November’s US midterm elections are fast approaching, bringing the promise of an election that could see a significant shift in US politics. After the shock Republican victories in 2016 – winning the presidency as well as majorities in the House and Senate – the Democrats are increasingly optimistic about their chances of reclaiming power in Congress.
The House of Representatives:
Control of the House of Representatives is the main target for the Democrats, and the biggest concern facing Republicans. For the Democrats to gain a majority in the house, they require a net gain of 24 seats, which – while far from guaranteed – is looking increasingly achievable.
The generic ballot (a national poll which asks respondents to choose between a generic Republican and Democrat) has strongly favoured Democrats, who have maintained a steady lead over the Republican Party since the 2016 Presidential Election, partly due to the consistent unpopularity of President Trump.
While the generic ballot cannot predict individual races, it has held up in House special elections over the past year. In 2017 Democrats in Montana and Georgia significantly increased their share of the vote in Republican districts previously viewed as uncompetitive, and – while failing to win outright – these significantly increased vote shares in former Republican strongholds suggests Democrats can be confident about their national performance.
The most worrying sign for the Republicans was the special election in Pennslyvania’s 18th district. A district that the Democrats had previously not fielded a candidate, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report rated R+11 and Trump had won by 20 points went blue. The Democratic candidate Conor Lamb winning the district despite spending less than his opponent in the race.
Most significantly, far more incumbent Republicans than Democrats are retiring in 2018. As incumbents tend to have an electoral advantage this considerably increases the number of competitive seats. The surprise resignation of House speaker Paul Ryan is the most notable resignation, and his formerly safe district is now being seen as an increasingly competitive race.
The loss of Ryan is a serious blow to Republicans, who will lack a recognisable national campaigner. However, Democrats continue to suffer from the legacy of minority leader Nancy Pelosi, who has been the subject of decades of fierce political attacks that have turned her into an electoral asset for the Republicans.
State level developments have also favoured some Democrats. In Pennsylvania, court-ordered redistricting to reverse Republican gerrymandering (redrawing district boundaries for political advantage) has created several new districts that should ensure comfortable wins for the Democrats in November.
While the race for control of the House is giving Democrats cause for optimism, control of the Senate is a more difficult prospect. Unlike the House of Representatives, the Senate only elects one third of seats every two years, as senators have six-year terms.
Since the Democrat’s surprise win in the Alabama senate election (giving the Democratic caucus 49 seats total), the Democrats need only two net gains to win control of the senate. Favourable polling on the generic ballot would suggest this should be relatively easy, however the 2018 election cycle is very unfavourable to Democrats.
The last time this third of states was contested was in 2012, with the elections held at the same time as the Democratic victory in the presidential election. As a result, the Democrats performed relatively well, winning several states that are typically considered to lean Republican; such as Indiana, West Virginia, Missouri and North Dakota.
This means while Republicans are defending only nine seats from Democrats, Democrats are defending 24 seats from Republicans (the same number of seats they need to flip in the House, which is interesting if you like useless trivia). Strategically, this means Democrats will be torn between desires to go on the offensive and the need to defend the vulnerable seats they currently hold.
Democrats will be hoping to make gains in Arizona, Nevada and – at a push – Tennessee. The first two are the potential scalps the Democrats need to flip control of the senate, but this is reliant on them holding onto all other 24 seats. Defence of these states – while not impossible – is difficult considering the Republican leanings of many states currently held by the Democrats, several of which voted for Trump in 2016.
However, polling has again given Democrats reason to be cautiously optimistic. Polls show even the senate race in deep-red Texas – which pits Democrat Beto O’Rourke against former Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz – is far from a guaranteed Republican victory.
Internal Democratic Politics:
The final key question for progressives is how the midterms will affect internal Democratic Party politics.
The short answer: Not much.
While Democratic candidates could be emboldened to embrace progressive positions to contrast themselves with Trump, it is likely key candidates in marginal seats will be politically cautious and fear to alienate any of their electorate in a high-stakes election such as this.
Progressives from the left of the party also have limited opportunities to enter Congress due to small number of incumbent Democrats standing down in both Houses – with incumbent candidates tending to have the advantage in primary elections. The mainstream wing of the Democrats have also maintained control of internal party structures, so there’s unlikely to be a wave of shock primary victories from the Sanders wing of the party. However primary challenges are being mounted on big names. In California both Dianne Feinstein and Nancy Pelosi face challenges from grassroots left-wing candidates, with Feinstein facing a score of left wing challengers, including democratic socialist David Hildebrand and state senate member Kevin De Leon, and Pelosi facing off against left winger Stephen Jaffe. However it looks like the Berniecrats may have been outgunned and outmanoeuvred in their bid to take control of the Democratic Party.
The realistic outcome most Democrats will be hoping for in November is a House majority and a close result (or even narrow victory) in the Senate elections. The Democrats have strong reasons to be optimistic about their prospects in the House, with that 24-seat target looking evermore achievable. The Senate is a more distant prospect and will require huge surges in Democratic support to take back from Republican control.
Gaining control of the House will be key to resisting the legislative agenda of President Trump, although the resulting gridlocked government could damage the Democrats in the long term if they are framed as obstructing progress. However, if the Democrats manage to overcome the odds and take the Senate with an electoral map as unfavourable as this then the Republicans will be facing a serious political crisis come 2020.