Mitch McConnell.

O'SHEA: These Midterm Elections Are Hard to Call

When John Healy, the great Irish Times columnist in the 1970s, faced covering a bewildering political situation in Ireland he would playfully plead with his readers for help. “Riddle me this!” he would ask as he started to draw the readers into the complexities of whatever conundrum he was writing about.

I feel like Healy’s assertion applies in spades as we look towards the elections on November 8 because they involve so much emotion and are so crucial for both parties and, indeed, for the future of American democracy.

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Republicans are justifiably confident that they will benefit from the traditional midterm negative judgement on the party in office. In addition, all the polls point to the rising cost of food and gas as the number one voter concern.

I read about a woman in Colorado who bought a dozen eggs for 80 cents two years ago but who is now paying twice that for half a dozen. The official inflation rate of 8.2% is exorbitant, but many of the stories from supermarket food aisles paint an even harsher picture.

Also, President Biden’s modest 44% approval rating indicates that many people are not satisfied with his leadership. Democrats point out how much better he is than his predecessor in promoting an ambitious legislative agenda, but only political partisans care much about policy comparisons with the past.

Of course, Republicans blame Democrats, accusing them of ineptitude in managing the economy. This straightforward economic analysis strongly favors Republicans regaining the upper hand in the House and the Senate.

Tim Ryan.

Tim Ryan.

The results on November 8 may very well justify their optimism and Mitch McConnell and Kevin  McCarthy seem likely to take over from Schumer and Pelosi in January, making President Biden the lamest of lame ducks.

And yet, there are real doubts that high prices in the supermarket will dictate the results this time. Even James Carvill, famous for his statement that “it is the economy, stupid,” is having second thoughts as he contemplates these midterms. What are the different factors which may have a real impact this time out?

Ask Senator McConnell, who chose to publicly denigrate the quality of some senate candidates from his own party a few months ago. Senator Rick Scott, chairman of the Republican Senatorial Campaign, retorted angrily: “If you want to trash talk our candidates to help Democrats, pipe down.”

Of course, the wily McConnell, who badly wants to lead the Senate again, knows what he is talking about. He was referencing Herschel Walker, a political dunderhead pushed by Trump to be the Republican candidate in Georgia. He is clearly out of his depth when talking about issues in comparison with his impressive Democratic opponent, Senator Raphael Warnock.

Republican Pat Toomey’s senate seat in Pennsylvania is on the balancing scale. John Fetterman, the Democratic candidate, faces another Trump creation, Mehmet Oz, who showed real talent as a talk show host on television. The Democrat got a bad stroke last May and is still recovering which was evident in the one debate he had with Dr. Oz when he failed to speak coherently in replying to some questions.

Fetterman told the audience in advance to expect that some of his language might lack clarity but he declared that he is affirming all the people who - like himself - have successfully come through what Shakespeare called “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” to live productive lives. Will the voters accept this reasoning, or will they rule him out because of his disability?

Oz did not emerge without damage from the big debate. He claimed that a woman’s right to choose should be subject to the wishes of state elected officials. How did that statement resonate with the suburban women who are seen by many commentators as the people who will determine the election outcome?

Winning Pennsylvania would provide an enormous boost for Democrats, and would augur well for other races.

Ohio is a red state, but in this senatorial election the mediocre Republican candidate, J. D. Vance, faces a formidable opponent in Congressman Tim Ryan. Ryan scored clear victories in their debates showing Vance as an amateur who won’t be listened to in Washington. The Republican is still slightly ahead in most polls but this is a wide-open race.

It is much harder to assess individual House races. But in all cases, Democrats are running against the abandonment of Roe v Wade by a right-wing Supreme Court led by Samuel Alito. The big challenge for Republicans - now that a woman’s right to choose has been seriously abridged - concerns where they stand in the area of reproductive rights?

Most of the Republican candidates in this election aspire to greatly reducing access to abortion, and many reject its availability, even for victims of rape and incest, suggesting a level of extremism that is out of touch with the vast majority of Americans.

An emblematic case occurred in Ohio shortly after the Roe decision was promulgated. It involved a ten-year old girl who was raped repeatedly and impregnated. Governor Mike DeWine said he was shocked, but the state law would not allow termination.

Luckily, a compassionate doctor in Indiana arranged for the child to have the pregnancy ended, but she warned that she might not be able to get involved the next time because Republican legislators in her state were planning to replicate the Ohio law.

This story shocked people everywhere. Compelling a 10-year-old to have a baby brings to mind neanderthal practices from medieval times. The story became a shocking flashpoint, bringing home to people the deleterious consequences of overturning Roe.

The tension was heightened when Fox News, realizing how this story hurt the so-called pro-life agenda, claimed that the whole tale was a propaganda effort by Democrats, this until police confirmed that they caught the culprit and he admitted responsibility for the awful deed.

Donald Trump features prominently every day in the news on every channel. He is dominating public life in the United States like a colossus and his record is on the ballot on November 8. He is the subject of four major criminal investigations. The first deals with the top-secret documents that he moved illegally to Mar-a-Lago when he left the White House in January, 2020. Trump asserts that he granted all of these important documents a kind of general absolution by declassifying them mentally, presumably by saying the words in his own mind, or perhaps just by contemplating them – a preposterous claim that will not pass court scrutiny.

A grand jury in Georgia may well file charges against him for attempting to change the election results there. Letitia James, the New York Attorney General, is accusing him of massive tax fraud, and Merrick Garland is still accumulating evidence about the extent of Trump's leadership role in the insurrection in the Capitol on January 6th, 2020.

Mr. Trump has the avid support of two thirds of those who voted for him in the presidential race – around 50 million voters. They accept the outrageous anti-democratic assertion that when he or his cronies win an election the system is working fine, but when they lose, they cry fraud. Democracy is on the line in this election, and a few polls affirm that many independent voters see it that way, which gives hope to the struggling Democrats.

Some people casting a ballot see armed vigilantes intimidating them near drop boxes in Arizona and elsewhere. Since 2020, almost 18% of poll workers have been physically threatened by goons just for doing their jobs. Is this bullying going to prevail in America in the 21st century? Will Americans – liberals and conservatives – stand by while the poisonous MAGA culture prevails?

Democrats are encouraged to see record numbers of people availing of early voting. In the past that augurs well for their party. Reports that young people, especially females, are organizing and are voting in large numbers this time portends good news for President Biden’s party.

Still, unless the pollsters are missing widespread dissatisfaction with Republican antics that threaten our democratic system, nearly all these voting gauges point to a victory for Republicans in the House, giving the gormless Kevin McCarthy access to the leader’s chair.

The Senate will not fall easily for Mitch McConnell if John Fetterman wins in Pennsylvania, or the indefatigable Tim Ryan carries Ohio.

Gerry O'Shea blogs at