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US MIDTERMS, 2018: Down to the wire – Democrats and Republicans battle for America’s future

Finally, the American midterm election is just about to take place. Pollsters predict a modest win for Democrats in the House of Representatives and possibly a slightly increased majority in the Senate for the Republicans. But both predictions could still be wrong. How is this playing out in the final days of the campaign?

American midterm elections – the voting that takes place two years after a presidential election, for the full membership of the House of Representatives, a third of the Senate, numerous governorships and hundreds of state and local offices – usually don’t ignite quite the kind of intense, takes-up-all-the-oxygen attention that this one has been getting from the media, politicians, and the population as a whole. Part of the impetus for this is coming from what has been the effective nationalisation of the election as a narrative, and part of it has been coming from the intensity of the way this campaign has been waged.

First a little light housekeeping is in order. Members of the House of Representatives – all 435 members – are elected for two-year terms and they are elected from individual districts within the 50 states, on the basis of population. The presumption is that each district is roughly equal in population, and the districts, to the maximum extent possible, represent cogent, compact districts that recognise the geographic realities of communities and regions. Gerrymandering, however, has been a major flaw in the delineation of districts in many states, such that a number of court cases over gerrymandering are ongoing – and at least one state had its ill-shaped, largely dishonestly shaped districts thrown out by the courts, virtually at the last minute.

Meanwhile, every state gets two senators, for a total of 100. Each senator serves a six-year term, barring death, impeachment and conviction, or resignation. The idea is that a third of the Senate is elected every two years, thereby making the Senate a kind of dipstick of national opinion, surveying, metaphorically, today’s views, those of yesterday, and those of the day before that. Across the country, governors have terms of office that vary, and electoral dates that vary in accord with those respective terms of office – usually between two to four years, depending on the state. Similarly, state legislatures, mayorships, and county and city councils are often elected on those midterm elections as well.

In 2018, in Tuesday’s election, besides that full run of the 435 House of Representative seats, 36 governorships and 35 Senate seats are up for grabs. Crucially, if the Democrats gain a net additional 23 representatives and two senate seats, they would – theoretically – gain full control of the Congress. And that would, in turn, bring forth a veritable tsunami of troubles for the political circumstances of Donald Trump and his administration, going forward.

Controlling either or both houses of Congress would mean the Trump administration’s policies and personalities – including the president himself – would now be subject to submitting to subpoenas for demanded documentation, testimony on policies, and investigations into officials’ misbehaviour once the opposition controls the agendas of the various congressional committees.

Logical calls for such investigations would certainly include an interrogation of the president’s tax and business affairs – things he has been exceedingly reluctant to contemplate co-operating with – by demands for the release of tax returns and other information. That, in turn, could abet a court case now walking through the federal court system over the president’s presumed violation of the emoluments clause of the constitution. This is the clause that prohibits a president from receiving funds from foreign governments, as with, so the argument is being made, the president benefiting from foreign governments using his personally owned Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC. The hotel is in a prime location, just down the street from both the White House and the Capitol Building.

And rather further along the continuum, in theory, at least, there would be a significantly more remote possibility of a vote to impeach the president in the House, and then a vote to convict him in the Senate. Without question, that small dark cloud preoccupies some minds in the White House.

A key element of the Democrats’ hopes for Tuesday is the increasing possibility that they can do well in some 25 suburban districts adjacent to the country’s big cities, districts that often went for Trump in the 2016 presidential election. But various surveys are now showing that the electorate in those districts – substantially white, well-educated, middle- to upper-income – is losing faith in Trump, and most especially among the female voters in those districts. Those voters have become increasingly exasperated or embarrassed by Trump’s dog-whistle shoutouts to his core supporters that have unmistakably, substantially racist, misogynist, anti-minority group and similar subtexts. Winning all those districts and a sprinkling of others, and holding most or all current Democratic seats, becomes the mechanism to flip control of the House.

Democrats are taking heart from national generic polling which shows that the Democratic/Republican split leans towards the former by a significant but not overwhelming margin. But, as we keep saying, it is not a foregone conclusion, as so many of these House races will still depend not simply on a national tendency or set of issues, but also on the specifics and the specific candidates of each individual race. It all makes prediction that much harder to get right.

A harbinger of the complexity in all this is the way a growing number of Republican candidates in those districts that are in play have been espousing their independence of spirit, distinct from the president. Meanwhile, some Democratic candidates have taken to arguing that they are certainly not beholden to Nancy Pelosi. Pelosi, a long-time congresswoman from California, is the current minority leader and was Speaker of the House when the Democrats were in control. And Pelosi is, to say the least, not universally loved by your average Republican voter.

Over in the Senate, meanwhile, the Republican Party’s task has been made much easier because many of the Democratic seats up for election come from states which Donald Trump won in 2016 while the senators in question last stood for election in 2012, the year of Barack Obama’s second presidential election. Races to watch include, most especially, the chances of moderate, independent-minded Democratic incumbents such as Indiana’s Joe Donnelly, Bill Nelson in Florida, Joe Manchin in West Virginia, and Claire McCaskill in Missouri. Meanwhile, Republican Martha Blackburn in Tennessee is being challenged hard by popular Democrat Memphis mayor Phil Bredesen; and Texas’ Ted Cruz is being challenged by Beto O’Rourke. Success for either or both of these Democrats would overturn truisms of red state political life.

Among gubernatorial contests, the two with the most interest nationally are in Georgia and Florida – both large population southern states. And in both, African-American candidates are trying hard to upset all the cast-in-concrete truths about southern politics largely in place since Richard Nixon’s southern strategy of 1968 that had firmly broken the back of a traditional Democratic region for presidential politics. In Georgia, Stacy Abrams, aiming to become the first black female to become a governor ever in the US, is facing Brian Kemp (a Trump favourite); while Andrew Gillum is trying to defeat Republican Ron DeSantis (a Trump clone in policy terms) to achieve a similar breakthrough in Florida. At this point, both races are toss-ups. Right down to the wire.

What issues have been central to this mid-term election? For Democrats, virtually every candidate has spent a good chunk of time and energy focused like those proverbial laser beams on improving support for healthcare, and Republican efforts to degrade or destroy the gains of the Affordable Care Act, most notably provisions that prevent insurance plans from denying coverage for pre-existing conditions. This may well be very good politics. Polling says Democrats and independent voters significantly believe healthcare is the most important issue in this electoral cycle.

In their increasingly awkward defence, some Republican candidates have taken to claiming they actually supported pre-existing condition coverage, notwithstanding their actual records of voting to kill off just such provisions, or in their previous statements about the ACA – Obamacare – should they come into office. Healthcare has become the great unifier of Democrats this cycle – even though some candidates are also espousing a version of universal coverage, “Medicare for All”, extending the healthcare plan universally that now covers most people over 65 years of age.

Meanwhile, Republicans, and most especially the president, have been trying to make the fear of floods of immigrants – those infamous caravans from Central America – into the terror of a massive wave of rapists, muggers, terrorists, gangsters, welfare ingrates, and stealthy job stealers, all come to ruin America. These caravans are in fact hundreds of miles from America, still, consist largely of women, children, and young men desperate for work, and they are largely unfortunates trying to escape the depredations of poverty, civil unrest, and gang violence in their respective home countries.

This increasingly hysterical rhetoric is being tied into a larger sense of cultural unease, and the fears of generally older, largely rural or small town, generally white, lower middle and working class voters that the America they grew up in is vanishing under the weight of an onslaught of minorities, outsiders, migrants, and newly “entitled” groups (blacks, Latinos, LGBTI citizens) for the resources of the nation. This, in turn, has often been married to a sub rosa denigration of globalists (“rootless cosmopolitans” was the term used by another leader back in the 1930s and ‘40s in Europe) such as George Soros, Lloyd Blankfein, and Janet Yellen, all of whom just happen to be Jewish. And this all came to a larger public discussion after the pipe bomb campaign and the attack on a synagogue in Pittsburgh the other week.

For many, this Trumpian rhetorical stance has real resonances, and thus it is here where the core of the Trumpian base is to be found. And this is why the president has been carrying out a virtually unprecedented, nearly 24/7 campaign effort, trying to rally his base for senatorial and some other contests, by constantly raising the temperature over fear of the migrant caravan invasions and his sudden announcement of dispatching active duty military to help patrol the border.

One curiosity in the campaign has been the Trumpian forces’ reluctance to lead with their strongest suit – the performance of the economy. While a reasonable argument can be made that the Trump administration’s success is simply a continuation of the Obama economic surge (and, indeed, more jobs were created in the past equivalent number of months at the end of the Obama presidency than in the Trump administration, so far); it is also true unemployment is at a near record low, and wages are actually beginning to rise across the board.

Perhaps this reluctance is simply recognition that much of the vaunted growth has not really reached the average person, and that the net effect of the Trump tax cuts (with the consequent cuts in deductibility of state and local property taxes from federal income taxes) has had little real impact for the average person. It may also be recognition that talking about a strong economy is simply boring and doesn’t rev up that base the way vivid descriptions of alien hordes pouring over the border like Attila the Hun’s mounted warriors heading for Rome can – and will do.

And that brings us to one of the most important, but least discussed, elements of electoral politics. That, of course, is turnout. You can have all the polling data you want that says your party is leading, but if supporters don’t show up at the polling stations, it didn’t matter. As a result, both parties are now focusing on ensuring their supporters turn out when it comes to the actual act of voting.

And that, finally, leads to considerations of advance voting, voter suppression, gerrymandering, and the weather. In many states, advance voting is increasingly the way voters express their preferences – and the best estimates are now that more than 30 million have already voted prior to the actual election day, meaning last-minute campaigning for the attention of those voters is a waste of energy.

There are also growing charges that Republican-governed states have been engaged in vigorous campaigns to suppress voting by those likely to vote Democrat, either from overly intrusive efforts to make every voter provide substantial proof of identity, or to make voting stations harder to find or even get to – by moving them away from public transportation. There are also serious charges and court cases about the gerrymandering of electoral districts, leading to the suppression of likely Democratic victories. Some examples have been so egregious that they have been subject to court cases, with one state’s districts tossed out at virtually the eleventh hour. If there are really close results in some states or if Democrats lose elections badly where polling had pointed otherwise almost certainly means contested elections and court action.

Historically, good weather has increased voting, and especially among working class and minority voters. Bad weather means people don’t make the effort to stand in line in the rain, or they determine it is just more trouble than it is worth to vote. The long-range weather forecast is for stormy weather this Tuesday over much of the country, so who knows how that will affect things.

At this point, with just a few days left in the cycle, former President Barack Obama and President Trump have been criss-crossing the country; the television stations are flooded with political commercials; voter contact door-to-door or by phone has become frenetic; and the pollsters are about to tear their hair out. Stay tuned for Wednesday morning when we find out how it all came out in the end. DM

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