The US goes to the polls on Tuesday, with American politics likely to be shaped for at least the next two years by the results in just a handful of marginal states.
A good night for either the Democrats or Republicans will have huge ramifications for who holds the levers of power in Washington DC and the fate of US president Joe Biden’s agenda – and may offer clues about who runs for the White House in two years time.
Elections for the US Congress, which is made up of the House of Representatives and the Senate, happen every two years.
All legislative power in the government is vested in Congress. As well as making federal laws, the two chambers have the power to raise, spend and borrow money, approve Supreme Court justices and even remove a president from office.
The “midterm” elections is the round of ballots that falls half-way through the US president’s four-year term in office, and is often seen as an opportunity for voters to hand down a verdict on the president, and typically blame the party that holds the White House for their grievances.
What is the state of play?
The Democratic Party have held both chambers of Congress and the presidency for the last two years, helping Biden to progress his agenda, which has included a massive $1.2 trillion infrastructure package, a huge Covid relief deal and writing off large chunks of student debt.
Democrats, led by Nancy Pelosi, have held the majority in the House since 2018, when they won control in then-president Donald Trump’s first midterm election. Biden sweeping the presidency two years ago helped take the Senate too.
But they may not have power for much longer.
US president Joe Biden delivers remarks at a Democratic Party of New Mexico campaign rally for incumbent New Mexico governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham. (Photo: Kevin Lamarque via Reuters)
The Republican Party, often referred to as the GOP (which stands for Grand Old Party) are the favourites to win the House, and they need to pick up just one seat to gain control of the Senate.
Controlling both chambers will enable them to stonewall the next stage of Biden’s policy platform, block his executive branch nominees and launch investigations of his administration.
History gives Republicans reason for optimism in the House. In the modern era, the party that’s held the White House has lost congressional seats in virtually every first-term president’s midterm election.
The outlook is murkier in the Senate. Several races in key battleground states are tight, leading Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell to say the chances of his party winning a majority are just 50-50.
What are the issues at play?
Biden has cautioned the November 8 elections are “not a referendum, it’s a choice, a choice between two vastly different visions of America”.
He’s not wrong.
Republicans are buoyed by Biden’s low approval ratings, and have been fuelling voter concerns about the parlous state of economy and inflation. Their focus has been on how – despite a strong record on employment – Biden is responsible for household concerns such as rising petrol or “gas” prices, even if these have been caused by global factors such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
But the Democrats have been thrown a political life raft.
After the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade, reversing 50 years of established constitutional protection for abortion, Democrats have used the issue as a rallying cry to help boost turnout among their base voters. Enshrining the right to an abortion is also on the ballot in some states, including the crucial swing state of Michigan.
Opposing candidates also have differing messages on touchstone American issues including immigration and public safety – among many others – that they hope will tip the balance in their favour.
Also worth watching out for is the rise of election denial – inspired by Trump’s “big lie” about fraud during the presidential vote in 2020 – if some Republicans lose by narrow margins.
What are the key battlegrounds?
Republicans could take back the House if they net just five seats. They are trying to win dozens, including many of those held by Democrats who won in suburban districts in 2018.
In the Senate, Republicans have focused their efforts on flipping a Democratic seat in Arizona or Nevada. But the Democrats also have a fighting chance of winning a few seats from the Republicans, potentially giving them an insurance policy against any red surge.
Here are some of the most eye-catching and potential significant races in the five biggest battleground states.
Arizona is a prominent swing state that Biden won in 2020, and the battle between Democrat Katie Hobbs and Republican Kari Lake for state governor is likely to be one of the most keenly watched – as a bellwether of how the country is feeling, and whether the respective playbooks are working.
Lake, a former TV anchor, is a carrier of Trump’s Make America Great Again flame, including the discredited theory that the 2020 election was compromised by fraud. Hobbs, the state’s top elections official, has adopted a more low-key traditional Democrat approach while denouncing “that Trump-endorsed, election-denying, media-hating, conspiracy-loving GOP nominee”.
Former US president Donald Trump looks on as Arizona Republican nominee for governor Kari Lake speaks during a campaign rally in Mesa. (Photo: Mario Tama via Getty Images)
In the US Senate race, incumbent Democrat Mark Kelly is projected to keep his seat, though venture capitalist Blake Masters, a mentee of right-wing tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel, isn’t far behind.
The historically conservative state elected president Biden and two Democratic senators – Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff – two years ago, suggesting the stirrings of a political realignment.
Warnock faces another Trump-backed Republican challenger – Herschel Walker – with polls showing the race to be deadlocked.
For months, Warnock had held a steady polling edge over Walker, a former football star at the University of Georgia who has been dogged by questions about his turbulent personal life. But the lead has narrowed.
Walker has faced allegations of domestic violence from his ex-wife. More recently, two women have said that Walker pressured them to have abortions during their relationships, allegations he has denied.
Tudor Dixon, a conservative commentator, business owner and another Trump endorsed candidate, is the Republican nomination facing off against Democrat Gretchen Whitmer in one of this year’s most competitive races for governor in one of the country’s most important swing states.
Michigan Republican gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon, left, and Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer. (Photo: Carlos Osorio via AP)
Whitmer remains the favorite in the race. But Democrats acknowledge the political environment is tougher than it was in 2018, when a backlash to Trump helped Whitmer and other Democratic candidates win statewide and take control of the House.
A frenzied race for Nevada’s US Senate seat is shaping up to be one of the closest in the country, with the GOP considering Nevada one of its best opportunities to turn a blue seat into red.
Democratic senator Catherine Cortez Masto and Republican challenger Adam Laxalt have become increasingly neck-and-neck in recent weeks, with many polls showing the candidates just a percentage point or two apart.
As election day draws near, both are continuing to follow the same campaign playbooks as their national parties, with Cortez Masto rallying voters around threats to abortion access and Laxalt focusing on the economy.
The Pennsylvania seat has for months been the most likely pick-up opportunity for Democrats in the evenly-divided Senate, and now all eyes are on the battle between Republican nominee Dr Mehmet Oz, a heart surgeon-turned-TV celebrity, and Democrat John Fetterman, the state’s lieutenant governor who is recovering from a stroke earlier this year that he says nearly killed him.
Republican Mehmet Oz, right, is seen live on a monitor in the media tent, next to a poster of Democrat John Fetterman as the two US Senate candidates hold their first and only debate. (Photo: via Associated Press)
Republican senator Ron Johnson is hoping for a third term by beating Democrat Mandela Barnes, the lieutenant governor.
Johnson has accused the Democrats of “fundamentally destroying this country”, while Barnes has said Johnson has “lied to our faces for 12 straight years” and returned repeatedly to Johnson’s downplaying of the January 6 insurrection.
Polls have shown Johnson with an apparently increasing lead over Barnes, and national Republicans who abandoned his campaign six years ago are pouring money into the final days.
What does it all mean for Trump?
The question everyone asks.
A return to Republican power in the House would be a victory for Trump, who has fought Democrat-led efforts to hold him accountable for the Capitol insurrection.
The vast majority of Republicans who are expected to return to Washington, along with most of those hoping to win a first term, are loyal to the ex-president and have followed his example in their policies and positions.
Aides to the former president are making quiet preparations for a 2024 presidential campaign that could be launched soon after the midterm elections as Trump tries to capitalise on any Republican wins to propel himself toward becoming the frontrunner for his party’s nomination.
What would it mean for Biden?
Losing the House would mean Democratic priorities such as access to abortion, addressing climate change and stricter gun control would immediately be sidelined and most of Biden’s agenda would be effectively dead for the final two years of his term.
While a Republican Senate win would spell further bad news for Democrats, it would be held with the slimmest of margins, and much of Biden’s legislative achievements in office have been the byproduct of bipartisan negotiations in the Senate.
Political analysts believe the US midterms will also do much more to help determine whether Biden will run in 2024. He and advisers have said as recently as November 2 that he plans to run again, and White House officials expect him to stand again as well.
But a wide margin of Democratic losses would be viewed as a rebuke of Biden’s presidency, and increase pressure on him to cede the role to someone else.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.