Countdown to US mid-terms

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Next week’s Congressional elections in America could prove to be a turning point in the presidency of George W Bush.

Tony Grew looks back at months of nasty campaigning, advises which seats will change hands, and considers what a Democratic capture of the House and Senate could mean for the President’s last two years.

From a European perspective, it seems Americans are always having elections. They elect Sheriffs, Mayors, District Attorneys, Governors, Lieutenant Governors, State Assemblymen, and Fire Chiefs.

The country is engaged in constant electioneering, a never-ending round of fundraisers, town meetings and personal appearances. The ‘primary’ system of picking party candidates at federal, state and local level means that even though there are elections every two years, they all just seem to merge into one long process.

Even Senators, who serve six-year terms, constantly have their eye on the next election, squirreling away campaign funds and pocketing money from special interest groups.

Next Tuesday is Election Day. The entire House of Representatives is re-elected every two years. A third of states will be electing one of their two Senators.

There will also be elections for governors and other state-level offices and referendums in some cities and states.

There are 435 House seats being contested on 7th November, and the Democrats are confident they can take at least 15 from the Republicans and seize control of the lower house for the first time in ten years.

That will effectively cripple the last two years of Bush’s presidency, as the Democrats will want to expend all their efforts choosing and supporting their candidate for President in 2008.

That election is wide open, with no obvious Republican successor to Bush and the sitting president constitutionally barred from running a third time.

The Democrats have Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, both strong candidates, already pulling in tens of millions of dollars in campaign contributions.

If the Democrats manage to take the Senate as well, Bush will lose any control over the legislative process. The Dems need to unseat six Republican senators to achieve that, which is unlikely. But not unheard of. These are the first national elections since Bush was returned of office in 2004.

It is clear Americans have wearied of the war in Iraq, the Abu Ghraib-like scandals, and the President’s foreign policy failures. Many were very shocked and distressed at the White House’s mishandling of the Hurricane Katrina aftermath. The images of American citizens trapped in a major city, with the federal government seemingly unprepared, did the President as much damage as a hundred car bombs in Baghdad.

Americans are jittery about rising petrol prices, a slowing economy and increasing poverty. Instead of making citizens feel secure, the President’s heavy-handed security measures have left his countrymen anxious, worried and on a constant state of alert.

Bush’s opinion poll ratings bump around the lower 30s, and if disaffected voters do decide to make the effort and vote, the Democrats could end up running the whole show.

These elections, called midterms as they fall two years into a Presidential term, are effectively a referendum on the governing party. In this case the Republicans are in control of both legislative branches and the Executive. It is a vote for, or against, the current administration, similar to a by-election in the UK but with a much greater political impact.

Dirty campaigning is mainstay of American political life, and these midterms have seen some shining examples of spin, manipulation and smear. The email and instant messenger pederasty of Florida Representative Mark Foley added some much needed dirt during the campaign.

His sexual exploits with teenage Congressional pages truly shocked many Americans. A Democrat explained to me that the Foley scandal has helped his party, because many conservative Americans will be disgusted enough, not to vote Democrat, but just stay at home.

This stay-at-home vote will prove pivotal across all the Senate and House elections. Probably the subtlest dirty trick of the campaign has come from Fox News. The rabidly pro-Bush cable news station, dubbed White House West, has been flagrantly captioning Foley as a Democrat across its bulletins.

To deflect from the pages scandal, the overwhelmingly right-wing American press have concentrated their fire on Democrat Nancy Pelosi. She is almost certain to become Speaker of the House if the Dems win the 15 seats necessary.

That would make her the third in line to the Presidency, which given the state of Dick Cheney’s heart could be worth a small wager. Pelosi would be the first woman to become Speaker of the House. The 49-year-old Italian-American represents San Francisco in Congress, and the Republicans have consistently tried to portray her as an ultra-liberal.

Opponents have accused her of supporting paedophilia, as she attended a gay rights march where the notorious North American Man Boy Love Association also had a small presence. The fact that she has publicly repudiated NAMBLA went unnoticed in the frenzy.

In fact, trying to paint a female Democrat as a danger to teenage boys does not appear the wisest tactic when it is now clear that the entire Republican hierarchy covered up Foley’s inappropriate behaviour towards teenage male pages. Democratic female hopefuls across America have used the Foley incident to subtly portray themselves as a safer alternative.

The Republicans, normally the masters of spin, have been knocked off their axis. The campaign ads that Michael J Fox made supporting Missouri’s Democrat Senate candidate Claire McCaskill’s stance on the use of stem cells highlighted a growing division in America over the future of medical research.

In the past, stem cells would have been a lightning rod issue for god-fearing Americans. It seems that the Republican Party’s ability to galvanise and energise the religious majority is waning.

The subsequent right-wing attack by shock jock Rush Limbaugh stated that Fox was lying or ‘acting’ his Parkinson’s disease symptoms. This was clumsy and clearly a lie, but it also showed how rattled the once-mighty Republicans have become.

The Florida Senate race is indicative of the changed fortunes of the Republicans (or Grand Old Party, as they are known). In 2000, Katharine Harris became infamous as the Florida Secretary of State who handed the state’s electoral college votes to George W Bush.

She won a House seat on the back of that infamy in 2002. A few years ago her challenge to incumbent Democratic Senator Bob Graham would have seemed savvy.

Yet in 2006, with Iraq in flames and the Florida economy suffering, she is certain to lose the Senate race, and Florida, a state with a Republican governor, will be sending a Democrat to Congress. There is a chance that Mark Foley’s seat will fall to the Dems too.

The Montana Senate race could see another defeat for the GOP, with polls indicating a win for Democrat challenger Jon Tester. This would be a blow to the ‘honest cowboy’ posturing of Bush, as Montana is one of the ‘red’ states (Republican) that ushered him into the White House.

Other Senate seats likely to fall to the Democrats are New Jersey and Virginia.

In Tennessee, a little bit of history may be made on Tuesday, as Harold Ford Jr is expected to take retiring Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s Republican seat.

Ford will be the first African-American Senator from the Southern States since the Civil War. Recent racist TV commercials from his opponents, which appeal to a fear of , actually worked in his favour and are yet another example of serious miscalculation by GOP spin-doctors.

There are high hopes that Claire McAskill will take the Missouri senate seat from the dubiously named Jim Talent. Missouri is a bellwether state, meaning that it almost exactly mirrors the demographic, economic and political makeup of the nation. It has voted for the winning president in every election in a century, with the exception of 1956.

If McCaskill can win in Missouri, and on issues like stem cell research, then there is hope that Democrats can take back the White House in 2008.

There are around 30 marginal seats in the House that are expected to change hands. The results will not be clear until about midnight Washington time. By Wednesday morning we should know the new political map, hopefully a lot more blue than red.

36 state governors are up for election on the 7th November. In modern times, the governor’s mansion has proven to be the safest launch pad for the White House.

Bush Jr, Clinton, Reagan and Carter all ran for President from the governor’s office and won. Republicans will be looking to some of these state leaders to run in 2008.

Arnold Schwarzenegger is certain to be re-elected as governor of “Kahlifurniah”, as the state is now called.

California is traditionally a Democratic stronghold, so the Big Austrian’s ability to reach out to voters is a quality the Republicans desperately need on the national stage.

Unfortunately the US Constitution reserves the office of President and Vice President for American-born citizens only. Arnie will not be breaking out of the Golden State and taking over the world.

Over on the East Coast, New York state looks set to elect its first Democratic governor in 12 years. State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer expected to beat his Republican challenger, and is already being talked about in Presidential terms.

Meanwhile, the future looks grim for the present occupant of the Oval Office. A Democratic Congress will lose no time in launching inquiry after inquiry into the conduct of the war in Iraq.

Legislators are relishing a very public washing of dirty linen, designed to ruin any chances of another Republican in the White House.

There is even talk of impeaching President Bush, though likely Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has stated publicly she would prefer a lame-duck President to another impeachment.

Next Tuesday, we should start to see the end of the cold ideological war that America has been engaged in for the last five years. Democrat control of one or both Houses in Congress means that finally the Bush administration will be questioned and held to account.

It should make for an exciting backdrop to the next federal elections, including a brand new President, in 2008.