Shortcuts / 15 October 2020

The US Elections: The Congressional Races

The presidential race isn’t the only race being run on Nov 3. Here we take a look at the US Senate and the House of Representatives elections and what the implications these elections have for governing in the US. 

What’s happening on 3 November?

The first Tuesday in November this year isn’t just the day of the presidential election, it’s also an important day for setting the pieces on the chessboard that is the US Congress. This time around, all of the US House of Representatives is up for election, and about a third of the Senate.

Why does that sound familiar?

That’s because in this weird time warp we living in it was only yesterday – or November 2018 to be precise – that the House of Reps were last up for election. If you thought three year terms were short for our federal House of Reps members, imagine going up for election every two years… After the election in November, they will all be up for grabs again in the US mid-term elections in two years’ time.

What about the Senate?

The length of terms are a bit more generous in the Senate – they have six year terms. The reasoning for this goes back to the founding of the US Constitution. It was thought that Representatives should be ultra sensitive to his or her constituents’ latest policy preferences, whereas the longer terms of Senators allowed them be be more distant and to make decisions without thinking of re-election coming around the corner. It’s part of the checks and balances in the US system of government.

What are some other checks and balances in the US political system?

Also part of those checks and balances is the relationship between the legislative branch – that is the Congress (or what we call the Parliament), so the House of Representatives and the Senate – and the executive. The executive is the office of the President.

The idea is that legislative and executive branches are equal under the Constitution. But in practice, it really depends on the times and the personalities involved. For example, in times of war or during emergencies, like a global pandemic, the executive can see power tilt towards it. But in times of peace and growth, the Congress has had more of a run at setting the agenda.

It’s also not unusual for politics to get in the way when those in control of the Congress are of a different political persuasion to who’s in the White House. A good example of that is the Democrats have control of the House of Reps under Speaker Nancy Pelosi while the White House is occupied by the Republicans’ Donald Trump. And they clash quite a bit.

What is the Senate? 

To the numbers – the Senate is made up of 100 senators in total, two per state. 35 of those seats are up for grabs this election. As it stands the majority party are the Republicans with 53 seats, the Democrats have 45 seats and there are 2 Independents who generally align with the Democrats. The mid-term election in 2018 saw the Republicans increase their majority by 2 seats.

The Senate is considered by many to be a more prestigious body because the Constitution gives it unique powers, and is really a chamber of review. The Constitution gives the Senate the power to approve presidential nominations, including Supreme Court justices. Senators are tasked with approving treaties with foreign countries, and they can hold investigative hearings, including into the president’s conduct. So which party controls the Senate really can impact on the president’s agenda.

How has that played out during the Trump administration?

US President Donald Trump is a Republican, and the Republicans are the party with a majority in the Senate currently. And that means President Trump has been able to nominate – and get through the Senate – his people to top positions in the government, including 2 Supreme Court judges, and maybe a third if his plans to get conservative Amy Coney Barrett appointed before election day are successful.

But the most high profile example of how important it is for the President’s party to be in control in the Senate was during Trump’s impeachment. Under a majority Republican Senate, Trump wasn’t dumped as President when Senators overwhelmingly voted along party lines against the charges recommended by the House of Reps.

Is the party in power of the Senate also the party that the president is from?

Not always. President Obama had to deal with a Republican majority Senate during his second term and that saw a lot of his legislative agenda – including the ObamaCare health reforms – difficult for him to negotiate.

But when Trump was elected in 2016, it corrected, and something quite remarkable happened. For the first time since the election laws were set up in 1913, every state with a Senate race elected a senator from the same party as the presidential candidate who won the state. Which is to say that states that backed Trump, also backed the Republican candidate in the Senate. So what that means for the Senate candidates this time around is that whether they win or not, could be strongly connected to whether Trump or Biden win their state.

Talk me through the House of Reps…

When voters in the US go to vote … they vote for their pick as President, they vote for their pick of senator – if that’s scheduled for their state – and they also vote for the person who will represent their congressional district – what we know as an electorate. In the US there are 435 congressional districts across each of the 50 US states. For the District of Columbia and most of the US territories, they elect non-voting delegates. And the number of representatives per state is proportionate to the state’s population.

While the Senate has a powerful role of review in America’s system of government, the House of Representative role is closely tied to how taxation works and the government’s money is spent – which is pretty important. That’s because you can’t do a lot without funding and the House has a special role in that it’s the chamber that introduces spending bills, giving it greater sway over the nation’s purse strings.

As we touched on earlier, at the 2018 mid term election, the Democrats, led by Nancy Pelosi, won control of the House. The Democrats gained a net of 41 seats on the 2016 elections This was notable because it was the Democrats’ largest gain of House seats since the post-Watergate 1974 elections when voters gave Republicans a whack for Richard Nixon. The Democrats also won the popular vote by a margin of 8.6%, which was the largest margin on record for a party that previously held a minority in the House.

Voter turnout went up among all voting age and major racial and ethnic groups. 53% of those eligible voted in 2018, which was the highest for a midterm election in four decades. Whlie the Democrats’ strong win was seen by some as  not a good sign for Donald Trump and the Republicans, keep in mind the Senate recorded a good result for the Republicans at that same election, so the theory is Trump’s some voters wanted to put some checks on the balance of power. And that’s played out with Trump finding it harder to get his agenda up on things like funding for the border wall and stimulus spending to deal with the economic impact of the coronavirus.

What’s the latest on election predictions?

Commentators are being very cautious when it comes to interpreting the polls because they got it badly wrong last time. The Democrats need to pick up 4 Senate seats to get control of the Senate and the sense is that momentum in support and donations is going their way in some tight races.  So who knows, but it’s certainly one of the things to watch out for on election day.

But aggregates of the big polls say the Democrats are expected to hold onto control of the House of Representatives this election. And thats important because under election law, the House of Reps would decide the election winner if its close, and no presidential candidate has a majority.

Whilst we’re talking the results, interestingly, Trump has already started to flag he might not accept the results and exit the White House if he is defeated. He’s raised concerns about the integrity of the election over things like mail-in voting.

Squiz recommends:

Squiz Shortcuts – Mail-in voting

FiveThirtyEight website




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