There were about six couples and a few stray singles on the bar terrace, drinking multicoloured drinks, a few wet paper umbrellas on the tables, Peabo Bryson on the muzak, a low-energy room. Your correspondent surveyed the scene and nerved himself for the first cold-call of the season, hoving into people’s lives, asking bumptious questions, either exposing their ignorance or tearing fresh rifts in shaky friendships. Argggggh. Would there be anything here? Turns out there was. Furious debate quickly ensued:

“The election? Are they on already?”

“No, he’s got it wrong, they’re years away.”

“Whenever they are, Harper will ace it in.”

“Do you want to put some money on that?'”

Yes, they were Canadian, here in the Luau bar of the Royal Hawaiian to get the cold out of their bones. They were all the size of meat fridges, decorated in Hawaiian shirts, looking like a sort of enormous mural of tropical life. They were in oil, or something associated with it; oil and singer-songwriters being the country’s two remaining industries. They didn’t have much to say about the US midterm elections. But they sure were enjoying Hawaii.

Sorry, did I mention that I was in Hawaii? Yes, the Crikey international affairs desk has been briefly established mid-Pacific, en route to the mainland, to cover the midterm elections, now bearing down on us. On Tuesday, November 4 (and for weeks before), voters will go to the polls to elect 435 House of Representatives members and 33 senators (plus one or two strays). Also up for grabs will be 40 state governorships and state assemblies, a few dozen big-city mayoralties and city councils. Then there’s thousands of local positions — from judges and district attorneys to dogcatchers — and 150 “special measures” ballots, which authorise or prohibit everything from mundane bond issues to labelling GMO food (Oregon) to our old favourite — defining life as beginning at conception (South Dakota).

The composition of Congress will determine the limits of the last two years of Barack Obama’s presidency, and much more. The Republicans enjoy a 50%-plus majority in the 435-seat lower house, and no one expects the Democrats to shift that balance in their favour. Indeed, if they can hold their losses to five seats or less, they’ll count it as a victory. They have a more optimistic prospect in state governorships and assemblies — vital for setting the boundaries of congressional districts and adjudicating close elections, as Florida demonstrated in 2000 — with the possibility of taking back keys states such as Ohio and Florida.

But it’s in the Senate that things are really on the line. The Democrats currently have a comfortable-looking majority (55-45) a margin that has allowed them to fight the House of Reps to a standstill and avoid the spectacle of Obama having to veto, bill after bill, undoing the modest gains of his presidency to date. It also avoids the prospect of being presented with a Republican budget, refusal of which would create another full-scale government gridlock. And there is the ace in the hole — the hope that one of the five conservative judges on the Supreme Court will decide, in the next two years, to quietly retire. Or more realistically, choke on his lasagna and have to be replaced, giving Obama the chance to cement in a liberal majority, which would potentially be replenished and dominate the country for decades to come. That would require a working Senate majority.

But, alas, things aren’t looking good for that scenario. Of the dozen or so Senate seats under threat, most are Democratic, many of them in strongly Republican areas. In several cases, this is the result of the retirement of a powerful senator of decades-long tenure with a personal following (read: capacity to get pork), and the sudden reversion of the state to the Republicans. In other cases, it’s simply the rightward drift that occurs in mid-term elections, which have a lower voter turnout than in presidential years.

Thus, Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia, all longtime-Democrat holds, have already been written off — Montana absolutely, the other two with virtual certainty. Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina will be a struggle, and Colorado and Michigan are a toss-up. The only plausible Republican losses are Kansas and Georgia — and maybe, just maybe Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell’s perch in Kentucky.

It’s a grim prospect for the progressive forces, which is why your correspondent is in Hawaii. Yes, as part of Crikey‘s new 50-state strategy we felt it was vital to reach out to places like this, just about the safest Democratic state in the Union, especially with a Hawaiian in the White House, second only perhaps to DC as a Democratic stronghold (we decided on Hawaii — have you seen the DC crime rate?).

Despite that, or because of it, things have got interesting even in Hawaii, where the incumbent Democratic governor lost the party’s nomination for this election. However, David Ige, who won the poll, won’t be getting an easy ride (more like a dumper, because there is surfing here). Former Honolulu mayor Mufi Hannemann is running as an independent. Polling at 10%, he might be just enough of a spoiler to hand the governor’s mansion to the Republicans. I’m pretty sure there’s some interesting politics associated with this, since the incumbent, Neil Abercrombie was not so much white as distinctly pasty, and all three current candidates are non-white. But it also signifies the capacity of ruling parties to stuff up in their own fiefdoms — the Democrats lost the governorship in 2002 due to scandal and visible cronyism, and they may do so again. A final throwing-off of white presumption? That would be significant. I’d dig further, but I’m leaving tomorrow, and there’s a lot of Norwegian girls staying at my hotel.

So stay tuned, and full coverage of this pivotal contest will be resumed when we hit a clothed zone. No dinks, pivotal it is. If the Democrats can hold the line in the Senate, then the Republican tide will be at its height. This is, after all, the last election Barack Obama will be campaigning in for his own political interests, and consequently the last time the Right will be able to use him as a fetish object. That trick won’t work on Hillary, if Hillary it is to be, in ’16. With the Tea Party in abeyance, and the GOP itself divided, the 2014 midterms are shaping up as the last best hope for the Obama presidency — and for the Republican Party altogether.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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