The first thing you are taught in a politics degree is that power is by nature ever-shifting; you can stride the world one moment and have your power disappear into the ether the next. So it is with American politics.
Less than two years ago, Obama was seemingly invincible. Elected by a massive landslide in a flush of national euphoria, it seemed as if he were better placed than any of his predecessors to enact real and lasting change. What many people forget, however, is that the US Presidency was never really intended to be a particularly powerful position. The President was originally designed to deal with America’s foreign affairs and lead the military, while Congress would get on with dealing with domestic policy. As such, a President is only powerful domestically when he can get Congress on side, which is difficult at the best of times, even when – as has been the case since 2008 – the President and both the House and the Senate have been of the same party. The pivotal role of Congress would partly explain both why Obama has had such a difficult start to his time in office and why next week’s elections are so crucial for the President himself and for the country.
Mid-terms can make or break a President. Bill Clinton’s similarly difficult start in the Oval Office (also marked by a long, bitter struggle over health care reform) was made even worse when Republicans swept to victory in the House and Senate, with the Republicans keeping control of the House all the way up until 2006. For the rest of his Presidency, Clinton had to use up his time not having sexual relations with “that woman” and dealing with foreign policy-in Northern Ireland most notably. They act as a national referendum on the President and his first two years of work and give the people the opportunity to change horses mid-stream by electing a Congress of a different colour.
Next Tuesday, voters will elect 37 of 100 Senators, all 435 Members of the House of Representatives, 36 of 50 State Governors, state-level representatives in 46 states and a whole range of state offices, right from local school board members and railroad commissioners to state treasurers and, infamously, “dogcatchers” – town officials tasked with the responsibility to round up stray dogs. US voters are also empowered to vote on various legislative changes; Coloradans will be asked whether they want to amend their state constitution so that foetuses have a legal right to life, while people across California will vote to make the posession of Cannabis legal.
Tuesday night will be a bad one for the Democrats. Their 59-41 advantage in the Senate will be cut down something much narrower as part of a whole generation of long-serving incumbent Democrat Senators like Arkansas’ Blanche Lincoln and Wisconsin’s Russ Feingold look certain to lose their seats. The Democrats will have to take refuge in the Senate and White House as their majority in the House will be wiped out and as the Republicans increase their number of state Governors. The Conservative right’s bête noire– House Speaker Nancy Pelosi-will lose the job she has held for four years, setting up a showdown between Obama and new Speaker John Boehner, which is likely to be reminiscent of the five year-long mammoth struggle between Clinton and his Republican Speaker, Newt Gingrich. At the state level, the Republicans will win walk into another seven Governors’ mansions, and pick up more than 400 state legislature seats, resulting in around 10 state Senates and Houses going to the party.
There is something more than the usual first-term blues at play here. Taking 1946 as a starting point, the average mid-term losses for a President are three Senate seats and 25 seats in the House, with the 2010 predictions currently standing at eight losses in the Senate and 45 in the House. This is almost as many as Bill Clinton’s historic loss of 54 seats in 1994.
Incumbency is often an advantage in US politics. An incumbent is able to develop the name recognition that is so important in winning over an electorate which is far less attached to individual parties than is the case with UK voters. Incumbents also tend to attract far more money and can spend their time in office using the chaotic budget process to direct federal spending (known as “Pork”) to their district or state to build the latest library, airport or highway for their grateful constituents. This time, however, incumbency is a poisoned chalice for large numbers of Democrats. An electorate angry with the state of the economy is punishing mainly Democratic incumbents. As in the UK, voters are angry that billions of dollars have been spent bailing out banks and large financial institutions while small ‘mom and pop’ businesses have been allowed to go bust, leaving 9% unemployed; the highest rate for many years.
Obama is caught between two increasingly polarized camps: Democrats who are disillusioned with the lack of progress made on key issues and the watering down of health care reform on the one hand, and on the other, fiscal conservatives alarmed at the amount of spending the federal government has engaged in. As ever, small-government Republicans traditionally supportive of the autonomy of the individual states accuse Obama of a “Washington power grab”, with ‘Obamacare’ and other fedearal programmes supposedly curtailing states’ rights. Unusually, the ‘culture wars’ of the late 1990s and the Bush era appear to have faded away somewhat, with the fiscal and economic debate pushing out arguments over social and moral issues, like abortion, gay marriage and positive descrimination.
Perhaps the defining feature of this election has been the rise of the Tea Party. An informal grassroots faction within the Republican party, it grew rapidly throughout 2009, first starting in New York in response to a series of tax rises issued by the state government. Informally led by the 2008 Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, it emphasises the need for low taxes, the reduction of wasteful spending and the national debt, states’ rights, reduction in the size of government and adherence to the fundamentals of the US constitution.
The precise impact on the eventual result is difficult to judge. The Republicans are likely to benefit from the increased enthusiasm of a core segment of its base and an influx of newly-politicized activists, but the Tea Party candidates who have won Republican nomination races are likely to ward off prized independent voters and throw to the Democrats races they would otherwise have lost. Except for Kentucky’s Rand Paul and Nevada’s Sharron Angle – who is locked in a close race with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (effectively the most important Democrat after Obama) – Tea Party candidates are likely to be rejected by the voters next week. The Republicans were looking forward to an easy win in the usually Democratic state of Delaware until novice candidate Christine O’Donnell won the nomination fight there. Since then, it has been revealed that she claimed to have dabbled in witchcraft and in a debate last week appeared not to know the content of the constitution, including many of its key Bill of Rights amendments. Democrat Chris Coons, trailing up to that point, is now looking forward to an unexpectedly easy win. Some commentators have even suggested that without the Tea Party, the Republicans would have been in a position to win the Senate as well as the House.
The primary victories of more extreme Republicans has pushed many ousted moderate incumbents to run as independents, creating interesting three-way races. Having lost to the Tea Party’s Joe Miller, Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski is using an electoral law that allows voters to ‘write-in’ their preferred candidate even if they not formally on the ballot in an attempt to keep hold of her job. Florida Governor Charlie Crist, having lost out on his party’s nomination for his state’s Senate seat, is running as an independent against the charismatic conservative, Marco Rubio.
The impact on the next Presidential election is yet to be seen. Clinton went on to win the 1996 election despite being ovewhelmingly rejected two years previously and was more successful in his second term than his first. What is clear though is that we are heading for a much more closely and bitterly contested politics than has been the case in the recent past. Obama may well survive, but the spirit of 2008 seems to have gone forever.
RACE SPOTLIGHTS (*Denotes predicted winner)
Connecticut Senate: Blumenthal (D)* v McMahon (R)
Given the World Wrestling Entertainment Corporation’s penchant for bizzare, convoluted storylines, everyone assumed that the entrance into the race of its Chief Executive and some-time lady wrestler, Linda McMahon, was a joke. She started 30 points behind in the Republican primary only to romp home to victory after steadily closing the gap. She is now being taken very seriously by the Democrats, who are worried she will do the same again. Like Tea Party candidates, she presents herself as an outsider, but unlike them is resolutely centrist and pro-abortion, qualities that will appeal to the voters of this usually Democratic state. Blumenthal, though – the state’s chief law enforcement official since 1991 – is more familiar to voters and will sneak home.
California Governor: Brown (D)* v Whitman (R)
Another moderate female Republican outsider, former CEO of Ebay Meg Whitman, has similarly closed the gap on her more established Democratic opponent, former Governor Jerry Brown, in the race to be the head of the fifth-largest economy in the world. The campaign has become the most expensive non-Presidential campaign in history, with Whitman spending $140m ($80m) of her own wealth. As Arnold Schwarzenegger illustrates, the usually Democratic state has a history of electing moderate Republican outsiders and Whitman has run a slick, effectuve campaign. It has been a bitter race, with Brown being caught on tape referring to his opponent as a “whore”, while Whitman was attacked in public by her former maid who claimed Whitman sacked her when she was found to not have the proper immigration documentation. A close and unpredictable race, with Brown edging into a small lead in the final days.
Arizona Governor: Goddard (D) v Brewer (R)*
Governor Jan Brewer is the prime example that intelligence, competence and likeability are essentially unimportant qualities for politicians in some parts of the US. Brewer ascended to the governorship when Janet Napolitano was appointed Homeland Security Secretary by Obama and has been largely a disaster in her two years at the top. Brewer had an embarrassing interview on breakfast TV in which she was apparantly unable to point to any achievements as Govenor or explain why Nevadans should support her. Trailing terribly in the Republican primary, she was given the kiss of life by Obama when the federal government challenged her controversial immigration bill, which made it a crime to be in the state illegally and which empowered the police to ask anyone for proof of identity. Democrats were hoping that a win in this race would set them up well for Obama to win the state and its precious 10 electoral college votes in 2012, but it now looks like it will go the same way as many other close ones – to the Republicans.
Nevada Senate: Reid (D)* v Angle (R)
Considerably to right of the mainstream electorates, Angle is one of the few Tea Party candidates that looks to have a decent chance of winning. As Senate Majority Leader, Reid is effectively co-leader of the Democratic Party along with Obama and House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi. As such, Republicans are drooling at the prospect of unseating the state’s former Lieutenant Governor, who has sat in the Senate since 1986. It has been a bad-tempered race, with Reid recently slamming Angle for saying that some school children she was talking to looked “more Asian than Nevadan”. Angle started with a lead in the double figures but her seemingly never-ending string of gaffes has allowed Reid to bounce back into contention, though she has maintained a narrow but consistent lead in the final days. Both candidates put in shaky performances in last week’s debate, with Angle judged to have been the winner. An unusual ‘none of the above’ option makes this race even more unpredictable.
Alaska Senate: McAdams (D) v Miller (R) v Murkowski (I)*
Name recogniton is king in US politics, which is probably why incumbent Senator Lisa Murkowski thinks it worth her while conducting a ‘Write-in’ campaign despite losing the Republican nomination to ultra-conservative Joe Miller. Alaska is one of several prominent three-way races in which moderate Republicans have been removed by their party’s voters in the primary contest in favour of a more conservative compatriot but have decided to carry on as an independent. As you would expect with an Alaskan race, the ubiquitous Sarah Palin is involved, and in more ways the one. Palin defeated Murkowski’s father, Governor Frank Murkowksi, in the race for the Republican Gubernatorial nomination in 2004 and formally endorsed Miller, which commenators believe put Miller over the top in the Republican primary earlier this year. Providing she can get a hundred thousand or so Alaskans to spell her name right (ironically, in a TV advert designed to tell voters how to cast a write-in vote, her own campaign spelt her name wrong); she will squeak back as Democrats back her to stop Miller.
California: Proposition 19
Students across California can stop hiding their pot in battered tins under their beds if Proposition 19 passes, as it is expected to. Growing and smoking the drug for medicinal purposes is legal in a number of states, including California but Proposition 19 would make it legal to possess and smoke small amounts for recreational purposes. The law also allows people yo grow cannabis in their private residence for personal use and sets up a regulatory system which would allow it to be sold in public, with tax revenues being collected by the local authorities. The law has bipartisan support and until lately the ‘Yes’ campaign has had a healthy poll lead which has narrowed in the final days. Opponents of the law have argued that legalization would increase the number of lethal car crashes and claim that the regulations in place are flawed. If the bill is approved, watch out for its adoption right across the country.
Illinois Senate: Giannoulias(D) v Kirk (R)*
It is difficult to overplay the significance of the Giannoulias-Kirk race. Illinois is one of the most staunchly Democratic states in the country and-crucially-this was Barack Obama’s Senate seat between 2004 and his election to the Presidency in 2008. Even if the Democrats do not lose the Senate overall, losing Obama’s former seat will add to the sense of crisis within the Democratic party and its White House, which is still reeling from the departure of a number of key staff. Democrats can’t have been helped by the furore around the appointment of Obama’s temporary replacement, Roland Burris, who declined to run for a full term. Governor Rod Blagojevich was accused of ‘selling’ the seat to various bidders, and there was an attempt to block Burris from taking up the seat. Neither campaign has gone especially smoothly, with the Democrat State Treasurer suffering the embarrassment of having his family’s bank collapse, while Congressman Kirk was caught exaggerating his his military service record. Kirk accused Giannoulias of having connections to the Chicago mob through loans made to mobsters by his bank, allegations which were repeated by a prominent newspaper. Neither has been able to build up a solid lead and the polls have been the most erratic of any race this year. Losing this seat will add insult to injury on a night which is likely to be a painful one for the Obama administration.
California House (District 47): Sanchez (D) v Tran (R)*
The California 47th is an excellent illustration of the scale of the problem that the Democrats are facing. Obama won the district, which has been strongly Democratic, by 22 points in 2008 and as a nine-term incumbent, Loretta Sanchez has name recognition and more campaign cash. She should be destoying Van Tran-a California State House member and leader of the Vietnamese community in Southern California-in the same way as she seen off her previous opponents, but she is currently in a 39%:39% tie due to a gaffe she made in September. Speaking to a Spanish-language TV channel, Sanchez said that the “Vietnamese” were trying to steal her seat, and accused Tran, an immigrant, of being anti-immigrant and anti-Hispanic. Sensing the closeness of the race, the Democrats have sent both Clinton and Obama to stump for Sanchez, to no avail. The result will hang on turnout with the large and politically-committed Vietnamese propulation, who have a tendency to turn out in large numbers, likely to put Tran over the top.
Addendum: In the end, I predicted all the races correctly apart from the California 47th (Sanchez re-elected; 53%:39%) and the California cannabis ballot measure (rejected 53%:46%).