Letter from America

The mid-term elections and the battle for the soul of the US

By Rebecca Davis 5 November 2018

Photo: A members of the crowd holds a 'Drain the Swamp' sign while waiting for US President Donald J. Trump to speak at a 'Make America Great Again' rally supporting Marsha Blackburn's campaign for the US Senate seat at McKenzie Arena in Chattanooga, Tennessee, USA, 04 November 2018. EPA-EFE/RICK MUSACCHIO

Tuesday’s mid-term elections in the US are being described as the most critical American poll in decades. There are already signs that the voter turn-out may be of an unprecedented size for mid-terms, while Democrats claim that a “blue wave” is preparing to take back control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. But after the 2016 upset which saw Donald Trump ascend to the White House, nobody is sure exactly what might happen when the votes are counted.

Every single thing you believe in is on the ballot.”

That’s how a Democratic Party activist summed up the meaning of the upcoming mid-term elections for a crowd gathered in Kansas City, Missouri, on Saturday afternoon.

This type of language is typical for the Democratic faithful as Tuesday’s poll approaches. At stake, they suggest, is not just the opportunity for the Democrats to win control of the House of Representatives and the Senate. At stake is a chance to deliver a repudiation of everything President Donald Trump and his Republican party have sought to place on the national agenda since 2016.

At the same rally, Democratic Congressman Emanuel Cleaver would tell the audience that a vote for Democratic candidates in the election was a vote “for the sake of our nation and our unborn progeny”.

Experts say that the Democratic Party in the US is experiencing an unusual wave of energy and support in the run-up to elections which are often seen as the less important step-child of the four-yearly presidential ballot.

Republicans tend to be more likely to show up and vote in mid-term elections, but Democrats have been engaged and enraged since the inauguration of Donald Trump,” political science Professor Diane Lowenthal of the American University in Washington DC, told Daily Maverick.

There’s the highest interest (in the mid-terms) from people under 30 since the Vietnam War, and they’re one of the groups who traditionally turn out to vote at the lowest rate.”

Over 30-million votes have already been cast in the 37 states which permit early voting – one clear indicator that the general voter turn-out for the mid-terms is likely to radically outpace the traditionally muted interest in these interim elections.

Pollsters have been notably wary about making firm predictions as to the mid-terms’ outcome, after the 2016 presidential elections’ shock result. But a Washington pollster told Daily Maverick that the Democrats look likely to take control of the House of Representatives, while the Senate – the higher chamber – will remain in Republican hands.

If Democrats do take the House, the effects will be more tangible than just a symbolic smackdown to the Trump administration.

With the House in blue hands, Democrats would win control of all the House committees – meaning that the party is certain to commence investigations into numerous aspects of alleged Trump malfeasance. They could, for instance, subpoena Trump’s tax records.

Most significantly, the Democrats would almost certainly begin proceedings to impeach Trump.

A situation where the Democrats control the House and the Republicans control the Senate would mean gridlock when it comes to the passing of most legislation, which would thwart Republican intentions in instances where Trump cannot use his executive privileges to force laws through. But the Senate would retain the all-important right to appoint Supreme Court judges – which, history has shown, could have a major impact on the general legislative and political state of play.

The Republicans know that the stakes are high.

We’re on defence,” a Republican strategist told Daily Maverick. The aim: “Limit our losses and hold the majority.”

It is a staple feature of American mid-terms that the party which does not hold presidential office – in this case, the Democrats – tends to pick up seats in the first ballot after the presidential elections. But in this particular case, the Republicans are also contending with the wave of liberal indignation that has been building since Trump’s election.

In the final days before the mid-terms, Trump himself appears to be doubling down on his base. While the Republicans do have what the ANC would term a “good story to tell” when it comes to the current state of the US economy and employment, Trump’s last-minute messages have focused on demonising immigrants and the media.

Tellingly, a number of Republican Senate candidates for the mid-terms have soft-pedalled any relationship with Trump, focusing their campaigns on tax cuts and jobs and largely avoiding the president’s favourite hot-button issues.

By and large, however, bipartisan appeals are hard to come by. There are increasing signs that fervent supporters of the Republican and Democratic parties are no longer inhabiting the same moral universe. In the week after Brett Kavanaugh’s controversial hearing for a Supreme Court position, for instance, donations to the Republican Party increased by over 400%.

I’m sure Democrats keep telling you we’re crazy. Well, we think the Democrats are crazy,” a self-described Trump supporter in the town of Independence, Missouri told Daily Maverick on Sunday.

Another Trump fan manning a Republican campaign stand outside early voting in Fairfax, Virginia, explained her admiration thus: “God often chooses flawed people to do the work He wants.”

The Democrats are aware that they have a golden opportunity currently to parlay Trump-based outrage into votes, particularly among voters who may have stayed away in 2016 on the basis that Hillary Clinton’s victory was a foregone conclusion.

And Democratic Party representatives are already talking victory – at least in public.

Asked by Daily Maverick what he expected to happen on Tuesday, Maryland Congressman Jamie Raskin responded: “I expect an absolute transformation of everybody’s spirits. There’s been such a sense of dread and anxiety in American life, and I think that if we get the big blue wave that we’ve been looking for, we’re going to renew people’s sense of optimism and faith in the future.”

But if that “big blue wave” fails to materialise, pundits warn, the Democratic Party will take a knock from which it could be hard to recover.

There’s been this very high level of engagement,” says Lowenthal. “If, in the end, all of that results in no change, or just a few seats – that will be devastating to Democrats.” DM

Rebecca Davis is in the US for the mid-term elections as a participant in the US State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Programme.

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