A feverish country is about to take its political temperature for the first time since 2016. Although Donald Trump is not on the ballot in the midterm elections on November 6, his incendiary presidency is. Whoever wins, the distemper of America is likely to worsen and its divisions deepen.
The big prize next week is Congress. The winning party will set the agenda for the next two years and determine the substance, success and survival of Trump’s presidency. In many states, governors and legislators elected this autumn will redraw congressional electoral boundaries in 2020, shaping national politics for the coming decade.
Unsurprisingly, Trump has made himself the story of the campaign. At his rallies, he inflates his accomplishments, demonizes his opponents, assails the media and warns of imaginary threats, from a caravan of migrants storming the southern border to a “mob” of Democrats storming Capitol Hill. Midterm elections are usually sleepy; this one has been shaded by Trump’s heated rhetoric and high anxiety stoked by (undetonated) bombs mailed to prominent Democrats and the murderous attack on Jews in a synagogue in Pittsburgh. In both cases, critics blame a climate of hatred abetted, if not created, by the president himself.
No wonder 2018 is commonly seen as a referendum on the first two years of the Trump administration. To admirers, he is remaking the country; to critics, he is ruining it.
The stakes are clear. For the Republicans, the election is an opportunity to retain the House of Representatives and increase their slender majority in the Senate (where the Republicans have an extraordinary geographical advantage). With both houses of Congress, they will try to abolish Obamacare again, lower taxes a second time, cut entitlements and reduce industrial and environmental regulation.
A Republican Congress would offer Trump a second chance to build his much-promised wall on the border with Mexico and to constrain immigration. He has failed so far on both, even with his party in power. It could also offer him a chance to place a third judge on the Supreme Court — if another vacancy should open — and to continue to fill the lower courts with conservatives.
For the Democrats, the election is an opportunity to take back the House of Representatives and, more improbably, the Senate. With the House alone, they could block any bill from becoming law. With the Senate alone, they could reject judicial nominees, ambassadors and cabinet secretaries. Holding either chamber would allow the Democrats to launch unilateral investigations, armed with subpoena power.
Most important, a Democratic House of Representatives could impeach Trump and a Democratic Senate could (with enough Republican votes) convict him. No wonder Trump sees the Democrats as an existential threat. If the Democrats have Congress and if Special Counsel Robert Mueller issues a report finding that Trump colluded with the Russians in the 2016 election or subsequently obstructed justice as president, Trump may not last. Mueller notwithstanding, the Democrats in control of either chamber will demand Trump’s tax returns, explore his business ties to the Saudis, investigate whether he has profited financially from the presidency, and hold his cabinet secretaries accountable. They will do to him what the Republicans did to Barack Obama, which was to mount mischievous investigations into his presidency (on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s handling of the death of the US ambassador in Libya, Congress launched seven inquiries).
To be clear: a Democratic House or Senate would mean the end of Trump’s presidency, legislatively. Like Obama, Trump would get nothing through Congress and have to rely on executive orders; he would become the picture of paralysis. And even if he were to try to make a bi-partisan appeal to Democrats — on lowering the cost of prescription drugs, for example, or investing in infrastructure — the Democratic base would reject it.
This is about power. In a country divided by region, race, sex and class, power separates winners and losers ruthlessly. The Senate Republicans may represent states with fewer Americans than states represented by the Democrats, but Republicans are unafraid to please their ideological constituency and adopt policies that the majority of Americans oppose. It is a tyranny of the minority, and it has created a corrosive tension in the republic playing out dramatically this political season.
And so Trump’s Republicans remain committed to repealing universal health care, lowering taxes and cutting social programs in a way that Ronald Reagan would not recognize. The Democrats want to restore health care, protect the social safety net, tax the wealthy, strengthen gun control, rewrite campaign-spending rules, and liberalize immigration.
To their soul mates in “the resistance,” Trump is what he has been since he took office in January 2017: an imposter, an accident of history, an illegitimate president who received 2.8 million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton and is in office by virtue of a narrow victory (a total of some 80,000 votes in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania) in the antiquated Electoral College. For Democrats, the midterms are a first and last chance to contain a president who they believe is a threat to democracy, who will be emboldened, even unbound, if his party remains in control of both houses.
Midterm elections allow citizens to assess their government between presidential elections, and if displeased, to alter its course. That’s why all 435 members of the House of Representatives are up for re-election every two years. The point is to make them responsive to currents of popular sentiment. Senators — more insulated from popular whim — are elected for six years; one third of the Senate stands for election every two years.
There is an uncanny predictability to midterms. Historically, the president’s party almost always loses seats. In some years, midterm elections have seen massive swings in both chambers, such as 1966, 1994, 2006, 2010. In those elections, voters forced the president to recalibrate.
In the average midterm election since the end of the Second World War, the president’s party has received 7.3 percentage points fewer than in the preceding presidential election. Midterms are the system of checks and balances at work. Even those who support the president often want to constrain him in the interest of political equilibrium. So, what does that mean this year?
Trump remains historically unpopular. Elected with just 46.1 percent of the popular vote — only two presidents had a lower share — his approval has never surpassed 50 percent in aggregate polls. With his popularity this week at 42 percent (in composite averages taken by fivethirtyeight.com,) he remains below other presidents on the eve of these midterm elections whose parties suffered electoral losses.
Trump commands intense loyalty among Republicans, most of whom have dropped their initial reservations and embraced him warmly. He shrewdly exploits fear — open borders, men “victimized” by the #MeToo movement, the threat of higher taxes and economic ruin. In his low, dishonest appeal, echoed by Republicans running in Arizona, Missouri and other key races, he has become, with some success, scaremonger-in-chief.
The Democrats, for their part, have tried to focus on Trump’s attack on healthcare, the uneven benefits of prosperity, the tax cut favouring the wealthy. Because many of the 23 seats the Democrats need to re-take the House are in districts loyal to Trump, they play down talk of impeachment.
They have fielded strong, diverse, well-funded candidates, many of them pragmatic and progressive, almost half of them women, as well as blacks and Hispanics. In Georgia and Florida, for example, the party’s candidates for governor are a woman and man of colour. A strong field of candidates has helped the Democrats expand the electoral map, threatening to take districts in suburban and rural America in the Southwest, Midwest and West.
How will it go? Reputable analysts such as Stuart Rothenberg, Nate Silver and Charles Cook see a closer race than they did in September, which has tightened since the hearings over the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. They predict the Democrats will take the House and the Republicans will hold the Senate, even increasing their majority by two or three seats.
That would produce a split decision — “a blue wave election with a red undertow,” says Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Still, if Democrats take only the House, even narrowly, everything changes. They would then be in a position to check the impulses of Donald Trump, scrutinize his administration, deny him legislative victories — and in a seismic turn of events — even bring him down.