Weighing up the midterms
Democrats are set to make gains, says Peter Moody. But will they be big enough to fatally wound Donald Trump?
The democratic credentials of the United States are often ambiguous at best. However, one thing in our favour, which most other countries do not practice, is electing the entire House of Representatives every two years.
This provides the electorate with a chance to weigh in on the development of any administration outside of presidential elections. There are, of course, checks and balances on democracy. Even if there is a massive swing against the president’s party, it would still have control of the executive branch itself, and the fact that the Senate only elects one third of its members every two years means that even within the legislature any “extreme democratic passions” of the electorate will be curtailed somewhat. Nevertheless, midterm elections do usually see some losses for the president’s party, often resulting in one or both houses of Congress changing hands.
If opinion polls are anything to go by, the Democratic Party has reason to be optimistic. There is talk of a ‘blue wave’ sweeping the Republicans out of power in Congress. However, to take both houses in November they need to pick up 24 seats in the House and two seats in the Senate.
Since the end of the civil war in 1865, the president’s party has lost on average 30 seats in the House and two in the Senate during midterms.1 1Limiting the scope to just midterm elections in the 21st century - which includes one of the only two instances in the past century where the president’s party gained seats in both houses - the numbers change to 24 in the House and four in the Senate seats. Combined with the president’s unpopularity, incumbent Republicans retiring from their seats and court cases which have redrawn House districts, things look good for the Democrats.
They are confident about their prospects of gaining control of at least one house of Congress. Of course, Democrats have foundered on relying too much on data trends before - witness the 2016 presidential elections - and even gains in votes may not lead to victory. While district gerrymandering is under challenge, Republicans still maintain a structural advantage. The Democrats would likely need well over 50% of the vote in order to actually take the House. In the Senate, they have to defend more incumbent seats than the Republicans in this cycle. So the Democrats need to appeal to more people than they did two years ago.
The Democrats have developed a three-pronged approach. The first prong is a doubling down on patriotism, partially with the ongoing Russia investigation in mind, but also with many of their candidates having some sort of military or national security (read: FBI or CIA) background. Such credentials feature prominently in their campaign. It’s not the ‘America first’ nationalism of Donald Trump, but rather the ‘American first in the world’ sort of nationalism. For long common coin in the US political mainstream, albeit now with a stronger national security/national defence emphasis.
The second prong is to highlight atrocious Republican attitudes towards women, something which several members of Congress, Donald Trump himself, and now the president’s Supreme Court nominee have been more than able to help along. While the last couple of years has also shown that several Democratic officials have assaulted or otherwise taken advantage of women during their careers, Democrats in general have been able to give the appearance of taking these matters more seriously within their own ranks (and being genuinely better about this than Republicans, if only marginally). Such an approach is designed to appeal to ‘moderate’ or ‘suburban’ voters who are seen as key constituents in many of the districts where Republican incumbents seem vulnerable. This has been a theme in Democrat electoral campaigns for years. But, now, they hope it will prove a winner.
The third prong is a bit more interesting. There is a left bloc in the Democratic Party that formed around the Bernie Sanders campaign and has now coalesced around Our Revolution. This is an organisation driven in the main by the Democratic Socialists of America.
For example, many Democratic politicians have come on board, at least rhetorically, for some sort of universal healthcare system - nowadays around the slogan of ‘Medicare for All’- which was a major plank in the Sanders campaign. As for DSA itself, it has seen dramatic growth over the past two years with its officially-publicised membership now at over 50,000. Besides that, there has been electoral success.
Three DSA members won House or Senate primaries: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York and Rashida Tlaib in Michigan. Both are running in House districts that are safe enough to assume that they will win in November. The Senate candidate, Zak Ringelstein in Maine, is running against both a Republican and the Independent incumbent Angus King and thus faces a tougher race. But his victory is sufficiently within the realm of possibility that DSA could have three nominal members in federal office come November.2
These and other wins have energised a layer of the population that will likely turn out in the Democrats’ favour. As for the DSA, it has not issued a blanket endorsement of the Democrats and is instead focusing its energy on electing “open socialists”. A healthy development. If there is a ‘blue wave’ this November, there will be some welcome flecks of red.
2. Due to the peculiarities of New York election law, Ocasio-Cortez’s election is not quite assured, as the Democrat she beat for the nomination is also going to be on the ballot in November; while he has said he will not be campaigning for re-election, there remains the possibility that he could be returned to Congress.