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The 'pink wave', abortion and gun laws: How the midterms affect topical political issues

There’s an argument over whether there’ll be a ‘red wave’ or a ‘blue wave’ on Tuesday – but let’s look at the pink wave first.

Midterm Option 2 (1)

WE’RE JUST A few days out from the US midterms – so what?

In these political nebuleuses, it’s hard to see how the make-up of parliaments directly impacts ordinary citizens. And we cannot say there will definitely be seismic change after this round of midterms, but these elections do have the capability of shifting the momentum and power of the current administration of the embattled US President Donald Trump.

The midterms are always a sign on how the president is doing (in the eyes of all Americans). The surge in female candidates, nicknamed the ‘pink wave’, would suggest that there remains some backlash to Trump as president – remember how his sexist comments and other behaviours prompted a Women’s March almost immediately after his inauguration. His presidency has not been void of same. 

In an interview with TheJournal.ie in September, Bernie Sanders’ wife and campaign manager Jane Sanders O’Meara said that their team wasn’t focusing on the presidential election in 2020, but on the midterms “because they put in place checks and balances against the President”.

Election 2018 Trump President Donald Trump reacts as supporters wave signs during a rally. Source: Chris O'Meara

But this isn’t all about Trump, says Associate Professor in International Relations at DCU, Kenneth McDonagh.

“Although the news cycle is dominated by the President, the elections are being fought on more normal issues around healthcare, employment rights, the environment,” he said.

Democrats in tight house races and elsewhere don’t think running against Trump is worthwhile, instead they’re focused on articulating a different vision for the US and focusing on policy rather than personality.

Central America Migrant Caravan Migrants on the back of trucks, as a thousands-strong caravan of Central Americans hoping to reach the US border moves onward from Juchitan, Mexico. Source: Rebecca Blackwell

The issues that are set to dominate midterm campaign agendas include access to healthcare (as the Trump administration has dismantled Obamacare, is is being pushed for an alternative solution); migration laws (the migrant caravan will be a hot topic as it trundles towards the Mexico-US border), and the economy (there’s been a boost in job growth under Trump’s presidency).

What are the issues Americans are worried about?

The divide between Democrats and Republicans (those who identify as such, and vote as such in the main) has grown significantly in recent years.

The Pew Research Center has compiled a number of Democrats’ and Republicans’ views on various topics including corporate regulation, the African American community, gun regulation and the environment.

It found that in the aftermath of 9/11, the two parties held similar views on a lot of issues. But under the Obama administration the gap in viewpoints widened. Under the Trump presidency it’s opened up into a chasm:

Republican and Dems views Source: Pew Research Center

Basically, the number of people who hold a mix of liberal and conservative views has gone into decline, particularly during the period between 2004 and 2017.

Pew Source: Pew Research Center

To bridge this gap, some party members are championing policies their party is against. In West Virginia, Joe Manchin is one of two Democrats poised well for a chance at claiming a Senate seat in the strongly Republican state: but often takes conservative positions – at odds with his own party to gain popularity among the ‘other side’.

Richard Ojeda, another Democratic state Senator running in West Virginia, voted for Trump and is running a populist campaign in a disadvantaged area. So in this case if the Democrats win, that doesn’t necessarily mean more progressive policies will be brought forward. 

Who has control to do what?

So – the US federal system is a bit complicated but we’re going to run through it very quickly.

The US government has control over all states, but has devolved powers to state level as well, and it’s at state level that most changes that ordinary people feel are made.

A crude but helpful comparison would be the UK and Northern Ireland: the devolved Stormont Assembly has the power to approve a budget for the region, its own social policies (abortion), but abides by UK tariffs (or EU tariffs, as it stands now).

So the US government would have a one-policy approach to trade tariffs, for example, but the access to abortion varies from state to state. And what issues are decided at federal or state-level varies.

US Capitol US Capitol. Source: Alex Brandon via PA Images

This means that there are huge differences in law and procedure between individual states around property, crime, health and education, and abortion.

Congress, meanwhile, has the power to collect taxes; build roads, fight against felonies, declare war. Senators also have control over senior appointments, such as Supreme Court nominees, department secretaries, military officers, and US ambassadors.

It also plays a role in impeachment process: the House of Representatives can also vote on whether to charge a US President with whatever is laid against him, and the Senate decides on whether he or she is guilty.

So the House and Senate appointments won’t have a huge influence on abortion rights, but it will on migration laws.

The midterms also include elections for state governors, similar to the President of each state. The midterm results for these will also give an indication for how ‘blue’ or ‘red’ the final result is.

The ‘pink wave’: Historic diversity

CA: MeToo Activists Protest Brett Kavanaugh in Los Angeles Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

The Women’s March, has amplified issues like abortion rights, the representation of women across different sectors and raised questions about the acceptance of sexist remarks based on ones made by Trump.

On 21 January 2017, the day after Trump’s inauguration, an estimated 3 million people marched nationwide opposing the president. In January this year, millions turned up again in the streets of the US (there was an estimated half a million in LA) – and as part of those demonstrations, was getting people out to vote.

We’ll find out whether those who are registered actually turn up to vote on Tuesday. Voter turnout was 58.1% in the 2016 US election, when 138 million people turned out.

The 2014 midterm election saw the lowest turnout since World War II, when just 36.4% of eligible voters showed up at polling stations (it was 40.9% in the 2010 midterms).

According to CNN, young Americans aged between 18-29 accounted for 13%, down from 19% in the presidential election two years before.

But even if the number of egalitarian activists aren’t energised to vote, this midterm election is still historic. In what’s been dubbed ‘the pink wave’, both parties have seen a record number of female candidates run for Congress, and there’s a record-breaking 262 women on the ballot.

Women's March 2018 - New York City Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

At least 244 openly LGBTQ candidates are also putting themselves forward.

This means there are a couple of firsts for diversification in Congress:

  • Arizona will definitely get its first female Senator; and Nevada could elect a state legislature with more women lawmakers than men – first time in the history of any US state.
  • Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York could be the youngest legislator at 29.
  • Democrat Ayanna Pressley defeated 10-term incumbent Michael Capuano to be on the ticket and could become the first black Congresswoman of Massachusetts.
  • Democrat Sharice Davids could become the first Native American woman in the country to make it to Congress and Kansas’s first openly LGBTQ representative.
  • Republican Young Kim could become the first Korean American congresswoman if she is elected in California.

Although the midterms aren’t entirely about Trump, he could have been a motivator for women to run for Congress, says McDonagh.

“…The Trump effect is definitely a motivating factor. The Planet Hollywood tapes, the treatment of Hillary Clinton by Trump and his supporters, the drip drip of additional sexual scandals around the president, the #MeToo moment, the Kavanaugh nomination all combine to push women towards the Democrats and to mobilise them to campaign more than ever before.

“How this translates into wins in the midterms will interesting to see.”

So why the rise in diversity?

“The rise in female, LGBTQ and minority candidates is a product of two factors,” says McDonagh adds.

“One is simply the shifting demographics in the United States and the concerted effort by political parties to reflect this in the representatives they put before voters. It also reflects a realisation that the US has and is changing.

The case of Christine Hallquist, the first openly trans candidate for governor running in Vermont, is a good example of this. Her gender identity is simply not part of the campaign, which is focused on rural broadband, as well as other bread and butter issues.

News: Christine Hallquist Primary Party Christine Hallquist talks to reporters after winning the primary for the Democratic candidate for governor of Vermont. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

Are these minority candidates likely to win?

“It depends. In the house, Democrats are likely to make significant gains with a good chance of taking control of the lower branch of the legislature.

“But it will be interesting to look at states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan that were key to Trump’s electoral college success, if these states are turning back blue, then this makes the electoral math in 2020 much more difficult for Trump.

The Senate is much more difficult for the Democrats because they already hold 26 of the 35 seats, even on a good day they might struggle to hold that number (even allowing for upsets in Tennessee or Texas) and the polling doesn’t show a clear pattern that will give them gains across the board that they would need to take control of the Senate.

“Winning 28 out of 35 contests is a big ask.”

Election 2018 Trump People respond as President Donald Trump speaks during a rally in Florida. Source: Susan Walsh

And on voter turnout, are people likely to vote on Tuesday?

The early voting turnout appears to be up  – what exactly is driving that is open for debate, it could be super-motivated Democrats or it could be disgruntled Republicans getting to the polls.

“In general, more Republicans than Democrats turnout for the midterms, so we should expect an increase in turnout to be indicative of an increased Democrat participation but we won’t know for certain until the votes are counted.

“In the governor races, Stacey Abrams is within the margin of error of the Republican candidate in Georgia and if elected would be the first African-American woman to be Governor of a State.

Election 2018 Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum speaks during a rally in Key West. Source: AP/PA Images

“Remarkably in neighbouring Florida, Andrew Gillum is slightly ahead in polls so on a good day for the Democrats you could have two African American governors of Southern States.”

“A final note on turnout is that Trump’s recent announcement on birthright citizenship and the US Department of Health effectively attempting to erase trans people by insisting on gender identification at birth are clearly attempts to mobilise the conservative base of the GOP but are also likely to push more Latinos and LGBTQ supporters to the polls.

These initiatives (and the sending of troops to the border) are clear signs that the Trump administration is worried about the midterms.

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