Election results are rolling in across the country, and while control of the House and Senate remains uncertain, it is clear that Republicans did not see the Red Wave they were expecting, signaling the durable strength of President Joe Biden and the Democrats.
Despite widespread pessimism, Democrats held crucial seats in the House, including Rep. Abigail Spanberger from Virginia and Rep. Elissa Slotkin from Michigan, both strong national security leaders in the House running in heavily contested toss-up races. Democrats also held on to crucial Senate seats, like Senator Michael Bennet in Colorado and Senator Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire, while also picking up the open Senate seat in Pennsylvania, sending John Fetterman to Washington.
Midterm elections are usually a referendum on the party in the White House, but this one has proven to be a referendum on the Republican party as well. The world is watching election results come in, trying to gauge how strong Trumpism still is in the United States. With GOP candidates like Rep. Lauren Boebert from Colorado surprisingly trailing behind Democratic challengers, it is a sign that support for “Making America Great Again”-aligned Republicans is dwindling across the country.
While Democrats certainly have some victories to celebrate today, it is still likely that Republicans will win enough seats to take control of the House. The Senate will depend on races in Georgia, Wisconsin, Arizona, and Nevada. It may take days for all votes to be counted, and we’re very likely headed to a runoff in Georgia.
How does this midterm election impact US foreign policy?
A SHIFT IN PRIORITIES
A new majority in the House (and potentially in the Senate) means new leadership on key committees and, of course, a shift in policy priorities. We can expect to see a slew of Benghazi-era congressional committee hearings investigating everything from Hunter Biden’s international business dealings to the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. Two foreign policy issues we can expect Republicans to hone in on in these hearings are Afghanistan and immigration.
While in the minority, Republicans successfully used Biden’s Afghanistan withdrawal against him and his fellow Democrats. Biden fulfilled his campaign promise to end the longest war in US history, but not without wrenching costs. To no surprise, Republicans leaned into this difficult decision to attack Biden’s credibility and question his capacity as Commander in Chief, all the while still hailing Donald Trump for originally sparking the troop withdrawal in a February 2020 agreement with the Taliban.
While the foreign policy community certainly recognizes the impact elections have on this work, they tend to overlook the impact foreign policy can have on elections.
While seeking accountability is always commendable, Republicans seem to be focused on holding only the Biden administration responsible for the US war in Afghanistan by having a razor-focus on the withdrawal. For example, Rep. Michael McCaul, likely the future chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has already put out an interim report calling Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan a “strategic failure.” He also recently sent Secretary of State Antony Blinken a preservation of records request for all documents related to the withdrawal, clearly laying the groundwork for Republicans to launch an unrelenting probe.
While we can expect significant partisan bluster during any House probe on Afghanistan, I do have faith in the bipartisan Afghanistan War Commission. The commission is made up of outside experts, appointed by both Republicans and Democrats, who will review the full picture of the US war in Afghanistan, starting with US actions in the wake of the 9/11 attacks all the way through the 2021 troop withdrawal. The timing of when the commission will report on its findings is unknown, but Democrats should be prepared to use their findings as a reality check on any disingenuous Republican attacks.
Republicans have consistently attacked Biden and his administration’s immigration policies as well, arguing that the administration has failed to secure US borders. The Republican approach to immigration will focus on renewing the US-Mexico border wall construction, continuing to enforce Title 42 restrictions on migrants, and increasing funding for border security. Ultimately, Republicans are keen on keeping US borders closed to migrants from Latin America and the Caribbean without any strategy on how to support people fleeing violence and natural disasters.
The Biden administration successfully reversed several discriminatory visa policies, including Trump’s Muslim ban and the “extreme vetting” policy. And while Biden’s immigration policy is far from perfect — from the unethical treatment of Haitians at the border to the continued backlogs and delays in consular processing — Republicans do not have a sufficient alternative. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is gearing up for a slew of Republican-led probes and investigations, which could include the impeachment of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. While Mayorkas has not committed “high crimes and misdemeanors,” several leading Republicans have communicated their lack of faith in the DHS approach to border security and expressed interest in moving toward impeachment proceedings.
IS CONSENSUS POSSIBLE?
A Republican majority will do what they can to make it difficult for Biden to deliver on some of his key priorities, namely clean energy goals, continued aid to Ukraine, and a balanced approach toward China.
Republicans are particularly critical of the Biden administration’s efforts to transition to clean energy resources, claiming that clean energy transitions are creating global energy crises. With the majority, Republicans will push for reinvestments in petroleum, natural gas, and nuclear power, arguing that their approach will bring down energy costs for Americans. While a Republican majority is unlikely to effectively derail Biden’s ambitious global climate strategy in the short term, the international community is likely concerned about what these election results mean for the future of US climate leadership. Armed with historic climate funding from the Inflation Reduction Act and an ambitious global climate agenda, Biden is well-positioned to reassure the international community that the United States is committed to climate leadership, but he will need to show the world that this success is not a one-off win.
While Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the presumptive speaker of the House under a Republican majority, has recently tried to reassure national security leaders that he will not abandon aid to Ukraine, Ukrainians and Europeans are no doubt concerned about what a Republican majority means for the future of US funding for Ukraine. It is unlikely that Republicans will cease all US funding for Ukraine, but we should expect them to use their position in the majority to push for a gradual decrease in funding while also pushing for our European allies to increase their financial support for Ukraine.
While a lot of air time will be taken up by Republican attacks on Biden and the Democrats, US-China policy provides a clear opportunity for bipartisan cooperation in Congress with leadership and support from the White House. The Biden administration and Democrats are already quite hawkish on China, and their current approach has not deviated too far from what Republicans hailed under Trump. While Republicans may publicly criticize Democrats for being too weak on China, the reality is that both parties are pushing for decoupling with China and renewing investments in onshore manufacturing and innovation to strengthen US competitiveness. Congressional Democrats and White House officials will find partners in Republicans like Senator Todd Young (R-Pa.) and likely future Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ind.), to deliver on their shared goals of strengthening manufacturing and boosting US competitiveness and innovation, as outlined in the bipartisan CHIPS and Science Act.
GETTING OVER THE MIDTERM ELECTION
While there is some room for bipartisan cooperation on foreign policy, a Republican majority in the House will work to distract the American public with political theater while complicating Democrat’s efforts to deliver on key foreign policy priorities.
While the foreign policy community certainly recognizes the impact elections have on this work, they tend to overlook the impact foreign policy can have on elections. It’s unlikely that American voters will transform into foreign policy wonks, but they need to elect and support leaders who are committed to strengthening support for principled US foreign policy. For example, Reps. Slotkin (D-Mich.), Spanberger (D-N.J.), and Andy Kim (D-N.J.) are able to connect foreign policy and national security to the everyday concerns of their constituents — and ultimately, it helps them win elections.
Foreign policy, therefore, has started to matter for midterm elections and vice versa.
Kristina Biyad is the Outreach Director at Foreign Policy for America, working alongside a national network of leaders committed to strengthening support for principled American engagement in the world. She is a 2021 Political Partner with the Truman National Security Project and listed on Arab America Foundation’s 30 Under 30 List and the Center for Strategic and International Studies & Diversity in National Security US National Security & Foreign Affairs Leadership List.