What’s at Stake

To understand the importance and consequences of Tuesday’s midterm elections, I spoke to Astead Herndon, a political reporter who has been covering this election cycle for the Times podcast “The Run-Up.”

Claire: Hi Astead. I live in Europe, where many people are only now starting to tune into the midterms. How would you explain to them, and others who need a refresher, why this election matters?

Astead: If the Republicans take back the House, it would change the scope of U.S. policy. We know they’d try to stop President Biden’s agenda. A Republican House would hurt Biden’s ability to respond to domestic challenges on his terms, like inflation, and to global crises — Kevin McCarthy, the Republican House leader, has signaled that Republicans might stop approving aid for Ukraine.

We’ve also seen a global rise in fears of democratic collapse. If the U.S. elects lawmakers who spread conspiracy theories about elections and who promise to tear down tenets of democracy, that will embolden autocratic leaders in other countries and weaken the United States’ standing in the world.

These midterms also matter because they could signal the start of an even more divisive era of politics. We should not assume we are at the floor of division — we’re going to get lower.

When you say Republicans would try to block Biden, what could that look like?

If Republicans take over Congress, some members will push their new House speaker to start impeachment proceedings of the president and members of his cabinet like Merrick Garland, the attorney general. Some Republicans have been ready to impeach Biden since he took office. Their complaints are about policy and politics, not accusations of the kinds of abuses of power that have historically been grounds for impeachment. McCarthy has tried to minimize talk of impeachment lately, seeing it as polarizing, but the hard right rank-and-file will almost certainly press for it.

You’ve been covering politics for years. What do you think we should be paying more attention to?

Democrats are asking their base to rally behind the idea of protecting democracy — that’s what Biden has said. But that base is mostly working-class Americans and people of color. And many of those people feel like the system has not provided tangible and meaningful change on issues that most affect their day-to-day life — like housing, wages or public safety.

A woman on last week’s episode of “The Run-Up” told us that democracy has never worked for her. She’s borne the brunt of poverty. Her top issue was housing. That’s not what the Democratic Party is talking about. While Biden and Democrats did pass funding related to housing, that money was drastically cut from the levels that most people who focus on the issue say was necessary to effect lasting change.

I also think that the media has done too little to explain Republicans’ built-in advantages. Their control of legislatures in some battleground states is backed by gerrymandering. We recently did an episode of the podcast about Wisconsin, and how Republicans have gerrymandered the state legislature in such a way that they have effectively shut Democrats out of power.

There are so many races that it can be hard to keep track. Which are worth following?

It depends on what matters to you. Let’s say it’s action from the White House on codifying abortion rights into federal law: Look at races where Democratic control of the House hangs in the balance, and Senate races in states like Nevada, Wisconsin and Georgia. If Democrats don’t hold both chambers of Congress, that’s not going to happen.

If your concern is about the strength of democracy, look at state races, like for governor, secretary of state and statehouses — especially with the looming Supreme Court case that could give more power over elections to state legislatures. You can also look at Wisconsin and Arizona, where there are huge stakes, not just for this election but for the Democrats’ ability to win future races. The Republican candidates for governor in those states, Tim Michels in Wisconsin and Kari Lake in Arizona, have been openly hostile toward elements of our election system — including mail-in ballots and early voting — that many Democrats say are necessary for them to have a chance at success.

When might we know some results?

The initial numbers may give us hints of larger trends. In 2016 and 2020, results in Florida gave us good signs of the level of enthusiasm of particular voting blocs. If the Republicans win Florida by a lot, that’ll be a bad sign for Democrats. The margins of Virginia, for example, could tell us whether young, college-educated white voters are going back to Republicans, because they make up a sizable chunk of voters there. But for a lot of results, we will have to wait for the total count, which might take days.

Astead Herndon is a national political reporter who joined The Times in 2018. In high school, he wrote a column for his school newspaper named “Get into Astead’s Head.”

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