By Seema Sirohi
The US mid-term elections are generally seen as a referendum on the president and depending on his performance, his party can get a boost or get busted at the polls.
Elections will be held on Nov. 6 for all 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 35 of the 100 seats in the Senate. Currently, the Republicans hold 235 seats to Democrats’ 193 in the House with seven seats vacant.
In the Senate, the Republicans have 51 and Democrats hold 47. Two remaining seats are held by independents who normally vote with the Democrats.
Will President Donald Trump’s disruptive policies at home and abroad help maintain Republican Party’s control over the US Congress or will the Democrats take over the House of Representatives as many predict, thereby putting the brakes on the president’s political agenda?
Trump’s approval ratings hover between 40 to 44%, figures comparable to Bill Clinton’s in 1994, George W. Bush’s in 2006 and Barack Obama’s in 2010 before they had a mid-term referendum.
A Fox News poll released Oct. 18 showed a majority (53%) of likely voters want the next Congress more to be a check on the president than a vehicle for his policies. This is not good news for the Republican Party.
The same poll showed race relations to be Trump’s worst issue with a 22-point negative rating. Health care (negative 16) and immigration (negative 14) came in second and third.
But Trump gets positive ratings for handling the economy (positive 6) and the hurricanes (positive 2). However, historically, a good economy is no guarantee of success for the president’s party.
Trump has been talking a lot about the economy at his rallies. With GDP growth at 4.2% and unemployment at 3.7% is the lowest since 1969, he has boasted that this the “best” the economy has ever been. The stock market has soared under him, apparently unaffected by his tariff wars against China and others.
But the Democrats have raised more money, registered more voters, and turned out in greater numbers during the primaries. They are angry and raring to go.
However, intervening events could hamper their chances.
The recent storm over the confirmation of conservative judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court is one such event whose full impact on voters is not fully known. The Fox News poll shows voters are split – 47% approve of his nomination while 48% disapprove.
The loud protests against Kavanaugh on Capitol Hill by women and Democratic Party supporters have energised the Republican base just as they have the Democratic base.
There is plenty of talk of a “blue wave” rising with the Democrats taking over the House – they need 23 to gain majority — while the Republicans maintain control of the Senate, even adding a couple of extra seats.
After polls and pundits proved so wrong in 2016 about Trump’s prospects, it’s no surprise the experts are cautious this time around. Yet, there is convergence that signs of a “blue” wave for the House are growing.
The Democrats have been anxious ever since Trump won the presidency. They have been fund-raising furiously and keeping the base active. The “resistance” movement – often led by women – has grown across the country.
While the bitter fight over Kavanaugh’s nomination and confirmation improves their prospects in the House, it adversely affects their chances in the Senate, especially in “red” states where incumbent Democrats could be in jeopardy.
The Congressional hearings on Kavanaugh brought out the most primal instincts among supporters and opponents, raising the question whether the Democrats mishandled the process by publicly airing the sexual assault allegations by Christine Blasey Ford.
The Kavanaugh episode has made the “reds redder and the blues bluer,” according to Charles Cook of the famed Cook Political Report. This means Senate Democrats hoping for independent or Republican-leaning votes to win have dimmer chances.
But the story for the House seats is different and more interesting. The gender gap is glaring and whatever advantage Republican men in certain Congressional districts have is offset by Democratic advantage among women.
Another key issue is the Affordable Care Act or “Obamacare,” which could hurt Republicans. American voters are anxious about losing benefits they have come to rely on over the last five years.
According to the Fox News poll, health care is on top of voters’ mind and 58% said it would be the deciding issue. Among this group, the Democrats lead by a 24-point margin.
After promising to repeal Obamacare during the 2016 campaign, the Republicans haven’t been able to despite controlling both the Congress and the White House. They have chipped away at it, reducing benefits and stripping down insurance policies and relaxing regulations.
The reason for not going for outright repeal is simple – some provisions of Obamacare are popular even among Republicans. Coverage for pre-existing conditions, affordability of health care and losing health insurance are topmost concerns for average voters.
Even though health care is the most pressing concern, Trump is cleverly trying to force illegal immigration as a major issue in the final days of campaigning. Reports of a “caravan” of roughly 4,000 Central Americans heading to the US border have given him the fodder to whip up fear about public safety.
This week he talked of deploying the military at the southern border and scrapping a newly negotiated trade deal with Mexico and Canada if the caravan was not stopped.
But focusing on the caravan and intrusion by criminals, Trump has once again raked up the issue of border security, something that does resonate with voters.
Those opposed to illegal immigration cite the fact that more than 60 countries have some kind of barrier on the border and the US can’t be the exception. The Democrats don’t have a good answer to the question apart from pleading on humanitarian grounds.
As important as the issues are, as always it is voter turnout that holds the key. With Americans being notoriously disinterested in exercising their democratic right, especially in a mid-term election when the turnout is only around 40%, it remains to be seen if they are more energised this time.