People hold signs during a rally and march at Grant Park on October 13, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois to inspire voter turnout ahead of midterm polls in the United States. Image Credit: AFP

WASHINGTON: The divide in American politics is so stark that analysts are beginning to predict something that seldom happens: One party could make big gains in the House while the other adds seats in the Senate.

Not since 1970 has a US midterm election provided such a split verdict, and only two other presidential elections, in 1996 and 1972, have demonstrated such division in congressional elections.

Now, particularly after the contentious Senate confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Democratic energy is up in the suburban districts that will determine the House majority – just as Republicans claim conservative voters have been jolted awake in rural states that will determine the Senate majority. Democrats could gain more than the 23 seats needed to take the House majority, which would normally be considered a “wave election” for Democrats up and down the ballot.

But Senate Republicans have gone from clinging to the narrowest of margins, a 51-to-49 majority, to believing they will gain seats, possibly three, the sort of result that would normally mean the national GOP had a very good night.

Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s former personal attorney, is urging the public to #GetOutAndVote next month.

In a Sunday afternoon tweet, Cohen said the November 6 midterms “might be the most important vote in our lifetime.”

Cohen last week changed his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat, according to his attorney, Lanny Davis, who said in a tweet that his client was “distancing himself from the values of the current Admin.”

On Sunday, Davis made note of Cohen’s call for voters to go to the polls. “No one knows better than @michaelcohen212 why the midterm stakes are so important to #America’s future as he is the holder of truth about @realdonaldtrump,” the lawyer tweeted.

Charlie Cook, the independent analyst and founder of the Cook Political Report, called the Kavanaugh nomination process “a colour enhancement event.” It positioned Democrats to perform even better in the metropolitan areas and Republicans to make gains in the exurban-rural regions.

“It made the reds redder and the blues bluer,” Cook wrote.

Midterm elections are supposed to be a verdict on the party holding the presidency, and almost always the tide breaks against that party, particularly in House and Senate races, and especially with an unpopular president.

Think of 2006, George W. Bush’s sixth year as president, when Democrats picked up more than 30 House seats and six Senate seats to win the majority in both chambers. Or in 2010, when Republicans picked up 63 House seats and six Senate seats in Barack Obama’s first midterm election.

The tides went the same direction, as the out-of-power voters raced to the polls and the small-but-decisive independents broke against the sitting president in similar fashion across the nation.

Trump’s first midterm election seemed to be heading that way, as Democrats won special elections in deeply conservative places such as Alabama and southwest Pennsylvania and had a strong showing in Virginia’s statewide elections last November.

Democrats are now certain to make big gains in the House — Republicans have essentially surrendered about a dozen of their seats already — and the only questions remaining will be if they net the 23 seats needed for the majority and, if so, how big can they grow that margin.

But now, chances are growing for Republican gains in the Senate. The underpinning of such a split verdict can be found in a new report from a study by Third Way, the left-leaning think tank that analysed voter data in 13 Senate races that will determine the majority.

Twelve of those states favoured Trump in 2016 and nine of those seats are held by Democrats. To win the majority, Democrats need to successfully defend all nine of their seats and take two of the four GOP seats, and the gravity of that hurdle comes through in Third Way’s crunching of data from Catalyst, a liberal group with access to voter files.

From West Virginia to Missouri to Florida and beyond, Republicans start with an edge in terms of the voters most likely to show up at the polls in a midterm.

Across all 13 states, 40 per cent of the midterm voters are likely to be “base Republicans,” regular midterm voters who essentially never split their ticket. Democrats could expect 27 per cent of their “base” voters to head to the polls, with the rest being potential ticket splitters.

The numbers grow more stark when viewed in certain states.

Take West Virginia, where Trump won the state by 42 percentage points in 2016, the largest margin in any state that Democrats are defending in the midterms.

Just 15 per cent of probable voters in West Virginia will be “base Democrats,” the type most likely to support Democratic Senator Joe Manchin in his reelection bid.

More than half the state’s remaining voters have shown some proclivity for supporting Democrats, but their demographic makeup has become the party’s most challenging subset: 98 per cent are white, just 1 in 5 hold a college degree and just 16 per cent are under the age of 40, according to the Third Way study.

Manchin, a former governor, remains a slight favourite in the race because he is doing all that he can to run on local issues and keeping national politics out of the discussion despite attacks from Trump and others that he is a loyal Democrat. “They just try to identify you, what tribe do you belong to, and I tell them I belong to the American tribe and West Virginia is the best branch we’ve got,” Manchin said in an interview a few days before he broke with Democrats to vote for Kavanaugh.

The outlook in Texas and Tennessee is more bleak for Democrats. In Texas, 49 per cent of probable voters are “base Republicans,” twice as many as the probable “base Democrats” that are expected to show up at the polls.

That’s why Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has made almost no effort to appeal to centrist voters, believing that he can just regain support from conservative voters angry about his non-endorsement of Trump at the 2016 Republican National Convention.

In Tennessee, 60 per cent of likely voters are “base Republicans,” explaining why Representative Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee, has taken an approach similar to Cruz.

Democrats have adopted the opposite strategy with their nominees in those states. Former Tennessee governor Phil Bredesen is running as a centrist Democrat, who supported Kavanaugh and hopes to win a larger-than-usual share of Republican votes.

Representative Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, has galvanised liberals and is trying to expand the pool of voters and bring in a larger-than-usual share of younger voters and minorities.

If Bredesen prevails, centrist Democrats will claim that was the right approach, while liberal activists will claim the high ground if O’Rourke pulls off the upset.

If they both lose, and by wide margins, it probably means they never had much of a chance - and that a historic split verdict is likely in the midterms.


Political impact: All you need to know about US midterm elections

What are the midterm elections?

While every US president is elected for a four-year term, members of the House of Representatives, the lower chamber of Congress, are elected for only two years at a time. Thus, every presidential term is punctuated at the two-year mark by a “midterm” election for all 435 seats in the House.

What else is up for voting?

It isn’t only members of the House that Americans will be selecting. Voters in many states will also be choosing between candidates for seats in the US Senate. The term of a US senator is six years, which means that every other year – whether it is a full presidential election or a midterm election – roughly a third of the seats in the Senate are up for grabs.

Why is there a surge in the number of voters?

With the 2018 midterm elections less than a month away, states across the US are reporting record numbers of voters registering in what is poised to be a decisive battle for Congress. The uptick in political engagement comes as Donald Trump’s presidency has raised the stakes for the American electorate, energising voters on both the left and right as they head to the polls on November 6 against a backdrop of deep-rooted polarisation.

What will be the impact of the elections? 

These midterms won’t just be consequential for the next few years. Their results will help define the battlegrounds of political combat all the way through the year 2030 — because of the impact they’ll have on the next round of redistricting. The US Census is conducted every 10 years, with the next census scheduled to take place in 2020. New districts for US House and state legislative races will be based on the results and take effect ahead of the 2022 elections

5 key takeaways  KEY 

1. The Republican legislative agenda would be dead if either house of Congress changes colour

2. More investigations into Donald Trump’s administration could ensue if either house of Congress changes allegiance

3. Trump would be enormously constrained on judges and other nominees if the Senate changes

4. US state elections could lead to new Democratic majorities, and new liberal legislation

5. A huge chunk of the 2021 redistricting will actually be determined by this year’s elections