The 2024 election is now just a year away, an election that many people see as the most consequential of any in their lifetime. Yet 2023 has provided few genuine clues about the road ahead. It is as if an unhappy country has been stumbling in place for much of the year, marking time ahead of the showdown.
Big events have dominated this year, any one of which might have been expected to affect the political landscape heading into a presidential election year. Former president Donald Trump was indicted four times in four jurisdictions and faces trials involving 91 felony counts, the first former president ever so charged. House Republicans needed 15 ballots to elect Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) as speaker in January, tossed him out nine months later and then took weeks to settle on little-known Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) as the new speaker. A mass killing in Maine left 18 dead, the latest act of carnage that has become frighteningly commonplace.
Internationally, gruesome attacks on Israeli citizens by Hamas terrorists on Oct. 7 triggered sympathy and support for Israel and a new war in the Middle East that is now resulting in thousands of civilian casualties among Palestinians. Those deaths have prompted a call from President Biden for a humanitarian pause and calls from others for a cease-fire, which Israel is resisting. Ukraine’s war to repel the Russian invasion has ground ahead slowly all year. As the Biden administration deals with these two hot wars, it continues to work to recalibrate U.S. relations with an adversarial China in a new cold war.
Big events sometimes change politics. Yet today, the contours of the 2024 presidential election remain largely as they were early in the year. President Biden’s approval ratings have barely moved. Some economic statistics are strong, but many voters feel the pinch of higher gas and grocery prices. Republicans have failed to purge election denialism from their ranks. Trump’s rhetoric is nastier and smaller than ever.
A rematch between Biden and Trump remains the likeliest scenario for next year’s general election — a prospect that excites few Americans. Neither man appears to have the upper hand at this point.
The Republicans challenging Trump for their party’s nomination have made no progress in peeling away his supporters. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, someone who seemed at the beginning of the year to have the potential, has instead gone backward.
The electorate is narrowly and deeply divided. As a result, U.S. politics are anything but stable. For nearly two decades, voters have produced one change election after another. The House changed hands in 2006, 2010, 2018 and 2022. The Senate changed hands in 2014 and 2020. The White House changed hands in 2008, 2016 and 2020.
Will 2024 continue the pattern? Given the narrow margins that exist in both chambers, the Senate (now in Democratic hands) and the House (now in Republican hands) could shift again next year. As could the occupant of the White House.
Political volatility has produced legislative stasis in Congress this year. The previous Congress enacted several significant pieces of legislation — bills dealing with infrastructure, the pandemic, semiconductor chips, climate. This Congress has done little other than necessary action to prevent a default by the U.S. government after tense negotiations led to an increase in the government’s borrowing power.
The year isn’t over and much remains for Congress to do. The House and Senate must pass legislation to keep the government running; failure to do so in the next two weeks would bring a shutdown. It was this issue that brought down McCarthy, after he cut a deal with Democrats.
As significant, Congress must address the request by Biden for more than $100 billion to provide military assistance for Israel and Ukraine, humanitarian assistance in the Middle East, funding for security at the U.S.-Mexican border and aid to Taiwan in the face of threats from China.
The new speaker will have difficult decisions on these issues as he attempts to satisfy hard-right members of his conference (of which he is one) while finding a path to a compromise that can clear both House and Senate. His opening bid — $14 billion in aid to Israel tied to equivalent cuts in funding for the Internal Revenue Service — is going nowhere in the Senate and Biden has said he would veto it. Even if that gets resolved, Johnson must decide what to do about support for Ukraine, a top priority to his Senate counterpart, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
House Republicans will carry the effectiveness, or lack thereof, of the new speaker into the next election. But so too will they carry the reality that many of them cannot admit that Biden won the election legitimately and that Trump is wrong when he claims otherwise. Johnson was a leader in efforts after the 2020 election to advance Trump’s lies about a stolen election.
The issue is a major fracture in the party and one that Democrats plan to make central in the 2024 election. Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), a member of the Freedom Caucus who has been a fiscal hawk since arriving in Congress, gave the issue higher prominence after he announced Wednesday that he will not run for reelection next year. He cited his frustration with a Republican Party that is rife with members who buy into election denialism and are not willing to condemn the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol by Trump loyalists.
The other action coming before the end of the year that could bear on 2024 will take place in several elections on Tuesday. They will be looked at for clues to next year, though the value of these off-year elections as predictors is spotty.
In Kentucky, which is reliably Republican in presidential races, Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear is trying to prevail over GOP attorney general Daniel Cameron. In Mississippi, another reliable Republican state, Republican Gov. Tate Reeves, plagued by scandal in his term, is looking to fend off a challenge from Democrat Brandon Presley.
Elections in two other states likely will draw more attention for those interested in 2024. In Virginia, all 140 seats in the state House and Senate are up on Tuesday. Democrats control the Senate; Republicans control the House.
Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin has campaigned aggressively with the hope of taking full control to enact his agenda. A big Republican victory would worry Democrats about next year and will stoke talk of a late entry by Youngkin into the presidential race, though the procedural obstacles are significant, and Trump’s dominance is likely to be intimidating.
The election that could be the most watched is in Ohio. No candidates are involved. This is a referendum that, if approved by a majority of voters, would put abortion rights into the state constitution. A test run on the issue in August showed support for the referendum.
Ohio will provide the latest indication of whether opposition to the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision overturning Roe v. Wade and efforts by antiabortion advocates to enact restrictions in the states and perhaps nationally remains a potent motivator for voters who support abortion rights. Abortion rights advocates expect a victory on Tuesday, continuing a string of successes when the issue has been put directly to voters in other states.
Politics is often small and petty. Witness the detour the Republican presidential race has taken ahead of Tuesday’s debate in Miami into questions of whether DeSantis wears lifts in his boots and DeSantis’s taunt to Trump involving the former president’s privates. Yet for all the discouragement and distractions, voters know that the year ahead will be about some of the biggest of big issues.