Election watch: U.S. mid-terms put checks on president’s powers

On 6 November, voters across the U.S. went to the polls to vote in midterm elections, which mark the halfway point in the presidential term. In their first major opportunity to cast verdict on the administration of President Donald Trump, voters delivered a nuanced and inconclusive message. While the Democratic Party wrestled the House of Representatives, the lower house, away from Republican Party (GOP) control, the latter extended its majority in the upper chamber, the Senate. In giving the Democrats checks on the president’s power, the results have important implications for the rest of Trump’s presidential term and give the first clues as to possible outcomes of the 2020 presidential race.

House of Representatives

Voters renewed the entire House of Representatives, the lower house of Congress, with voters from all 50 states filling the chamber’s 435 seats. In seizing control of the lower house from the Republican Party, the Democratic Party has scored a significant electoral victory which will enable it to frustrate and block Trump’s legislative agenda in the final two years of his term. At the time of writing, the Democrats are projected to have won approximately 230 of the chamber’s 435 seats, a swing of around 35 seats since 2016, granting them a 12-seat majority. Key electoral victories for the Democrats include Oklahoma’s 5th district, New York’s 11th district, and South Carolina’s 1st district, which were all considered Republican-leaning prior to the poll.

Senate

In the Senate, where 35 of the upper house’s 100 seats were on the ballot as per its system of staggered renewal, the Republicans extended their majority by an expected two seats. At the time of writing, the Republicans are projected to have gained three seats in the upper chamber, increasing their Senate delegation to 54 members against 46 for the Democrats. While the Democrats defeated incumbent Republican senator Dean Heller in Nevada, the party fared badly in other close races, losing seats they had held in the Trump strongholds of Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota. Elsewhere, the Republicans won closely fought races in the major southern states of Texas and Florida, where Ted Cruz and Rick Scott respectively appear to have held off competitive Democratic candidates.

Governorships

Of the 36 governorships on the ballot, the Democrats are likely to have won 16 and the Republicans 20, a net gain of 7 for the Democrats. Once all votes are counted, which may take in excess of several days, the Republicans are likely to control approximately 26 of the U.S.’s 50 governorships. However, this figure is reduced from the 33 governorships the Republicans held before the election. Key races included that of Florida –  where GOP candidate Ron DeSantis held off a close challenge from the Democrat’s Andrew Gillum –  and Wisconsin –  where incumbent Republican Scott Walker lost narrowly to Tony Evers of the Democrats.


Analysis – A mild rejection of Trump

In viewing yesterday’s race as a referendum on President Trump, A2 Global’s expectation that voters would largely divide on their opinion of the president held firm. Despite presiding over the strongest U.S. economy since the late 1990s, Trump’s approval rating of around 40 percent remains low compared to other recent presidents, such as Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Instead, Trump’s outspoken and confrontational rhetoric, with attacks on the media and his history of making pejorative comments on women and ethnic and religious minorities have made him one of the most divisive figures in recent American politics. To his supporters, however, Trump’s condemnation of the dominant political class, forthright economic nationalism and delivery of key campaign promises, such as tax reform and Supreme Court nominations, have strengthened his support, particularly in rural, inland, and southern areas. The results largely re-confirm that societal divide, which has been further entrenched since his 2016 election victory and is highly likely to continue into the next presidential race.

While both the Republicans and Democrats will tout their victories in the Senate and House, respectively, yesterday’s vote constitutes neither an outright victory for nor rejection of Trump

While both the Republicans and Democrats will tout their victories in the Senate and House, respectively, yesterday’s vote constitutes neither an outright victory for nor rejection of Trump. Instead, the electoral map points to a country increasingly divided not just by age, race and geography, but also education, values, attitudes to immigration and globalisation, and culture. This can be seen where the Republicans took Senate seats from the Democrats, such as in Indiana, and North Dakota, but also in the Democrats’ victory in Oklahoma’s 5th district, which had been held by Republicans since the 1970s. In short, the Democrats are increasingly dominant in urban areas, including those that formerly leaned Republican, while the Republicans advanced in places largely ethnically homogenous and impacted by the decline of old industries and relative rural deprivation, such as Ohio and Indiana. These phenomena, however, are neither new nor U.S.-specific, with comparable trends taking place in major European democracies such as Italy, Sweden and the U.K.

Such results are attributable to the Democrats’ focus on issues their voters’ consider overriding concerns, such as local healthcare and student debt, as opposed to issues such as immigration, to which Trump devoted much time during the campaign.

Instead, the outcome of yesterday’s elections is best interpreted as a mild rejection of Trumpism. The GOP lost numerous seats in the house and several key governorships, including Wisconsin and Kansas, which backed Trump in 2016’s presidential race. Such results are attributable to the Democrats’ focus on issues their voters’ consider overriding concerns, such as local healthcare and student debt, as opposed to issues such as immigration, to which Trump devoted much time during the campaign.

What is also significant is the popular engagement with politics that Trump’s presidency has provoked. While official turnout figures have yet to be announced, the New York Times newspaper has estimated that 37 percent more votes were cast in this midterm election than in the previous one.

Risk scenario – Two-year outlook (2018-2020)

Highly likely: Trump’s legislative agenda is largely stalled as Democrats block proposed legislation on healthcare, immigration, and border security. In place of relying on legislative procedures through Congress, Trump will use executive orders to cut regulations and advance his pro-business agenda. The Mueller inquiry – a Special Counsel investigation led by former FBI director Robert Mueller into allegations that Trump’s presidential campaign team co-operated with Russian agents to elect Trump in 2016 – finds proof of impropriety. However, Trump himself is exonerated and the Republican-held Senate rejects impeachment proceedings initiated by the Democrat-held House of Representatives.

Plausible: To overcome congressional gridlock, Trump issues numerous executive orders, many of which are rejected by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional. The Mueller investigation finds conclusive evidence that Trump personally ordered his campaign team to collude with Russia, and he is impeached as Republican Senators vote with Democrats amid widespread public pressure. Trump is replaced by Vice-President Mike Pence, who stands as the Republican’s presidential candidate in 2020.

Unlikely: Trump’s approval ratings drop dramatically as the trade war with China deepens and the economy begins to slow down. The Mueller probe presents conclusive evidence that Trump ordered his campaign team to collude with Russia. Trump is impeached or resigns in late 2019, with Vice-President Mike Pence taking his place until the November 2020 presidential election.

Risk scenario – 2020 Presidential election outlook

Possible: Trump stands as Republican candidate following a turbulent four-year presidency and amid continued economic growth. A close race is fought with a well-known Democrat, such as Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden. Trump narrowly wins a second term.

Unlikely: After Congress impeaches Trump, Vice-President Pence completes his term and stands as the GOP presidential candidate. Pence, who lacks the charisma or appeal of Trump, is defeated by an upcoming figure in the Democratic Party, such as Kamala Harris or Beto O’Rourke.

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