the state and national levels during these midterms. In fact, he is turning into a new Republican hero, and he has his eyes on the national stage. He is already being cheered by Republicans who expected a red wave and got not even a trickle of water.

DeSantis is actually far more dangerous than Trump; he is organised and ruthless. As governor, he has passed a whole series of laws that the far-right can only dream about, e.g., attacking “woke culture” by banning books and altering the educational programme in Florida. This sits alongside attacks on women’s reproductive freedom, LGBT+ people, and clear racist election redistricting among other attacks on blacks in Florida, including stopping former felons from being allowed to vote even though this went through on a ballot initiative; the legislature came up with the Jim Crow law, which prevents former felons from voting if they have debts in relation to their trials or victims’ compensation.

Florida is no longer the swing state it used to be; it is now under the control of the Republicans, and it is the far-right wing of the Republican Party that is in charge. DeSantis has refused to condemn the neo-Nazis who attended the Turning Point Convention in Tampa, which he would have done in other circumstances to at least cover his arse.

Picture is from outside the Turning Point conference in Tampa.

Trump is right to think that DeSantis is a threat, so he has started to criticise him. And he is correct: DeSantis is a threat to his fantasies, but DeSantis is a character who is winning, he is on the far right, and he is a threat to democracy in the US (he already is a threat to democracy in Florida). DeSantis may dethrone Trump; Trump has cost Republicans seats that they may have won if not for his candidates (the Pennsylvania Senate seat and governorship are clear examples). DeSantis looks like a winner, but he is no less dangerous than Trump. Moreover, Trump himself will not go gently into political oblivion…

The problem has not only been Donald Trump and his normalisation and adoption of the far-right into the Republican Party and making these voters part of the Republican base. Looking only at Trump paints an inaccurate picture of how dangerous the threat is to even the limited democracy that exists in the United States at the moment. Things that were recognised to be racist, misogynist, disablist, homophobic, and transphobic are now deemed acceptable in many places. The environmental catastrophe is treated more as a political issue than a fact, both on the part of the MSM and in popular discourse.

The Dems have failed to actually get something done on the environment, and their muted assurances to the COP27 doesn’t change the reality that they are also tied to the fossil fuel industry and have failed to actually address the economic crisis of inflation and recession. This could be blamed on Republican obstructionism, but there is more to it. Being moderate may sell in terms of an election, but it also fails to address significant political, economic, and social problems, substituting small, tiny reforms rather than actually addressing the problems that exist. If this continues, nothing major will change; in fact, the Democrats can and will argue that their elections depend on this moderate approach. But the far-right is out of its cage, and tinkering will not solve the problem, which means that US democracy is on borrowed time.


Afghanistan Anti-War Art Book Review Books Boris Johnson Capitalism China Climate Emergency Conservative Government Conservative Party COP 26 COVID-19 Creeping Fascism Economics EcoSocialism Elections England Europe Event Video Fascism Film Review France Global Police State History Imperialism Italy Keir Starmer Labour Party Leaflet Long Read Marxism Marxist Theory NATO Palestine pandemic Protest Russia Solidarity Sport Statement Trade Unionism Ukraine United States of America War


Join the discussion

MORE FROM ACR