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US midterm elections 2018

The US midterm elections will not only shake up Trump’s backyard but also have implications for Asia

  • John Kotch says the outcome of the elections will determine whether Trump’s ‘America first’ foreign policy and trade war will continue unabated
PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 November, 2018, 2:01am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 November, 2018, 2:00am

On November 6, Americans will vote for a new Congress – all 435 members of the House of Representatives and roughly one-third or 35 senators. In addition, 36 governorships and most state legislatures will be up for grabs under the two-tier US federal/state political system. Overshadowing all these races will be US President Donald Trump, albeit in name only – he’s not even on the ballot.

In reality, midterm elections derive their importance as the first opportunity for the electorate to pass judgment on the president elected two years ago as well as act as a bridge between the preceding and upcoming presidential election two years hence in 2020. Like a midterm exam to measure how well students are absorbing course material, they measure voter satisfaction with the incumbent, a referendum of sorts on his performance to date.

However, having failed to predict a Trump upset in 2016, few if any commentators are prognosticating this time around, other than to note that Democrats are more likely than not to take control of the House while the Senate is more likely to remain in Republican hands. This is typical of the midterms, in which the president’s party loses seats in the House, especially when his poll numbers are as low as they are now, albeit in line with recent presidents, including Barack Obama in 2014 and George W. Bush in 2006.

The big question in 2018 is whether Democrats can wrest control of the House from Republicans in a so-called blue wave, aiming for a double-digit margin to overcome a current 23-seat deficit. Polling to date gives them a better-than-even chance of doing so.

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If successful, investigations and oversight on governmental malfeasance will follow, not least regarding the Russian role and possible interference in the outcome of the 2016 election and potentially setting the stage for an impeachment trial in the Senate. However, such efforts would be doomed if Republicans retain control of the Senate where only nine Republicans are up for re-election versus 26 Democrats. In addition, control of the Senate also preserves presidential prerogatives on the confirmation of political appointees such as cabinet members as well as treaties for which a two-thirds majority is necessary for passage.

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With only days before the vote, the president has been criss-crossing the country in a last-minute pre-election blitz against the background of an unprecedented climate of fear and violence, topped off by a recent pipe bomb attempts on the life of major Democratic political figures, including two former presidents, together with a horrific synagogue massacre sending shock waves through the body politic.

While bread and butter issues like the economy, taxes, and health care have been shunted to the side, Trump has been rallying his base, focusing on the threat of illegal immigration as a caravan of would-be migrants fleeing Central American violence makes its way northward. Trump is also trumpeting his economic accomplishments of record growth and unemployment to white suburban voters.

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If the past is any guide, the electoral outcome will be factored into the political calculus the morning after (November 7), acting as the opening gun in the race for president in 2020. In this regard, the midterm is especially important in shaping the political landscape in swing states or battleground states where the presidential election in 2020 is likely to be decided. In short, the election of Democratic candidates for governors and senators in the key swing states of Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan will have an outsize impact in terms of resources and organisation on the prospects for the party’s presidential candidate in the above states in 2020.

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Finally, the polarising nature of the Trump presidency, which has resulted in deep divisions domestically, also resonates internationally, forcing allies and adversaries alike to rethink long-held geopolitical assumptions given the administration’s “America first” foreign policy agenda. Paradoxically, although American elections, except in times of war, are usually decided on domestic issues, such as the economy, the long-term impact is often felt in the international sphere.

The “America first” mantra envisages an international community in which competition trumps cooperation, where American primacy based on unprecedented economic, military and political strength is a given and the US pursues its interests unilaterally. However, to continue on the path of a robust “America first” foreign policy agenda and a tough line on trade and sanctions, Republican performance will have to exceed expectations.

Whether Americans and the world at large are in the midst of a passing storm or face a political tsunami propelled by the forces of populism globally, heralding a fundamental shift in the international system and America’s place in it, will become clearer on election night.

The first major test in Asia-Pacific will come at the much anticipated Xi-Trump meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Buenos Aires later this month where, depending on the electoral outcome, an emboldened or a chastened Trump will confront Chinese President Xi Jinping on trade policy and tariffs.

A second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, if it takes place as tentatively planned, would also be a bellwether event, with the potential to move denuclearisation forward from its current holding pattern.

In both, momentum is key. The midterms will determine whether it rests with Trump going forward or shifts to his opposite number.

John Kotch was a staff member of the Jimmy Carter presidential campaign