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Are the upcoming United States mid-term elections the Democrats’ to lose?

Written by Roderick Harte,

Are the upcoming United States mid-term elections the Democrats' to lose?

Are the upcoming United States mid-term elections the Democrats’ to lose?

On 6 November 2018, the outcome of the US mid-term elections could have far-reaching consequences for President Trump’s ability to pursue his policy agenda. To learn more about this potentially game-changing event, the EPRS organised a roundtable discussion on 24 April 2018 in the European Parliament’s Library. Speakers included Reinhard Bütikofer (Greens/EFA, Germany), Frances Burwell (Distinguished Fellow at the Atlantic Council), Mark Strand (President of the Congressional Institute) and Lindsay Newman (Principal Research Analyst for IHS Market). The event was moderated by Anthony Teasdale, Director General of the EPRS.

Setting the stage

On 6 November 2018, all 435 seats in the US House of Representatives (House) and 35 of the 100 seats in the US Senate (Senate) will be up for grabs. For the Democratic Party to take control of the House, it will need to hold on to its 193 seats and pick up 25 from the Republicans, and in the Senate, the Democrats will need to flip 2 Republican seats to obtain a majority. The mid-term elections will very much be decided on a local level, and both parties will be fighting for the centre. Democrats in particular need to attract previous Democratic voters who supported President Trump in 2016.

Some early indicators look favourable for the Democrats, such as their lead in polls on generic congressional ballots, President Trump’s low approval rating (around 42 %), and recent special elections results (Democratic candidates had surprise wins in Alabama and Pennsylvania). Moreover it is common for the party of the incumbent President to lose a few dozen seats. Democrats could do particularly well in the House in November, due to the large number of Republicans that will not seek re-election, including Speaker Paul Ryan. Most analysts therefore believe that the Democrats will take the House, although perhaps not by much. This will be a lot tougher to pull off in the Senate, however, due to the nature of the specific seats up for grabs. There is therefore a good chance that Republicans will maintain their hold on the Senate.

The Democratic Party nevertheless faces a number of problems that could weaken its performance in these elections. These include internal divisions and the fact that the leadership is old. It is also unclear if Democratic candidates, many of which are similar to Bernie Sanders, could appeal to the centre. The Republican Party will likely also play on fears among Trump’s energetic base that the Democrats would impeach ‘their’ president if they gain control of both houses. Moreover, Republicans could benefit from President Trump’s control of the news cycles and his personal narrative as ‘the great disruptor’ (the Democratic Party currently lacks such narrative appeal). Lastly, some of President Trump’s policies (tax reform, trade) could potentially also appeal to the Democrats’ base.

Possible outcomes and their impact on US policy

Three outcomes of the mid-term elections are possible, each with different consequences for the Trump administration’s ability to pursue its agenda.

If the Republicans manage to hold on to both houses, this would probably not result in any major changes. The Trump administration would be able to pursue its domestic agenda (immigration, education and infrastructure) and not much would change in US foreign policy.

If the Republicans lose one of the houses of Congress to the Democrats, but keep the other, this would likely result in gridlocks in Congress, more investigations into the Trump administration, and potentially a government shutdown. Loss of the Senate would be particularly painful for the Republicans, as the Democrats would be able to block Trump nominees. US foreign policy would, however, remain largely unaffected.

Should the Republicans lose both houses to the Democrats, this would also likely lead to gridlocks, a government shutdown, and more bills to stop President Trump’s policies (although these would probably not be veto-proof). US foreign policy would probably be affected significantly, in particular in areas such as arms deals, treaties and nominations, the use of military force and sanctions. Congress has already become much more ‘activeist’ on US foreign policy since the Trump administration took office. Examples include the Congressional bill on sanctions against Russia and a Congress decision not to act when a deadline on re-imposing old sanctions on Iran expired. A further increase in activism would lead to (even) more unpredictability in US foreign policy.

Potential effects on the 2020 presidential election

The mid-term elections could also have a significant impact on the 2020 presidential election. A Democratic landslide resulting in the Republicans losing control of both houses would be bad news for President Trump, as he would find it very difficult to pursue his agenda. If the Republicans manage to hold on to both houses, however, President Trump would be able to continue to pursue his ‘Contract with the American Voter’ of October 2016 (something he has so far done quite consistently). A Democratic victory in the House but not in the Senate could – counterintuitively – also help President Trump get re-elected, as the resulting gridlock could be blamed on the Democrats’ blockage in the House. The fact that Congress is significantly less popular than the US President would in this respect also be unhelpful to the Democrats.

So what would it take for President Trump to lose in 2020? The Mueller investigation could lead to major problems for the President and his recent trade actions could also reduce support among his base, once they start to feel the effects. But the Democratic Party would in any case need a new leader who could channel the energy that has been generated among its traditional base since the election of President Trump.

Finally, it is unclear to what extent the rapidly changing US demography will affect future elections. What is clear is that the USA is currently experiencing a populist moment. The outcome of the November mid-term elections, and its potential consequences for the 2020 presidential election, could have a long-lasting impact on how future US generations view the world and how the world views the USA

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