2 Nov 2018

Making sense of the midterm election madness

3:23 pm on 2 November 2018

It's time for the midterm elections in the US, which means President Donald Trump faces his first nationwide electoral test since his surprise victory in the 2016 presidential election. No, Trump isn't on the ballot, but more than ever when Americans go to the poll in a week's time, they will essentially be taking part in a referendum on the presidency. All the news coverage is that the stakes are high and the result could have an impact on politics for years to come. How so? Let's break this down.

US President Donald Trump.

US President Donald Trump. Photo: AFP

Can we start with when and what?

Election day is 6 November. US elections are always held on a Tuesday because in the mid-1800s it allowed a day for rural people to travel to the booths after the Sabbath. They're called midterms because they occur half way through the four-year presidential term.

Who are people voting for?

The US electoral system has presidents elected every four years, but all 435 members of the House of Representatives - and a third of all Senate members - are elected every two years. Senators serve staggered six year terms (so out of the 100 senators, 35 seats are being contested this year). Add to that 36 governorships and more than 6000 seats in state legislatures.

So how do things stand now?

Republicans hold 235 seats in the House and 51 seats in the Senate. The Democrats 193 and 47, respectively. Seven House seats are vacant and two senators are independent. So Republicans hold a majority in both as well as having their man in the White House, which means if the party can whip its many members to vote with one voice, they can pretty much do as they want. Democrats need to win at least 23 more seats in the House and two in the Senate.

And the mood?

Polarised. In the extreme. And angry. Former vice president Joe Biden has said, "hate is on the march in America". The Democrat's candidate for governor of Florida is African-American and has been the subject of robocalls saying, "Well, hello there. I is the negro Andrew Gillum…". In Pennsylvania, the Republican candidate warned his opponent to wear a face mask because he was going to stomp all over his face in golf spikes. And the Anti-Defamation League reports an increase anti-semitic attacks online, mostly by bots.

Amy Walter, national editor of the Cook Political Report newsletter, said last week: "The best way to think about where we are today is that we're having elections in two different Americas."

So what normally happens in midterms?

The president's party almost always loses seats at the first midterms, because the people who lost most recently are most likely to turn out to express their displeasure. Also, the reality of power typically means presidents can't achieve everything they promised on the campaign trail, especially in just two years, so some supporters express their frustration. Turnout is usually low.

So why all this fuss?

For a start, surveys are suggesting huge voter interest. Huge. So forget what I just said about low turnout. More people than usual voted in the primaries when parties selected their candidates, polls speak of high reported self-interest, and most of all, early voter turnout is up. Two weeks out, more than 8 million early votes had been cast, ahead of even the 2016 presidential election.

One October poll said 62 percent of Americans thought this was the most important midterms in their lifetimes.

Exciting! And that Senate's pretty tight, huh?

Funnily enough, the Senate is considered easier for the Republicans to retain. Out of the 35 Senate seats up for election, the Democrats have to defend 24 and the Republicans just nine. What's more, many of the Senate seats being contested are in what might be called Trump country. For example, ten of those seats the Democrats are trying to defend are in states that voted Trump in 2017. So the Republicans could actually make gains.

What about the House?

Most experts are predicting the House to change hands, with 15-22 House seats considered pretty certain to switch from Republican to Democrat. That's not enough, of course, but the respected Cook Political Report lists as many as 50 more Republican seats as toss-ups, which means the Democrats have what is being called "a target rich environment". It says the race has been getting closer but Democrats remain favourites to take the House. They're expected to do well in the governors' races too.

Trump is deeply unpopular in suburban America, where the Republicans have previously done well.

Oh yeah Trump. So why's this such a big deal for him?

Trump, like Barack Obama before him, has had the numbers his way for the first half of his first term. Both men were able to nominate two Supreme Court justices in that time, whose politics reflect their own party's, and control the agenda. But in 2010 Democrats lost the House, a result Obama famously called "a shellacking". Afterwards, Republicans had the numbers to fight back on issues such healthcare and the debt ceiling. Trump and the Republicans fear the same, but in reverse. For example, they would expect to have another go at cutting or abolishing Obamacare if they control all of Congress, but can be stopped if they lose the House. And while Brett Kavanaugh is already confirmed, Democrats could stall any future Supreme Court appointments until after the 2020 presidential elections.

But there's something more personal at stake for Trump, right?

You betcha. It's the House that launches impeachment proceedings against a president. And Supreme Court judges, for that matter. While it takes two-thirds of the Senate to actually impeach, the proceedings themselves can swallow a presidency. As Trump has said of these midterms, "I'm not on the ticket, but I am on the ticket, because this is also a referendum about me".

What issues are the parties trying to focus on?

Republicans have doubled down on Trump. Many are running on his endorsements and record. They are talking about the strong economy and immigration concerns, pouncing on the migrant caravan heading towards the US from central America. Democrats had been trying to ignore Trump (figuring people have made up their minds about him), instead talking about saving Obamacare and local issues. But both campaigns have been over-shadowed by violence - the pipe-bombs last week and the synagogue killings of 11 people in Pittsburgh.

Things to watch for?

Democrat Rashida Tlaib is running unopposed in a House seat and so will become the first Muslim women in Congress. Stacey Abrams is in a neck-and-neck race in Georgia and if she wins she will become America's first black woman governor. Deb Haaland is set to become the first Native American woman in Congress and could be joined by another, Sharice Davids

There are dozens of races that will give you clues as to whether or not the House will flip, but keep an eye on California's 25th and 39th districts, Texas' 32nd, New Jersey's third, New Mexico's second and Colorado's sixth.

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