Early voting is already underway across the United States in this year’s midterm elections, with less than three weeks to go until election day on November 8. Plenty of mystery remains about what the results will be after an unusual campaign: How much will the Supreme Court’s historic decision to end a nationwide right to abortion have helped the Democratic Party, even as inflation and President Joe Biden’s unpopularity hurt its candidates? Will the Republican Party manage to recapture both chambers of the U.S. Congress or just retake one? Yet unless the results diverge dramatically from pre-election polling, one thing doesn’t seem particularly unclear: Republicans will win a majority in the House of Representatives, where Kevin McCarthy will presumably be the next speaker. What are they intending to do with that power?
David A. Hopkins is an associate professor of political science at Boston College. As Hopkins sees it, Republican leaders have proposed a conventional conservative legislative agenda—cutting taxes and regulations, opposing Democratic expansions of the government—but they won’t be able to implement much of it with a Democratic president remaining in the White House. What they will be able to do is block Democratic legislation, launch investigations into Biden’s administration and his family, and exercise new political leverage over the essential functioning of the federal government. According to Hopkins, there’s potential that congressional Republicans will be able to damage Biden politically—or be seen as overreaching and make him look more sympathetic to voters. Whatever happens, Hopkins sees a generational change in the Republican Party that’s making it more populist and Trump-like by the year, as its members await the former president’s decision about whether to seek the White House again in 2024.
Graham Vyse: How do you understand the key aspects of the agenda U.S. Republicans will pursue if they win back power in Congress?
David A. Hopkins: Their agenda will have two parts: The first is about legislation and policy; the second, investigations. The Republicans’ legislative ambitions mostly relate to standard conservative policies, as they laid out in their Commitment to America policy platform introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives—though there’s more of an emphasis there than there has been in the past on cultural issues. Of course, Republicans won’t be able to achieve any of their legislative ambitions on their own, given President Joe Biden’s ability to veto legislation. But they will be able to use the subpoena power of congressional committees—and the public attention you can get from that power in conducting oversight hearings—to investigate their political opponents, including the Biden administration, Biden’s family, and the technology companies they accuse of discriminating against conservative users.
The last time there was both a Democratic House and a Republican president in the United States, the president was impeached twice. The last time there was a Republican House and a Democratic president, the Republican speaker got run out of town by his own party. So if you’re the presumptive speaker in the next Congress, Kevin McCarthy, one lesson you’re likely to take from recent American history is that there will be tremendous pressure from within your party to attack major Democratic and liberal targets. Now, that might not mean impeaching President Biden, but it certainly might mean investigating his family—or trying to impeach a cabinet official or some other senior member of the administration. Another lesson you’re likely to absorb is that if you don’t satisfy your party’s quests for political retribution, you could easily end up on the firing line yourself.
Vyse: Republicans are widely expected to investigate Joe Biden’s son Hunter in particular. What will they hope to achieve with that?
Hopkins: There’s some reason to believe Hunter Biden may have broken the law—that he may have had international business dealings that included some corruption or misconduct. He may have committed tax crimes or made some false statements. So that’s one explanation for why they’d investigate him.
Another explanation is that Hunter Biden has become a frequent subject of focus in conservative media. If you’re someone who’s consumed that media, you’ve heard accusations that he’s been given preferential treatment and that the liberal media has systematically hidden evidence of his crimes in order to protect Joe Biden and help Democrats win elections. Regardless of what Hunter Biden may or may not have done—and may or may not be in legal jeopardy for—investigating him is appealing for congressional Republicans because it allows them to seem responsive to the demands of the conservative media and their base voters.
Vyse: How much political benefit is that likely to yield for Republicans?
Hopkins: Well, it’s probably not going to affect whether someone would vote for either Joe Biden or his Republican opponent in 2024. A lot of things are happening in Washington, D.C., and the average swing voter isn’t aware of most of them. That said, it’s possible that Republicans could benefit somewhat if they embarrass the president and make him look bad publicly.
There’s less and less of a distinction between the Republican Party and the American conservative media universe. The conservative media is now functionally a part of the party in a lot of ways.
It’s also possible that their investigation could backfire and help Biden by making him a more sympathetic figure. The Republicans could look like they’re overreaching by going after a family member who doesn’t hold a public office, though Republican leaders might be willing to run that risk on account of the pressure they’re getting from their own side.
Vyse: Would you say they’re facing more pressure from their base—and from conservative media—than they would have faced in the past?
Hopkins: Conservative media keeps growing more powerful within the Republican Party in America. It was stronger during Donald Trump’s presidency than it was during George W. Bush’s presidency. The Fox News host Sean Hannity essentially recruited Herschel Walker to run for the Senate in Georgia this year. [Walker, a former American football star and emphatically right-wing politician, is now the Republican nominee.] There’s less and less of a distinction between the Republican Party and the American conservative media universe. The conservative media is now functionally a part of the party in a lot of ways.
Republican members of Congress are going to need to show their base that they’re doing something. Actually passing legislation is going to be really tough, and a lot of what their base is demanding isn’t about passing legislation; it’s about waging a broad symbolic war against the left.
Vyse: Why is that?
Hopkins: Conservative voters have come to understand politics as largely a symbolic, cultural battle. They don’t necessarily want a lot of policy changes; that’s not necessarily what they’re asking for. A lot of what they’re asking for—and what conservative media encourages them to ask for—are gestures of superiority over Democrats and the left.
Similarly, a lot of what people liked about Trump didn’t have to do with his policies, and his lack of many legislative accomplishments in office didn’t reduce his appeal with his base. Much of Trump’s appeal came from his daily combativeness against liberals, the media, celebrities, and anyone who opposed him. That’s what his bond with his supporters was largely based on.
This dynamic wouldn’t have held true for a Democratic president. Contemporary Democratic voters have a different set of expectations for their leaders, which are much more centered on legislative accomplishments and policy achievements.
Now, I do think that the average Republican member of Congress has policy goals, even if those goals won’t necessarily get a lot of attention in conservative media. They want to try to cut taxes and regulations and to oppose liberal expansions of the government—and they may have some points of leverage, including around the U.S. debt limit.
You’d think that holding the debt limit hostage to cut Social Security wouldn’t be a winning political ploy—and not even something a lot of Republicans would support. There are an awful lot of Republicans on Social Security.
Vyse: Right. McCarthy is signaling that Republicans may refuse to lift America’s statutory borrowing cap next year unless Democrats agree to certain policy demands.
Hopkins: There’s a notable difference between doing that and simply shutting down the government through the appropriations process. If you shut down the government through the appropriations process, you generally get blamed, weaken your hand, and it’s only a matter of time before you fold. We’ve never been through a debt default in the U.S. We don’t know what the consequences would be, but there’s reason to wonder whether those consequences would hurt Biden politically more than they would hurt Republicans in Congress.
It’s hard to make a prediction about how this would all play out, including whether Republicans would actually follow through on holding this debt limit hostage, but you could certainly imagine a deal being made that gives some policy victories to the right. At the same time, you’d think that holding the debt limit hostage to cut Social Security wouldn’t be a winning political ploy—and not even something a lot of Republicans would support. There are an awful lot of Republicans on Social Security.
Vyse: If the Republicans managed to win both houses of the U.S. Congress—the Senate as well as the House—next month, how would that affect what they’d be able to do next year?
Hopkins: Control of the Senate matters less than control of the House, because in the Senate, you need 60 votes out of 100—as opposed to a simple majority—to do much. It would make a difference in nomination politics. It would mean that every judge or executive-branch appointee Biden wanted to nominate over the next two years is up for negotiation with Republicans. It would change Biden’s calculus about who to nominate and what cost he’s willing to pay to get them through their Senate confirmation.
Vyse: Are there any notable legislative issues where you see Republicans and Democrats potentially having a shared interest in cooperating?
Hopkins: There’s not much reason to expect any big bipartisan legislation aside from appropriations bills that have to pass to keep the government functioning. One exception to that rule could be another major national crisis, as there was with the pandemic. On foreign policy, McCarthy hasn’t been clear on the extent to which he supports continuing U.S. aid to Ukraine. And there are good reasons for him to be coy about that issue, because it divides his party to some extent.
If any of the well-known, celebrity-style Senate candidates win—Vance, Walker, or the TV doctor Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania—they’ll get much more attention than the typical newly elected senator would. They’ll get a national platform and be in a position to influence national politics.
Vyse: Republicans like J.D. Vance, the party’s high-profile nominee for the Senate in Ohio, have already called for cutting off that aid.
Hopkins: Yes, and there’s a question about what Trump will do. If he runs for the presidency again in the 2024 campaign, will he run as a critic of funding Ukraine in opposition to Russia? Anyhow, this is ultimately a congressional issue, since Congress has the power of the purse, so we could see either a bipartisan agreement or a big partisan fight.
Vyse: How do you expect newly elected Republicans to influence Congress?
Hopkins: Generational change is making the party more populist and more MAGA-aligned [referring to Trump’s slogan “Make American Great Again”]. We’re apt to see newly elected Republicans be more like Trump than like the old guard.
The size of McCarthy’s majority in the House is going to matter, if he does have a majority. A very narrow majority would make life a lot more difficult for him. It would require getting everybody on the same page, as even a few defections could complicate things. If Republicans win a big majority, he’ll have more room to maneuver; a few defectors won’t have the same leverage.
Vyse: Are there any individual Republican candidates running for the House or the Senate this year who stand out as potentially consequential figures?
Hopkins: It’s tough to make much of a splash when you’re new in the House. If any of the well-known, celebrity-style Senate candidates win—Vance, Walker, or the TV doctor Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania—they’ll get much more attention than the typical newly elected senator would. They’ll get a national platform and be in a position to influence national politics. We’ll be hearing a lot from them. Vance, in particular, seems like the kind of person who may run for president at some point.
You know, the Senate’s Republican caucus has generally been one of the least Trump-influenced factions of the party, and we’ve seen some bipartisan agreement in the Senate in recent years on issues like infrastructure and semiconductor research. To the extent that new senators would be more like Trump and see the Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell as an opponent to be vanquished, that could create some new and interesting dynamics.
Vyse: What do you perceive as the main vulnerabilities of each party in this campaign?
Hopkins: The main vulnerability for Democrats is that Americans don’t feel that the economy is going well, and they’re upset about inflation, and Biden isn’t particularly popular. It’s a pretty standard set of vulnerabilities.
The Republicans’ set of vulnerabilities is a bit more unusual. It’s a combination of some of their candidates being flawed and a potential backlash to the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, ending a national right to an abortion. Normally, public backlash to policy changes made by the government benefits the party out of power. In this case, we have an unusual situation in which the backlash could go against the party out of power, since the policy change came effectively from a conservative Court majority—which remains a potential source of Democratic mobilization and support that you don’t normally see in a U.S. midterm election.