Queen's Policy Engagement

The US Midterms: Heading Towards a Divided Congress

If next week's US elections result in the Democrats leading the House and Republicans the Senate, the gridlock that has prevented the business of governing in Washington for nearly a decade will be entrenched further says Dr Christopher Raymond.

The US Midterms: Heading Towards a Divided Congress

Tuesday’s midterm elections in the United States will cap one of the most divisive campaigns in American history in which substantive issues of healthcare and immigration have competed with questions about who is responsible for political mobs and the sending of mail bombs.  While the national political scene continues to look favourable to the Democrats, the most likely outcome appears to be a Congress where control is divided between Democrats in charge of the House of Representatives and a Republican-controlled Senate.  This suggests the following two years will be characterised by gridlock and little in the way of legislative productivity as the growing divides between the parties leave little room for agreement in Congress—on policy or impeachment.


The House of Representatives: A Crashing Wave or Gentle Ripple?

Most commentators anticipate that the Democrats will win a majority of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives on Tuesday.  Recent polls (both those focused on generic preferences nationally and in district-by-district polling) and seat forecasts suggest many districts currently held by the Republicans are vulnerable.  Republican fortunes have been made more precarious by the higher-than-average rates of retirement from office—with the loss of recognisable incumbents reducing the party’s advantage in those districts—and the redrawing of electoral boundaries in Pennsylvania, which were revised this year in a way that turned Republican advantage into a map favouring the Democrats.

That said, while a ‘blue wave’—where the seat swing to Democrats would be comparable to those enjoyed by Republicans in 1994 or 2010 —once looked inevitable, the Democrats’ momentum has slowed considerably in recent weeks.  Since the hearings surrounding the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, Republican voter enthusiasm has come to match Democratic enthusiasm.  Capitalising on his victory in the Supreme Court showdown, President Trump has barnstormed the country with a series of his now (in)famous rallies, at which he has tried to galvanise Republican voters by nationalising the campaign to focus on himself (naturally) and immigration (one of the top issues for Republican voters).

The combined effects of these changes have bolstered Republicans’ spirits.  Republicans’ poll numbers have improved such that even if the Democrats maintain the advantage, what once looked like a hopeless race now looks competitive.  One just-released forecast even predicts that—based on historical patterns relating to presidential popularity ratings, over-performance during the preceding presidential election, and turnout—the Republicans may hold enough seats to maintain control of the House.

While the Republicans’ prospects have improved in recent weeks, it is important to note that the polls still favour the Democrats, and given that, a Democratic majority in the House still seems the most likely outcome.  The Democrats remain confident in victory next Tuesday and have already started jockeying for key leadership positions in the chamber, including the assignment of committee chair positions that will be used to conduct a series of investigations into the Trump administration.  With such a favourable context, failure to wrest control from Republicans would come as a serious shock at least on par with that experienced by Democrats in 2016.


The Republicans’ Firewall: The Senate

If there is one hitch in the Democrats’ plan to take back control of Congress on Tuesday, it is the Senate.  Only one-third of the seats in the Senate are elected in each election, and many of the seats that are up for re-election this year are states Trump won in 2016—and therefore are favourable to Republicans this year.  This fact means Republicans have an opportunity not only to hold control of the Senate, but even to pick up additional seats.

Despite the unfavourable electoral map, Democrats felt good about their chances of taking back the Senate when Republican poll numbers and enthusiasm—including in states favourable to Trump—were particularly low at the start of the summer.  Now that the enthusiasm gap has narrowed, Democratic incumbents—including senators from North Dakota, Missouri, Indiana, Montana, Florida, New Jersey, and West Virginia—are vulnerable, while the strong challenge to Ted Cruz in Texas appears unlikely to unseat him.  Because Republicans remain in the lead or at least competitive in several other open-seat races, it is looking increasingly likely that Republicans will at least maintain control of the Senate.


Gridlock Ahead

If Tuesday’s elections wind up with control of Congress divided between Democrats assuming control of the House and Republicans maintaining control of the Senate, the gridlock that has prevented the business of governing in Washington for nearly a decade will be entrenched further.  With a divided Congress, President Trump’s agenda will be further stymied (beyond what his own party has done), while the Democrats’ policy promises made during this campaign will have little chance of passing through Congress.  For Democrats seeking to oust Trump from office, a Democrat-controlled House means they will be in a position to investigate and impeach Trump, but a Republican-controlled Senate will prevent him from being removed.  Such gridlock will only contribute to the growing frustration and anger on both sides that will make the 2020 presidential race even more contentious than 2016 was.


The featured image has been used courtesy of a Creative Commons license. 

Dr Christopher Raymond
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Dr Christopher Raymond is a Lecturer in the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics at Queen’s University Belfast. His research interests include representation, political parties, party systems, elections, voting behaviour, social identities (ethno-national, religious, class) and legislatures.

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