On November 6, United States citizens will vote in the midterm elections, so named because they coincide with the halfway stage of the country’s four-year presidential term. Americans as well as the rest of the world are keenly watching the elections, whose results could impact President Donald Trump’s powers in matters of legislature as well as in getting his nominees confirmed to judicial and other positions. A look at what the elections are for, and the issues that are dominating them, from the confirmation of Supreme Court judge Brett Kavanaugh to the ongoing march of migrants from Central America:
Who are getting elected?
All 435 seats of the House of Representatives (lower house, or chamber) and 35 of the 100 seats in the Senate (upper chamber) are up for grabs. These are besides 36 governorships and over 6,000 state legislative seats where polls are being held. The entire House of Representatives goes to elections every even-numbered year, at the end of its two-year term. Elections to the US Senate, on the other hand, are staggered — as are elections in India’s Rajya Sabha. US Senators have six-year terms, with about one-third of the 100 seats going to polls every two years.
What kind of results can have a bearing on Trump’s presidency?
For that to happen, the Democrats would need to take control of at least one House. The Democrats are hopeful about taking over the House of Representatives, in which they currently hold 195 seats to the Republicans’ majority of 240. They need to gain 23 seats to reach the majority mark of 218. On the other hand, American analysts feel, the Republicans are in a good position to strengthen their grip on the Senate, where they currently hold a thin majority — 51 of the 100 seats. Out of the 35 Senate seats going to polls, 9 are being vacated by Republicans, 24 by Democrats and two by independents who usually vote with the Democrats in matters of legislature. This means that in the Senate, the Democrats stand to lose more than the Republicans.
If the two chambers are indeed split, how could it impact the presidency?
If the Republicans control one chamber and the Democrats the other, legislation will likely not move. Besides, there are at least two more ways in which a split legislature can impact politics. For one thing, it would give Democrats the muscle to call for investigations against various scandals that are surrounding the President, and possibly to move for impeachment. Again, if Democrats take hold of the Senate, it would constrain President Trump’s powers in getting his nominees confirmed, including judicial ones.
Legislation: On their current strength, Republicans can use a provision called special budget reconciliation to send new legislation to President Trump’s desk with only Republican votes. They have passed a major tax cut bill with this, and also tried to repeal former President Obama’s Affordable Healthcare Act. If they hold on to both chambers, an analysis by the news portal Vox suggests, then Republicans could make another similar play in 2019 — either for “Obamacare” repeal, more tax cuts, and other legislation. On the other hand, if the Democrats take control of either of the two chambers, they will likely block most legislation.
Investigation: House and Senate committees can send subpoenas for documents and can compel witnesses to come in and testify. Over the last two years, the Vox analysis notes, Republicans have been deciding when to investigate closely, and “when to look the other way”. Scandals in the current political discourse include Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 presidential election, Trump’s businesses, and sexual assault allegations against Trump levelled by a number of women.
Nominations: Currently, Senate Republicans can confirm any Trump appointee with a simple majority. Under a Democratic Senate, the Majority Leader would decide on the calendar for considering and confirming nominees — which would allow him to bury many of Trump’s picks indefinitely, the Vox analysis says. This would be important should a new vacancy arise in the Supreme Court — where the Republicans’ Senate strength helped confirm Justice Kavanaugh — or in key law-enforcement posts or other powerful Cabinet positions. The urgency shown in the process to confirm Kavanaugh, who had been accused of sexual assault during his student days, was because of the upcoming midterm elections — Trump was keen to seat his nominee in the Supreme Court while the Republicans had the numbers in both chambers.
How are these issues playing out?
More than the alleged Russian interference in the 2016 polls, immigration and domestic issues seem to be dominating the discourse so far. An explainer by The New York Times, published earlier this month, describes healthcare as a biggie, and mentioned immigration, education and gun control as other issues. Over the last one week, immigration has taken centre-stage with the march of a migrant caravan, numbering in thousands, from Central America towards Mexico and the US. Trump has seized on this as an election issue, blaming Democrats for what he describes as weak immigration laws.
Americans are keenly watching how the Kavanaugh controversy will impact the polls. A report by Al Jazeera suggests that it will likely affect Senate races more than those of the House of Representatives, because of the Senate’s role in confirming judges. Early indicators, according to the report, are that the Republican base was energised while female voters, who already favour Democrats, were polarised even more than before.
How are the numbers placed? Have any predictions been made?
To gain control of the House of Representatives, the Democrats need to add 23 seats. The New York Times notes that in districts won by Hillary Clinton in 2016, there are 23 Republican-held seats, and Democrats see plausible openings in dozens of districts. There are about 75 competitive races out of 435 House seats, it adds.
For the Senate, the task for Democrats is more uphill. Ten Democrats are up for re-election in states that Trump won in 2016, and Democrats have a realistic chance to gain seats in only a few states, according to The NYT. So, for Democrats, the margin for error is small.