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Opinion US midterm elections – why they’re important to America and the world

The midterms are equally worthy of your attention as the US presidential elections.

IN JUST A couple of weeks, on Tuesday, 4 November, voters across the United States will go to the polls. All 435 seats in the US House of Representatives and 36 of the 100 seats in the US Senate will be at stake. Voters in many states will choose their next governor and other state-wide officeholders. State legislators and other local politicians will be subject to the judgement of the people, as will ballot referendum questions.

In addition to the candidates, political consultants, journalists, pundits and campaign workers will be extremely busy until late on the 4th. These midterm – ie, at the halfway point of the US president’s four year term – elections are already a distraction and will be the source of at least one sleepless weeknight for this writer.

Why do midterms matter? 

Midterms have traditionally been regarded as important for a number of reasons. In large part, the outcome of congressional elections dictate how much of the president’s agenda can realistically be accomplished. They are a good barometer of the public mood. And they often decide who will be presidential contenders in the long, drawn-out campaign that will begin in earnest, as always, first thing in the morning after the votes have been counted.

The extent to which US presidential elections animate people here in Ireland every four years is extraordinary. The Irish media provides substantial, in-depth and usually quite insightful coverage. This focus has actually nuanced my own thoughts on American politics. It’s interesting to get an “outside looking in” perspective. And beyond the media bubble, as 2016 approaches, the two rapid fire questions I will definitely be asked innumerable times by Irish people are: “What do you think? Will it be Hillary?”

The close attention paid to who will be the next resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue contrasts significantly with the scant notice taken of midterm elections. As of mid-October – with the notable exceptions of occasional broadcast pieces and feature stories from the US by RTÉ’s Caitríona Perry and Simon Carswell of The Irish Times respectively, and two informative articles by Paul Hosford of this parish – there has been relatively little coverage of the midterms in the media. And only committed political junkies have asked me about the likely outcome.

Embattled incumbents distance themselves from party allies 

This is, perhaps, understandable in that there are hundreds of elections taking place on the same day that will determine the winner, as opposed to just one. Moreover, local, not national, issues are to the fore in many of these races. Hence, who will be the next US Senator from Kansas does not appear as relevant to Irish people as who will be the next “leader of the free world”.

Nonetheless, for the aforementioned reasons, midterms remain significant. Irish people rallied to Barack Obama in a very real way, not just because of his Moneygall connections. He was a beacon of light for so many I spoke with who he clearly inspired in 2008. The Obama presidency, unfortunately, has not lived up to the promise of the candidacy, and there is a lot of buyer’s remorse on both sides of the Atlantic. But if Irish people are hopeful of President Obama making any progress in the two years he has left on key issues, such as climate change, the Middle East and immigration reform, they should monitor the most hotly contested congressional campaigns in the coming days.

The polls show that the races that are too close to call are mainly in states ordinarily classed as Republican-leaning or as divided battlegrounds in presidential elections. During congressional midterm campaigns in these states, one of the tried and true tactics of embattled incumbents has been to distance themselves from their own party’s president. For instance, this year, Democratic US Representative Nick Rahall of West Virginia states prominently on his campaign website that he “will continue to stand up to the president”. His West Virginia Democratic colleague, US Senator Joe Manchin, asserts in a campaign ad that he and Rahall “fight the Obama administration’s war on coal” every day.

American political analysts take this rhetoric for granted in the context of a close election. What’s more, so do President Obama and the leadership of the Democratic Party.

Fascinating political theatre

Looked at from 3,000 miles away, however, it is absolutely inconceivable that a party’s candidate in the closest corollary in Ireland to a midterm, a by-election, would make any such arguments. The rigid hierarchical structure of political parties and intolerance of any internal dissent whatsoever prevent an “upstart” from doing so.

Still, I can’t help but wonder if a good political candidate like Fine Gael Councillor Maura Hopkins would have run closer in the recent Roscommon-South Leitrim by-election if she was emboldened to express a belief that the government was wrong to reduce services at Roscommon Hospital and a determination to put the interests of the people of her constituency first. Although she probably couldn’t have won, she almost certainly would have received more votes. And aren’t votes the lifeblood of political parties in a democracy?

Comparative musings aside, the US midterm elections – which have inherently complex dynamics and offer a showcase for debates on an incredibly wide range of issues – make for fascinating political theatre. Far more importantly, what happens on 4 November will play a role in what happens in the US and in the world in the coming months and years. The midterms are equally worthy of your attention as American presidential elections.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a columnist for and 

State of Play: How are the US Senate mid-terms looking?

Explainer: What is happening with the US mid-term elections?

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