In an atmosphere suffused with high tension, in-person balloting began on Tuesday in US midterm elections that could determine the turn of the nation’s politics over the next two years, leading to the 2024 presidential elections and beyond.
Nearly 45 million voters had already cast their ballots through the early voting process in many states before the first voter entered the polling booth to elect members of Congress and, in some states, Governors and other officials.
The control of Congress hangs by a slender thread – only five seats in the 435-member House of Representatives and one Senate seat in the 100-member chamber can determine whether the Democrats continue to hold either of them or the Republicans grab either.
The complete results are unlikely to be known overnight, especially in some key races, because of the delays in counting postal and absentee ballots and the requirement to hold runoffs or tally the ranked votes if no candidate won an absolute majority. In the case of the Senate, the final tally may not be known till next month.
The opinion polls in crucial Senate races in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Arizona and New Hampshire are in the margin of error territory making polls uncertain, while for the House, the winds seem to favour the Democrats.
Acknowledging the uncertainty, President Joe Biden told reporters Monday night: “I think we’ll win the Senate. I think the House is tougher”.
In a snapshot of the polarisation, Biden’s approval rate is only 42.1 per cent and only former President Donald Trump’s favourability rating is only 41.6 per cent according to poll aggregations by RealClear Politics.
An inflation rate that is the highest in 40 years, soaring crimes, illegal immigration running at over 2 million in a year, restrictions on abortion, perceived threats to democracy and the personalities of leaders of the two political parties, Biden and Republican former Trump have sundered the electorate like never before in modern times.
Adding to the tensions is the undercurrent of violence: Democrat Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband was attacked, and so was New York’s Republican candidate for Governor Lee Zeldin, while a shot was fired into a house of North Carolina Republican House candidate.
With Republicans snatching the lead on inflation and crime issues, the Democrats have stressed what they say is the imminent danger to democracy from Trump who refuses to admit his defeat in 2020 and some of his supporters who violently attacked the Capitol building housing the Congress in January 2021.
Biden told an election rally on Monday: “Today we face an inflection point. We know in our bones that our democracy’s at risk and we know that this is your moment to defend it.”
Jim Clyburn, the Democratic Party whip in the House, went further making the hyperbolic claim that his party’s loss “could very well be the end of the world”.
Although he later admitted to having misspoken, he continued to claim that a Republican victory would put the US on track to repeat what happened in Germany with the rise of Nazis.
Speaking at a rally in Ohio for senate candidate J.D. Vance, whose wife Usha Chilukuri is of Indian origin, Trump said: “We are a nation in decline. We are a failing nation.”
And he hurled invectives at Democrats, but couldn’t avoid turning the focus on himself, hinting that he will make “a very big” announcement on November 15 – which is interpreted as a run for the presidency in 2024.
Republican control of the House could mean an end to investigations like the one into the Capitol riots and the start of an unwelcome focus on Biden.
The re-election of Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris may also hinge on the outcome of the midterm elections.
With the uncertainty around the opinion polls, there are two other omens, although unscientific and also cocooned in uncertainty.
Symbolically, the US saw a total eclipse of the moon Tuesday morning before an election that could see political eclipses – but again uncertain of whom or what.
Another was on the technology front: Monday night the national Powerball lottery run by government agencies could not announce the results of a drawing for a prize of nearly $2 billion because of “technical glitches” that prevented the transmission of some data.
(Arul Louis can be contacted at email@example.com and followed at @arulouis)