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US byelections suggest improved prospects for Democrats at midterms, while Liz Cheney suffers huge loss

The US midterm elections occur in just over two months, on November 8. All 435 House of Representatives seats and 35 of the 100 senators are up for election. At the 2020 elections, Democrats won the house by a 222-213 margin, and held the Senate on a 50-50 tie with Vice President Kamala Harris’ casting vote.

On June 24, the US Supreme Court reversed its 1973 Roe v Wade ruling, denying a constitutional right to an abortion. This FiveThirtyEight article says that, relative to a district’s partisan lean, the average federal byelection had given Republicans a two-point gain before this decision. Republicans performed very strongly in two early June byelections.

In four byelections since June 24, Democrats have performed an average of nine points better than the district’s partisan lean. This analysis was published on August 24, and did not include the byelection for Alaska’s at-large district, where preferential voting was used.

Relative to expectations, the best result for Democrats was their August 23 hold in New York’s 19th. Two polls in August had given the Republican leads by three and eight points, but the Democrat won by 51.1-48.7.

In Alaska’s at-large district, the top four candidates from a large field qualified in June for an August 16 preferential vote, but a left-leaning independent withdrew. After preferences were distributed Wednesday, Democrat Mary Peltola defeated Republican Sarah Palin by 51.5-48.5, a gain for the Democrats. Final primary votes were 40.2% Peltola, 31.3% Palin and 28.5% for Nick Begich, another Republican.

Palin’s weakness with other Republican voters explains why she lost. Begich voters split 50% Palin, 29% Peltola and 21% exhaust. At the 2020 presidential election, Alaska voted for Donald Trump by a 52.8-42.8 margin over Joe Biden, so Peltola’s three-point win is a 13-point shift towards Democrats.

Current forecasts and polling for the midterms

In my last US politics article three weeks ago, I wrote that Democrats were benefiting from the Supreme Court’s decision that nullified Roe v Wade.

Read more: US Democrats gain ground before midterm elections as Kansas voters reject attempt to ban abortion

The FiveThirtyEight forecasts now give Democrats a 67% chance to hold the Senate, up from 60% three weeks ago. Republicans are still considered a 76% chance to gain control of the House, but that’s down from 80% three weeks ago. The national polling of the House now gives Democrats a 0.8% lead, up from 0.1% three weeks ago.

The 35 Senate seats up for election at this year’s midterms are 21 Republicans and 14 Democrats. As Republicans are defending more Senate seats, the FiveThirtyEight forecasts give Democrats a far greater chance to hold the Senate than the House.

The biggest improvement for Democrats is in President Joe Biden’s ratings. In late July, Biden’s net approval in the FiveThirtyEight tracker was close to -20. His ratings are now 53.1% disapprove, 42.4% approve (net -10.7). These ratings are still poor, but the improvement should make it easier for Democrats in close contests.

On August 16, Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act into law after it had passed the Senate on August 7 and the House of Representatives on August 12. This act prioritised health and climate change spending. I discussed Senate passage in my previous US politics article.

On August 24, Biden announced that the government would forgive up to US$10,000 per person in student debt, and up to US$20,000 for Pell Grant recipients.

I believe the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v Wade, a sense that Democrats are “getting things done” by legislation or executive action and better economic data on inflation, as discussed previously, are all assisting Democrats and Biden.

But there are still over two months before the midterms, and the non-presidential party has convincingly won every House midterm election since 2006.

Liz Cheney’s huge loss in Wyoming Republican primary

Since the January 6 2021 riots at the certification of Biden’s November 2020 election victory, Liz Cheney has been the Republican who has most condemned Trump, over both the riots and the Big Lie that the election was stolen.

On August 16, Cheney was crushed by a 66-29 margin in a Republican primary for Wyoming’s at-large district by the Trump-endorsed Harriet Hageman. US primaries are party preselection contests that are open to a far larger number of voters than in Australia; they are administered by state election authorities.

Cheney’s loss means she will leave Congress when her term expires in January 2023. Trump won Wyoming by 43 points in 2020, so Hageman is certain to win the November general election and replace Cheney.

CNN analyst Harry Enten said Cheney’s loss was the second worst in a primary by a House incumbent in the past 60 years. Her 37.4 point loss is just worse than the 37.2 point loss for a Democratic incumbent in 2000, but better than a Republican incumbent’s loss by 41 points in 2010.

Four of six House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump after the January 6 riots and stood for re-election have been defeated in primaries; this includes Cheney. Only 2% of other House Republican incumbents running for re-election have been defeated.

None of the six who impeached Trump won a majority of the Republican vote in their primaries. Since 1956, House incumbents have averaged over 90% of their party’s primary vote. Trump’s grip on the Republican party remains powerful.

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