Thursday, June 1, 2023

US midterm elections: What did we learn so far?

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1. No Trumpist Republican ‘red wave’, more of a ‘red ripple’

The overall picture is a breathtakingly close battle between Democrats and Republicans for control of Congress and the future of President Joe Biden’s agenda.

As counting continued on Wednesday, the Democrats’ fragile grasp on power in the House and the Senate remained at risk. 

The outcome in the Senate may not be known for at least a few days, the time taken for mail ballots to be counted in Arizona and Nevada, while Georgia could head to a December 6 runoff.

Races stayed tight, and Republicans ran into stiff competition in their march across the country, dashing hopes for the sweeping gains they had promised.

Former President Donald Trump had thrown his political weight, and the weight of his MAGA supporters, behind a number of candidates, many of them on the far-right when it comes to conspiracy theories about stolen elections, rigged votes, and denying that Joe Biden legally won the 2020 US presidential ballot. 

The former president endorsed more than 300 candidates in the midterm cycle and was hoping to use Republican victories as a springboard for a 2024 presidential campaign.

Those MAGA candidates had been touting a “red wave” of support for the Trump wing of the Republican Party but it seems to have amounted to more of a “red ripple” instead, with decidedly mixed results. 

Hardline Colorado conservative Lauren Boebert was one of the best-known of Trump’s proteges nationally: she had millions of dollars of support going into the midterm elections, and a nine-point lead in the polls for a district that had been redrawn to favour right-leaning voters. 

But so far her race is too close to call. 

How controversial is she? Boebert suggested two female Muslim politicians were terrorists and part of a “jihad squad;” she spoke out against gun control; she likened the Russian invasion of Ukraine to Canada, saying “we also have neighbours to the north who need freedom and you need to be liberated;” and said that it should be illegal for gay people to come out before age 21, among other positions. 

Some other high-profile Trump-backed candidates like TV Doctor Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania also failed to get elected; and firebrand former TV news reporter Kari Lake — who was touted by Britain’s Nigel Farage as a possible 2024 vice presidential running mate for Trump — is trailing in the gubernatorial race against her Democratic opponent, but thousands of votes still have to be counted.  

There were notable wins in Ohio for JD Vance, and Trump’s former White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders who becomes the first female governor in Arkansas. 

But in Florida Ron DeSantis — a potential Republican presidential challenger in 2024 who Trump has wasted no time attacking — won re-election as governor by a handsome margin.

2. MAGA Republicans have been targeting down-ballot votes

Tens of millions of Americans weren’t just voting for members of the House of Representatives, Senate or for Governors, there were also ballots in many states for lower-level jobs like Secretary of State, or local school boards. 

These so-called “down-ballot” votes are where some of America’s political ideology battles are being fought: if you think of school boards being controlled by far-right Republicans who have a say on what gets taught in schools, like race, history, evolution and science, sex education and even which books children are allowed to read in class. 

Republicans who backed Donald Trump’s failed efforts to overturn the 2020 election were positioned in several states to win key offices overseeing voting in the next presidential contest.

Half of the 22 Republicans vying to be secretaries of states — and overseeing elections in most states — have repeated Trump’s election lies. Seven endorsed his attempts to overturn the will of the people and remain in power.

So if Trump was to run for the White House again in 2024, and there were any disputes about voting integrity, the investigations would potentially be overseen by overt Trump allies who buy into his MAGA political ideology. 

3. Voters decided on marijuana legalisation

Initiatives to legalise marijuana were on the ballot in five states and passed in two of them, in a move signalling support gradually growing for legalisation even in conservative parts of the country. 

Voters in Maryland approved a measure to legalise recreational marijuana for anyone age 21 and over, and allow possession of small amounts of the drug, or two plants. Anyone convicted of marijuana possession under old laws will soon be able to apply to have their record wiped. 

It’s a similar move in Missouri, but individuals over 21 will be allowed to possess up to three grams for personal use, as well as being able to petition to be released from jail or have their records wiped for non-violent marijuana-related convictions. 

Voters in Arkansas, North Dakota and South Dakota rejected marijuana initiatives on the ballots in those states. 

The state voting follows moves by President Joe Biden toward decriminalizing marijuana. Last month Biden announced he was pardoning thousands of Americans convicted of simple possession of marijuana under federal law.

The five states that held votes on Tuesday have legal medical marijuana programs. That includes Arkansas, which in 2016 became the first Bible Belt state to approve medical marijuana. 

The state’s dispensaries opened in 2019, and more than 91,000 patients have cards to buy marijuana legally for medical conditions.

4. Abortion rights enshrined in state laws

Five months after the US Supreme Court reversed reproductive rights for women, a measure to enshrine abortion rights in state laws was on the ballots in a number of states, prompted by Democrats. 

Voters in California, Michigan and Vermont voted to protect abortion rights at the state level — despite opposition from some right-wing and religious groups. 

The divisive issue was a factor for many voters when it came to casting their ballots in Tuesday’s election, with an Associated Press survey revealing that seven in 10 voters said the Supreme Court ruling on abortion was an important factor in their midterm decisions.

The survey also showed the reversal of reproductive rights for women was broadly unpopular. About six in 10 said they are angry or dissatisfied by it, while about four in 10 were pleased. And roughly six in 10 say they favour a law guaranteeing access to legal abortion nationwide.

Initiatives in Kentucky and Montana about enshrining abortion rights in the laws of those states were still too early to call.  

5. Some election night ‘firsts’

Even while vote counting continues — likely for several more days with postal ballots — there were some important political “firsts” to report already. 

In Arkansas, the Mayor of Little Rock — the first popularly elected black mayor — was voted back into office; while Maryland will get its first black governor in Democrat Wes Moore (he becomes only the third elected black governor in US history).

Meanwhile, in the northeast state of Massachusetts, Democrat Maura Healey will become the first female governor in the “Bay State” — and also America’s first out-lesbian governor. 

Arkansas, Alabama and New York will get their first elected female governors, while Vermont will send its first-ever Congresswoman to DC, as Democrat Becca Ballint’s win means her state breaks its streak of being the only US state never to elect a woman to Congress.

In Oklahoma, Republican Marwayne Mullin because the first Native American from his state to go to the Senate in almost 100 years. He’s a member of the Cherokee Nation. 

And in Michigan, Democrat Shri Thanedar, who immigrated to the US from India, becomes the first Indian-American elected to Congress from his state. 

6. Show me the money — these were expensive elections!

The 2022 elections are on track to cost $16.7 billion (€16.6 billion) at the state and federal level, making them the most expensive midterms ever, according to the nonpartisan OpenSecrets.

For perspective: The contests will nearly double the cost of the 2010 midterm elections, more than double the 2014 midterms and are on pace to roughly equal the 2022 gross domestic product of Mongolia.

At least $1.1 billion (€1 billion) given at the federal level so far this election season has come from a small coterie of donors, many of whom have favoured conservative causes.

“When you look at the top 25 individual donors, conservative donors heavily outweigh liberal donors by $200 million (€199 million),” said Brendan Glavin, a senior data analyst for OpenSecrets. “There’s a big skew.”

Tech billionaire Peter Thiel ($32.6 million), shipping goods magnate Richard Uihlein ($80.7 million), hedge fund manager Ken Griffin ($68.5 million) and Timothy Mellon, an heir to a Gilded Age Fortune who gave $40 million, are among the top conservative donors.

On the liberal side, hedge fund founder George Soros gave the most ($128 million), though much of it has yet to be spent. Sam Bankman Fried, a liberal 30-year-old cryptocurrency billionaire, gave $39.8 million.



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