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

With polls opening today, it’s all to play for. Here’s what to look for.
Nov 4th 2014, 7:30 AM 22,074 49

AMERICA, OR AT LEAST a large chunk of it, goes to the polls today.

If it only feels like the US held elections yesterday, that’s because they did. Well, two years ago. That is because every two years is an election year in America.

This year will be the “mid-term” election, coming right in the middle of Barack Obama’s second term as US President.

The mid-term is generally seen as a referendum on the performance of the sitting president and Obama will be keen to avoid a repeat of his first mid-term, when the Democratic Party lost 63 seats in the 438-seat House of Representatives and six in the 100-seat Senate.

The House shellacking cost the Democrats control and allowed the Republicans stifle much of the President’s legislative agenda.

That bleeding was stemmed somewhat in 2012, as the Democrats made gains in the House (nine seats) and the Senate (two) and absolutely romped the big one, with Obama seeing off Mitt Romney.

Since 2012, however, the Obama administration has not had it easy. Controversies over healthcare, Veterans’ Affairs and a protracted government shutdown have seen Obama’s approval ratings slide from 58% to 41% since his re-election.

All of this means that today is shaping up to be a hugely important moment for the Obama administration. A strong showing in the House could see the Democats take back control of the lower chamber and should they stave off the GOP in the Senate, Obama would have a clear path to achieving much in his last two years.

Should the reverse happen, an obstructionist Republican House would effectively stymie Obama’s plans for comprehensive immigration reform, a raise of the federal minimum wage and education.

So, what are we looking out for?

The System

Debt Supercommittee Source: Pablo Martinez Monsivais

First things first: the system.

The US, like Ireland, has a bicameral system, with the House acting in a similar way to the Dáil and the Senate, unsurprisingly like the Seanad.  Together, they form Congress and sit the US Capitol Building in Washington DC.

Unlike the Seanad however, the Senate is a fully democratically elected body. While the 438 House seats are voted for every two years, the Senate is a little more complicated.

The senators are split into three classes, I, II and III.

This year, Class II will be up for election. Those senators were elected in 2008 and will be voted on again in 2020. In 2016, Class III will be up and in 2018, it’s Class I.

The classes are split into groups of 33, 33 and 34 and each sits for a six-year term.

Source: UK Parliament/YouTube

The Senate is there to scrutinise laws introduced by the House and President and acts in a similar way to our own.  Its president is the Vice President of the United States, Joe Biden.

Each state has two senators, regardless of population. The logic is that the senate should represent the sovereign interests of the states and the House should represent the people. That means that the House allocates seats based on population.

So, for example, the state of California has 53 electoral districts and 53 electoral seats, but Alaska only has one.

In an ideal world, a US President would have control of both houses of Congress, but this is rare.

Elections will also be held in 36 of the 50 state governorships. A governor is essentially the chief executive of a state.

The State of Play

Biden W.Va. Democrats Source: AP/Press Association Images

Right now, the Democrats hold the Senate by four (or six if you count the two Democrat-leaning independents) and the Republicans hold the House by 35 seats.

Realistically speaking, the Democrats don’t have a way back to a 219-seat majority.

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Because of effective gerrymandering, the parties have managed to redraw electoral districts in ways that suit them, guaranteeing a certain number of seats.

Most polling has 175 Democratic and 210 Republican seats firmly in the safe category.

A further 14 and 19 seats “lean” to a particular party, indicating a lead, but not an insurmountable one.

That leaves 17 seats up for grabs and three vacant.

For the Democrats to take back control of the House, they need a clean sweep of the in-play states and to take a few high-profile scalps in the states that are leaning red. The historical signals say that Presidents rarely gain seats in the sixth year of their terms and many of the districts were won by Mitt Romney in 2012.

The Democrats will also have it tough in the Senate. They have to defend 21 of the 36 seats up for grabs this year and seven of their seats being contested are in states carried by Romney in 2012.

CNN polling says that 12 Democratic seats are at risk.

Vulnerable Democrats are up in Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina and possibly New Hampshire and Virginia.

Democrats also have potentially vulnerable seats in Iowa and Michigan and Republicans have an edge in West Virginia.

The only vulnerable incumbent for the GOP, however, is Senate minority leader -the equivalent of the opposition leader- Mitch McConnell.

Given his spiky relationship with Obama, the President would surely relish the prospect of his losing his seat.

This article was first published on 7 July. 

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