Next Year’s Midterms Could Shake Up Biden’s Foreign Policy

Republicans are looking to capitalize on the White House’s perceived missteps in Afghanistan and Ukraine.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
The U.S. Capitol building and a "don't walk" traffic signal
The U.S. Capitol building and a "don't walk" traffic signal
The U.S. Capitol building in Washington on Dec. 2. Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

It’s all up for grabs again in 2022, and while U.S. President Joe Biden won’t be on the ballot in the midterm elections, House and Senate Democrats in swing states will have the unenviable task of having to defend his foreign-policy record as polls have turned decisively against the commander in chief in recent months.

Foreign policy is not usually the biggest issue in any U.S. election. (Exit polls showed that foreign policy wasn’t among the top four issues on voters’ minds in 2020 or 2018.) But this year could be an exception. Biden, who came into office vowing to repair four years of damage done by former President Donald Trump, has instead stumbled from one foreign-policy misstep to another. The chaotic endgame and hurried withdrawal from Afghanistan, in particular, could continue to be an albatross for Democrats, but so could simmering flash points in places like Taiwan and Ukraine. Other areas where candidate Biden promised big progress and underdelivered include resuscitating the all-but-moribund nuclear deal with Iran and ramping up global efforts to fight climate change. Coupled with rising discontent over Biden’s handling of the economy, that lackluster foreign-policy record could give extra impetus to Republicans who are seeking to regain control of both houses of Congress.

But if foreign policy could affect the midterm results, the election could also affect foreign policy for the rest of Biden’s term. It’s already been hard enough for the administration to implement its vision thanks to Senate Republicans such as Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley indefinitely holding up many top national security nominees, leaving the administration short-handed. That could get even more difficult if Republicans take control of key foreign affairs and defense committees in the House and Senate after the November 2022 vote, which could ratchet up pressure on the administration over Afghanistan, China, Russia, the global energy crisis, and more.

It’s all up for grabs again in 2022, and while U.S. President Joe Biden won’t be on the ballot in the midterm elections, House and Senate Democrats in swing states will have the unenviable task of having to defend his foreign-policy record as polls have turned decisively against the commander in chief in recent months.

Foreign policy is not usually the biggest issue in any U.S. election. (Exit polls showed that foreign policy wasn’t among the top four issues on voters’ minds in 2020 or 2018.) But this year could be an exception. Biden, who came into office vowing to repair four years of damage done by former President Donald Trump, has instead stumbled from one foreign-policy misstep to another. The chaotic endgame and hurried withdrawal from Afghanistan, in particular, could continue to be an albatross for Democrats, but so could simmering flash points in places like Taiwan and Ukraine. Other areas where candidate Biden promised big progress and underdelivered include resuscitating the all-but-moribund nuclear deal with Iran and ramping up global efforts to fight climate change. Coupled with rising discontent over Biden’s handling of the economy, that lackluster foreign-policy record could give extra impetus to Republicans who are seeking to regain control of both houses of Congress.

But if foreign policy could affect the midterm results, the election could also affect foreign policy for the rest of Biden’s term. It’s already been hard enough for the administration to implement its vision thanks to Senate Republicans such as Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley indefinitely holding up many top national security nominees, leaving the administration short-handed. That could get even more difficult if Republicans take control of key foreign affairs and defense committees in the House and Senate after the November 2022 vote, which could ratchet up pressure on the administration over Afghanistan, China, Russia, the global energy crisis, and more.

Disorder in the House

Control of the House of Representatives is on the line in 2022, with many political prognosticators expecting the lower chamber to flip back to the Republicans. That would give Republican Rep. Michael McCaul, an outspoken critic of the Biden administration’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, an opportunity to more closely scrutinize the State Department’s role, perhaps opening the door for Benghazi-like hearings on Afghanistan. McCaul is leading a probe into the drawdown that aides have told Foreign Policy the Biden administration is stonewalling. 

Party turnover on the foreign-policy committees in Congress could become a major thorn in Biden’s side. On the House Armed Services Committee, Republican Rep. Mike Rogers has pressed the U.S. administration to bolster heavy weapons support to Ukraine—something that has been a topic of major debate behind closed doors—and warned of changes to nuclear declaratory policy, paring back the scenarios in which the United States could use nuclear weapons. 

As the first election after the 2020 census, the race will also be adversely impacted by gerrymandering of new districts. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report estimates that the blue states of California, Colorado, New Jersey, Virginia, and Washington—which have appointed neutral commissions to rejigger their congressional maps—could lose up to 15 Democratic House seats they would have claimed by gerrymandering. Meanwhile, Republicans have opted to draw their own maps in states where they control the legislatures, such as Florida, Texas, North Carolina, and Ohio, potentially giving Republicans an outsized edge in states that tilted toward Trump in the 2020 election.

In particular, redistricting in Virginia could have major implications for national security-oriented Democrats. The state’s new map would move Rep. Elaine Luria, the House Armed Services Committee’s second-ranking Democrat, to a swing district, making it harder for her to win reelection; Biden won her redrawn district in 2020 by just two points. She’s seen as a slight underdog in a district Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, won by 11 percentage points in November. Meanwhile, Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a CIA veteran who some see as a rising star within the party, has seen her suburban Richmond district erased and will have to fight it out with several other Democrats in a primary to hang on. Spanberger did not back Nancy Pelosi in her last bid for the speaker’s gavel and chided other Democrats for “defund the police” comments after the 2020 elections.

Out West, Republicans are hoping to target a number of California Democrats who are active on national security issues and who have been drawn into more competitive districts. They include Reps. John Garamendi, Josh Harder, Katie Porter and Mike Levin, according to the Sacramento Bee. Trump ally Rep. Devin Nunes is also exiting the scene to join the former president’s media company ahead of a widely expected 2024 bid for the White House. 

Several competitive seats are out in Ohio, some with major foreign policy-implications. With Republicans in control of the state House and the redistricting map, the leader of the Congressional Ukraine Caucus, Rep. Marcy Kaptur, will face a competitive election in a Republican-leaning district. Kaptur has pressed the Biden administration to reverse its decision to waive sanctions on the Russian-owned Nord Stream 2 pipeline and put forward more stringent penalties of its own. 

Turmoil in the Senate

Political forecasters expect the upper chamber to be more of a toss-up, with the Democrats defending seats in the swing states of Georgia and Arizona that Biden surprisingly picked off last November. Nevada will also be tough. Meanwhile, the Republicans will have to defend open seats after retirements in North Carolina and Pennsylvania, and Republican Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson also looks to be in a tough race. 

In a possible preview of the foreign-policy attacks that Republicans could roll out against Biden, Cruz has tried to rake the president over the coals for his decision to waive sanctions on Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline by tying it directly to Russian aggression on the Ukrainian border. “This was entirely preventable,” Cruz said of the decision in a hearing in December with Victoria Nuland, the State Department’s No. 3 official. 

But as James Carville, a strategist for then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton, said in 1992: “It’s the economy, stupid.” Foreign policy is decisive when it hits people’s pocketbooks. And with manufacturing jobs still leaving Ohio for China, China’s unfair approach to trade will remain a big story in 2022. 

Rob Portman, former U.S. trade representative under President George W. Bush, is retiring as Ohio senator, giving way to two Republicans who are likely to bring forward more protectionist trade policies. Josh Mandel, a U.S. Marine Corps Reserve veteran in Iraq and serial candidate, has called for more U.S. troops to get out of foreign war zones, while J.D. Vance, an author who was once a critic of Trump, has now embraced the former president’s tough-on-China policies and is getting briefings from his last national security advisor, Robert O’Brien. Long considered a bellwether state, Ohio went to Trump by eight points in 2020, solidifying a rightward shift over the past three elections. Either candidate would be likely to be opposed by Tim Ryan, a House lawmaker known for sparring on the presidential debate stage with the dovish Tulsi Gabbard. (Ryan dropped out of the presidential race before the primaries began.)

Democrats who clinked glasses over narrow special election victories in 2020 won’t have long to celebrate, either. Former astronaut and Navy Capt. Mark Kelly, an incumbent senator in Arizona, faces a crowded Republican field led by the state’s Attorney General Mark Brnovich and venture capitalist Blake Masters, a political novice who’s long flirted with a bid for office and is backed by billionaire Silicon Valley mogul Peter Thiel, his former boss. It’s likely to be a protracted and costly primary, with both candidates trying to emerge over a crowded Republican field by trying to outmuscle each other on foreign policy. 

Trump’s long shadow will also be felt in Pennsylvania, where Sen. Pat Toomey, one of seven Republican senators to vote to convict the former president for incitement of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, is not running for reelection. That’s left a crowded Republican field, headlined by television personality Mehmet Oz and Carla Sands, a Trump donor and former ambassador to Denmark who has also received foreign-policy consultations from O’Brien. 

Republican victories in the Senate could be decisive in reshaping crucial committee assignments. Sens. Jim Inhofe and Jim Risch could reclaim the gavels on the armed services and foreign relations committees in the upper chamber. Inhofe had a close relationship with Trump during his time as chairman. He’s pushed for a larger defense budget to counter China’s buildup as well as the continued implementation of the 2017 National Defense Strategy drafted by the previous administration. For his part, Risch has also been active in the Ukraine saga, putting forward a sanctions package against the Nord Stream 2 pipeline with the annual U.S. defense bill that was nixed in the final cut. 

Republican wins in Congress could also stifle the Biden administration’s mostly nascent progress on arms control and put upward pressure on the defense budget. The minority on the Senate Armed Services Committee nearly succeeded in knocking off Biden’s nominee to run the Pentagon policy shop, Colin Kahl, over his involvement in the Iran nuclear deal during the Obama administration. The Republicans and some influential Democrats have demanded more congressional involvement in the newly negotiated pact, which appears stalled. In particular, Inhofe has argued that the Biden administration’s requests would not allow the Pentagon to keep pace with China’s military buildup, as the initial request was below the growing inflation rate.

The committee shake-ups could also have implications for 2024 by further burying Democratic bids to investigate wrongdoing by the Trump administration, including whether former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s 2020 Republican National Convention speech in Jerusalem violated ethics rules; Pompeo is widely expected to run for president in 2024.

So Long, Farewell

The Senate is set to lose a few major foreign-policy stalwarts. Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the upper chamber’s appropriations chairman and a longtime critic of autocratic regimes such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, was first elected in the 1974 wave election after Watergate and was the architect of the so-called Leahy Law that can strip U.S. military aid from countries where military units perpetuate human rights abuses. Alabama Republican Sen. Richard Shelby is also calling it quits after chairing the appropriations committee until earlier this year. North Carolina Republican Sen. Richard Burr, who chaired the intelligence committee until 2020 and pushed back against congressional efforts to end U.S. military support to Saudi Arabia in the Yemen war, will also leave Capitol Hill. 

It’s also a tough year to be a Trump critic if you’re a Republican. In the House, Illinois Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an outspoken critic of the former president who held hawkish positions on stopping Iran’s behavior in the Middle East, is not seeking reelection, nor will Anthony Gonzalez, an Ohio Republican and former NFL player who once called Trump “a cancer.” Another strong Trump critic, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the vice chair of the Jan. 6th committee on Capitol Hill, has been disavowed by her state’s Republican Party despite a conservative voting record since taking office in 2017.

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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