US midterm elections
Incoming house speaker Nancy Pelosi. Image credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Donald Trump faces a whole new situation in the wake of the US midterm elections, with the Democrats retaking the House of Representatives, picking up seven governorships, and a number of state assemblies, and winning some important ballot initiatives on voting.

The Republicans’ only good news was a pick-up of enough seats to retain control of the Senate, in a year when a third of Senate seats are up for election, included about 10 marginal Democrat seats. Even here they had less success than they might, with the Democrats Jon Tester holding in Republican Montana, despite a huge effort to dislodge him.

What does it all mean? Well, obviously, to take the House without the Senate leaves the Democrats short of contestatory power. They can originate a progressive budget, but they can’t get it through the Senate; it has to be taken to “reconciliation”. Ditto on laws regarding campaign finance, immigration, the works.

What they can do is take over the chairmanship of House committees, majority fill them, and steer the legislative process from there. As numerous commentators have noted, Trump, from his remarks, has not yet twigged to that. A figurehead president, utterly out of his depth, who has rubber-stamped a traditional Republican agenda in exchange for his tariffs program, Trump will now be exposed to the grizzled political professionals, who know the system backwards.

But that is not without its hazards for the Democrats. Having one house, and being seen publicly to win it, is like having half a yacht, really. There’s no chance of a bold and declarative program you can own. What they do achieve for their mass of voters, can have the credit swiped by Trump — and if he’s good at anything, he’s good at that. Furthermore, if they act in a civic spirit and mitigate Trump’s worst excesses, they will make his administration less odious come 2020.

What they can do is go after Trump the man. But that is fraught with hazard, too, as the recent confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh demonstrated. Incoming speaker (i.e. leader of the opposition) Nancy Pelosi has already ruled out an impeachment drive. There is wariness about getting too involved with the Russia probe, which turns many independent voters off. There is talk of getting and exposing Trump’s tax returns. All of these will be demanded by political Democrats, their base, and failure to do it will be taken as a sign of selling out afresh. But it will enable Trump to label the Democrat-led House as the “swamp” refilled, up to its old tricks.

Within the Democrats, there will be tensions too, many of them productive. The midterms have seen the election of a new left within the Democrats – from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is openly associated with the Democratic Socialists of America; young Muslim women Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib in Minnesota; and reps at federal and statehouse level from the “Our Revolution” list — a left group formed around the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign.

The test for the Democrats will come if these new figures reorganise the left caucus in the party; or organise a specifically socialist caucus, to put some heat on the party’s centre. That “centre” includes a brace of new members from places like Oklahoma, new members from the non-Latino parts of Texas, and ex-Republicans such as Charlie Crist, all of whom could revive the “blue dog” caucus — Democrats elected in Republican states — who would resist, and vote against, a great deal of progressive legislation. As with Obama’s House majority 2008-2010, a majority ain’t a majority.

But it’s a good-news election, and there’s no point being too preemptively pessimistic about it. Of particular importance is the governorship and statehouses the Democrats have taken back — after a decade or more in which they just let their grassroots organisations die through poor representation, allowing the Republicans to take them over — and to gerrymander the congressional district maps.

For the Dems — who weren’t really counting on a resurgence at this level until 2022-2024 — Trump has been a godsend, allowing them to retake statehouses two years before the 2020 census, which will be used for any redistributions that might occur. Maybe they will try and introduce fair distribution — some states such as Iowa have it — and cement it in, but don’t hold your breath.

Also of crucial, crucial importance, was ballot measure four in Florida, which has readmitted 1.4 million felons — i.e. black men and women caught with an unregistered car twice, or a joint once — to the voter rolls. Given the narrow margins, and Florida’s key role as a narrow-victory swing state, that suddenly, vastly improved the Democrats chances in 2020.

But what might be focusing Republicans’ minds more than anything is a Democrat loss — that of Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke who came within 3% of knocking off oleaginous man-size jelly baby Ted Cruz in Texas. Texas has been trending towards the centre for years, because of Latinx population growth. But now, Houston has become a magnet for knowledge industries and the people who run them, changing the whole culture of the city. This squeeze makes more likely the holy grail for the Democrats — turning Texas blue, or at least marginal. Texas is the last safe electoral college state the Republicans have to contest the Democrats’ New York and California. If that goes, they’re in a lot of trouble indeed.

That said, if anyone can stuff this windfall up, it’s the Democrats. In the great global contest of progressive parties that identify so greatly with the policies of their opponents, they can barely oppose them, they’re right up there with the ALP. But yeah, it’s a whole new situation…

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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