Why the United States’ midterm vote centres on Donald Trump

Republicans say base fired up for November 6th; Democrats equally sure of ‘blue wave’

US president Donald Trump arrives on stage to speak at a rally at JQH Arena in Springfield, Missouri on September 21st. Trump won Missouri in 2016 by an 18.5 per cent margin. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP

US president Donald Trump arrives on stage to speak at a rally at JQH Arena in Springfield, Missouri on September 21st. Trump won Missouri in 2016 by an 18.5 per cent margin. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP

 

It’s 5.30am on a dark midweek morning, and just off the main road into downtown St Louis, the lights are flicking on at Dave’s Diner, a local eatery. In the distance, the faint sound of the Union Pacific freight train breaks the early-morning silence. If you listen hard enough, the sound of trucks can be heard as they join nearby Route 66 and embark on their journey westwards across America.

Inside this sleepy American diner in the suburb of Kirkwood, locals are arriving for their early-morning breakfast.

Behind the traditional lunch counter, waitresses begin whipping-up eggs and waffles as customers take their seats. As they await their coffee they glance up periodically at the muted TV screen above the counter and begin to chat.

I was a Democrat all my life, and a union man for 36 years, but I voted Republican in the last election. Trump said he would change things, and he did

St Louis natives Randy and Bill, who live nearby, have come by for breakfast. They are soon joined by Dave and John for a coffee. All local residents, they have been coming here for years.

As they sit and chat, talk soon turns to politics. Above the counter, footage of Donald Trump at a previous night’s rally beams from the screen.

“I voted for Trump,” says Bill, a former brewery worker. “I was a Democrat all my life, and a union man for 36 years, but I voted Republican in the last election. Trump said he would change things, and he did.”

He says that while he doesn’t always like Trump’s rhetoric, he likes the results of his policies. Number one is the economy. “Unemployment is at its lowest ever, and the job market is strong,” he says. “He gets results.”

Bill agrees. “I am being offered jobs all the time – it wasn’t the case under Obama.”

All five are up-to-date on Trump’s trade policy. “It’s a risky business because so much of our products are exported,” says John, “but it seems to have worked”.

The men of Dave’s Diner: “Obama said he was going to be a candidate for change, but he didn’t actually achieve anything.”
The men of Dave’s Diner: “Obama said he was going to be a candidate for change, but he didn’t actually achieve anything.”

Renegotiate Nafta

He cites the recent deal to renegotiate Nafta, the free trade deal between the United States, Canada and Mexico introduced in the 1990s. “Trump said they would come running, and they did. I have to say I didn’t believe it,” he says, referring to Canada’s recent move to endorse the revised agreement which has involved a number of concessions by Canada.

Similarly, Trump’s foreign policy is popular among the group – two of whom are ex-military. Are they concerned that Trump has stepped-up engagement with North Korea without extracting any concessions? “He has stopped the threats from Kim, and I think he has played him at his own game,” he says.

Underlining the conversation is a disillusionment with the Democratic Party.

“Obama said he was going to be a candidate for change, but he didn’t actually achieve anything,” John says. All are united in their dislike for Hillary Clinton.

“They forgot about their base, people like us, and instead shoved their liberal policies down our throat. Actually Bernie Sanders was in many way a better candidate who had a lot of similar ideas to Trump. It was very unfair the way the DNC took that nomination from him. I think he might have won.”

It is people just like these that Democrats hope to win back as they seek to mount a challenge to Republican control of the House and the Senate in the midterm elections on November 6th. Millions of white working-class voters abandoned the Democratic Party and voted for Trump two years ago, a shift that helped tip the presidency in Trump’s favour as a series of swing states along the rust belt turned Republican red.

Missouri encapsulates a growing characteristic of US politics: a deepening urban-rural divide

Missouri itself is emerging as one of the key battleground states in next month’s midterm elections.

The predominantly rural state in the centre of the United States, has long been a competitive one.

Flanked by the Mississippi river to the east, where the city of St Louis developed into a major industrial centre in the 19th century, the west of the state is dominated by Kansas City, which straddles the border between Missouri and Kansas. In between are swathes of rural America, interspersed by the odd small city like the university town of Columbia and the state capital Jefferson City.

Like many parts of America the state of Missouri encapsulates a growing characteristic of US politics – a deepening urban-rural divide. The vast majority of the state votes Republican, with just two pockets of blue popping through the electoral map – St Louis and Kansas City.

St Louis itself has long been a strong Democratic stronghold, a political identity that grew around the gritty city’s long history of union membership. But in recent years the suburbs around greater St Louis county have been drifting to the right.

Trump won Missouri in 2016 by an 18.5 per cent margin – more than double Mitt Romney’s margin in 2012.

Six of the state’s eight members of Congress are Republican, with the two Democrats hailing – unsurprisingly – from St Louis and Kansas City.

Democratic senator Claire McCaskill is facing the race of her life to defend her seat against Republican challenger Josh Hawley. Photograph: Win McNamee/Getty Images
Democratic senator Claire McCaskill is facing the race of her life to defend her seat against Republican challenger Josh Hawley. Photograph: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Tight race

But Missouri has emerged as one of the closely-watched states in this year’s midterm elections due to its tight senate race.

One of the state’s two senate seats is on the ballot on November 6th. Incumbent Democratic senator Claire McCaskill is facing the race of her life to defend her seat against Republican challenger Josh Hawley.

McCaskill is one of 10 Democratic senators up for re-election in states that Trump won in 2016.

An experienced force in Missouri politics, she faced a tough contest back in 2012 when she was considered one of the Senate’s most vulnerable incumbents. But she gained a last-minute boost when the Republican nominee Todd Akin provoked national outrage in a comment about “legitimate rape”. McCaskill won easily.

Six years on she is facing a difficult battle as she tries to retain her seat in a state that is increasingly turning red.

Her opponent, Josh Hawley, is a 38-year-old Ivy League graduate who was elected state attorney general two years ago. Like many Republicans across the country, he is consciously allying himself with Trump – a trend that underlines the extent to which the president is defining the Republican Party.

With Republicans sensing an opportunity to gain a senate seat here, Trump himself campaigned alongside Hawley in Missouri last month. Similarly, Democrats have been pouring money into the state, with McCaskill raising three times more funding than Hawley.

Here in the studios of St Louis’ local Nine Network TV channel, the candidates are taking part in a televised debate. The 100 audience members, chosen from across the political divide, throw questions at the candidates and raise many of the election priorities surfacing across the country – healthcare, the growing deficit, tax cuts, and the topic of gun rights.

With Missouri boasting one of the most liberal gun laws in the country, even McCaskill supports the second amendment right to bear arms, though she favours stricter background checks.

The debate remains relatively civil – though McCaskill accuses her opponent’s campaign of having a “tortured relationship with the truth”. Hawley calls the two-term senator a “party-line liberal” who “does not represent this state anymore”.

Democratic senator Claire McCaskill supporters Molly and Jane Thal outside the live TV debate in St Louis
Molly and Jane Thal, who are Democratic senator Claire McCaskill supporters, outside the live TV debate in St Louis

Appalled

Speaking to press after the debate, however, the gloves come off, reflecting the deeply personal invective that has defined the Missouri campaign.

Hawley lambasts McCaskill’s decision not to vote for Brett Kavanaugh as supreme court justice. Like many Republicans, he believes the Kavanaugh hearings have helped to motivate the Republican base.

Speaking to The Irish Times he says: “People here are appalled at what happened at the Kavanaugh hearings, the circus atmosphere in the Senate. This was never about getting to the truth. It was always about stopping Trump from appointing his nominee.”

With the midterm elections now less than two weeks away, polls suggest the senate candidates are neck-and-neck, though privately Republican officials say that their own polling show a substantial post-Kavanaugh boost for their candidate.

As with elsewhere around the country though, the outcome rests on turnout.

In 2016 a Democrat victory seemed like such a foregone conclusion. People got complacent. This year there is a sense that we have to fight a little harder

Outside the Network Nine studios crowds have gathered to watch the debate on an outdoor screen. Most are carrying McCaskill signs. Mother and daughter Jane and Molly Thal are strongly behind McCaskill. Jane believes that Democrats are highly motivated going into this election.

“In 2016 it seemed like such a foregone conclusion. People got complacent. This year there is a sense that we have to fight a little harder.”

Across the country research is showing that women voters could determine the election outcome, particularly educated suburban women in urban centres from Dallas to Atlanta to St Louis. Trump remains more unpopular with women than men, and Republicans are worried.

For 21-year-old Molly, this will be the second time she has voted, having cast her first vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016. For her, what is at stake is America’s very identity and standing in the world.

“I spent six months living in Europe last year and every time I said I was from America everyone looked at me and said, ‘Oh, Trump’,” she said. “We are a laughing stock,” she says, her voice quieting. “I just hope people realise what is at stake and get out and vote on November 6th.”

THE MIDTERM ELECTIONS: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

What are the midterm elections?

Every two years, Americans go to the polls to vote for their representatives in Congress. Every four years the elections coincide with the presidential election; the rest of the time they occur midway through the four-year presidential term, hence the phrase “midterm” elections.

Are all representatives up for election?

No. Like the Oireachtas, the US Congress is a bicameral legislature with two chambers. The House of Representatives has 435 members. The Senate has 100 seats – two senators per state. While all 435 House seats are up for election every two years, only a third of Senate seats are. This year, 35 senators face election. This means that House members must face their electorates every two years, but senators are elected for a six-year term.

What is at stake in these elections?

Currently Republicans control all levers of power in Washington – the White House, the House of Representatives, the Senate, and increasingly the judiciary. They could potentially lose majorities in the House and the Senate which would make it much more difficult for Donald Trump to get his agenda through Congress.

What are the chances of Republicans losing power?

Traditionally the party not in control of the White House performs well in midterm elections. In particular, Democrats are hopeful of regaining control of the House, where they need a net gain of 24 seat to flip the chamber. The Senate is a more difficult challenge, however. Ten of the 35 senate seats up for election are held by Democrats in states that voted for Trump in 2016, so this could prove tricky. However, Democrats are hopeful that they could flip some traditionally Republican states, such as Texas and Tennessee.

Are there any other races on the ballot?

Yes, voters are also electing members of state legislatures, 36 state governor posts are up for election as well as various city mayors. In addition, voters in many districts will decide on state constitutional amendments and local laws.

What about Donald Trump?

Though Trump is not on the ballot, in many ways this is an election about the firebrand president who unexpectedly won the 2016 election. Trump himself has been hitting the campaign trail, holding rallies in battleground states. While Republicans believe that the controversy over Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the supreme court have fired up their base in the final weeks, Democrats are equally confident that antipathy towards President Trump will motivate their voters and spark a “blue wave” on November 6th.

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