5 Midterm Foreign-Policy Shake-Ups to Watch on Capitol Hill

The U.S. Supreme Court’s abortion decision has changed the race, but foreign policy is on the ballot, too.

By , a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
The dome of the U.S. Capitol
The dome of the U.S. Capitol
The dome of the U.S. Capitol is seen in Washington on Aug. 8, 2021. MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. President Joe Biden and his Republican predecessor, Donald Trump, won’t be on the ballot in November, when American voters go to the polls to elect new members of the House and Senate, but their policies—and more specifically, their foreign policies—will be. 

Although the U.S. Supreme Court’s surprise decision to overturn the nearly 50-year-old Roe v. Wade decision recognizing women’s constitutional right to abortion has upturned the race for control of Congress, with Republicans’ advantage in party approval evaporating over the summer, Democrats are still defending a slate of swing states in the Senate, such as Georgia and Nevada, whereas Rust Belt states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin—which handed Trump the presidency—are back in the toss-up column. 

The races for both houses of Congress are expected to be close, riding on just a few states and congressional districts; FiveThirtyEight gives Republicans a 7 in 10 chance of retaking the House and Democrats about the same odds to hold the Senate. If Republicans retake the House, they could give Biden a Benghazi-like headache (and start bogus impeachment hearings) while a Republican Senate would damage the administration’s already-limited ability to pass legislation as well as jam a thorn in its side on issues like China and trade policy. And the Biden administration’s arming of Ukraine against Russia’s full-scale invasion has also proved controversial among a new crop of Republican candidates that see Beijing, not Moscow, as the No. 1 threat to the United States.

U.S. President Joe Biden and his Republican predecessor, Donald Trump, won’t be on the ballot in November, when American voters go to the polls to elect new members of the House and Senate, but their policies—and more specifically, their foreign policies—will be. 

Although the U.S. Supreme Court’s surprise decision to overturn the nearly 50-year-old Roe v. Wade decision recognizing women’s constitutional right to abortion has upturned the race for control of Congress, with Republicans’ advantage in party approval evaporating over the summer, Democrats are still defending a slate of swing states in the Senate, such as Georgia and Nevada, whereas Rust Belt states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin—which handed Trump the presidency—are back in the toss-up column. 

The races for both houses of Congress are expected to be close, riding on just a few states and congressional districts; FiveThirtyEight gives Republicans a 7 in 10 chance of retaking the House and Democrats about the same odds to hold the Senate. If Republicans retake the House, they could give Biden a Benghazi-like headache (and start bogus impeachment hearings) while a Republican Senate would damage the administration’s already-limited ability to pass legislation as well as jam a thorn in its side on issues like China and trade policy. And the Biden administration’s arming of Ukraine against Russia’s full-scale invasion has also proved controversial among a new crop of Republican candidates that see Beijing, not Moscow, as the No. 1 threat to the United States.

Foreign Policy has picked out five races to watch as the horses limber up. 

Ohio Senate: Sen. Rob Portman’s departure in the “Buckeye State” removes one of the last high-profile moderate Republicans in the upper house and kicks off a race between a pro-Trump Republican (who was once one of the leading skeptics of the former president on the right) and a center-of-the-road Democrat. 

J.D. Vance, a first-time candidate and the author of Hillbilly Elegy, has rebranded himself as a populist, backing Trump’s unfounded claims of fraud in the 2020 election and warning voters of losing the trade war and more capital to China. But he’s also controversially backed the Biden administration’s CHIPS and Science Act, which promises to bring more semiconductor manufacturing back to the United States—including Ohio. He’s currently up by just over 2 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics polling average.

Vance’s entry into the race makes this a crossroads fight of sorts. Although his Democratic opponent, Rep. Tim Ryan—a former 2020 presidential candidate who represents an industrial swath of northeast Ohio—has also been tough on China, calling out Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s perceived currency manipulation as well as outsourcing of U.S. jobs to China, he’s also faced opprobrium within his own party for not being critical enough of the war on terrorism in the Middle East and Africa (famously sparring with then-Rep. Tulsi Gabbard on the debate stage in 2019 and calling for the United States to remain in Afghanistan). 

Utah Senate: Strangely enough, the man that Vance said he voted for instead of Trump in 2020, Independent Evan McMullin, is now waging a foreign-policy-focused campaign against the former president’s isolationist-tinged policies. But his opponent, two-term incumbent Sen. Mike Lee, is a Tea Party-era Republican whose arrival in Washington predates Trump by several years and who has tried to push the GOP further away from foreign wars than Trump ever did. He sparred with the Trump administration over U.S. refueling of Saudi jets that bombed Yemen and said Trump lacked constitutional authority to carry out strikes against Syria in response to Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons attacks in 2018. McMullin, a former CIA operations officer, has previously called for a no-fly zone in Syria and invited the anonymous Syrian photographer Caesar, who has documented Assad’s abuses, to Capitol Hill. 

If McMullin is able to topple Lee—one poll released last week separated the two men by just 2 percentage points—Democrats could label this as a win, since the long-standing “never Trumper” has the endorsement of the state’s Democratic Party. It’s less clear if he would end up caucusing with them across the board; even nominal Democrats like some in Arizona and West Virginia don’t always do that. 

House Foreign Affairs Committee chair: The Republicans are widely expected to retake the House, even as Biden’s poll numbers have stabilized at the end of the summer, with Ukraine making gains on the battlefield and gas prices easing up. That could put Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas in the catbird seat for the gavel of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. McCaul has already previewed plans to take the Biden administration to task over the chaotic handling of the Afghanistan withdrawal in 2021, calling the president “unprepared” for the evacuation, which was mandated by Trump’s unilateral surrender to the Taliban in early 2020.

On Ukraine, McCaul is likely to push for continued military aid to defeat Russia on the battlefield, and he has supported both Trump and Biden in congressional challenges to presidential power, coming out against a resolution to end U.S. involvement in Yemen on Trump’s watch and praising Biden’s strikes against Iranian targets in Syria. But McCaul could face a challenge from the right. One Democratic congressional aide, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk about internal political dynamics, said the conservative House Freedom Caucus is mounting an effort to make its chairman, Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, the new foreign affairs boss. 

Perry has got some baggage. He has denied an interview request to the Jan. 6 committee, which has sought to delve into his alleged efforts to help appoint an acting attorney general to overturn the 2020 election results. And he has a track record of unusual foreign-policy votes: He pushed back against efforts to expand the special immigrant visa program for Afghans who worked for the United States during the war, and he voted against efforts to preserve evidence of Russian war crimes in Ukraine. Even if he got the gavel, Perry may have a tough time driving any sort of meaningful policy: The Freedom Caucus requires 80 percent approval to take a position on any issue. 

But even if it doesn’t turn out to be much of a race, it will still set up an important dynamic within the Republican caucus: pro-Trump insurgents challenging establishment GOP committee chairs, who will push their forebearers to curb U.S. investments on the war on terrorism in favor of a harder-edged China policy. 

“We’re still going to have more traditional committee chairmen in both houses if Republicans take the Senate and the House,” said Alexander Gray, a former chief of staff on the U.S. National Security Council during the Trump administration who mounted a bid for Oklahoma’s open Senate seat this year. “The dynamic that I think will be very interesting is more traditional committee chairmen who are probably less interested in asking big-picture questions about ends and means and prioritization. … You’re going to have some backbenchers pushing on their committee leadership and their conference leadership in interesting ways.”

Vulnerable national security Democrats: In the past several years, Democrats have brought a handful of national security veterans into Congress, many of whom representing politically tough suburban districts. Former CIA officer Abigail Spanberger has represented a suburban Virginia district dominated by Republicans for nearly four decades, and she has cut out a position as a party moderate, voting against U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in her last bid to retain the speaker’s gavel. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a former CIA and Defense Department official, also brings deep foreign-policy chops to the job from multiple tours in Iraq, but she has to defend a suburban Lansing, Michigan, district. Although Slotkin has performed better in recent polling, Biden’s unpopularity in her district weighed her bid down over the summer.

“It’s these front-line national security and foreign-policy experts who are in the House Democratic caucus who are the ones that have been really shaping the way that Democrats engage in foreign policy on the Hill,” said Joel Rubin, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state. 

But if Spanberger or Slotkin survive, it could be more about domestic policy: The Supreme Court’s abortion decision has spurred young voters and women to the polls in droves, and both candidates are trying to capitalize on their Republican opponents taking strong stances to end women’s reproductive rights at the state and federal level.

Arizona Senate: The Trump-endorsed, billionaire Peter Thiel-funded first-time candidate Blake Masters is trying to knock off former astronaut and naval aviator Sen. Mark Kelly, who took the seat in a special election triggered by the death of John McCain. Kelly—the husband of former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who resigned a year after suffering a brain injury after an assassination attempt—doesn’t give fellow Democrats as many headaches as his independent-minded Arizona colleague Sen. Kyrsten Sinema. But he’s been a thorn in the side of his party on climate policy, pushing for expanded oil drilling after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine drove up gasoline prices this year. 

Masters, on the other hand, is more than a thorn. He has backed Trump’s unfounded claims of election fraud and pushed back on U.S. military aid to Ukraine, instead calling for more focus on China. But Masters has made a series of wild gaffes and controversial misstatements that have sent his polls and finances into a swirl. As a student, Masters suggested the United States should not have gotten involved in either World War, and he has heaped praise on Ted Kaczynski, known as the Unabomber. Masters has also been caught trying to scrub his website of past stances on abortion and other issues.

Even if Republicans take the Senate, many see them as proffering more style than substance. There will be lots of finger-wagging over Beijing, trade, and the threat from the Chinese Communist Party and little constructive efforts done to advance U.S. competitiveness. “The GOP is going to milk anti-China for all it’s worth,” said the Democratic congressional aide. “J.D. Vance and Blake Masters will bring their own spin to that.”

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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