Analysts and strategists from all over the world have been following very carefully, for the last month the evolving scenario pertaining to the US Mid-term elections that took place on 6 November, a few days ago across the United States. Some, in the electronic media termed it as a referendum of not only President Trump but also of his Administration and their performance over the last two years since he took over as the US President after winning the election in 2016. They were also watching whether some of his controversial decisions would cast a long shadow on the Republican profile, which according to many had turned the American dream into an American illusion.
This election assumed particular importance because think-tanks used the emerging connotations to try and track the possible trajectory of American politics that might follow for the next two years till the next Presidential elections in 2020. Americans cast their votes in this mid-term poll for all 435 seats in the House of Representatives, 35 of the 100 seats in the Senate and 39 State and territorial governorships.
As predicted by Five Thirty Eight, a statistics website, the Democrats have gained the required majority in the House of Representatives. In the Senate, the Republicans have retained their majority.
Voter enthusiasm in this mid-term election was at its highest level for such an election in more than two decades according to the Pew Research Institute. About 61 percent of voters surveyed said that they were enthusiastic about this year’s elections and about 72 percent said that they would factor in which party was most likely to control Congress when casting their vote.
The issues which drew most attention from the voters appear to have been -healthcare, the economy, immigration, women’s rights and Supreme Court appointments. Those interested in moving forward, particularly the women knew that healthcare had reached a critical point and that a major Republican victory in the midterms would likely lead to the final nail in the coffin of the Affordable Care Act (known also as “Obamacare”), the healthcare law introduced by Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama. It may be mentioned here that although Republicans have so far failed to repeal and replace Obamacare, Republican majority Congress and Trump had made changes to it. Against such a backdrop, healthcare took the centre stage in several key races across the United States. According to the political ad tracking firm Kantar Media/CMAG, Democrats poured USD 125 million on advertisements focused on healthcare, while Republicans spent around USD 50million.
The next issue that drew particular focus was the question of future appointment in the US Supreme Court. It may be recalled that Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court created a whirlwind of controversy. Although the Republican-led Senate voted to confirm Kavanaugh, the now-Supreme Court Justice became a rallying cry for Democrats before the midterms. The allegations against Kavanaugh came amid a swell in controversy over sexual harassment. Kavanaugh’s appointment moved the Court further to the right, giving Trump more of a boost as he continued to hit the campaign trail for his fellow Republicans. Some analysts however pointed out that the controversy over Kavanaugh and the way the allegations were handled might have galvanized Democratic supporters and their effort to win in the House of Representatives. Pew’s survey, in this regard found that 76 percent of registered voters viewed Supreme Court appointments as a “very important” issue when considering how they would vote on November 6.
Another issue through which President Trump and the Republican Party tried to persuade voters in the midterm election was through changes that were termed as positive within the US economy. Trump regularly boasted not only about the growth levels but also the decline in unemployment rates. Attention was drawn to the fact that the unemployment rate had fallen to 3.7 percent by October, 2018- lowest in nearly 50 years. However the Democrats pointed out that job growth had also slowed. Some economists also used this opportunity to point out that although the US economy was growing, they worried that working-class families might not really see the benefits. They drew attention to the fact that only recently wages had started to slightly increase but this trend might not eventually last. There was also a debate on whether this economic growth was a fall-out of the policies of Trump or his predecessor, Barack Obama, or whether both had contributed to economic growth.
The fourth issue that emerged on the surface leading up to the election was the question of women’s rights. This played a crucial role during the election. Media reports, election observers and the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University have indicated that record numbers of women, most of them Democrats, have run and succeeded in the midterm elections. It may be mentioned here that since the 1980s, women voters have consistently turned out in larger numbers than their male counterparts. However, surveys suggest that, in 2018, a larger number of women have found themselves on the Democratic side of the political divide. Men, on the other hand, were divided about evenly between Democrats and Republicans. It may be recalled that a poll recently published by NPR and Marist found that 62 percent of women disapproved of Trump and – around half of them “strongly disapproved”. Such dislike might also have been driven by the awareness among women voters that a Republican victory in both the House of Representatives and the Senate might potentially allow Trump to appoint even more conservative Supreme Court judges, casting fear over the future of Roe v Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that ruled on the constitutionality of state and federal restrictions on access to abortion.
The last significant issue that generated voter choice was the question of immigration. This gained momentum after the Trump Administration created outrage earlier this year over the Administration’s separation of migrant children from their parents. That cast a long shadow over the midterms. It may be recalled that the Trump Administration pushed sweeping immigration reform, taking aim at undocumented immigrants as well as proposing rule changes for those attempting to obtain green cards, welfare and food stamps, among other government benefits. In August, the President drew particular attention to this issue by not only observing that immigration would be a winning factor for Republicans in the upcoming midterms but also accusing Democrats of advocating open borders and turning a blind eye to crimes committed by immigrants. To underline his determination in this regard, before the election, Trump also ordered troops to the US-Mexico border to intercept a caravan of migrants and asylum seekers heading there, and also has floated the idea of ending birthright citizenship. Democrats used this harsh Trump approach to rally minorities and young voters against Trump’s immigration policies. It may be added here that several polls conducted over the past summer suggested that a majority of Americans believe that Democrats are more capable of handling immigration-related issues. In July, a Quinnipiac report concluded that 58 percent of Americans disapproved of Trump’s immigration policies, while a similar Reuter’s poll found that 52 percent did not support the President’s immigration agenda.
The record number of women who will be members of the incoming class of legislators is expected to have a stark effect on politics in the nation’s capital, particularly within the Democratic Party. Nancy Pelosi, House Democratic leader from 2007 to 2011 is set to become Speaker of the House. Rashida Tlaib and Ilham Omar, two Muslim ladies, also created history by being elected to the House for the first time from their faith.
Data subsequently announced has shown that Republicans have expanded their slim 51-49 majority in the upper chamber. This has ensured that Trump will have a majority to confirm his executive and judicial appointments. Democrats, it may be mentioned have always faced an uphill battle in the Senate in 2018 because they were defending 26 races, while just nine Republican seats were up for grabs. Key gains for the Republicans came in Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota, where they unseated Democrat incumbents.
Historically, midterm elections in the US have often changed the power dynamics between the White House and the Congress. This has at times prompted US Administrations to modify their approach to foreign affairs. In the recent past, there have been a number of such important foreign policy developments that have taken place as a result of electoral setbacks during the midterms. In 2006, the sweeping victory of the Democrats in the congressional vote prompted the Bush administration to alter its approach in Iraq, pushing for a US troops surge. Subsequently, there was the resurgence of the Republicans in the 2010 midterms. This predisposed then-President Barack Obama to back the military intervention in Libya a few months later – a decision he would later consider as “the worst mistake” of his Presidency. Similarly, after the electoral defeat the Democrats suffered in November 2014, the Obama administration switched gear and started pursuing much more seriously for a nuclear deal with Iran, which was meant to serve as Obama’s lasting foreign policy legacy.
The Trump administration might go through similar policy shifts or adjustments after the November 6 vote. One thing is sure. The midterm elections results are likely to have both direct and indirect consequences for the US foreign policy in general and more specifically in the Middle East.
There could also be changes in direction within the domestic arena. Observers are suggesting that the control of the House of Representatives might mean the Democrats now being able to launch investigations into Mr Trump’s administration and business affairs, from tax returns to potential conflicts of interest. They could also more effectively block his legislative plans, notably his signature promise to build a wall along the border with Mexico.
In conclusion, although loss of the House of Representatives will be a serious blow for Trump, the strong showing by the Republicans in the Senate proves Trump remains a potent force.
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance