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The US midterm elections are nearing and according to President Joe Biden, the looming contest for control of the House, the Senate and governorships around the country is “the most consequential election… in recent history.”

Recent history also includes Barack Obama’s iconic victory, Donald Trump’s earth-shattering defeat of Hillary Clinton, and Trump’s dramatic loss to Biden. Each of those elections was also, according to many, “the most consequential election of our lifetime.”

Hyperbole aside, the stakes on Tuesday 8 November are enormous.

Hundreds of millions of Americans heading to the polls will vote in 435 House races, 34 Senate races, and 36 gubernatorial elections, as well as thousands of state-based legislative contests. These voters will have the final say on which party controls Congress for the next two years, setting the tone – and perhaps the agenda – for the remainder of Joe Biden’s first term in office.

Biden’s presidency commenced almost two years ago. His victory was born out of a public yearning for normalcy – an end to Trumpism – with others inspired by his ambitious, reformist agenda, in the image of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In the period since, Biden has signed a $1.9 trillion stimulus package, as well as the first gun-safety legislation in decades, the world’s largest ever climate bill, and a renewed commitment to US manufacturing. Biden’s administration helped engineer a successful COVID-19 vaccine rollout – ending the worst of the pandemic – and his leadership has united most of the world against Russian aggression in Ukraine.

And yet much has not gone according to plan. The President’s flagship $3.5 trillion Build Back Better Plan was rejected in the Senate. He failed to muster sufficient support for voting rights legislation or an assault weapons ban. And he has been powerless to block an emboldened conservative Supreme Court from sweeping rulings that have eliminated the constitutional right to an abortion, chipped away at the wall separating church and state, and made it harder for the administration to regulate emissions and guns.

Facing unified Republican opposition, and with just 50 Democratic senators, Biden can only effect passage of his most progressive reforms with unanimous support of his own party. Support that has not been forthcoming from two of his party’s senators – Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema of West Virginia and Arizona. Because Manchin and Sinema have refused to support Biden’s most ambitious plans, and been unwilling to abolish or limit the filibuster – which in simple terms requires 60 senators (instead of 50) to support a bill before a vote can occur – Biden has been compelled to constrain his agenda.

That may change depending on next Tuesday’s results.

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Hundreds of millions of Americans heading to the polls will vote in 435 House races, 34 Senate races, and 36 gubernatorial elections, as well as thousands of state-based legislative contests.

If the Democrats retain the House and expand their majority in the Senate, Manchin and Sinema’s power will be diluted, and the President has promised to codify a federal right to an abortion as priority number one, with further reforms expected. For several reasons, however, this eventuality is unlikely.

According to America’s pre-eminent political forecaster, Nate Silver, the Republican party has about an 80 per cent chance of retaking the House, with the Senate essentially a tossup. Since World War II, the party of the president has lost an average of 26 seats in the House and an average of four seats in the Senate in midterm elections. The president’s supporters are generally less likely to turn out in midterms, and the public tends to sour on an incumbent president. Without an opposition figurehead against whom the incumbent party can target (unlike in presidential elections), the president is a sitting duck. Invariably, his party suffers.

For a time earlier this year, things looked more promising for the Democrats. Unexpectedly strong opposition to the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade saw huge numbers of women register to vote, and Democrat support increase across the board. Gas prices began to fall, Congress was surprisingly productive, passing several bipartisan bills, and the prime-time hearings into the 6 January 2021 Capitol attack highlighted an issue where the public is relatively sympathetic toward Democrats. Had the election been held only a few months ago, the Democrats were poised to expand their Senate majority, and were close to a 50/50 chance of retaining the House.

The outlook has since changed. Inflation remains stubbornly high, and gas prices have stopped falling. Abortion has been replaced by the economy and immigration as voters’ most important issues, and as so often happens as elections loom closer, Republicans (and Democrats) have coalesced around their candidates, despite their many controversies. The race for Congress, which for a time looked to be defying decades-long conventional wisdom, has returned to the fundamentals.

Unless things change drastically in the next week, the House appears lost for the Democrats, and with that, so too the 6 January Commission, which will likely be disbanded with a Republican victory.

With Biden unable to pass anything but the most bipartisan reforms, he will likely turn to executive action (such as his recent student loan forgiveness plan) to get things done, and hope his party retains Senate majority, which will enable the continued confirmation of federal judges.

The Democrats will be hoping to gain Senate seats in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Ohio. The Republicans have strong chances to do the same in Arizona, Nevada, Georgia and New Hampshire. Those are the races to watch as America votes next week in the most consequential election… since the last one.

The Law Society of New South Wales and the Royal Society of NSW are hosting a webcast on Monday 14 November 2022 exploring the consequences for the US Supreme Court as an institution and for the American democracy. Register for the webcast here.