Opinion: A mid-term election for the ages

The power balance in US politics could shift as a result of the mid-term elections, held every six years (photo/Wikimedia Commons)

By Professor Richard Shaw

In case you haven’t heard, on Wednesday (NZ time) some elections are taking place in the USA. 

All 435 seats in the House of Representatives are up for grabs, as are 35 Senate positions (US Senators are elected for six-year terms, and a third present themselves for re-election every two years), 36 governors’ mansions and over 6,000 seats in state legislatures. That’s an awful lot to grasp – but it’s important we do, because the consequences of Tuesday’s events will be felt for years to come. By all of us. Here’s why.

The most obvious implications will stem from the outcomes of the House and Senate races. Most projections see the Republicans holding onto the Senate and perhaps even increasing their hold on it. But the House – where the Democratic Party needs a net gain of 23 seats to take back control – is another matter. Estimates of how many seats are in play range from 28 (Politico’s projection) to 53 (the Cook Political Report), but everyone agrees that most of these are Republican, giving the Democrats a target-rich environment. Assuming they aim straight, Americans will wake up to divided government: one party in control of the White House and the Senate, and the other in command in the House. 

And that really, really matters. It means, for one thing, that a Democratic House could initiate impeachment proceedings against President Trump (although the two thirds Senate majority required to actually impeach will be beyond the Democrat’s reach). Also, while there are plenty of things that President Trump can do unilaterally (using executive orders, proclamations and presidential signing statements) there is an awful lot that he cannot achieve without congressional approval. For a start, while a US president can recommend a budget to Congress, the real power to decide on the content of federal budgets lies with congressional committees. Second, a Democratic veto over legislation in the House would mean that the conservative legislative agenda will be dead in the water. Third, Democrats have already made clear that they would go after the Trump administration using the powers enjoyed by congressional committees to subpoena documents and compel witnesses to testify.

As important as that all is there is much more at stake next week. First, 2018 is really about 2020. By the time President Trump wraps up his campaigning for Republicans up and down the ballot on Tuesday, he will have held 53 rallies in 23 states. Many are aimed at shoring up the rural vote in states he won in 2016 as well as in those he hopes to take in 2020. Trump’s people are using this year’s elections as an opportunity to gather all sorts of data they will use in 2020, including voters’ responsiveness to new campaign lines (e.g; ‘jobs not mobs’).

Second, the midterms will go a long way to determining which version of the Democratic Party – the centrists or the leftist progressives – emerges in pole position for 2020. Alexandria Ocasio-Coretez stands out as the icon of the left. Ocasio-Coretez, who defeated a 10-term Democratic incumbent in the primaries, will become the youngest ever Congresswoman if, as is likely, she wins New York’s 14th District (electorate).

Professor Richard Shaw

Democrats rally in high-stakes elections

Just as important is that she identifies as a democratic socialist, which in American parlance means she espouses policy positions – such as universal health care – which, while mainstream in this part of the world, mark her apart in the US context.

But Ocasio-Coretez is standing in a district which is solidly Democrat. Perhaps a better indication of the Democrats’ prospects for the White House in 2020 will be provided by Kara Eastman, the social worker who is the party’s candidate in Nebraska’s second District. Since 1951 only three Democrats have held the seat, and what is fascinating about Eastman is that in an attempt to get the Democratic vote out she’s pivoting not to the centre but to the left, advocating healthcare for all, fee-free College and gun control. A win for her would be major shot in the arm for the progressive left; lose, and the Democrat’s centrists get to craft the narrative (because if there’s ever a year to win as a progressive it’s this one, right?).

Third, this week’s elections are also about political regeneration in the US. More women are running for Senate (22 women are contesting seats), House (235), gubernatorial (16) or state legislative (3,379) positions than at any other US election. Further, with over 30 million early votes already cast it is possible that there will both a blue voting wave and a red one. Midterms tend to have lower levels of engagement and turnout than presidential elections – not this time.

But there is a seedy side to this, highlighting the importance of gubernatorial and state legislative elections. Voter eligibility is administered at the state level (Republicans presently control 33 of the 50 governorships and 67 of the 99 state legislatures), and since 2013 some 24 states have tightened up eligibility requirements. In Georgia, the state has put 53,000 voter registrations on hold (the majority of whom are from black citizens) and its ‘use it or lose it’ and ‘exact match’ requirements are held responsible for significant voter disenfranchisement. 

2018 is also about the next decade of American politics. Congressional redistricting is a political process in 37 states in the USA. Every ten years around 1,500 state senators, 4,400 state Houseand 35 or so state governors get to redraw the electoral boundaries. The last time this occurred was in 2010 when Republicans held the whip hand. The next redistricting process begins in 2020, meaning that the outcomes of this year’s midterms in populous states such as Michigan, Florida and Texas will have an outsized impact on the next decade’s worth of congressional and presidential elections. 

Finally, Tuesday in the USA is a referendum on President Trump. For American voters it’s a chance either to give the President a political black eye or to say to him ‘Atta boy, Mr President.’ But in the rest of the world autocrats and tyrants will either be emboldened or given pause for thought. Morning will come again to America but the stakes on Tuesday couldn’t be higher. For all of us. Don’t look away.

Richard Shaw is a professor of Politics in the School of People, Environment and Planning.

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