DUBLIN: Americans head to the polls in one of the most consequential midterm elections in decades — a nationwide referendum in effect on the first two years of President Donald Trump’s turbulent administration.
Under the American legislative system at the federal level, senators serve a six-year term in the upper house, with one-third of the chamber facing election every two years.
In the lower House of Representatives, Congressmen hold office on two-year terms. The US President is elected for a four-year term, which was held in 2016.
The entire lower house of 435 Congressmen is up for re-election, with 33 of the 100 US senators facing re-election.
At the state level, there are 36 contests to elect a new governor — effectively the chief executive officers of the 50 states — who hold office for four-year terms.
For Republicans, the party that won the presidency and holds slim majorities in both houses, the stakes couldn’t be higher. The checks and balances built into the US Constitution mean losing control of one or both, could cripple their legislative agenda and likely set impeachment proceedings in motion against President Donald Trump.
The Republicans hold both houses
Heading into election day, the Republican party holds control of the US Presidency, the lower House of Representatives and the upper Senate — together these two chambers are known collectively as Congress — and to emerge from the midterms with maintained or enhanced majorities would represent a very significant, if unlikely, endorsement.
In the House of Representatives, the Republicans would need to prevent the Democrats from winning 23 more races in the 435 up for re-election. Right now, with 33 senate seats up for re-election, the Republicans hold a slim two-seat majority.
Opinion polls show the Democrats with a lead of about 10 percentage points. But opinion polls have been wrong before — most noticeably in the 2016 presidential race. What’s more, the senate seats that are up for re-election are in states that are mostly solidly red — traditional Republican areas.
But win both houses, and the Republicans have a mandate to get tough on immigration, eliminate public health care, strip back social programmes, rip up environmental and workplace regulations and remake the US federal government in a big-C conservative mould.
A double victory would be an endorsement of the turbulent and divisive policies of President Trump, and kill of the investigation into Russian collusion in that 2016 presidential election.
Democrats take control of both houses
Winning majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate would be a worst-case scenario for the Republican party and would effectively cripple and politically isolate Trump.
And depending on the level of support won by the Democrats in the midterm elections, it would pave the way for impeachment proceedings against the president.
With a 10 percentage-point lead over Republicans, Democrat control of the lower house seems likely. Win two more seats in the Senate and hold the 10 it holds in states that backed Trump in the 2016 presidential race, and the writing is on the wall for the Republicans who hitched their political fortunes to the television reality star’s firebrand populism. And if the results are, in President Barack’s own words, “a shellacking”, then more moderate Republics are likely to put as much distance between themselves and a politically toxic president as quickly as possible.
A Democratic majority in both houses means more investigations into the events of the 2016 president campaign, more criminal prosecutions and turning a tide on a series of conservative judges at every level of the US judiciary. Former President Obama’s political legacy will be saved, and the defeat would mean a long period of soul searching for the Republicans who became the voice of angry white men.
Democrats take House of Representatives
For the Democrats to take control of the lower House of Representatives, the party needs to win some 29 more seats plus those they held on dissolution of the 435-seat chamber.
The entire house is elected for a two-year term, and with midterm elections generally being considered a referendum on the US presidency — particularly for those in the first two years of office. Given the turbulent, divisive and controversial nature of the presidency of Donald Trump, the vote is more meaningful and already 33 million Americans have cast early ballots, with some analysts predicting turning out at the 70 per cent mark — on par with presidential election years.
Democrats hold a lead of about 10 percentage points and are likely to win control on the lower house. In effect, that means the party will be able to control the legislative agenda — but will have a tough time getting anything through a Republic-controlled Senate. And even if both parties do reach a consensus on new laws, President Trump has a veto power.
But it would give the Democrats power at committee level to thoroughly probe all aspects of the Trump administration — opening his tax records or beginning ethics investigations and greater investigations into Russian collusion in the 2016 election. Any impeachment moves would, however, not pass a Republican-controlled Senate.
Republicans hold the Senate
Heading into the midterms, the Republics hold a narrow 51-49 lead in the US Senate on paper. In reality it’s even slimmer, given that there are a couple of liberal Republicans who voted with Democrats, and a couple of conservative Democrats, who also flipped on their own party.
Under the US Constitution, if there’s a 50-50 split on a vote, the Vice-President has the casting vote, Mike Pence — a Republican — has been called on nine times over the past two years to do just that.
There are 33 Senate seats up for re-election which on paper means all the Democrats have to do is won two more for majority.
Wrong. The political map is far more complex, with 10 Democratic senators facing re-election in states that voted solidly for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential race. That why, in the weeks leading up to the midterms, Trump has been campaigning almost consistently in these key states, knowing that turning those seats to the Republicans makes it far more difficult for the Democrats to take control of the Senate. Holding the Senate means Republicans can fend off any impeachment proceedings and thwart and at least water down or stall any Democratic legislation. This legislative gridlock, however, would mere exacerbate populist frustrations with Washington, and the need to “drain the swamp”.
The lessons from the governors’ races
The midterms offer US voters a chance to pass judgement on the first two years of the presidency of Donald Trump and, in 36 of the 50 states that make up the US, decide on who will site in the governors’ mansions.
Under the US political system, governors of states have many of the same powers as those of the president, except at state-level. They are the Chief Executive Officers, able to control state legislative agendas, direct funding and control lower levels of power. All are elected for four-year terms.
What makes these midterms so critical is that Republicans sit in the governors’ chairs in two-thirds of states, and out of the 36 up for re-election, 26 are Republican.
At a grass roots level, losses of any of these will be significant for a Republican party that has bought into the populist anti-immigration and conservative messaging of President Trump and forces of the right. A drop in support means that message is off key, and needs to be re-adjusted quickly for 2020.
The lessons? Each is different but significant. Lose Florida, and it shows the Republicans have a real issue with the women’s vote. Lose Ohio, and Trump’s tough trade talk has fallen on deaf ears. Lose Georgia, then there’s a Democratic rainbow coalition forming that will be hard to overcome in 2020.