The results of Tuesday’s midterm elections in the United States have the potential to impact Mexico and Mexicans in a range of ways, according to a group of political observers consulted by the newspaper Reforma, with several warning of serious consequences if the Republican Party seizes control of one or both houses of Congress.
Voters will elect lawmakers to occupy all 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, while 35 of 100 Senate spots, and the governorships of 36 states, are also up for grabs.
The Republican Party will seize control of the House if it picks up five seats, and take charge of the Senate if it wins just one additional seat. The news agency Reuters reported Monday that “nonpartisan election forecasters and polls suggest Republicans have a very strong chance of winning a House majority, with control of the Senate likely to be closer fought.”
As voters prepare to head to polling stations north of the border, Reforma asked a range of experts to offer a view on how the results of the United States midterms will affect the bilateral relation between Mexico and the U.S.
Rodrigo Aguilar Benignos, a former Mexican government official and member of the Council on Foreign Relations — a New York-based think tank — said that política de mano dura, or heavy-handed (U.S.) policy, will intensify in a range of areas if the Republicans win a majority in the House and/or Senate. Among the policy areas he cited were migration, border security, trade and transnational organized crime, all of which affect Mexico and Mexicans, including those already in the United States and those intending to migrate there — legally or illegally — in the future.
Álvaro Santos, a law professor at Georgetown University, offered a similar opinion. “A Republican victory would place pressure on Mexico with regard to migration [to the U.S.],” he said, perhaps recalling that the Mexican government ramped up enforcement against migrants when former U.S. President Donald Trump threatened to impose blanket tariffs on Mexican exports in 2019.
Santos also said that a Republican triumph could result in the U.S. increasing pressure on Mexico in areas such as energy and agriculture “within the context of the USMCA” — the North American free trade pact that superseded NAFTA in 2020.
The United States and Mexican governments are already engaged in talks on Mexico’s nationalistic energy policies after the U.S. requested dispute settlement consultations under the USMCA in July, while a bilateral battle over genetically modified corn exports appears to be brewing.
Genaro Lozano, a political analyst and columnist, told Reforma that Republicans will push for economic sanctions on Mexico if they take control of one or both houses of Congress, as they believe the Mexican government has violated the free trade agreement with energy policies that favor state-owned companies over private and foreign ones.
“For now the Biden administration is waiting for the result of this election to move forward in the dispute with Mexico,” he said. “… If the Republicans … [win] they will push hard for Mexico to be sanctioned.”
The U.S. government retains the right to request a dispute panel to make a ruling on Mexico’s energy policies. If a panel rules in its favor, it could impose punitive tariffs on U.S-bound Mexican exports.
One Mexican export that wouldn’t be subject to any tariffs the United States imposes are illegal narcotics. However, one former Mexican ambassador to the U.S. believes that a Republican victory in Tuesday’s midterms could lead the U.S. to ramp up pressure on Mexico to combat the production and northward flow of fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that killed tens of thousands of Americans last year.
Republican control of Congress would also mean “less … sympathy for the Mexican call to combat the illegal trafficking of weapons to our country,” said Martha Bárcena, ambassador to the U.S. between late 2018 and early 2021.
“[Republicans] will also seek a harsher migration policy,” she added. “Criticism of the situation of violence and insecurity in Mexico could intensify. We must also be very attentive to the results of the elections for governor in Arizona, Texas, California and New Mexico,” Bárcena said.
Texas and Arizona are currently led by Republican governors, while California and New Mexico are governed by Democrats. Of the border state governors, Greg Abbott of Texas and Doug Ducey of Arizona have both taken steps to enhance border security while calling on the U.S. federal government to do more to stop the illegal entry of migrants via the southern border with Mexico.
Abbott is facing a challenge from former representative Beto O’Rourke, while Ducey is nearing the end of his second term and cannot seek reelection.
Lozano said that Abbott — who recently designated Mexican drug cartels as terrorist organizations — “has exacerbated anti-migrant and anti-Mexican sentiment” in the U.S., adding that the Texas governor and Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida are leading exponents of “Trumpism” and their reelection could be a sign of things to come in 2024, when the next U.S. presidential election will be held.
Although President López Obrador demonstrated “open support” for Trump while the former U.S. president was in office, a lot of the latter’s “acolytes” are not fans of Mexico or Mexican people, said Shannon K. O’Neil, a senior fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
After Tuesday’s midterms, the Republican Party can be expected to increase its efforts to stem the flow of migrants into the U.S., “limit trade” with Mexico and drive the two nations apart, she said.
José Díaz Briseño, a Reforma correspondent in the United States, said that “the main problem Mexico faces in United States politics is the poor perception Republican voters have of the country.”
“According to [polling company] Gallup, 33% of Republican voters have a negative view of Mexico due to issues such as violence and migration. This was a sentiment that Trump identified well in 2015 and it could be exploited again if the ‘Trumpist’ candidates win on November 8,” he said.
For her part, Ibero-American University historian Pía Taracena asserted that the Biden administration has been “very patient” with Mexico, but the results of the midterms could change that.
A lot of lawmakers’ attacks on Mexico that are related to sensitive bilateral issues such as migration and border security, and even AMLO’s “ideological positions” have been stifled because the Democrat Party controls the lower house of Congress and there is a tie in the Senate, she said, acknowledging that Republicans currently have 50 senators, while the Democrats effectively have the same number, as the two independents — Angus King and Bernie Sanders — caucus with that party.
That situation could change if the Republicans take control of the House, Taracena said, predicting that the party will adopt an aggressive posture toward Mexico in the lead-up to the 2024 election. “Unfortunately, Mexico will continue to be a political piñata,” the academic said.
Adding to that view, the director of the Center for the U.S. and Mexico at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, Tony Payan, opined that an “essential part of populism” is to “create enemies that are convenient for focusing the negative attention of the followers of a leader.”
“In the case of the Republican Party, Mexico … has played a vital role among followers of United States populism,” Payan said, noting that it has been portrayed negatively for its response (or perceived lack thereof) to “common challenges such as the border, migration flows, trade [and] drug trafficking.”
In responding to Reforma’s question about how the election will affect bilateral relations, Mexican-born, U.S.-based journalist Andrés Martínez said he would like to cite “something very precise about policies and party proposals,” but instead contended that “the tragic thing at the moment is that stability and the viability of democracy [in the U.S.] is at stake, and the risk of contagion to civic culture is enormous.”
“If the tradition of not accepting electoral verdicts is consolidated in many parts of the United States, … [that wouldn’t be] a good omen for what might come in Mexico,” he said.
Jorge Ramos, another Mexican-born, U.S.-based journalist, said that democracy is “for different reasons … being questioned or put to the test” in both Mexico and the United States.
“In the short term, if the polls are right, the United States will have a divided government and Mexico will be forced to have a relationship with both parties and [that comes with] the serious possibility of conflicts. In addition, a Republican victory on Tuesday, and the [possible] announcement of Trump as a presidential candidate [in 2024], will without the slightest doubt increase disinformation and anti-immigrant and anti-Mexican rhetoric. We have to prepare ourselves for what’s coming,” he said.
For his part, Mexico expert Duncan Wood said that a Republican victory would make things “more complicated” for López Obrador, but argued that nothing much would change in the short term.
“There isn’t much that the Congress can do to demand more action from the Biden administration to punish Mexico,” he said before acknowledging that it could pressure the U.S. government to request an energy dispute panel.
“Although it will be a less positive relationship [between Mexico and] … the Congress, the truth is that until there is a change of government [in the U.S.], … López Obrador can count on a more or less positive relationship with the government,” said Wood, a senior adviser to the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute.
While the political observers consulted by Reforma focused on the ramifications for Mexico of a Republican victory on Tuesday, Aguilar (of the Council on Foreign Relations), considered the possibility that the Democrats will keep control of the House and the Senate. (Vice President Kamala Harris can cast a tie-breaking vote in the Senate, something she has done 26 times since the current U.S. government took office).
“If the Democrat majority is maintained in both houses, the Biden agenda [with regard to Mexico] will continue as it has until now,” Aguilar said.
López Obrador has maintained cordial relations with the U.S. president and met with him at the White House in July. At the time, both presidents committed to work together on a range of issues including trade, border security, climate change and security.
More recently, Mexican and U.S. officials held high-level security talks in Washington, where they reaffirmed their commitment to combat the smuggling of weapons and fentanyl across the two countries’ shared 3,145-kilometer-long border, which remains porous despite efforts by both countries to stop the flow of the illicit goods.