By Gabriella Borter and Nathan Layne
ROYAL OAK, Mich./ATLANTA, Ga. (Reuters) -Americans on Tuesday cast the final ballots in closely fought elections that will determine whether Republicans win control of Congress, which would give them the power to block much of President Joe Biden’s agenda in the next two years.
Motivated by concerns about high inflation and crime, voters were poised to usher in an era of divided government in Washington, despite warnings from Democrats about the erosion of abortion rights and the undermining of democratic norms.
Thirty-five Senate seats and all 435 House of Representatives seats are on the ballot. Republicans are widely favored to pick up the five seats they need to control the House, while the Senate – currently split 50-50 with Democrats holding the tie-breaking vote – could come down to a quartet of toss-up races in Pennsylvania, Nevada, Georgia and Arizona.
Even before the midterm elections were completed, the 2024 presidential election was taking shape. Former President Donald Trump on Monday sent his strongest hint yet that he would be kicking off his third consecutive White House campaign soon, telling supporters in Ohio that he would be making a “big announcement” on Nov. 15.
Hundreds of Republican candidates have echoed Trump’s false claims that his 2020 loss to Biden was due to widespread fraud are on the ballot this year, including several seeking positions that would give them direct oversight of the 2024 presidential elections in competitive states.
But many voters said they were motivated by frustration with inflation, which at 8.2%, stands at the highest rate in 40 years.
Retiree Robert Sump, 65, said he planned to vote for Republican Tudor Dixon in Michigan’s gubernatorial race, as he thought she would do a better job on economic issues.
“I think that’s the biggest issue right now with the inflation that we’re fighting,” he said.
Polls close starting at 6 p.m. Eastern time (2300 GMT) but the results in close races might not be known for days or even weeks.
More than 46 million Americans voted ahead of Election Day, either by mail or in-person, according to data from the U.S. Election Project, and state election officials caution that it will take time to count all of those ballots. Control of the Senate might not be not known until a potential Dec. 6 runoff in Georgia.
As Election Day began, a senior U.S. cybersecurity official said there is “no specific or credible threat” to disrupt election infrastructure. But officials in Maricopa County, Arizona, said about 20% of their vote tabulation machines were malfunctioning.
There are 36 governors’ races, including campaigns in the swing states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Nevada, Arizona and Georgia.
In Congress, a Republican-controlled House would be able to block bills addressing Democratic priorities such as abortion rights and climate change. Republicans could also initiate a showdown over the nation’s debt ceiling, which could shake financial markets, and launch investigations into Biden’s administration and family.
Republicans will have the power to block aid to Ukraine if they win back control of Congress, but analysts say they are more likely to slow or pare back the flow of defense and economic assistance.
A Republican Senate would hold sway over Biden’s judicial nominations, including any Supreme Court vacancy, intensifying the spotlight on the increasingly conservative court.
Some Democratic candidates deliberately distanced themselves from the White House as Biden’s popularity languished. On Monday, the final day of campaigning, Biden headed to Democratic-leaning Maryland, rather than a swing state.
“It’s Election Day, America. Make your voice heard today,” Biden, who cast his ballot in early voting in Delaware, said in a Twitter post on Tuesday morning.
At a polling station in Florida, Trump predicted success for his Republicans. “I think we’re going to have a great night,” he said. He said he voted for the re-election of the state’s governor, Ron DeSantis, a potential rival for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
The Supreme Court’s June decision to overturn the nationwide right to abortion had galvanized Democratic voters around the country, temporarily raising the party’s hopes they could defy history.
But stubbornly rising prices have left voters dissatisfied despite one of the strongest job markets in history.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll this week showed more than two-thirds of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track, with just 39% approving of the way Biden has done his job. Trump’s polling is similarly low, with just 41% of respondents to a separate recent Reuters/Ipsos poll saying they viewed him favorably.
The prognosis has left some Democrats questioning the party’s campaign message, which centered on protecting abortion rights and American democracy.
“What we’ve seen over the last month is political gravity begin to reassert itself,” said Jacob Rubashkin, an analyst at the nonpartisan forecaster Inside Elections. “Voters care a lot about the economy, and they blame Biden for inflation.”
Biden and other Democrats have sounded the alarm over Republican contenders who have either echoed or refused to contradict Trump’s false claims that he lost the 2020 election due to widespread fraud.
The prevalence of election deniers among Republican candidates has elevated down-ballot races that typically receive little attention.
In swing states such as Nevada, Arizona and Michigan, the Republican nominees to head up the states’ election apparatus have embraced Trump’s falsehoods, raising fears among Democrats that, if they prevail, they could interfere with the 2024 presidential race.
Those concerns swayed even some Republican leaning voters like Henry Bowden, 36, an Atlanta lawyer who said he voted for a mix of Republican and Democratic voters.
“I was really trying not to vote for any of the Republicans that are too much in Trump’s pocket and all the election denial stuff. I was very tired of that,” he said.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax, Doina Chiacu and Gram Slattery in Washington, Gabriella Borter in Royal Oak, Michigan, Nathan Layne in Atlanta and Tim Reid in Phoenix; Writing by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Scott Malone, Mary Milliken and Alistair Bell)