National elections are never far away in the United States, and while even the most disinterested of foreign observers is aware that Presidents are elected on a quadrennial basis, fewer may grasp the significance of the 'Midterms' - in which, every two years, one third of the Senate and the entire House of Representatives must submit to the verdict of the American people. The President himself may not be on the ballot in these elections, but control of Congress and the future of his legislative agenda most assuredly are.
On the latter front, Biden's first few months have seen few major legislative achievements, but he has enjoyed comparatively high approval ratings nonetheless, buoyed by a successful vaccine rollout and (until a week or two ago) a consistent decline in coronavirus infections. Of course, it wouldn't be unfair to say that Mr Biden has his predecessor to thank for this "vaccine bounce". 'Operation Warp Speed' saw the first jab in the US (outside clinical trials) given on 14th December 2020* - over a month prior to Biden's inauguration. The then-President Elect received his own first dose a week later** and was fully-vaccinated by the time he was sworn in***. By 14th January, the nationwide rollout was ramping up in earnest and heading towards a million doses per day**** - just in time for the incoming administration to bask in the warm glow of Trump's success (although, in the interests of fairness, it should be noted that the rollout ramped up even further in the weeks which followed).
But the vaccine bounce is just that. It won't last forever - as the British Conservative Party is now finding out - and is far from a reliable indicator of the political prospects of the President or his party ahead of next year's Midterms. It's difficult to imagine that the pandemic will sway many votes by the time 8th November 2022 comes around - or even register among the top five issues preoccupying the electorate (it only narrowly made the top three in 2020***** and Biden only very narrowly won). Throw in historic precedent (an incumbent President's party usually loses seats at the Midterms) and it's easy to see how the tenuous Democrat grip on Congress might be threatened as the electorate's attentions turn to the economy, crime and perhaps illegal immigration too.
The GOP, meanwhile, is well placed to capitalise - at least in the House of Representatives, where Democrats are defending a perilously thin majority (they hold 220 seats to the GOP's 211, with four vacant at the time of writing) - and is setting fundraising records******. Far from losing its nerve after a setback at the national level in 2020, the GOP is at ease with its identity, has completed its transition from the party of Romney and Cheney to the party of Trump, and stands ready to build on the gains it made at the state level last year.
Whether or not the former President takes up his party's mantle once again in 2024, the GOP and its rising stars (Florida Governor Ron DeSantis among them) are fashioned in his image. Republicans have embraced Trumpism wholeheartedly, and it's here to stay. Even so, there is no need for Donald Trump to announce his presidential intentions yet. American political parties don't pick "leaders" ahead of legislative elections in the same way we do in the United Kingdom. Trump may very well campaign hard for Republican candidates across the country, but to announce his plans for 2024 prematurely would needlessly overshadow the electoral struggle for control of Congress.
While Republicans stand a good chance of flipping the House, the Senate map looks considerably tougher. The upper chamber is split 50/50 (or, more accurately, 50/48, plus two Democrat-aligned Independents), and of the 14 seats being defended by Democrats (Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Georgia, Maryland, New York, Vermont, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Hawaii), there is little low-hanging fruit for Republicans. Only Georgia, Arizona, Nevada and New Hampshire are likely to be competitive - although the Cook Political Report does not currently consider any of them a toss-up*******.
The GOP may find it has precious little time to play offence anyway, as it must defend no fewer than 20 seats across the United States. Easily the most vulnerable is that of retiring Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey, but the loss of any one of them without a pickup elsewhere would see Democrats take outright control of the Senate and removing their reliance upon the Vice-President's casting vote - a scenario every Republican strategist in the US will be straining sinews to avoid.
Even so, there are reasons for Republicans to be cautiously optimistic. Had Trump won in 2020, the party might have been looking at an unfavourable Senate map coupled with the midterm presidential incumbency effect - in which case the notion of a Democrat rout comparable to the GOP's own victory in 2014 (when voters turned against Obama's agenda mid-way through his second term and handed Republicans a healthy Senate majority) would have been far from outlandish. As things stand, however, the party may just be able to perpetuate the 50/50 stalemate ahead of a much more favourable set of Senate Elections in 2024, when Democratic seats in Rust Belt states like Ohio and West Virginia will be up for grabs - alongside the White House.
The outside chance of a Republican upset in the Senate cannot be ruled out, but flipping the House alone would be sufficient to stall Biden's legislative agenda and both sides know it.
All eyes would then turn to 2024. Republicans won the trifecta (the White House and both chambers of Congress) in 2016. Could they repeat the trick? Might they even be able to do it with the same Presidential Nominee? That would surely be an achievement for the history books.