Skip to main content

U.S. Politics 2018 U.S. midterm election: What could happen, what’s at stake and why do they matter? A guide

A view from the U.S. Senate side shows the U.S. Capital Dome in Washington. The U.S. vote for members of Congress and the Senate on Nov. 6, 2018.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

For live updates on the U.S. midterm elections, go to our live file here.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s name may not be on the ballot when voters go to the polls on Tuesday. But the Nov. 6 midterm elections will certainly be a referendum on Mr. Trump’s unconventional first two years in office.

Whether voters opt to keep a Republican majority friendly to Mr. Trump’s agenda, or elect a Democratic resistance, will define the remainder of Mr. Trump’s term and shape the next presidential election. “Midterms are always a referendum on the administration,” said University of California at San Diego political scientist Gary Jacobson. “And this is going to be the mother of all referendums.” This election features “partisan polarization [and] tribalism the likes of which we haven’t seen in 150 years,” said David Barker, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University.

Story continues below advertisement

As election day nears, voters on each side are mobilized, record sums are being raised and spent on TV ads and a surge of female candidates is reshaping the political landscape. Here’s what you need to know about the midterm elections – and what they will mean for the future of U.S. politics.


What are the midterms?

The midterms are national elections for U.S. Congress that come midway through a president’s four-year term. All 435 members of the House of Representatives are up for election, as are a third of the 100 Senate seats. There are also elections for governor in 36 states.

Why do they matter?

Congress has unique powers to either advance or stonewall Mr. Trump’s agenda.

Republicans now control both the House of Representatives and the Senate, along with the White House. If the party is able to remain in power, expect renewed efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and to authorize the funding for Mr. Trump’s proposed US$25-billion wall along the Mexican border. A big enough Republican win might also embolden Mr. Trump to fire deputy Attorney-General Rod Rosenstein and end the Justice Department’s investigation into potential collusion by the Trump campaign with Russia, Dr. Barker said.

Expect to see a Democratic-controlled congress launch investigations into Mr. Trump’s personal finances and business affairs, including possibly subpoenaing members of his administration and demanding the president’s tax returns. If they win enough seats, the Democrats may even push to impeach the president, Dr. Barker said.

Democrats are also likely to try to block Mr. Trump’s agenda, such as his border wall. They could even reject a vote on the proposed United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement if they wanted to deny Mr. Trump one of his signature “America First” policy achievements. If they gain control of the Senate they could block Mr. Trump’s appointments to the Supreme Court.

Where do things stand now?

Republicans hold 235 seats in the House, the Democrats have 193. There are seven vacant seats, five previously held by Republicans and two by Democrats. Republicans hold a slim two-seat majority in the Senate.

Story continues below advertisement

Current House breakdown

Current House breakdown

Democratic

Democratic

Democratic

Democratic

Republican

Republican

Republican

Republican

Vacant

Vacant

Vacant

Vacant

MATT LUNDY, THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: HOUSE.GOV

MATT LUNDY, THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: HOUSE.GOV

Current House of Representatives breakdown

Current House of Representatives breakdown

Democratic

Democratic

Democratic

Democratic

Republican

Republican

Republican

Republican

Vacant

Vacant

Vacant

Vacant

MATT LUNDY, THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: HOUSE.GOV

MATT LUNDY, THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: HOUSE.GOV

Current House of Representatives breakdown

Current House of Representatives breakdown

Democratic

Democratic

Republican

Republican

Vacant

Vacant

MATT LUNDY, THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: HOUSE.GOV

MATT LUNDY, THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: HOUSE.GOV

What will happen – blue wave or a red tide?

Democrats poised to take the House

Democrats have the upper hand in this year’s House elections. But there are a number of races that remain fiercely competitive. Democrats need to gain at least 23 additional seats to retake control of the House. Analysts point to the 25 Republican-held districts that supported Hillary Clinton for president in 2016 as being the most vulnerable this year.

Republican districts

that voted Clinton

The Democrats must flip 23 seats to retake the

House of Representatives. In 25 Republican-held

districts, a majority voted for Hillary Clinton in

the 2016 presidential election.

Seattle

WA-08

Minneapolis

NY-24

MN-03

Syracuse

IL-06

San Francisco

New

York

Kansas

City

Denver

PA-05

CA-10

Chicago

CA-21

CO-06

Phila.

KS-03

D.C.

AZ-02

Atlanta

TX-23

Tucson

Tampa

Miami

Note: Pennsylvania has

new court-mandated

districts that went into

effect in May, 2018.

FL-27

San

Antonio

FL-26

CALIFORNIA DETAIL

CA-21

(partial)

CALIF.

CA-25

Los

Angeles

CA-39

CA-45

CA-49

CA-48

TEXAS DETAIL

Dallas

TX-32

TEX.

Houston

TX-07

NORTHEAST DETAIL

NJ-07

PA-06

PA-07

PA-01

VA-10

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAil

SOURCE: census.gov; 270towin.com; qgis

Republican districts that voted Clinton

The Democrats must flip 23 seats to retake the House of

Representatives. In 25 Republican-held districts, a majority

voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.

Seattle

WA-08

Minneapolis

NY-24

MN-03

Syracuse

New

York

IL-06

San Francisco

Kansas

City

Denver

PA-05

Chicago

CA-10

CA-21

Phila.

CO-06

KS-03

Atlanta

Phoenix

D.C.

AZ-02

Tucson

TX-23

Tampa

San

Antonio

Note: Pennsylvania has

new court-mandated

districts that went into

effect in May, 2018.

Miami

FL-27

FL-26

CALIFORNIA DETAIL

CA-21

(partial)

CALIF.

CA-25

Los

Angeles

CA-39

CA-45

CA-49

CA-48

TEXAS DETAIL

Dallas

TX-32

TEX.

Houston

TX-07

NORTHEAST DETAIL

NJ-07

PA-06

PA-07

PA-01

VA-10

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAil

SOURCE: census.gov; 270towin.com; qgis

Republican districts that voted Clinton

The Democrats must flip 23 seats to retake the House of Representatives. In 25 Republi-

can-held districts, a majority voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.

Seattle

WA-08

MINN.

NY-24

MN-03

Syracuse

Minneapolis

CALIF.

New

York

IL-06

San Francisco

Chicago

PA-05

Denver

CA-10

Kansas City

CO-06

St. Louis

Phila.

VA.

CA-21

COLO.

KAN.

KS-03

Phoenix

Wash., D.C.

TEX.

Atlanta

AZ-02

Tucson

TX-23

FLA.

Tampa

San

Antonio

Note: Pennsylvania has new

court-mandated districts that

went into effect in May, 2018.

Miami

FL-27

FL-26

CALIFORNIA DETAIL

TEXAS DETAIL

NORTHEAST DETAIL

NJ-07

CA-21

(partial)

Dallas

CALIF.

PA-06

TX-32

CA-25

TEX.

PA-07

Los

Angeles

CA-39

PA-01

Houston

CA-45

TX-07

CA-49

VA-10

CA-48

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAil, SOURCE: census.gov; 270towin.com; qgis

The Democrats also have a historical advantage, since the party whose president is in the White House typically loses seats during midterm elections. But as U.S. politics has become more partisan, it has made it harder for parties to flip seats. Dr. Barker cautions that the Democrats don’t appear poised for a massive sweep of the House: He estimates they’ll win in the range of about 30 seats, enough for a modest majority.

Republicans are likely to remain in control of the Senate

Republicans may be poised to actually add to their majority in the Senate. Part of that comes down to math. The majority of Senate seats up for election – 26 of the 33 – are held by Democrats. Ten of those seats are in states that voted for Mr. Trump in 2016, while Republicans are defending just one seat – Nevada – that Ms. Clinton carried.

What’s different this time?

Money: This is shaping up to be a record year for spending during a midterm election, with candidates raising more than US$2-billion, a majority of it by Democrats.

Story continues below advertisement

But fundraising by candidates has been dwarfed this year by money from outside organizations known as political action committees (PACs), particularly among “dark money” groups that aren’t required to publicly disclose their donors.

PACs are on track to double what they raised in the 2014 midterms. While there are limits on campaign contributions to candidates, PACs can raise and spend an unlimited amount on outside political activities, such as advertising. That matters, because analysts have found that dark money groups tend to be more ideologically motivated and back more extreme candidates than traditional donors, helping to polarize Congress even further.

Advertising: As political donations have poured in, spending on advertising has soared this year. Political advertisers have spent more than US$1-billion so far during this election cycle according to an analysis by the Wesleyan Media Project. Voters have been inundated with more than 3.6-million campaign ads – up 60 per cent from the previous midterms. That’s roughly one ad every 16 seconds, with Democratic candidates airing twice as many as their Republican counterparts.

Most ads feature bread-and-butter issues, like health care for Democrats, and taxes for Republicans. But Mr. Trump also features far more heavily in ads this year than other presidents did in previous midterms."It speaks to the polarizing nature of Donald Trump," said Michael Franz, a political scientist at Bowdoin College and co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project. “You either love him or you hate him, and as a result he’s a foil or he’s a friend that gets featured a lot in these ads.”

Voter enthusiasm: The most visible sign that these will not be ordinary midterm elections is that voters appear to be unusually fired up. More than half of voters told the Pew Research Center that they are more enthusiastic about casting ballots this year than in the past, the largest share in more than 20 years.

Turnout also rose sharply for primary elections – soaring nearly 90 per cent for Democratic candidates.

Story continues below advertisement

The reason? Mr. Trump. Compared to previous midterms, a far larger share of voters say they will be choosing their candidates in order to send a message to the President.

The midterms have steadily become nationalized, with presidents mattering more and individual candidates and local issues mattering less to voters over the years. Even so, Mr. Trump is a much bigger factor for each party – driving angry Democrats and enthusiastic Republicans to the polls – than former president Barack Obama ever was.

Women: This election has inspired a record number of women to enter the race: 257 female candidates for the House and Senate – a dramatic increase from two years ago.

The vast majority are running as Democrats. Many have been galvanized by Ms. Clinton’s loss in 2016, fears that a Republican-controlled government will roll back progressive policies passed under Mr. Obama, and anger at Mr. Trump, who they consider a misogynist. “All of those things have created conditions that are perhaps particularly conducive to women saying this is a moment where we need to stand up and speak out, run for office and support other women,” said Kelly Dittmar of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

Female voters will also likely be key to these elections. Polls have pointed to a growing gender gap among Trump supporters, with a significant number of Republican women having cooled on their President since he took office. That matters because women tend to vote in higher numbers than men. “The sheer numbers account for why they can be such an essential voting group to any party or candidate, because they’re going to turn out,” Dr. Dittmar said.

The battle over Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court despite allegations of sexual misconduct has only inflamed the gender divide – and pumped up enthusiasm for both parties.

Presidential approval rating vs. economy: Normally the party whose president is in the White House gets a boost from good economic conditions – and right now the U.S. economy is booming. But Mr. Trump’s personal unpopularity might outweigh voters’ concerns about jobs and economic growth this year.

“If Republicans can’t control the Congress having the best economy we’ve had in 15 or 20 years because Trump is so unpopular, that’s going to be an especially strong sign,” Dr. Jacobson said.

At 39 per cent, Mr. Trump has the lowest average approval rating for a first-term president since the 1930s. Just 40 per cent of voters approved of his job performance as of Nov. 4, according to Gallup. Presidents whose approval ratings are below 50 per cent lost an average of 37 House seats in congressional elections, a Gallup analysis found – enough to cost Republicans their majority.

Midterm results vs. presidential approval

Since 1950, the incumbent president’s party has

lost seats in all but two midterm elections.

Typically, a higher approval rating coincides with

better results. (Numbers below refer to election

years.)

Republican

Democratic

98

65

02

86

62

Presidential approval rating (%)

54

60

58

70

90

55

74

50

94

78

Trump’s

rating: 42%

10

45

66

82

50

40

14

06

−60

−50

−40

−30

−20

−10

0

10

Change in House seats for

president's party

Note: Gallup approval ratings as of Labor Day.

MATT LUNDY, THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: SETH MASKET

Midterm results vs. presidential approval

Since 1950, the incumbent president’s party has lost seats

in all but two midterm elections. Typically, a higher

approval rating coincides with better results. (Numbers

below refer to election years.)

Republican

Democratic

98

65

86

02

Presidential approval rating (%)

62

54

60

58

70

90

55

74

50

94

78

Trump’s

rating: 42%

10

45

66

82

50

40

14

06

−60

−50

−40

−30

−20

−10

0

10

Change in House seats for president's party

Note: Gallup approval ratings as of Labor Day.

MATT LUNDY, THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: SETH MASKET

Midterm results vs. presidential approval

Since 1950, the incumbent president’s party has lost seats in all but two midterm elections.

Typically, a higher approval rating coincides with better results. (Numbers below refer to

election years.)

Republican

Democratic

98

65

86

02

62

54

60

Presidential approval rating (%)

70

58

90

55

74

50

78

94

Trump’s

rating:

42%

10

45

66

82

50

40

14

06

−60

−50

−40

−30

−20

−10

0

10

Change in House seats for president's party

Note: Gallup approval ratings as of Labor Day.

MATT LUNDY, THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: SETH MASKET

Yet Mr. Trump’s low approval ratings may not be as much of a problem for the Republicans as they seem. “In years past, when incumbent presidents were unpopular, it was often because members of their own party felt lukewarm toward them, in addition to voters from the opposite party opposing them,” Dr. Barker said. That’s not the case for Mr. Trump, who is reviled by Democrats and a majority of independents, but still wildly popular among Republicans.

Turnout: With the U.S. public so deeply divided on Mr. Trump, the parties will have to rely even more on mobilizing their loyal voters than in previous elections. Here, Republicans have the advantage since the voters who turn out for midterm elections are typically older, whiter and more Republican than voters in presidential elections.

The Democratic base may be particularly energized this year, but the party will have to buck historical trends and encourage more non-white voters to head to the polls if it wants to win.

African-American voters, who skew heavily Democratic, appear set to turn out in higher numbers this year. In September, 66 per cent of African-American voters told a Gallup poll they definitely planned to vote in November, compared to 65 per cent of white voters. Those kind of numbers helped sweep Mr. Obama into office.

Why state races matter

Just as the party that controls the White House tends to lose congressional seats in midterm elections, they also tend to lose state governorships. Right now Republicans control 26 of the 39 states that are holding elections in November. Republicans are fighting to retain control of the governorship in at least 12 of those states. Democrats appear headed for victory in Illinois, Michigan and New Mexico, while races in Florida and Georgia are incredibly close.

State races matter to federal politics, since state legislatures are responsible for redrawing their congressional district boundaries every 10 years based on updated census data. Parties who control state governments tend to redraw the boundaries in their favour – meaning those who win this year can draw the congressional map through 2030.

More Democratic-controlled states will also mean more states launching court challenges to delay or block Trump administration policies, and likely more states enacting sanctuary state policies that restrict how local police forces co-operate with federal immigration officials.

What will it mean for the 2020 presidential election?

For Republicans, the midterms will be a sign of just how willing voters are to embrace Mr. Trump’s authoritarian style, scandals and “America First” policies. “If Democrats don’t take Congress, the message will be that the Republican Party is now unalterably Trump’s Party,” Dr. Jacobson said.

The Democrats’ performance in the midterms will help determine whether the party wants to nominate a presidential candidate that can re-engage the broad-based coalition of voters who swept Mr. Obama into office or focus on engaging younger, more diverse voters by moving further to the left.

However, while winning the house will allow the Democrats a chance to undermine Mr. Trump, it will also make it more likely that the party goes overboard in trying to resist the president, inspiring a voter backlash that helps re-elect Mr. Trump in 2020.

“The worst thing that could happen to the Democratic Party would be for them to get the blue tsunami they have been dreaming about,” Dr. Barker said. “If the Dems want to avoid Trump getting re-elected in 2020, they should hope they don’t win ‘too big’ in 2018.”

More reading

The Globe and Mail’s reports from the campaign trail

Meet the swing voters: In the U.S. midterms, women are a potent force

Rashida Tlaib, a trailblazing Muslim woman, is the new face of the civil rights movement in Detroit

Tariffs take a toll in the U.S. industrial heartland, but business owners, farmers give Trump a pass – for now

In a New Jersey midterms race, a female Navy veteran leads the Democrats' strike on GOP territory

In D.C. suburbs, Republicans elevate Trump-like candidates despite diminishing chance of winning

Reconsidering allegiances: Former staunch Republican Finn Wentworth on denouncing what his old party has become

America’s new left: How grassroots socialism is mobilizing for the midterms

Analysis and commentary

Sarah Kendzior: The resistance to Donald Trump is not what you think

David Shribman: As U.S. gallops toward midterm elections unlike any other, one factor prevails: turnout

Editorial: The only crisis in America today is the hateful demagoguery of Donald Trump

John Ibbitson: The Democratic demographic advantage is real and growing

Lawrence Martin: Seven takeaways from a tumultuous midterm campaign

Niall Ferguson: A blue wave in midterms might not spell disaster for Trump

Douglas Frantz: Is Trump driving the U.S. toward the brink of fascism?

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • All comments will be reviewed by one or more moderators before being posted to the site. This should only take a few moments.
  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed. Commenters who repeatedly violate community guidelines may be suspended, causing them to temporarily lose their ability to engage with comments.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.