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Midterms show both Republicans and Democrats need to focus on 2020

Posted By on November 22, 2018 @ 11:14

In the wake of the congressional midterms, the United States remains divided electorally and the primary issue continues to be President Donald Trump.

American differences are now clearly in evidence in Congress, with Democrats having won a comfortable working majority in the House of Representatives and the Republicans having kept control of the Senate. This result wasn’t unexpected, but what was unusual was the high level of voter turnout and a shifting mosaic of candidates who nominated for office.

A record number of women were on the ballot, with some 256 candidates running for House or Senate seats. Of these, 197 were Democrats, suggesting that Republicans still have some way to go in addressing the gender balance.

What is more important is that candidates represented a broad swathe of groups, including Native Americans, Muslims and people from a range of other minorities. The candidacies of Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum for the gubernatorial mansions in Georgia and Florida, respectively, signalled an enormous step forward in the South. Both these talented African Americans lost narrowly, but they have broken ground for future contests and the diversity of electoral representation.

Turnout was very high, especially compared with the dismal voting pattern of 2014, when only 37% of eligible Americans went to the polls. On this occasion, nearly 107 million voters (49.3%) turned up at the ballot box.

Much of the increased voter interest can be sheeted home to Trump, who has converted the White House into a roiling campaign rally. The president draws strength from the faithful as he excoriates his opponents, especially among the media. The imbroglio over CNN journalist Jim Acosta’s White House press credential is merely a continuation of Trump’s war on the ‘enemies of the people’ who constitute the fourth estate. Expect more of this over the next two years.

Both Democrats and Republicans turned out en masse. This rising tide of voter engagement delivered some surprises at both national and state levels. In Texas, for example, the campaign of Democratic Congressman Beto O’Rourke against Republican Senator Ted Cruz saw voter turnout in the Lone Star State rise from 28% in 2014 to some 46% this year. O’Rourke campaigned in every county in Texas and, while he lost narrowly, the Democrats scored significant wins locally in Dallas and Houston. O’Rourke is someone to watch for the future.

So too is Kyrsten Sinema, the new Democratic Senator for Arizona, who won a seat held by the Republicans for some 30 years. Sinema’s life story reads like that of the young Abraham Lincoln. She lived for a time with her family in an abandoned garage without running water. Her campaign emphasised the fact that she actually personified the American dream.

Out in California, the Republicans struggled to hold their electoral assets in Orange County, which has been so reliably red for generations that Ronald Reagan once observed that this was the place where good Republicans went to die. In November 2018, a blue wave struck and seven House seats were won by Democrats.

The fact remains, however, that Republican control of the Senate affords the Trump administration some degree of insulation against Democratic pressures from the House and the potential consequences of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s looming report. Trump’s relentless attacks on Mueller seem not to bother the special counsel in the slightest. Mueller has remained focused on his investigation and it would be very surprising indeed if his painstaking endeavours did not produce something serious for the administration. Midterm voters appeared unconcerned about Russian intrusions in their democratic processes but, make no mistake, the focus in Washington will soon shift back to Russian involvement in the 2016 election and related matters.

At this point, however, Trump remains the most favoured candidate to win the presidential election in 2020. This is simply because no Democrat has emerged as a viable alternative for the presidency. In the midterms, the Democrats’ primary standard-bearers were Barack Obama and Joe Biden. This illustrates the simple reality that, since November 2016, the Democrats have failed to renew.

Within the Democratic leadership ranks, Nancy Pelosi is 78, Steny Hoyer is 79 and  Dianne Feinstein is 85. The party needs serious injections of new blood and talent.

On the Republican side of the aisle, the party is now a wholly owned subsidiary of Donald Trump. Trump’s interventions in certain Senate races, especially in Missouri and Texas, were critical in ensuring Republican wins. Beginning in the primaries of the summer of 2016, Trump mounted an insurgency to capture the Republican Party. He now owns it.

Some pundits are predicting governmental gridlock and the possibility of a shutdown. Certainly, the arguments over the border wall will not lessen, particularly now that the Central American migrant caravan has reached the Mexican city of Tijuana. But on issues such as infrastructure spending there’s likely to be a bipartisan consensus. Pelosi has held out an olive branch on this, and infrastructure spending will be as crucial to Trump in 2020 as tax cuts were in 2018.

On China, there appears to be a developing consensus in Washington that US policy needs to be robust and that Beijing needs to understand that the US is committed to deterring China’s encroachments in the South China Sea and the South Pacific and is increasingly unwilling to accept China’s current approach on trade and investment, and on intellectual property.

Finally, there were some interesting results at the state level. Several races were more competitive than expected, and there were some surprising defeats in places such as Kansas and Wisconsin, where Republicans Kris Kobach and Scott Walker fell short, despite presidential backing. But Republicans can take comfort from strong performances from governor-elect Mike DeWine in Ohio and Governor Rick Scott in Florida.

To conclude on a positive note beyond partisanship, the disgraceful gerrymandering of electoral districts for the House has now become an issue. Redistricting is a partisan affair and both sides have been guilty of some appalling electoral mapping. As the Republicans control more state houses, they have been the principal beneficiaries of gerrymandering over recent years. The courts have increasingly shown a constitutional interest and gerrymandering is now in the spotlight in a number of places as a consequence of ballot initiatives. This is not before time and hopefully will bring on reform.

The midterms have delivered results that mean both major parties have to consider carefully their congressional profiles and policy positions for the immediate future. 2020 is already in sight.

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