1. What are the midterm elections?

The midterm elections refer to elections at the halfway point of any US president’s four-year term. They include elections for the national legislature, state legislatures and governors and local-level races.

The majority of national and international attention is focused on the elections for the legislative branch of the United States. The legislative branch, known collectively as Congress, consists of a lower and an upper house — the House of Representatives and the Senate. Both houses of Congress have the potential to change hands this year with a simple majority dictating control.

Every two years, one-third of the Senate and the entirety of the House is up for election. Each of the 50 states is represented by two senators, resulting in a total of 100. The House of Representatives has 435 representatives who sit in congressional districts that are allocated on a basis of population as measured by the census.

This year, 35 out of 100 seats in the Senate are up for grabs, although the potential gains are not distributed evenly. Democrats are defending 26 seats whereas Republicans must protect only nine.

Republicans also currently control 33 of 50 state governorships — their highest total in nearly a century.

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Capitol Building houses both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Photo: Getty Images.
Capitol Building houses both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Photo: Getty Images.

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2. How will the results affect Trump’s presidency?

The stakes for the 2018 midterm elections are high for both parties. Democratic control of one or both houses could stymie much of Trump’s agenda including ratification of the recently-negotiated NAFTA replacement trade deal (USMCA).

Ending Republican control of the Senate could also allow Democrats to block Trump’s future nominees to federal courts including the Supreme Court.

Perhaps most significantly, Democrats have also signaled that they intend to conduct congressional investigations into the many brewing scandals in the Trump administration. A document obtained by an American news and information website, Axios, indicates that, were they to secure a majority, Democrats plan to investigate everything from Trump’s tax returns to the hurricane response in Puerto Rico. They also will likely restart the House investigation into possible collusion between the Trump administration and Russia to affect the 2016 election — a threat that Trump’s advisers see as particularly acute.

If Republicans manage to retain control of the House it will enable President Trump to continue advancing his agenda potentially with renewed enthusiasm.

Possible legislative goals for the GOP could include fully repealing the Affordable Care Act, known as ‘Obamacare’ or the ACA, and weakening the Dodd-Frank financial regulations.

However, Republicans have not outlined their legislative plans as clearly as the Democrats have done, with a Republican aide remarking that ‘it’s hard for anybody to truly make plans’ without a clear signal from the White House.

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US President, Donald Trump, listens during a meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House on 1 August 2018. Photo: Getty Images.
US President, Donald Trump, listens during a meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House on 1 August 2018. Photo: Getty Images.

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3. How could the structure of the US electoral system affect the outcome?

Demographic trends, as well as raw numbers, are widely seen as favouring Democrats. However, Democratic voters’ concentration in dense urban areas, and the ways in which congressional maps are drawn, means that Democrats will have to win the popular vote by a substantial margin to have a chance of winning the House.

A similar dynamic exists in the Senate since the US Constitution specifies that low-population — typically Republican — states like Wyoming or Montana receive the same representation as high-population — typically Democratic — such as New York or California.

The process by which congressional maps are strategically drawn for partisan advantage is known as ‘gerrymandering.’ There are several methods of effective gerrymandering but all have the same goal of maximizing the electoral impact of one party’s voters over that of the other. The tactic is effective: after controlling the most recent round of redistricting, Republicans managed to retain a 234–201 House majority in the 2012 elections despite Democrats receiving 1.4 million more votes nationwide.

The 2018 midterms are the last elections before the 2020 census, after which, voting maps will be redrawn by state legislatures and approved by governors. The party in control of the process will likely be able to improve its election outcomes for the next decade. For this reason, the Democratic Governors Association Chairman and Washington State Governor, Jay Inslee, called the 2018 gubernatorial elections ‘a once-in-a-50-year opportunity.’

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Low-population states like Montana receive the same representation as high-population states such as New York. Recently, Wilmot Collins, a refugee from Liberia was elected the first African American mayor in Montana’s history. Photo: Getty Images.
Low-population states like Montana receive the same representation as high-population states such as New York. Recently, Wilmot Collins, a refugee from Liberia was elected the first African American mayor in Montana’s history. Photo: Getty Images.

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4. What are the key issues?

Despite a booming US economy — featuring 4.2 per cent annualized growth last quarter — Republicans in key races are not touting the economy to a great extent. This may be the result of the GOP’s 2017 tax cuts polling poorly with most survey respondents saying they have not noticed an increase in their take home pay. Instead, Trump — and many other Republicans — have used fears concerning immigration, notably the ‘caravan’ of migrants headed toward the US, and other cultural issues as part of their closing appeal to voters. The contentious fight over Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court has also energized the base in both parties.

Democrats have highlighted healthcare as their signature issue especially after Republicans’ ill-fated attempts to repeal Obamacare. Democrats have been particularly forceful in criticizing the GOP for attempting to remove protections for those with pre-existing conditions — an extremely popular provision of Obamacare. That has not stopped Republicans from turning the issue around, claiming that the Democrats’ universal health care proposal of ‘Medicare for All’ would end up gutting Medicare — a popular programme that provides health insurance to seniors. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders — an early proponent of Medicare for All — dismissed such criticisms arguing that ‘it would expand the benefits that [seniors] have.’

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Largely Honduran migrants queue to join a caravan heading to the US near Pijijiapan, southern Mexico on 26 October 2018. Photo: Getty Images.
Largely Honduran migrants queue to join a caravan heading to the US near Pijijiapan, southern Mexico on 26 October 2018. Photo: Getty Images.

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5. What are the key elections?

The battle for the House will be decided across a diverse range of congressional districts. Democrats look to make inroads in traditionally Republican-leaning suburban areas which view Trump unfavourably such as Orange County and suburban Houston. They will also try to pick up seats in some rural districts in which he is popular such as the Pennsylvania district in which Democrat Conor Lamb prevailed in a March special election. The wide spectrum of districts in which Democrats poll competitively provides them with multiple avenues to reclaim the House.

By contrast, the Senate will largely be decided in traditionally Republican-leaning states. In order to have a chance of winning a majority, Democrats must defend seats in states such as North Dakota, Montana and Missouri. They also need to win in either Mississippi, Tennessee or Texas — all of which are traditional Republican strongholds.

On the state level, there are several intriguing gubernatorial elections. Democratic candidate, Stacey Abrams, is hoping to become the first African-American female governor in American history, but she has an uphill battle to prevail in traditionally Republican-leaning Georgia. Andrew Gillum is looking to reclaim the Florida governor’s mansion for the Democrats after 20 years without a Democratic governor in the state. According to a recent poll, he is leading by six per cent. Other close races in which Democrats are seeking to gain control include Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin — midwestern states that proved crucial in Trump’s 2016 victory.

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Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Stacey Abrams, takes the stage to declare victory in the primary during an election night event on 22 May 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia. If elected, Abrams would become the first African American female governor in the US. Photo: Getty Images.
Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Stacey Abrams, takes the stage to declare victory in the primary during an election night event on 22 May 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia. If elected, Abrams would become the first African American female governor in the US. Photo: Getty Images.

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6. What are the predictions?

The general consensus is that Democrats will likely take the House while Republicans will retain — or even gain seats — in the Senate. Historically, the party of a sitting president tends to lose seats in the first midterm election of his presidency. The average loss since 1946 stands at 25 House seats which would be enough to secure a majority for Democrats.

However, Trump’s relative unpopularity and spotty polling complicate the picture. An unpopular president’s party tends to lose more seats than a popular one. Further muddying the waters, some races have little or no polling, making overall predictions about the outcome even less certain. And it is possible that lengthy ballot-counting procedures in some states — notably California — might mean that the party controlling the House won’t be known until days or weeks after the election.

The statistical journalism website, fivethirtyeight.com, gives the Democrats a roughly 85 per cent chance of claiming the House and a mere 15 per cent shot of winning the Senate. The Cook Political Report paints a similar picture in both the House and Senate.

If indeed the House and Senate move in opposite directions — which would be unusual but not unprecedented — the political implications are fairly clear but the narrative around them will not be.

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Voting booths are set up in Tampa, Florida for early voters on 22 October 2018. Photo: Getty Images
Voting booths are set up in Tampa, Florida for early voters on 22 October 2018. Photo: Getty Images.