The US mid-term elections: A beginner's guide

The Capitol building in Washington DC.
The Capitol building in Washington DC. Photo credit: Getty

If you've followed US President Donald Trump's Twitter lately, you'll notice a lot of endorsements of people you probably have never heard of and a lot of criticising of the Democratic Party.

That's because the US mid-terms are coming up on November 6, and Mr Trump's activity speaks to the importance and unpredictability of this year's elections.

What are the mid-terms?

The United States' mid-term elections are held in November every four years, two years either side of the general election, hence the name 'mid-term'.

Members of the US House of Representatives are only elected to two-year terms, so all 435 seats in the House are up for play.

As well as that, Americans will also be voting on members of the US Senate. A senator's term in office is six years, so every election (be it general or mid-term) roughly one third of the seats in the US Senate come up for grabs. This year there are 33 seats available, with two more being contested in special elections, bringing the total to 35.

Furthermore, 36 states will vote to elect a new governor on November 6.

What's the difference between House of Representatives and the Senate?

The House of Representatives and the Senate are the two houses of Congress.

There are 435 seats in the House of Representatives, with each seat belonging to an elected candidate from a specific area. For example, Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is running against Republican Anthony Pappas in the New York 14th congressional district, which covers the Bronx and Queens boroughs.

There are elections of similar zoned areas in 434 other congressional districts across the US. These representatives act as a voice for their congressional district in the Federal Government.

The US Senate has 100 seats, with two senators representing each of the 50 states across America. For example, in the state of Texas, Republican incumbent Ted Cruz will face off against Democrat Beto O'Rourke in 2018, and the winner will join Republican John Cornyn - whose six year term is up in 2020 - as the two senators from Texas.

Donald Trump.
Donald Trump. Photo credit: Reuters

What do these people do?

The US Senate is considered the upper chamber of Congress, with the House of Representatives being the lower chamber. Together, they are the representatives that comprise the legislature of the United States. They will vote to pass or reject new laws at the United States Capitol in Washington DC. New legislation cannot be enacted without a majority of consent from both chambers.

There are a couple of defining features of each chamber of Congress - for example, the House of Representatives initiates impeachment cases while the Senate will decide those cases, with a two-thirds vote required from them to forcibly remove an impeached person from office. Depending on which party holds a majority in Congress, it can make it a great deal harder or easier for a President to pass laws.

So who's got what now?

Currently, the US House of Representatives has 193 Democrats and 237 Republicans, plus five vacant seats previously held by Democrats. The Senate has 51 Republicans, 47 Democrats and two independents. This means the Republican Party holds the majority in both houses of Congress, something President Donald Trump is desperate to maintain beyond November 6.

Both of the independents caucus with the Democratic Party, so to simplify things we'll call it a 51-49 majority to the Republicans. This means that the Democrats would need to win 23 seats off Republicans to see the House of Representatives flip to a Democratic majority. In the Senate, with it already being so close Democrats would only need to win two seats off Republicans to gain a majority.

Why is it so important?

It's important because the outcome of the elections on November 6 will have significant effect on the second half of Donald Trump's first term in the White House. With a Republican majority in the Senate and House, as well as a Republican in the White House it's been fairly plain sailing so far as approving new legislation for the Trump administration.

However, if the Democrats can win a majority in either, or both, of the chambers of Congress they'll be able to drastically affect Mr Trump's ability by blocking new legislation when it's passed through Congress. For example, had there been a Democratic majority in the Senate during Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court confirmation hearing, there's a strong chance his nomination would have been blocked.

Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez.
Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. Photo credit: File

Where do things stand currently?

According to race ratings by the Cook Political Report, published in the New York Times, there are currently 30 House races which are classed as 'pure toss-up', meaning either candidate is just as likely as the other to win.

It predicts that there are 183 solid Democratic seats, and 142 solid Republican seats. It classes a further 27 seats as "likely" Republican, and 11 as "likely" Democratic. Should those come through, that would leave things at 194 Democratic and 169 Republican with 218 seats needed for a majority.

The remaining 72 seats are classed as 'most competitive', with 15 leaning Democratic and 27 leaning Republican, and the final 30 deemed 'pure toss-up' as mentioned earlier.

Though the Senate is currently much closer than the House of Representatives, the feeling is that the Democratic Party has a better chance of flipping the House than the Senate. That's in part due to the fact that 42 of the 51 Republican seats are not up for re-election in 2018. So, there are 26 Democratic seats up for re-election, but only nine Republican seats in the Senate. It means the margins are much smaller for the Democrats.

The Cook Political Report predicts that of the seats up for grabs, four are "solid Republican" and 14 are "solid Democratic", and four more as "likely Democratic". Should those come through, the Senate would sit at 46-41 with the Republicans holding the majority, and 13 seats up for grabs. The report suggests these 13 seats are "highly competitive", with eight being toss-ups.

Given eight of the 13 "highly competitive" seats are currently Democratic, they'll have an uphill battle holding on to those seats and then flipping the further three Republican held seats they'd need to see a flip in the Senate.

When will all of this be resolved?

All of this will take place on November 6 in the United States, with polling closing at around 8pm in most areas. That means results will be coming in through the afternoon on November 7 in New Zealand.


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