Personally and politically, Tuesday’s election stands as a momentous event for Biden. The outcome could shape whether the rest of his term is marked by additional steps on his priorities — or the standoffs, investigations and brinkmanship that could follow a GOP takeover. It also could determine whether Biden, who turns 80 this month, can convince his increasingly anxious party that he is the right person to lead the ticket in 2024.
Most analysts expect Republicans to take the House, which alone could engulf the White House in investigations by hardcore supporters of former president Donald Trump. But even more damaging is the possibility of losing the Senate, considered a toss-up, which would make it hard for Biden to continue elevating federal judges at the same clip and could rule out any Supreme Court confirmation if a vacancy arises.
“If Biden can hold on to a Democratic Senate, then he’ll be in the catbird seat to run for reelection,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University. “Now, if it’s a red wave and the Republicans win the Congress and Senate, there’s going to be a drumroll for Biden to not be the party’s nominee.”
But the impact on Biden could come much faster than that.
The president’s advisers insist his decision on whether to run for reelection will not be affected by Tuesday’s results, but a Republican wave could immediately challenge Biden’s ability to govern. Many GOP candidates have refused to say if they will accept an election loss, raising the prospect of a wave of challenges across the country, colored by unfounded fraud claims. And Trump has signaled he will announce his reelection plans within days, stoking further turmoil just as Biden is preparing to leave for a week-long trip to Asia on Thursday.
“There are more than 300 Republican candidates for state, local, and federal office who are election deniers, who say that I did not win the election even though the hundreds of attempts to challenge that have all failed, even in Republican courts,” Biden said Monday at a rally for New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D). He added, “We all know it in our bones that our democracy is at risk.”
GOP leaders have promised to immediately launch a slew of investigations if they take power on Jan. 1, targeting Biden’s son and members of his Cabinet and re-litigating his administration’s most tumultuous moments. Some have threatened to impeach the president or his top officials. And they have already launched plans to use must-pass bills as leverage, like those funding the government or increasing its debt limit, raising the prospect of political brinkmanship and financial turmoil.
Amid Democratic anxiety, some in the party have already begun to whisper about whether Biden has the fervor to defeat Trump a second time, and those whispers are likely to grow louder if Democrats face a midterm drubbing. Trump and President Barack Obama had a loyal faction of enthusiastic supporters to help them weather setbacks in their first midterms, but Biden has no such fan base.
The culture of election denialism that Trump has energized could pose fresh problems while Biden is abroad, as many Republican candidates have already hinted that any result not favorable to them must be tainted by fraud. Some GOP officials have begun challenging thousands of ballots in battleground states, alleging voter fraud or using technicalities to call for the disqualification of mail-in votes, potentially weakening Biden’s hand as he joins three global summits overseas.
Biden used a prime-time speech last week to decry political violence and voter intimidation. He also encouraged Americans to be patient while the vote tabulation process plays out, even if it takes several days to determine the winners, as is likely in several states.
“This is also the first election since the events of Jan. 6, when the armed, angry mob stormed the U.S. Capitol,” Biden said. “I wish I could say the assault on our democracy ended that day, but I cannot.”
Trump has previously encouraged candidates to declare victory if they are ahead while votes are still being counted, something that could cause chaos while Biden is on foreign soil. White House officials have dismissed questions about Biden’s decision to leave the country so soon after polls close, asserting that he can be president from anywhere in the world. They noted that the climate, Asian and Group of 20 summits that Biden is attending were scheduled long ago.
One adviser, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal strategy, said Biden’s pivot to the world stage could even provide a politically advantageous image of “the president of the United States leading the free world in a way only he can,” regardless of what is happening at home politically.
Biden pushed through several major laws during his first two years, from prescription drugs to climate change to computer chips, but any further wins will be difficult if the GOP takes the House. Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who is aiming to become speaker, has said his colleagues would use a congressional majority to investigate Biden’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, his handling of immigration at the southern border and investigative moves by the Justice Department.
Some Democrats say privately that losing the House, as devastating as it might be, could have a political upside. Obama and former president Bill Clinton both had disastrous showings in their first midterms but followed them up with successful reelection bids, using the unpopular House GOP as a foil. The current House Republican conference includes a faction of election deniers and believers of disinformation, as well as many who want to outlaw abortion, potentially making them an even easier political target.
White House spokesman Andrew Bates said Biden has spent much of the past year laying out the “enormous stakes for the middle class” if Republican policies “of worsening inflation with tax cuts for the rich and cutting Medicare and Social Security” prevail.
Republican leaders contend that GOP majorities are needed to halt Biden’s lavish spending, which they say has spurred inflation, and rein in his chaotic policies, and they reject his criticism of their anti-democratic statements. “President Biden is desperate to change the subject from inflation, crime, and open borders,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) tweeted recently. “Now he’s claiming that democracy only works if his party wins. What nonsense.”
Biden’s party could defy the predictions on both sides by holding on to the House and expanding its majority in the Senate, an outcome the president recently said he was “optimistic” would happen.
Biden has laid out what he would do with another Democratic Congress, promising to codify the recently overturned Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision and expand the right to an abortion. He has embraced rolling back the 60-vote filibuster rule that stymied much of his agenda in the Senate over the past two years, saying that on issues like women’s rights and voting rights he would push lawmakers to pass legislation with a simple majority.
While the president and his allies have expressed public confidence that they might outperform expectations on Tuesday, they have also begun to prepare the public for a less favorable outcome. “If we lose the House and Senate, it’s going to be a horrible two years,” Biden said Friday at a fundraiser in Chicago. “The good news is I’ll have a veto pen.”
Biden may be able to veto GOP legislation, but he would have a harder time blocking Republican plans to investigate his son, which some GOP leaders say would be a top priority if they gain control of Congress.
Republicans have publicly accused Hunter Biden, who has faced scrutiny for his overseas financial dealings and self-admitted history of substance abuse, of being a national security threat. Hunter Biden has asserted his innocence while acknowledging he is under investigation by the Justice Department, and he has not been charged with any crimes.
Complicating matters enormously for Biden, Trump has increasingly suggested he will announce a reelection campaign within days, immediately casting him as the most significant threat to Biden’s presidency and forcing the president to respond while putting the two men on track for a rematch.
“I will probably have to do it again, but stay tuned,” Trump said during a campaign rally Sunday in Florida, teasing another event in Ohio on Monday. “We have a big, big rally. Stay tuned for tomorrow night.”
Trump, 76, could try to capitalize on the momentum of a strong Republican performance in the election by immediately beginning to campaign for himself after Tuesday.
Biden has claimed credit for being the only politician who has defeated Trump. His allies say a third run by the former president would be good for Biden, driving attention away from any negative midterm results and reminding voters of the stark differences between the two men and their parties.
Biden’s advisers note that many of his policies, from a historic infrastructure bill to reducing prescription drug costs to providing student loan relief, are generally popular. But they acknowledge privately that historical head winds — most incumbent presidents struggle during their first midterm elections — and the twin challenges of global inflation and a war in Europe make the current political environment difficult.
And they assert that neither the midterm results nor any announcement by Trump will affect Biden’s decision. “He will run because he believes there’s more important work to be done,” one adviser said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Still, a midterm trouncing could be difficult for Biden’s political prospects, Brinkley said, citing the president’s age and the intensity of the partisan and personal attacks he would face from a Republican Congress.
“If he were a younger and more vibrant figure, he may be able to weather that,” Brinkley said. “But he’s not.”