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Depending on which headlines you read, 2022’s midterm elections had different takeaways, including a worse than expected showing for Republicans, the ultimate flipping of the United States House from Democrats to Republicans, the drop-off in turnout among Democrats in New York, California and Florida, and resounding Democratic successes in places like Michigan, Minnesota and Pennsylvania.

In the end, while trends are important and interesting to track, what is important for the next two years is what kinds of policy can be passed and enacted and who sits in the key seats to push such policy along. If major legislation gets through this upcoming Congress, it will have to be bipartisan and overcome procedural and political hurdles in both the House and the Senate. The opportunity for progressive change will likely come through executive action by the president or at the state level in places with unified Democratic control.

The following analysis of the election results explores what they mean for the next two years and for people who live in rural communities, eat food, grow food and seek to protect the climate, among other issues. It will be challenging to enact the transformative change we need in the food and farm system over the next two years. While the 2023 Farm Bill presents an opportunity, it is likely to be a status quo Farm Bill, given the makeup of the next Congress.  

U.S. House of Representatives

Ahead of the 2022 elections, most election prognosticators were predicting that Republicans would take control of the U.S. House of Representatives. This prediction had plenty of historical basis to back it up.

Since the 1940s, the party of the president has almost always lost ground in the U.S. House compared to the previous  election. With only 40% of surveyed Americans approving of President Biden’s performance throughout 2022, that seemed to many a clear indication that the opposition party, the Republicans, would do well.

Voter turnout was high for a midterm election. In most midterms, turnout is quite low, reflecting motivation by those opposed to a president’s policies and a lack of motivation to vote by those who might support them or be neutral. Many are attributing this year’s high turnout to Democratic and independent voters reacting to the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization Supreme Court decision, which overturned Roe v. Wade and removed the nationwide right to abortion. 

In the end, Republicans did flip the chamber but by a narrow margin. When all votes are counted, it looks as though the 117th Congress’s 222-213 Democratic majority will become the 118th Congress’s 222-213 Republican majority.

What kinds of seats make or break the majority?

If you look at the most competitive House races in the country this cycle, most of them include both suburban and rural areas. While this may change with votes still being counted in some states, the “tipping point seat,” that is, the House seat based on vote margin that delivered Republicans the House majority, was New York’s 17th District. In this district, the House Agriculture Committee member and Chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) Sean Patrick Maloney ran and lost in one of the biggest upsets of the cycle. This seat sits at the northern edge of the New York City metropolitan area, taking in upscale suburban areas in Westchester County, some exurban areas and some rural areas in the northern part of the district.

Looking at other districts where the winning margin was within six points, a similar trend emerges. For the most part, these seats sit at the edge of large metropolitan areas where rural land meets suburban developments or are centered on midsize cities with rural areas around the fringes. This includes places like Iowa’s 3rd District, which includes Des Moines and much of southern Iowa, California’s 22nd District (Bakersfield and the Central Valley) and Virginia’s 7th District (outskirts of Washington, D.C. metro area, Virginia Piedmont).

In short, to win these competitive seats, a candidate must be able to appeal to rural and suburban voters, and in some cases, urban voters. While Democrats were able to do this in many competitive seats, it was not enough for them to keep the House majority.

U.S. Senate

The same prognosticators who predicted a Republican House were less sure of who would control the U.S. Senate. Unlike the House, where all 435 seats were up for election at the same time, only one-third of the 100 seats in the Senate were up for election this year. Of that third, there were perhaps 5-10 seats that were at any risk of changing party hands.

In the end, the Senate makeup remained largely unchanged. No incumbent senators were defeated for reelection (pending results from Georgia runoff), and one seat changed party hands, that of outgoing Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, now to be held by Democratic Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, whose high-profile win was attributable to strength in urban and suburban areas while losing by closer margins in rural areas than most Democrats do.

Democrats are guaranteed at least 50 seats in the next U.S. Senate, meaning that with the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Harris, they have control of the chamber likely for another two years.

What does split control in Congress mean for farm and food systems?

Republicans are set to control the U.S. House of Representatives. This has a few repercussions, namely in the progress of legislation and control of key committees.

Over the past two years, the U.S. House has been very productive in passing legislation and sending it to the Senate and President Biden. This includes major pieces of legislation like the Inflation Reduction Act, bills related to strengthening voting access, criminal justice reform, LGBTQIA+ rights and many more.

With Republicans in control, we are likely to see fights around lifting the debt ceiling and other perennial partisan disputes. Serious climate action in any form will be unlikely. But perhaps the biggest fight coming over the horizon is the Farm Bill.

While there has been split control for three of the past five Farm Bills, this may be the Farm Bill year with the most emboldened conservative faction. In party leadership elections, Kevin McCarthy was chosen by his party to stand for election as Speaker of the House, though over 30 members voted for Arizona Representative Andy Biggs, a member of the House’s deeply conservative Freedom Caucus. In order to become Speaker, McCarthy will need to persuade most of the members who voted against him in the closed-door party meeting to vote for him on the floor of the House Chamber, or will need to rely on absences on the day of the vote to lower the threshold for victory.

With closely divided chambers on both sides of the U.S. Capitol, the center of gravity may well move to the middle. An organized bipartisan moderate faction in either or both houses could mean that only policy with broad bipartisan support will make it through Congress and to President Biden’s desk.

Farm Bills are often known for their bipartisanship. This can be a good thing, as many good programs within the Farm Bill enjoy bipartisan support, including programs that increase access to local markets for small farms, improve on-farm conservation, and help improve processing infrastructure for meat and poultry, providing farmers with options beyond the largest meatpackers.

More transformative changes may be more difficult with split control. While the Farm Bill seems like a perfect opportunity to seriously tackle the climate crisis through working lands and food policy, we may have to wait for another Farm Bill. It will be harder, for example, to build on the successes of the Inflation Reduction Act, which increased funding for vital conservation programs while diverting funding away from polluting practices or to address competition and market issues in agriculture. If past Farm Bills are prologue, there will most likely be attacks on nutrition and anti-hunger programs, taking up much of the oxygen in the room.

How else do the federal results impact governing?

Beyond the obvious implications for the Farm Bill and other legislative priorities, there are some ways in which the election results may make routine government functions run more smoothly. Namely, Senate confirmations.

There are between 1200 and 1400 Senate-confirmed positions in each administration, according to the Congressional Research Service. On top of that, there are usually hundreds of federal judges to nominate and vote on during each presidency. Historically, nominations have been a place where senators dig in their heels and attempt to block the vote from going forward or negotiate for something else.

In the case of a vacancy in the cabinet, a Democratic Senate will help President Biden confirm his nominees. While there have been high profile examples of one Democratic Senator holding up a nomination (including the opposition to the nomination of Sarah Bloom Raskin to a key oversight role at the Federal Reserve), Senates of the same party as the president generally let him fill his cabinet with people he chooses. While there may be headlines about House attempts to impeach Biden Cabinet members such as Homeland Security Secretary Mayorkas, the Senate is the chamber that matters when it comes to those who run departments and agencies.

There is certainly a lot President Biden can do on his own. For example, the recently-passed Inflation Reduction Act must now be implemented, and Biden’s USDA is already asking for public comment on how best to use the funds allocated from the Act. Proper implementation of the IRA can make a dent in the number of farmers closed out of popular conservation programs that can help farms become climate resilient. We should also expect action on new rules strengthening the Packers and Stockyards Act, considered the “Farmer and Rancher Bill of Rights.” The Biden administration is also likely to provide more guidance on proposed climate risk disclosure rules through the Securities and Exchange Commission.

State-level results

Several states gained a Democratic “trifecta” in these elections, meaning that the state House, state Senate and governor’s office are all controlled by Democrats. Among those states are Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan and Minnesota, the home base of IATP.

Similar to the U.S. House of Representatives, the majority in the Minnesota Legislature was decided in seats with a mix of suburban and rural areas. In the Senate, this includes the majority-making seat of Senator-Elect Judy Seeberger from District 41, which includes edge-of-metro communities such as Hastings, Cottage Grove and Lake Elmo (which, coincidentally, is also a major area of groundwater pollution from PFAS). Other notable races include several in the Arrowhead and Iron Range areas of northeastern Minnesota, where long-held Democratic seats flipped to Republicans or were barely kept.

For Minnesota, this may be the cycle where it caught up with the rest of the country, with Republican coalitions now almost entirely rural and exurban/suburban and Democratic coalitions now almost entirely urban/suburban (with a few exceptions). Given the history of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota, this is notable.

Given that Minnesota has a budget surplus of roughly $9 billion, much of the coming debate will center on how to use that surplus. Leaders have indicated that priorities for the new trifecta are legalizing recreational marijuana and codifying the right to abortion, while Governor Walz will look to fulfill his campaign promise of sending additional stimulus checks to Minnesotans.

Perhaps with a Democratic trifecta, leaders will pursue a legislative path for climate action. It could also build on legislation passed last year that made initial investments in local food procurement at institutions — building the needed infrastructure for more local, resilient and equitable food options for many. IATP will remain engaged in conversations around community food systems, farm-to-school grants, climate change and agriculture, conservation and regulating polluting industries.

Minnesota Attorney General

One of the under-appreciated elected positions for fair food and farm systems is the role of state Attorney General. The Attorney General engages with companies to encourage them to stop anticompetitive practices, such as the recent merger of Cargill and Sanderson Farms, Inc., a leading poultry company. While the federal government ended up approving the merger in the end, having an Attorney General who understands how corporate practices can hurt small independent farmers is a good thing.

There are three bills in the Minnesota Legislature that would strengthen the Attorney General’s hand in dealing with competition and monopoly, supported by a broad coalition of unions, farm groups and fair market advocates. These bills better define monopoly under state law, prohibit abuse of dominance, and prohibit price discrimination. These laws will provide the Attorney General with more tools in the toolbox to push back against monopolies and bring more fairness to the marketplace.

The next two years

With Farm Bill negotiations ongoing, new emboldened majorities in several states, and a presidential election in two years, 2023 and 2024 are shaping up to be notable and contentious governing years, including for food and agriculture. It remains to be seen what this year’s midterm results truly mean – are the results a mandate for compromise or an excuse for lawmakers to dig in their heels? IATP will continue to monitor and engage in the process, advocating for fair and just food and farm systems, regardless of who is in power. While the opportunities for fair food and farm systems and proper climate and agriculture policy may be slim in Congress, there remain many opportunities through executive action, as well as new opportunities at the state level, our “laboratories of democracy.” Advocates might find that, while the past two years may have been fertile ground for growing good policy, this next growing season could be just as fruitful — with different crops or different techniques. In short, there is opportunity.

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