Starter pack for US midterm elections

The citizens of the United States are heading for the polls. The 6th November 2018 represents the biggest test yet on how Americans have taken to the new age of Trumpian politics. This election has seen a frenzy, rarely seen around the midterms, as both the increasingly partisan political left and right whip up support to try and take (or maintain) the majority of the House of Representatives and the Senate. The last two years have been a divisive and controversial time in US politics, which has seen the gap between Democrats and Republicans widen and bipartisanship become a poisoned chalice. This divide has been driven in large part (although not exclusively) by the 45th President Donald Trump.

Ever since his appointment to the Presidency, he has stoked the flames of division, with his politics, policies and almost daily controversial statements and ideas. The divide is between die-hard Trump loyalists, who are predisposed to overlook almost any perceived flaw or failure and the increasingly left leaning anti-Trumpists, who see the midterms as their first chance to flat out reject and stop any progress made in the last two years. In today’s politics, there is little ground for those who sit in between these ‘extremes’, as both sides see people as friend or foe. To see this in action you have to look no further than the House of Representatives itself, where the once bipartisanship nature of politics has been replaced with fierce dislike and mistrust for the other side’s intentions and bloc voting. The new nature of politics has made winning in the midterms ever more important in order to be able to pass legislation without the help of the other side. But what exactly is at stake? This will act as your all-inclusive guide to the US midterms, what to expect, what to look out for and why these mid-terms are so important.

What are people voting for?

The midterms are the elections for all members of congress (they serve 2 year terms) and some of the Senate (who serve 6 year terms). In the 2018 midterm, the US electorate will get to vote for all 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 35 out of the 100 seats in the Senate. Currently, the Republican party controls both House of Representatives (240-194, 1 vacant seat) and the Senate (majority 51-47, 2 independents).

However, it is not just Congress that is getting voted in. Across the US, governors are also getting voted in, with a number of the tightest races happening right now, taking place across the governorships. 39 governors are being voted in across the US and its territories in this election.

Why does it matter?

Even putting aside the many issues that are being fought over (see below), these mid-terms will have a huge impact on the landscape of US politics. That landscape has very large aftershocks that reach far beyond the confines of the US. This election, as I have already mentioned, is in many ways, a referendum on the Trump presidency. Trump has certainly not shied away from the attention and the power that the Office of President of the United States brings. Regardless of your view, the clout of the United States on the rest of the world is unrivalled (China, Russia and any other nation does not hold the same kind of soft power) and the outspoken and populist President Trump has huge sway both directly and indirectly. The topic of US influence on the world and the direction it is taking is entirely different matter that deserves its own article, so I will, for now, not delve further into the issue other than reiterate the influence of the US and therefore the midterms, in one of the most divisive times in modern US politics and history.

The big issues

The issues vary from state to state and each race has its own quirks and peculiarities. Nonetheless I have compiled a list of some of the biggest national issues that are affecting a large number of the races across the US. This list is by no means exhaustive and there are many more issues out there that are worth following and keeping an eye on.

Trump: The biggest issue at stake is Donald Trump’s presidency. While each race has seen candidates either shy away or embrace the Trump narrative, there is no escaping the fact that these midterms have essentially become a referendum on the just under two years of President’s Trump very controversial first term. Democrats are hoping to take back power in at least one of the two chambers, so that they can control legislation and frustrate Trump’s agenda, which currently has been massively helped by the Republican’s control of both the Senate and Congress. This has included passing a controversial tax reform, getting Brett Kavanaugh onto the Supreme Court and only narrowly failing to almost completely derail President Obama’s signature policy of Medicare. If Republicans keep control, it is expected that they will continue to push their conservative agenda ranging from health to immigration. If the Democrats come back into power, at the very least a halt in the conservative agenda and new more liberal agenda pursued. Furthermore, it is likely that talk of impeachment will only increase and that Trump’s agenda will get frustrated.

Healthcare: The issue of healthcare exploded under President Obama when he introduced his signature policy in the shape of healthcare. The Affordable Care Act, also commonly referred to as Obamacare, has split Americans ever since it was introduced. Donald Trump is hugely opposed and was only narrowly stopped from tearing it down, when the now late Senator McCain defected to vote with Democrats. Despite that it continues to be a contentious issue that splits Republicans and Democrats. Whoever emerges successful from these midterms is likely to make shaping healthcare policy, one of their top priorities.

Immigration: Another contentious that has long split Democrats and Republicans. Trump’s infamous ‘We’re going to build a wall and the Mexicans will pay for it’ continues to be one of his key, and perhaps a little outlandish, objectives. While the Mexicans do not look like they will be paying for it anytime in the near future, Trump has gone ahead with creating designs and recently unveiled a 9-metre-long wall as the prototype. To build it, however, he needs funding and that funding comes from Congress. As the Democrats are vehemently opposed to most Trump policies, it is difficult to imagine to see the President getting any funding if his opponents win the midterms. However, this is not the only issues surrounding immigration. One of Trump’s lowest points during his first two years, came after he passed an executive order that allowed the detention of migrant children. This has seen children separated from parents at the border for months on end, getting fierce criticism both domestically and internationally and is a problem that still has not been fully solved.

Don’t forget about the travel ban that was stopped by the courts three times, the dismantling of DACA and more recently his promise to send troops to the border to stop approximately a thousand people from Honduras currently travelling through Mexico to US border. Immigration is always contentious in most countries, and the US is no different. The midterm could have important bearings on the path of immigration takes for the next few years.

Foreign Interference:

Foreign interference, fake news or a real threat? According to the American security umbrella, it is very much a real threat. Using social media, Trump’s favourite way of communicating, foreign powers such as Russia and China were found to be interfering with the elections. It took a very long time for President Trump to admit foreign interference took place during his election win.

To his credit, Trump signed an executive order in September, which would impose sanctions on any foreign power found trying to interfere in the midterm elections. Recently the head of Homeland Security, said that the US was prepared for the midterms but many conflicting reports show that the midterms could well be vulnerable to foreign influence. Expect this to be a contentious issue for many months after the elections and for the 2020 Presidential elections.

The blue wave?

Democrats have not been this excited since they were certain that Hillary Clinton was going to win the 2016 Presidential election. Certainly if they had had the same energy they are showing now, there is a good chance we would be writing about the second President Clinton. Having seemingly learnt from their mistakes in 2016, Democrats have energised their base and really pushed their candidates, creating unlikely races in Republican strongholds. They surprised Republicans by heavily outspending them during these last few months and are capitalising on the strong Anti-Trump sentiment that is going around the deeply partisan United States. They are clawing back at seats that Trump won by huge margins, fighting back for supporters he ‘stole’ and even drawing moderate Republicans who do not believe Trump has the same values as their party. The biggest driving factor in voter demographic terms has been suburban women turning against Trump and thereby the Republican party. The new Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh represents a chance for Republicans to finally overturn Roe vs Wade, something which some have been dreaming about ever since the decision was made.

Polls have been showing the Democrats as the clear favourites to win for the last few months. The latest poll by FiveThirtyEight (see below) sees Democrats with an 86% chance to overturn the house. The term blue wave, has been thrown around a lot in both domestic and international news, referring to the Democrats better than expected polling and their optimism at being able to capture seats that previously they could only have dreamed about. The polls have not remained still tough and Republicans have fought back. The senate once a target that Democrats believed they had a chance (not big, but a chance) to overturn. Now they seem more set on damage limitation. Yet in the last few days it seems Democrats are once more polling very strongly and with only a few days to go to the polls that’s a very good sign for them. This upturn has been driven by recent events such as bombs being sent to prominent Democrats, as well as attacks and killings of black churches and synagogues. Many Americans are pinning the blame of the divisive and increasingly violent nature of politics on Trump’s constant incendiary remarks. This coupled with continued outspending by the Democrats makes them feel like the finish line is in sight.

Source: FiveThirthEight

Republicans fight back

Concerned by the increasing optimism of the Democrats, Republicans started fighting back hard. The controversial hearing for the now Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh seemingly energised both the Republican party and its base, who felt outraged at how the conservative judge was treated and the contentious nature of his nomination. This energy has been capitalised on by Republicans, also led by Donald Trump who has been going around the country holding big rallies to get Republicans to reply to the Blue Wave. For a few weeks it certainly looked that Republicans were slowly but surely regaining a foothold in the race, albeit never losing their status as outsiders to hold the house. However, in the senate, what was a close fight has turned into Republican optimism that they will actually be able to gain seats and at the very least not lose any seats overall. This cycle sees many Democrats on the back foot and having to defend their status as Democrats in red states. Democrats in fact seem consigned to trying to maintain the status quo and bring the fight for the senate to the next cycle when more Republicans at risk will be up for re-election.

Increasingly, Republicans are accepting that they will lose the House and are trying to minimalize the loss of seats to give Democrats as small a majority as possible. They are pouring money into seats that were seen as strongholds and not seats that were seen as must-wins for Democrats, who take it as a welcome sign that they are going to make big gains across the country and flip the house. Republicans do perhaps have one ace up their sleeve. It was only in 2016, that polls predicted Hillary Clinton was heading for a major win.

Key Races to look out for

While there are many races to look out for across the whole country, I have handpicked a few whose implications could have important bearings not only on congress but also for the 2020 Presidential elections. Here are my top picks to watch with a close eye:

Alaska: The governor’s race, which was looking like a sure-fire win for the Republican party, has suddenly turned into a toss-up when the three-horse race suddenly became two. The current governor Bill Walker, an independent, decided to drop out of the race and back the Democratic nominee Mark Begich over Republican Mike Dunleavy. Alaska is the perfect example of the unpredictable nature of these midterms where Dunleavy was previously winning comfortably. In number terms, Dunleavy was winning by 17 points a bit over a week ago. A more recent poll, shows that lead is now under 5 points. Definitely one to keep an eye on.

Florida: One of the most important swing states in the US, when it comes to Presidential elections, a win here for either side could have huge implications for 2020 elections. Andrew Gillum vs Ron DeSantis is one the most watched races across this entire election cycle. Gillum is the first black candidate for governor in Florida history, who is seen as a champion of the liberal left. DeSantis is pro-Trump conservative who has been taping into the stubbornly pro-Republican sentiment that presides in Florida. Nonetheless the polls are extremely tight (at times separated by one or two points) and in a state who has so much influence on US politics, you’d expect nothing less.

Missouri: One of the tightest toss-up races in the whole US, polls show the difference to be a mere 0.2 points in favour of Republican challenger Josh Hawley over Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill. The tightness of the polls, and the fact that neither candidate has had more than a four point lead over the last year, means that this is a race that is far too close to call yet one that could have major implications for how the senate will shape up.

North Carolina: An example of the progress that Democrats have made, North Carolina is a battleground that Republicans were not expecting to have to defend with such ferocity. North Carolina is an example that has popped up all over the country (other examples include Florida, Virginia, Georgia, Michigan to name a few), where Republicans are being forced to pour huge amounts of money to fight off the Democrats. In North Carolina, a state that hasn’t voted blue in over 10 years and that Trump carried with double digits, has a dead even fight between Dem. Dan McCready and Rep. Mark Harris. Trump recently came here to campaign on Harris’ behalf but it continues to be a straight fight that would be seen as a huge gain for the Democrats and big loss for Republicans

Texas: The Lone Star State. The state that many both in and out of the US would consider to be Republican homeland. It is also home to one of the fiercest conservative vs liberal values fights. Current Senator Ted Cruz, known for his conservatism has a slim lead over Democrat newbie Beto O’Rourke. Ted Cruz has recently slightly opened up the gap between the two, but the difference remains in mid-single digits. Democrats have poured a lot of money into the race and significantly outraised Ted Cruz. So much so, that it’s breaking records. Over 100 million US dollars has spent combined between the two campaigns and while Cruz remains a favourite, a win here for the Democrats would represent a huge blow for the Republicans.

West Virginia: A Senate race, where the Republicans are gunning for blood, Democrat and incumbent Senator Joe Manchin, a conservative Democrat is under threat from Patrick Morrisey. The polls show Manchin to be in the lead, with the numbers slowly creeping up in his favour, undoubtedly helped by his Yes vote in the Brett Kavanaugh hearing. Yet in a state that Donald Trump carried with 40 points, this race represents a real chance for the Republicans to hit back hard at the blue wave.

There are so many more races to mention and keep an eye on but this hopefully gives you a feel for the closeness and importance of these midterms.

Conclusion

Currently, the whole world of politics is watching intently, as the Americans go vote in the most important midterms in a generation. The polls suggest that the Democrats are heading for a majority in the House of Representatives, while Republicans will keep control (and potentially even increase their majority) in the Senate. Then again, the polls were convinced that Hillary Clinton was going to beat Donald Trump to the Presidency in 2016. All we can do is watch with bated breath and intrigue, as November 6th rolls around and we learn the direction that the US will take. Will the Trump revolution continue or is it the beginning of the end for the man who shocked the world when he came into power, almost two years ago exactly on November 9th, 2016? Regardless, of your position, this an election you do not want to miss.

I am in my first year of my masters at Bocconi studying Politics and Policy Analysis. I am passionate about politics, IR, history and Inter. I currently write on the weekly dispatch, covering Asia/Middle East.

Andreas Candido

I am in my first year of my masters at Bocconi studying Politics and Policy Analysis. I am passionate about politics, IR, history and Inter. I currently write on the weekly dispatch, covering Asia/Middle East.

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