Returning to Washington after three weeks or so away, there is a sense that the political mood is changing.
Last month there was an almost universal sense of fatalism that President Joe Biden’s Democratic Party was set to receive a severe beating in the midterm elections in November.
Republicans taking control of Congress from early 2023 would hobble Biden’s agenda for the remainder of his presidency. There have also been musings from some Republicans about carrying out major investigations into, for example, the business dealings of the president’s son Hunter Biden or the events surrounding the chaotic withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan a year ago. There has even been some talk of Republicans seeking to impeach Biden, essentially as payback for what Democrats did to Donald Trump when he was in the White House.
In July, Biden’s presidency appeared stalled. His key domestic agenda was held up by infighting within his party, while inflation was contributing to the view of about three quarters of Americans that the country was on the wrong economic track, a figure reconfirmed in a poll this week.
Biden’s fortunes improved as Congress finally passed key climate change and healthcare reforms — even if the overall legislation was much less ambitious than originally proposed by the president
Added to the general political view that the party of the sitting president tends to do relatively badly in the first midterm elections after they take the White House, there was a virtual consensus that the Republicans would seize control of the House of Representatives while Democrats would do well to hold on to their tiny majority in the Senate.
But in the intervening weeks this conventional wisdom has been challenged.
Republicans may still win control of the House, but the midterms will not be a walk in the park for them.
In Senate contests, a number of Republican candidates, including some incumbents, are facing tough fights and the Democrats, in some scenarios, could gain seats.
So, 11 weeks out from the elections, what has changed?
Over a fortnight or so in July, Biden’s fortunes improved as Congress finally passed key climate change and healthcare reforms — even if the overall legislation was much less ambitious than originally proposed by the president. July also saw more than 500,000 jobs created, while the price of petrol has continued to fall over the summer.
Earlier this week, the president announced a new initiative to forgive about $10,000 (€9,970) in debt for millions of Americans who have to repay sizeable college loans. The move has been attacked from the right and the left but Democrats hope it will play well with the middle ground.
However, a crucial issue would appear to have been the supreme court ruling earlier in the summer eliminating the federal constitutional right to abortion that had existed for 50 years.
The striking down of the 1973 Roe v Wade decision and the immediate move by some Republican-controlled states to introduce strict anti-abortion measures appears to have had an impact on voters, particularly women, and galvanised Democrats.
The warning by Biden and other Democrats that a Republican Congress would try to put in place a federal ban on terminations, while other social rights, including same-sex marriage, could be a target of the supreme court would seem to have gained traction.
[A poll] found that ‘threats to democracy’ had overtaken the ‘cost of living’ as the most important issue facing the country
An early indicator of the strength of feeling on the issue came in traditionally-conservative Kansas in early August, when voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposal that would have removed protections for abortion rights from its constitution and allowed the legislature there to further restrict or ban abortion.
In New York this week, there was an election that may also throw light on how the abortion decision could influence politics.
The special election to fill a seat in New York’s 19th congressional district in the Hudson Valley was considered to be a national bellwether contest. It was an area won by Barack Obama in 2012, Donald Trump in 2016 and Joe Biden in 2020. Both Democrats and Republicans poured financial and personnel resources into the contest. The Democratic candidate Pat Ryan campaigned as if it was a referendum on abortion rights and last Tuesday night he beat his Republican opponent, outperforming the vote secured by Biden in 2020.
At the same time, a poll for NBC news during the week maintained that Biden’s poll numbers remain in the low 40s and by a very slight amount (within the margin of error) Republicans are favoured to win control of Congress. But, crucially, it showed that Democrats are becoming more enthusiastic about getting out to vote in November.
The poll also found that “threats to democracy” had overtaken the “cost of living” as the most important issue facing the country.
The public hearings of the committee investigating the attack on the US Congress on January 6th last year may have moved the dial, as well as the discovery of top-secret documents at Trump’s residence in Florida. However, some Republican voters may also view the raid on Trump’s property as a threat to democracy.
Nevertheless, 57 per cent said the investigations into the former president should continue.
As it enters the closing straight towards the November elections, the United States remains divided. It seems dissatisfied and not very confident about the future. However, Democrats on the ground appear to have given themselves a chance that the elections may not be as bad as first feared.