Explainer: The US mid-term elections


Tensions between the US Democratic and the Republican party since the election of US President Donald Trump in 2016 will be played out on Tuesday as Americans cast their votes in the first national elections under the Trump presidency.

The United States (US) mid-term elections have been referred to as the “the most important mid-terms in US history”.  But this is an exercise undertaken every two years in the US and the same emphasis is placed on each one’s importance, so what’s new?

Here’s an explainer to understand why it is important to look at how the stakes are higher going into these midterms and the long-term effects these elections will have on the country.

The mid-terms are primarily direct elections for both houses of the US Congress. Then there are around 36 governorships and 30 state attorney general positions up for grabs as well.

The above graphic shows the break-up of the US Congress. The entire House of Representatives (HoR) and 1/3rd of the US Senate get reelected every two years. Two years later, the same exercise will be repeated along with the presidential election as well, when Donald Trump goes for reelection.

Both houses are currently controlled by the Republicans, and with Donald Trump as a Republican president, they are in a comfortable position, but have been unable to get some of their key legislation passed through the Senate, like repealing Obamacare. For that, they require Democratic support, given that they need more than 50 votes to achieve it.

The now vacant seat used to be held by recently deceased John McCain, who thought Republican did not support Trump and of the two independents Angus King did not support the Republicans in repealing Obamacare nor did Bernie Sanders, who lost the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 2016 to Hillary Clinton.

Why are these mid-terms so crucial?

1. If the Republicans lose a few seats in the Senate to the Democrats, it would essentially mean that Republican’s don’t get a chance to push their agenda in Congress. Furthermore, if Democrats do gain more seats they can employ a filibuster in the Senate which essentially means delaying a bill going to vote by using dilatory or obstructive tactics like extending the debate on the legislation. But that is a long shot as Democrats will actually be defending more Senate seats than Republicans so it could go either way. If Republicans gain even one seat, they have that 51 number which could mean bills like the repeal of Obamacare have a much better chance of getting passed.

2. If the Democrats ‘flip the House’ (gain a majority in the HoR), they can stop Republican bills from reaching Senate, pass liberal legislation and head more House standing committees that among other things oversee agencies and can start impeachment processes of public officials, including the president.

3. In 2020, the US will hold a fresh census followed by the redistricting process in 2021 where new boundaries are drawn to define electoral districts. This is crucial as whoever controls the Congress will be able to gerrymander (manipulate boundaries to favor one party or class of voter) in some of the most crucial states. It is an essential exercise undertaken every 10 years and all the governors and state legislators that will be installed in this election will have the opportunity to gerrymander their respective constituencies in 2021 as they will be elected for 4-year terms in these midterms.

4. If Democrats gain control of Congress they can translate the Mueller Investigation case against Trump into impeachment – a process for which they need far greater numbers and support in both the houses.

More than anything else, these mid-terms will be a litmus test for the 2020 presidential election and indicative of whether Trump’s tumultuous, train wreck of a presidency has done enough damage within the Republican Party and its base for them to start losing key red states.

That, however, is easier said than done, given the Democratic Party’s lackluster performance in previous mid-term elections, not to mention a fundamental problem of getting their supporters to actually go out and vote. Perhaps Trump’s antics, attacks on the media and going against his own intelligence agencies in favour of dictators like Putin results in higher Democratic voter turnout.

The recent election of the African American Mayor of Tallahassee, Florida, Andrew Gillum, as the Democratic nominee for the governor’s race has given Democrats a lot of hope in this third largest, and “purple” State, for the next election, as candidates like him can unify the various factions of the party.

A deeply divided America is all set to cast its votes on Tuesday and the results will shape the future of a deeply polarised country.