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The polls get it right, and the problem with Pelosi: 6 thoughts on the US midterms

Given the political realities, Nancy Pelosi must simultaneously do battle and business with President Trump, writes Larry Donnelly.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

POLITICAL ANORAKS IN this part of the world are probably still recovering from what was another extremely long night of watching and processing election results from the United States.

My repeated entreaties to those who monitor American politics from afar to pay attention to the federal and state elections that take place at the halfway point of a president’s term in office were invariably ignored over the years. Not this time.

There was an extraordinary level of interest in the 2018 midterms. There is no denying that this is linked inextricably to the fact that – like him or loathe him – people are absolutely riveted by the unprecedented presidency of Donald Trump.

Now that the dust has settled, following are six thoughts on a campaign and election that was inescapably a referendum on the controversial billionaire-turned-right-wing icon.

1. The polls got it right

Unexpected outcomes in high stakes votes in the US, the UK and elsewhere have engendered a widespread scepticism as to the validity and accuracy of opinion polls has emerged.

That is at least in part why so many prominent members of the American political commentariat hedged their bets as to what the electorate’s verdict would be.

There was a two-fold narrative in the closing days: the president’s foes were mobilised, energetic and eager to send his party a message, on the one hand; on the other, his backers were outraged by what they perceived as the grossly unfair treatment of Brett Kavanaugh and fired up to go out and vote by anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Judge Kavanaugh Swearing-In Ceremony Trump shakes hands with Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court Brett Kavanaugh. Source: Ron Sachs

There was something to each storyline. Democrats flipped a lot of seats in the House of Representatives and Republicans held fast in the Senate, gaining seats in ordinarily red states. There were many close races. There were no big surprises.

That was precisely what the surveys indicated. Whether this will renew faith in polling is unknowable. But it is as important to acknowledge when polls are right as it is to decry when they are wrong.

2. Next-generation Democrats

While Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and, to a lesser extent, Ayanna Pressley of Boston have become near household names in the wake of their primary victories over long-time Democratic congressmen, they were joined by a host of other women on Tuesday.

Somali refugee Ilhan Omar will represent Minneapolis and Rashida Tlaib, the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, will represent Detroit. They are the first two Muslim women elected to the US Congress.

Election 2018 House Omar Minnesota Democrat Ilhan Omar speaks after winning in Minnesota's 5th Congressional District race. Source: Hannah Foslien

Native American Sharice Davids will serve the citizens of her district in conservative Kansas. And other progressives won races around the country.

Their candidacies and backgrounds are unusual in American politics and, to some degree, pose a direct and arguably necessary challenge to the system itself.

It will be fascinating to see if these new Democrats band together in Congress against business as usual and demand radical change or fall in line in a city that can rapidly extinguish the aspirations of even the most fervent idealist.

3. Nancy Pelosi: The heat is on

Understandably, many onlookers were rather unsure as to who the leader of the Democratic Party in Congress was during the campaign. The minority leader in the House of Representatives, and soon to be Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi was all but invisible. There’s a reason why.

And there’s a reason why numerous candidates from her party declined to say if they would support her: her approval ratings stand at a mere 28%. Republicans have very successfully caricatured the 78-year-old as an out-of-touch San Francisco left-winger.

Trump Congress House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Source: Susan Walsh

Now, she will have to pull off a tricky balancing act. Given political and other realities, she must simultaneously do battle and business with President Trump. If she overreaches on the former, she could face a backlash from the electorate.

If she does work with the president on an issue like rebuilding the country’s infrastructure, which he promised to tackle notwithstanding the hostility of ideological purists in the GOP, some of her colleagues who despise Donald Trump and don’t believe anything he says may rebel.

Accordingly, the task in front of her will test every iota of Nancy Pelosi’s mettle.

4. The right kind of Democrat (and Republican) can win… anywhere

Although the crop of Democratic newcomers has garnered considerable media attention, one of Tuesday’s most notable victors has been glossed over. As Joe Manchin of West Virginia said when his triumph was confirmed, “nobody has ever won in the state where the president of an opposing party won by 42 points”.

The conservative Democrat is pro-life, pro-2nd Amendment and supported Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the US Supreme Court. Nonetheless, he has also consistently stood up for organised labour and fought for expanded access to healthcare for the people of his state, in particular those with pre-existing conditions.

Election 2018 Senate Manchin West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin. Source: Tyler Evert

On a night where incumbent Democrats lost Senate seats in the Trump friendly states of Indiana and Missouri, this is an excellent example of what can be achieved when a party really is a big tent. Senator Manchin’s positions on abortion and gun control may be anathema to those on the left of the party, but they need to ask themselves if they would prefer a US Senator who is with them half of the time or one who is never with them?

Ironically, and contrary to what is widely believed, Republicans may be ahead of the game on this score. Indeed, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, a liberal Republican, was overwhelmingly re-elected to a second term as his state otherwise favoured Democrats by huge margins.

When there are two parties in a country of 320 million people who are diverse in every way, they should be broad and accommodating churches.

5. How will Donald Trump pivot?

One can only hope that the president’s behaviour at yesterday’s press conference is not an omen.

Calling CNN correspondent Jim Acosta a “rude, terrible person” and banning him from the White House for asking a legitimate question was objectively awful and disturbing. It leaves President Trump open to the grave charges his most ardent critics have levelled against him.

This incident, coupled with firing Jeff Sessions and replacing him temporarily with Matthew Whitaker as interim Attorney General, suggests that he is more despondent than he initially claimed about the potential fallout from the midterms and more concerned about the Mueller investigation than he lets on.

While President Trump would be well-advised to tone it down and seek to build a better working relationship with congressional Democrats, it seems unlikely that he will do either. If he doubles down on his combative tone or employs additional executive orders to bypass the legislative process, it may excite his most devout adherents.

Yet it will enrage and embolden Democrats to respond with all the weapons they now have in their arsenal as the majority party in the House.

6. We are no clearer about 2020

Among my own suppositions before this year’s midterms was that they would offer strong clues as to further possible Democratic presidential nominees in 2020.

There was no major crossover winner, however, with the ability to appeal both to the liberal coalition that constitutes his party’s base and disaffected men and women in Middle America.

Beto O’Rourke was widely hailed as a fresh face who could fit that bill. His loss to Ted Cruz in Texas, even though it was a very good showing and is not fatal to his ambition, certainly is a setback.

Election 2018 Senate O'Rourke Texas Source: Eric Gay

At the moment, then, we are left with the old guard – Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren – and a long list of others who could emerge. Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota is one of many to watch.

It is quite difficult to assess Donald Trump’s re-election chances until we have a fuller sense of the field that will line up to succeed him and their relative strengths and weaknesses. We didn’t get it this week.

As one astute observer wrote in a text to me somewhat ruefully yesterday morning: “The fun starts now…”

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.

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Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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