Control of US Congress at stake as midterm election underway

Republicans hope to claw back control from Democrats in polls that will also decide key local and state officials.

Voters cast their ballots at the Utah County Justice and Health center.
Voters cast their ballots at the Utah County Justice and Health centre on November 8, 2022, in Provo, Utah, US [George Frey/Getty Images]

Voters in the United States are casting their ballots in key midterm elections, which will determine the makeup of the next Congress and set the tone for the remainder of President Joe Biden’s term in the White House.

The vote on Tuesday comes as Americans grapple with sky-high inflation and living costs, and the economy has emerged as the top concern among supporters of both the Democratic and Republican parties.

Democrats currently retain a slim majority in Congress, and they have focused much of the campaign on defending reproductive rights and strengthening democratic institutions, which they argue are under threat in the country.

But as the party in power, Democrats are expected to lose ground to Republicans, who have seized on immigration and economic issues in a bid to garner support at the ballot box.

“There are some countervailing pressures on the economy: unemployment remains relatively low at 3.5 percent, consumer confidence is still fairly high,” Thomas Gift, the director of the Centre on US Politics at University College London, told Al Jazeera, “but inflation hits everyone, and the majority [party] – fair or not – is going to get scapegoated.”

All 435 seats in the US House of Representatives are up for grabs, along with 34 in the Senate. Governorships, state legislatures, local councils and school boards are also being contested.

Reporting from Washington, DC, Al Jazeera’s Kimberly Halkett said that President Joe Biden acknowledged hours before polls opened that it was going to be “tough” for Democrats to hold the House.

“This is really a referendum on the last two years of his presidency. His legacy is at stake and right now his approval rating is hovering in the low 40 percent [range] – his disapproval rating is above 50 percent,” she said.

“And historically, when a president has an approval rating of above 50 percent, their party does not really hang onto the House in midterm congressional elections.”

More than 41 million Americans have already cast their votes across the country, either through mail-in ballots or early in-person polls, according to a tally by the US Elections Project at the University of Florida.

Polling firm Gallup said earlier this month that 41 percent of eligible US voters intended to cast their ballots early, up from 34 percent in 2018. Fifty-four percent of Democrats said they would vote ahead of Tuesday, compared with 32 percent of Republicans, the same poll found.

Vermont was the first US state to open polls on Tuesday at 5am ET (10:00 GMT). Voting sites were set to be open in all US states by 1pm ET (18:00 GMT).

Among the east coast states to first open for in-person voting early on Tuesday were Georgia, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Florida, home to closely-watched Senate races that could decide which party controls the Senate.

“It’s Election Day! Go vote,” tweeted Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock as polls opened in Georgia. Warnock is facing Republican challenger Herschel Walker in a race projected to be one of the country’s closest.

While turnout is typically lower for midterms than for presidential elections in the US, the last midterm contest in 2018 saw the “highest midterm turnout in four decades” at 53 percent, according to the US Census Bureau.

In addition to immigration, reproductive rights and the economy, US voters have said public safety, gun control and the climate crisis are among the top issues on their minds as they cast their ballots.

Meanwhile, some observers raised concerns in the lead-up to Tuesday about barriers to voting, especially in states with large African American and other historically marginalised populations, as several US states have enacted restrictions in recent years.

Reports of voter intimidation and a recent attack at Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s California home that left her husband in the hospital have also raised the prospect of election-related violence.

Over 100 lawsuits have also been filed leading up the poll, with challenges stretching into election day. That includes Democrats in Pennsylvania seeking to stop undated mail-in ballots from being thrown out by election officials, Al Jazeera’s Gabriel Elizondo reported from Pittsburgh.

“We already do have a little bit of controversy: John Fetterman, the Democrat running for the Senate seat here, his campaign has filed a lawsuit overnight asking that federal authorities overrule a state court that said mail-in ballots that were not dated get thrown out,” Elizondo said.

“It’s clear that this could be a very long night in Pennsylvania,” he added. “A lot of officials [are] saying that the vote counting will go on through Tuesday evening, perhaps Wednesday, maybe even Thursday.”

A large segment of the US population – most notably Republican voters – also continues to believe the 2020 presidential election was marred by widespread fraud, a false claim that former Republican President Donald Trump still champions.

Lisa Bryant, a political science professor at California State University, Fresno, recently told Al Jazeera that election denialism could lead to an erosion of trust in the democratic process.

“If you don’t view the government as legitimate, then do you view the laws that it creates as legitimate? And so, then, are you subject to follow them?” she said.

While President Biden’s name will not be on any ballots, his administration’s track record could influence Tuesday’s vote, experts have said. A Reuters/Ipsos poll released on November 1 found that 40 percent of Americans approved of Biden’s performance so far.

Alan Abramowitz, a professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta, said if Republicans retake Congress, or if the House and Senate are split between Republican and Democratic control, observers can expect legislative “gridlock” in Washington.

“I would say that, at least for now, it seems likely that Republicans could pick up the House while Democrats maintain a moderate advantage to hold on to the Senate,” Abramowitz told Al Jazeera last month.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies