Tomorrow, America heads to the polls for the midterm elections. These will see the entirety of the House of Representatives, 35 of 100 Senators, and 36 of 50 governorships up for re-election, to say nothing of innumerable state and local officials on the ballot. It is a contentious and potentially impactful election, however, one that is also markedly devoid of substance even by the standards of the United States (US).
What do the midterm elections mean for American foreign policy? Foreign policy and national security are not typically animating issues for voters. That Ukraine has barely featured in the campaigns is unsurprising – Americans rarely vote on these issues. The midterm elections are largely seen as a referendum on the sitting president. Yet, this year’s election is as much about the legacy of Donald Trump, the former president, and his expected entry into the 2024 presidential contest, as it is the policies of current president Joe Biden and the state of the economy.
For their part, members of the Republican Party are operating less from a specific agenda and more from an anti-Biden and ‘anti-woke’ platform, seeking to highlight the poor performance of the economy to further erode the president’s standing. For their part, the Democratic Party is hoping to avoid any discussion of the economy and rising inflation, instead preferring to raise the threat of the ‘Make America Great Again Agenda’ to America’s democracy, and divisive issues such as the overturning of the Roe versus Wade decision.
The ultimate tally may not be clear on 8th November, as close races will likely prompt recounts and subsequent litigation. It is, however, likely that the Republicans will retake the House of Representatives, winning possibly anywhere from 18 to 25 seats. The Senate is too close to call at this stage, but it is possible that the Republicans will pick up a slim majority of two seats in a best-case outcome. Polling data and turnout models are imprecise measures, but show Republican momentum.
There is a deep ideological fight, largely unseen by the public, at the heart of the Republican Party – between the ‘Reagan Republicans’ and the more Trump-animated populists. The former are traditional believers in American power and leadership, free markets and a strong national defence. The Reagan Republicans believe in global and international engagement, as well as the value of the US and its institutions as a global symbol for stability and prosperity. They have, however, been steadily under assault in recent years, particularly since the election of Trump in 2016.
There are unconfirmed rumors that Trump will announce his candidacy shortly after the midterms on 8th November. His entry, if it indeed does happen, could dramatically shape the political landscape for the next two years and will certainly define international and domestic perceptions of the Republican Party.
Trump enabled and harnessed, though was by no means the creator of, populist sentiment within the Republican Party and America writ large. The populists are skeptical of America’s foreign alliances and involvement, and tend to be isolationist, actively questioning Washington’s commitments to its allies and partners in Europe and Asia. There is, for some within the party, an attraction to would-be or real authoritarians like Vladimir Putin, the Russian President (his aggression against Ukraine notwithstanding), and Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister (who spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Texas in August of this year).
The tension between these two Republican groups is most evidently beginning to appear over Ukraine. Kevin McCarthy, the House Minority Leader (who will become the Speaker if the Republicans do win back the House), warned that aid to Ukraine could be limited in a new Congress. McCarthy later clarified that he wanted better oversight of the money and arms sent to Ukraine, but that it cannot be taken for granted or assumed that support given to Ukraine will remain consistent and unchallenged. Candidates of the populist wing are openly questioning the open-ended nature of aid to Kyiv, particularly at a time when inflation is rising in the US. Regarding the People’s Republic of China, the Republicans are in unison in attempting to appear ‘tougher’ than Biden, who has made notable progress in solidifying America’s policies towards Beijing, evidenced in the recently passed CHIPS Act.
It is interesting to note that the Senate right now is more mainstream ‘Reagan Republican’ when it comes to Ukraine and foreign policy more broadly. Partially by design and by consequence of the body’s six-year election cycle, the Senate is less subject to the winds of populism or extremism. Indeed, Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader and a Republican, has previously urged the White House to do more in its aid to Kyiv. The latest crop of candidates such as Dr. Mehemet Oz (Pennsylvania), James David Vance (Ohio) and Herschel Walker (Georgia), however, show that there is a creeping shift towards populism within Senate candidates and, possibly, the Senate itself.
McCarthy’s position is all the more difficult as he will have to corral exceedingly fractious members of his party with fewer tools and power to affect their behavior. There will be traditional ‘Reagan Republicans’ left, but they will be in the minority and certainly quieter than the more vocal populists such as Marjorie Taylor Greene or Lauren Boebert (provided they are reelected). If, however, the Republicans win a larger majority, it could well dilute the influence of the populists, but that is an unlikely possibility. McCarthy will also become Speaker without much of a plan and few policy priorities. Indeed, it seems as though the Republican populists in the House are more interested in launching investigations into Hunter Biden, the president’s son, and re-litigating the events of 6th January 2021 than actually governing.
The possibility of fissures – perceived or real – over aid to Ukraine could well presage strains in UK-US relations and the current unity displayed by open Euro-Atlantic nations in resisting Russian aggression.
If there is one area to keep an eye on it is in the Republican Party’s Steering Committee. This body determines the assignments for powerful legislative committees such as the House Armed Services Committee and the Foreign Affairs Committee. If the Republicans do pick up a majority in the House, it will likely come from winning seats in the Northeast, Midwest and other areas outside of the South. This could well mean a redistribution of power on the Steering Committee, meaning that fewer populists from the South get key positions, and that more traditional and centrist Republicans are put into critical positions.
If the Republicans do retake the House, they will likely do little with their majority and almost nothing when it comes to foreign policy or national security beyond passing the annual National Defense Authorisation Act, and possibly a continuing budget resolution. Prior to the new Congress sitting, there should be a burst of activity from outgoing Democrats hoping to cross items off their to-do-list whilst still in power.
Ultimately, this midterm election should be seen as a prelude to the 2024 presidential election. There are unconfirmed rumors that Trump will announce his candidacy shortly after the midterms on 8th November. His entry, if it indeed does happen, could dramatically shape the political landscape for the next two years and will certainly define international and domestic perceptions of the Republican Party. His policies will be the benchmark by which others are judged and the agenda of debate set. The future field of anticipated candidates are also generally seen as both inexperienced and disinterested in foreign policy, with perhaps the limited exceptions of Mike Pompeo, a former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency and Secretary of State, and Nikki Haley, the former US ambassador to the United Nations.
The possibility of fissures – perceived or real – over aid to Ukraine could well presage strains in United Kingdom (UK)-US relations and the current unity displayed by open Euro-Atlantic nations in resisting Russian aggression. Nonetheless, while the populist Republicans may question the long-term sustainability (and strategic sensibility) of American aid to Ukraine, Washington’s leadership remains invaluable in maintaining North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and Euro-Atlantic unity. The depth of the relationship between Washington and London will ensure its stability in the near term, however, as populist Republicans increasingly look for low-hanging fruit to attack the Biden administration and become politically belligerent, the US will become more divided and forced to look inward.
Joshua Huminski is the Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.
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