Results are gradually coming in from midterm elections held today (Tuesday, US time) in the United States. Up for election are the whole of the House of Representatives and a third of the Senate, as well as numerous state governors and legislatures. Republican control of the House is secure; most of the attention is on the Senate.
Currently the Democrats, including the two independents who caucus with them, hold a 55-45 majority in the Senate. But the 34 senators who are now retiring in regular rotation (there are also two by-elections, neither of them doubtful) were elected in 2008, a bumper year for the Democrats. Defending that majority is a big task: three of the nominally Democrat states (Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia) have been written off long ago, and another two – Arkansas and Louisiana – were seen to be at best outside chances.
Slightly offsetting that picture is the fact that two Republican states are also in play, namely Georgia and Kansas, although in the latter case the challenger is an independent, Greg Orman, who may or may not line up with the Democrats if he wins. So leaving those aside, the Republicans have 48 seats pretty much in the bag. For a majority they need to win three of the seven doubtfuls: Alaska, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, New Hampshire and North Carolina.
So they’re the ones to focus on. So far, New Hampshire is the only one that’s been called, and the Democrats have held on. The New York Times is projecting a narrow Democrat lead in North Carolina and a rather more convincing Republican win in Colorado, each with about 55% of precincts reporting. Georgia and Kansas are showing Republican leads, but with insufficient figures for a proper projection.
In other words, the Republicans are not quite over the line yet, but basically everything would have to come right from here for the Democrats to prevail. It doesn’t look likely, but stay tuned.
Update 2.20pm (Melbourne time)
I deliberately didn’t mention Virginia in the above, because it was regarded beforehand as safe for the Democrats – meaning that if the Republicans won there, it would be all over. In fact they’ve at least come extremely close, although both the Times and FiveThirtyEight are still projecting a narrow Democrat victory.
Readers might remember from the 2012 presidential election or last year’s state election that Virginia is very heterogeneous; early results are a particularly poor guide to the eventual outcome. But with almost all the votes now counted, this one certainly looks like a cliffhanger.
Colorado has now been called for the Republicans, and Georgia, with 87% reporting, looks pretty safe for them – the Times projects 53.3%. That means they only need one more state for a majority, and they’re leading in both Kansas and North Carolina. (The Democrats are leading in early counting in Iowa, while polls haven’t yet closed in Alaska.)
As Nate Silver said a quarter of an hour ago, “this is starting to look like a done deal for the GOP.”
If it wasn’t a done deal then, it certainly is now. Georgia and Kansas have been called as Republican wins, and they’re also leading now in both North Carolina and Iowa. That takes them to 53 seats (assuming they win Louisiana, which goes to a runoff in a month’s time), with Alaska still there for a possible 54.
Some thoughts a bit later on what it all means.
Thoughts on the significance of the new Republican Senate majority.
First, it’s a midterm, and a midterm in a president’s second term. There’s nothing exceptional about that swinging against the president’s party; on the contrary, it’s exactly what you expect. The 1998 election, when the Democrats picked up ground in Bill Clinton’s second term, is the only counter-example in living memory.
Other than their respective political skills, two possible reasons come to mind why Barack Obama couldn’t repeat Clinton’s feat:
- Specific grievances rather than general dissatisfaction are what drive negative votes. The Republican House majority is incredibly unpopular – much more so than Obama – but there isn’t the same trigger that there was in 1998, when the impeachment vote alienated mainstream America. Last year’s government shutdown has become old news.
- As the country becomes more polarised along demographic lines, the things that distinguish the typical midterm turnout – that voters are older, whiter and richer than in a general election – are becoming politically more important. So a black midwestern Democrat started with a bigger disadvantage than a white southern Democrat.
The second thing to note is that this election changes very little in terms of the actual legislative balance. As Jon Chait put it last week:
The legislative dynamics in Washington are very simple. Gridlock exists because Obama and House Republicans cannot agree on legislation. If Obama and the House could agree on legislation, their deal would be approved by a Democratic-controlled Senate or by a Republican-controlled Senate. There are no plausible circumstances in which the Senate would block a deal struck between the House and Obama, because, whichever party controls the Senate, its ideological center will sit comfortably inside the enormous space between Obama and the House Republicans.
There’s nothing much that the Republicans can do with the Senate that they couldn’t do with just the House. The Democrats still have more than enough votes to mount a filibuster, and even if they didn’t – or if Senate Republicans vote to curtail filibusters – the Republicans are way short of being able to override Obama’s veto.
Best case for the Democrats is that this victory, much like the one four years ago, will encourage the Republicans to believe that public opinion is much more sympathetic to them than it really is and therefore to overreach in advance of 2016’s presidential election. Best case for the Republicans is that their Senate leadership, which is (slightly) more moderate, will sideline the wilder House Republicans and do something to rehabilitate their image, again in advance of 2016.
Final update 10.55am Thursday
Just to wrap up the numbers: the Alaska Senate seat appears to have also gone to the Republicans (the New York Times still describes it as uncalled, but the Republican is ahead by more than 8,000 votes), giving them a definite 53, which will come up to 54 assuming they win the Louisiana runoff.
Virginia also hasn’t been called, but the Democrat lead of about 16,000 votes looks unassailable, giving them at least one bright spot.
In the House, with a few seats still undecided, the Republicans look like finishing with 250 seats, a gain of 16 from 2012. FiveThirtyEight reports a preliminary estimate of the turnout as just 36.6%, way down from 2012’s 58.2% and a big drop even on the last midterm, in 2010, when 40.9% voted.
Governors’ races were also bad for the Democrats. The Republicans appear to have increased their tally by two, to 31, picking up Arkansas, Illinois, Massachusetts and Maryland, while losing Alaska (to an independent) and Pennsylvania.