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National and local elections are now crucial


The term “midterm elections” is often interpreted as referring to Congress: the House’s 435 seats are up for election every two years, along with a third of those in the Senate (this year there are 35). But there are thousands more elections next month on top of those 470. All of them are important to some people, and many of them are important far beyond their jurisdictions.

More and more news stories each year focus on Washington (yes, I’m guilty of that too). Yet, there are many policies and politics that matter at the state and local level. National abortion legislation is entirely possible; state abortion legislation is already underway and was even before the Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade. Climate, too, is often a matter of regulation at the state level.

Governors play a crucial role in all of this, as do other elected officials across the state. And state legislatures can play an even bigger role now that Republicans are trying to use election officials’ elections and the actions of state legislatures to determine future election results, regardless of what voters want.

This is not just a state-level policy. Immigration, for example, has been largely deadlocked in Congress for years — and real action on national immigration policy has often depended on court battles between presidents and states. This usually means governors are involved, but many state attorneys general can act independently, regardless of what the rest of the state government wants. And the actions of large states on important issues, like California on the environment or Texas on education, can lead other states.

But all of these are harder to sum up in national media coverage than the U.S. House and Senate races, even as mainstream national media realize how critical these contests can be. (1) Usually a handful of elections attract attention, mostly in large states or with high profile candidates.

Once upon a time, it worked well. Many of these national and local stories were independent of national trends, and local media could cover them in greater detail and with more insight than national media could handle. But nowadays, national and even local elections are part of a more nationalized political system. This year, who wins in the Arizona legislative races, where Democrats need just one Senate seat to achieve parity in that chamber, matters; and the Michigan secretary of state contest, where an election denier could try to undo a presidential win for Democrats in 2024, is a big part of what’s happening nationally. The national media knows this, but hasn’t really figured out how to convey it yet.

National and even local ballot measures can also become national stories – in addition to being important where they stand. The Kansas ballot issue on abortion this summer had real effects on how the issue unfolded this fall, with confident Democrats and defensive Republicans; not only could this change some election results, but it will likely change how politicians from both parties act once in power. Abortion, the right to vote, criminal justice, housing, education and more are all on the ballots in November.

Even in congressional elections, where the majority party has almost total control over the agenda in the House and some control in the Senate, every seat counts. A very narrow Republican majority in the House may prove to be a recipe for chaos. Most of the political outliers on the Democratic side are pragmatists, willing to cut deals to tweak politics slightly in their own way. The House Republican conference is filled with purists who have a strong aversion to compromise.

My argument isn’t that congressional elections deserve less attention – it’s that all of these other races deserve more (and for a cheat sheet on many of them, see Daniel Nichanian’s ever-helpful guide) . People should vote until the end of the ballot. Supporters should care about more than majorities in Congress. And any assessment of the impact of the midterm elections should look at much more than the House and Senate.

For weekend reading, here are some of the best recent articles from political scientists:

• David A. Hopkins at Bloomberg Opinion on Republicans and Big Business.

• Natalie Jackson on the January 6 committee and public opinion.

• Kathleen R. McNamara at the Monkey Cage on European foreign policy.

• Daniel Drezner on Kevin McCarthy and Ukraine.

• Matt Grossmann discusses partisanship and identity with Emily West.

• James Joyner on US involvement in Ukraine.

• Dave Karpf looks back at the beginnings of online politics.

(1) For example, gubernatorial elections can be summarized by noting how much each party won or lost. At the same time, California has more than Wyoming (because it affects so many more people!), so an accurate assessment must also consider population. All of this makes it harder to quickly explain the big picture.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and politics. A former political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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