The US mid-terms matter to each and every one of us
06 November 2018 12:01
Today, America goes to the polls. All 435 seats in the House of Representatives are being contested, as are 35 of the 100 senatorial seats. In addition, 36 out of 50 governorships will be decided in these elections.
Why does this matter? For Americans, the most important politician in this race will not appear on a single ballot paper. US mid-terms are always treated, to a greater or lesser extent, as a situation report on the presidency they interrupt. But these elections are more than that: they have become a referendum on one of the most controversial figures in modern US history: Donald Trump.
And, boy, does he know it. Trump has dug deep and punched low to ensure that these elections cannot plausibly be presented as a disaster for him. He has promised to send 15,000 troops to the US-Mexican border, in preparation for the approaching ‘caravan’ of migrants, and declared (arbitrarily) that they will be authorised to fire live rounds back at those who throw stones.
On Monday, he imposed the ‘toughest-ever’ US sanctions against Iran. He has promoted an anti-immigration campaign advert so toxically bigoted that Fox News, NBC and Facebook have stopped running it. He has stoked up unfounded fears of widespread electoral fraud, warning in a tweet yesterday that “ILLEGAL VOTING” would be punished with the “Maximum Criminal Penalties allowed by law.”
As ever, there are key races that deserve to be watched with particular attention:
- Texas: the senatorial race between Beto O’Rourke (D) and the incumbent Ted Cruz (R) has become a dramatisation of a much greater contest. Cruz represents the worst of the Republican Party, tamed into submission by Trump. O’Rourke is young, charismatic, endlessly on the move and offers a version of the American dream that encompasses traditional homespun patriotism and the ‘kneeling’ of NFL players. If O’Rourke prevails, he will instantly become a contender to challenge Trump in 2020.
- Georgia: Stacey Abrams (D) is campaigning to become the first female African-American governor in US history. Her Republican opponent, Brian Kemp, stands accused of voter suppression and of targeting Abrams with robocalls to voters, pushing false claims about her.
- Arizona: Martha McSally (D), a former air force fighter pilot is fighting hard to wrest the seat vacated by Jeff Flake from the Republicans.
- Vermont: Christine Hallquist (D) is running for the governorship. If successful she would be the first transgender person to hold such a post.
- Utah: Mitt Romney, a former presidential nominee and the 70th governor of Masssachusetts, is on course to win a Senate seat that would restore him to frontline politics. If elected, will he be friend or foe to Trump?
- Virginia (7th District): Abigail Spanberger (D), a former CIA operations officer, is running for Congress against Dave Brat in a race that many see as a grand battle between the anti-Trump resistance movement and a former beneficiary of the right-wing ‘Tea Party’s surge.
Whether or not the Democrats achieve a ‘blue wave’ – remember that, confusingly for Brits, blue is the colour of the progressive party – they need 23 congressional seats to seize control of the Lower House. In theory, they could also conquer the Upper House – where 51 Republic senators presently enjoy the tiniest of majorities. However, most of the 35 senatorial seats up for election are already Democrat-held, which makes the task harder than it might first appear.
For the Republicans to lose their grip on Congress would be a significant blow to Trump: a galvanised Lower House could, and would, launch any number of investigations into his tax affairs, alleged collusion with Russia, and distant relationship with the truth. A hostile Congress can reduce a presidency to impotent gridlock.
But what Trump correctly intuits is that the texture of the results matters more than the statistics. Whatever the outcome, he will claim it as a vindication for his first two years in office. But any set of results that can be plausibly be presented as a thumbs-down from America will be a significant blow to a presidency that Trump himself has framed in the language of showbusiness rather than conventional politics. Remember his fury that fewer people attended his inauguration than Barack Obama’s? This President is all about the ratings. And we all know what happens to a show whose ratings decline.
Strictly speaking, US elections fall under the rubric of ‘foreign affairs’. But – for all the claims about its decline and the rise of China – America remains by far the most powerful and wealthy nation on earth. Commercially, militarily and geopolitically, it is without equal, or historic precedent.
“A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government.” So said the legendary US activist, Edward Abbey. In this case, American voters are being asked to act not only as patriots but as champions of humanity itself.
It matters to the citizens of every nation that the occupant of the Oval Office be a person of integrity, judgment and wisdom. Clearly, Trump is none of these things. Which is why we all have a stake in today’s elections – and depend upon American voters to do the right thing for their own country, and for the world itself.