Midterm elections 2018: why they are important for the world

Potential shake-up of Congress halfway through Donald Trump’s presidency could reduce his powers

Trump Iran
(Image credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The US midterms are underway after the country’s political heavyweights made their final pushes in the campaign.

Donald Trump and Barack Obama took to the stump on Sunday, with the current president setting out “his now familiar dystopia of an America overrun with criminal aliens and radical socialists”, says The Guardian.

Obama also took on the dystopian theme but laid the blame at the door of his successor who he said had “no qualms about lying or about playing to people’s fears”.

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Today US voters “face a choice that could shape the nation for years after a campaign that left it politically torn, at war with itself over race, and mourning tragedy”, says CNN.

A Democratic victory in either the House of Representatives or the Senate would give the party the power to open investigations into various aspects of Trump's administration, the Financial Times reports.

What are the midterms?

The November elections will see 35 of the 100 seats in the US Senate up for grabs.

US voters will also choose all 435 members of the US House of Representatives, the lower chamber of Congress.

Democrats need a net gain of 23 seats to take control of the House of Representatives from the Republicans. And they need a net gain of two seats to take a Senate majority, “although the path to get to that number is difficult”, says CNN.

Of the 35 Senate seats up for election this year, 26 are held by Democrats (including two independents allied to them) and nine by Republicans.

In total, the US Senate is made up of 51 Republican seats and 47 Democrats, plus those two independents. This means Democrats face a steeper climb in the Senate, because they must defend all 26 of their seats up for election and take two seats from Republicans in order to win a majority. Ten of the Democratic seats are in states that Trump won in the 2016 presidential election.

Why are these elections so important in the US?

The midterm elections are being held halfway through Trump’s presidential term, and the make-up of Congress’s two chambers could affect his ability to govern.

The state legislative elections will not only be crucial for state-level policy debates but “could also determine the fate of abortion rights if the Supreme Court moves to undercut Roe v. Wade, the future of Medicaid expansion in some states, not to mention innumerable other issues like education, taxes, and labor rights”, says Vox.

The outcome of the midterms could reduce Trump’s powers or might work in his favour. Thanks to a very favourable election map, Republicans “could conceivably pick up Senate seats even if Democrats take the House. And a gain of even a seat or two would change the entire complexion of the Senate,” says Politico.

Should that occur, Republicans “might even have another shot at repealing Obamacare or shrinking the size of the federal government”, adds the news site.

What about the rest of the world?

The midterms are not usually seen as a global event, “but this time is different”, says the Financial Times. The results will be seen as a crucial test of whether Trump has changed the US forever.

If the Republicans do well, the world will have to make a “long-term adjustment to an America that is highly protectionist and suspicious of treaties on principle — whether they deal with climate change, arms control, refugees or migration”, says the FT; however, if the Democrats succeed there will be hope that the Trump years are just an “aberration”.

Countries such as Iran, China, Mexico and North Korea are likely to be “glued to the results”, looking for hints about the “staying power” of Trump’s foreign policies, be it sanctions against Tehran or nuclear talks with Pyongyang, says USA Today.

“Some foreign leaders are quietly rooting for Democratic gains in Congress, hoping the opposition party will counter the Trump administration’s attacks on international agreements, his crackdown on immigration and his penchant for trade tariffs,” adds the newspaper.

The midterms will also be watched closely as a gauge for the global populist and nationalist movements. The populist swing pre-dates Trump’s election, notes CNBC, but it has picked up momentum as he appears to have inspired like-minded politicians abroad.

“The vote isn’t just a referendum on President Trump’s first two years in office,” says the news channel, “but also on the populist brand of politics he represents.”

What is likely to happen?

Final outcomes are difficult to predict, especially as early voting suggests turnout could be the highest it’s been in decades.

Some forecasters are predicting that turnout could end up approaching 50%, “levels not reached since the midterms between 1962-1970 - years, perhaps not coincidentally, that spanned a political turbulent era”, the Associated Press reports.

At present, New York Magazine says, “odds are good if not overwhelming that Democrats will regain control of the House and make significant state governor and state legislative gains, while Republicans will maintain control of the Senate (possibly even increasing their margin over Democrats there)”.

But the latest polls suggest that “neither Democrats nor Republicans have much reason to breathe easy”, says Vox.

The non-partisan Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman calls the House landscape “fairly stable”, with Democrats “poised to gain between 25 and 40 seats” (they need a net gain of 23 for control).

But The New York Times’s Nate Cohn believes the race for the House of Representatives remains on a knife edge.

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