Sunday 15 September 2019

'There was at one point a horrible sense of déjà vu'

US midterm elections have left Democrats and Republicans alike making much of partial wins, writes Siobhán Brett in New York

Accosted: President Donald Trump speaks to CNN journalist Jim Acosta on Wednesday Acosta was later stripped of his White House pass. AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Accosted: President Donald Trump speaks to CNN journalist Jim Acosta on Wednesday Acosta was later stripped of his White House pass. AP Photo/Evan Vucci
In Colorado, Jared Polis became the first openly gay governor in US history
Michigan legalised marijuana
In Iowa, Abby Finkenauer (29) became the youngest woman to be elected to Congress
Ilhan Omar (far right), who along with Rashida Tlaib, became the first Muslim women elected to Congress
Deb Haaland reacts to Sharice Davids' victory; they are the first Native Americans to win seats in the House of Representatives
Listen to the Beto drum: Beto O'Rourke and his wife Amy Sanders take the stage to concede the race to Ted Cruz in Texas

The name most visible on hats, jumpers, and badges in New York City for the past month was "Beto". Beto for Texas. Beto for Senate. Vote Beto. Four letters encountered on the street, on the subway, and in bars.

The Beto in question was, of course, Beto O'Rourke, the charismatic, gangly 46-year-old Texan with what seemed to be a very good chance at defeating a high-profile incumbent, Senator Ted Cruz.

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In the hotly contested American midterms last Tuesday, though, O'Rourke lost. It was a salient reminder of the resilience of the Republican base in "red" states.

At 6:20pm in Texas on the day of the election, O'Rourke posted an antsy video to Twitter. You can hear an aide saying "two", in the background, a beat passes for "one", and O'Rourke, looking exhausted, appeals to the lens:

Listen to the Beto drum: Beto O'Rourke and his wife Amy Sanders take the stage to concede the race to Ted Cruz in Texas
Listen to the Beto drum: Beto O'Rourke and his wife Amy Sanders take the stage to concede the race to Ted Cruz in Texas

"Reminder: if you are in line to vote, please stay in line, even if it's after seven o'clock. As long as you're in line, you'll be able to cast your ballot," he said.

Cruz, in his victory speech, was unsparing. "We saw a hundred-million-dollar race with Hollywood coming in against the state, with the national media coming in against the state," he said of O'Rourke.

Sam Pohl, of the Republican Party of Texas, told Review that the party was "thankful" to have rebuffed "the over $100million spent in Texas to try to turn it blue".

"It was a Texas Monthly editor who joked 'All the Good Beto Headlines Have Been Used'," Pohl said. "That boosted his name ID greatly here in Texas, though Senator Cruz proved that he better represents Texas values and is more than capable of achieving our policy goals in D.C."

On the same Tuesday, Democrats Rashida Tlaib and lhan Omar became the first Muslim women elected to United States Congress. Deb Haaland and Sharice Davids, again, Democratic candidates, became the first Native Americans to win seats in the House of Representatives.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New Yorker who turned 29 in October, and Abby Finkenauer, an Iowan who turned 29 in December, became the youngest women to be elected to Congress. In Colorado, Jared Polis became the first openly gay governor in US history. Democrats who wanted something to be glad about had something to be glad about.

In Colorado, Jared Polis became the first openly gay governor in US history
In Colorado, Jared Polis became the first openly gay governor in US history

In New York City last Tuesday, the conditions for voting were poor. Heavy rain fell sideways on the city's five boroughs, resulting in damp voters and soggy ballot papers that wound up strangling scanning machinery, which led to very long queues at polling stations. Despite this, history was made. In Letitia James, New York elected its first black attorney general and its first female attorney general.

Meanwhile, Betsy Davis, America's first intersex mayor, was voted in in New Jersey. In Kansas, Laura Kelly, a moderate Democrat, defeated one of Trump's most zealous acolytes, Kris Kobach. A democratic governor in the state is an anomaly.

"These gains do not exist in isolation this cycle," Kristen Hernandez, campaign manager at Emily's List, an organisation that backs pro-choice Democrat women who run for office.

"We were cautiously optimistic," said Hernandez, reflecting on years of work. "We were wary, like everyone, of reliance on polls and investment in certain outcomes."

Georgia's incumbent secretary of state, Brian Kemp, in a plaid shirt, released a 30-second campaign video during which he says the words: "I'm so conservative, I blow up government spending," as an explosive detonates in a field behind him.

"I own guns," Kemp continues, "that no-one's takin' away." Finally, he says: "I got a big truck, just in case I need to round up criminal illegals and take 'em home myself." Stacy Abrams, who alleged voter suppression by Kemp, challenged his declaration of victory.

Trump's spiteful, childish roll-call of election-day losers during the Wednesday press conference spoke, perhaps, to the insecurity felt by the president at losing the House of Representatives to the Democrats. He raged against a number of reporters, cutting them off, shouting at them, and deriding them when they asked questions.

He listed candidates who failed to get elected or re-elected. Later that afternoon, Attorney General Jeff Sessions was fired. CNN reporter Joe Acosta was stripped of his White House pass.

"There was a point on election night when I was getting a horrible sense of déjà vu, of 2016," said Niall O'Dowd, founder of the Irish American website Irish Central and a years-long supporter of Democratic candidates.

"It was a great relief when the numbers for the House [of Representatives] started to come in across the country," he said.

The Democrats rewrote the map where they could, said O'Dowd, mentioning unlikely states where Democratic candidates prevailed, such as Oklahoma and Kansas. "O'Rourke helped to bring in two female representatives in Texas," he said. "No doubt, President Trump still has a very firm hold on Americans' political leanings."

From an Irish American standpoint, O'Dowd said that an Irish American Democratic representative from Massachusetts, Richie Neal, enjoyed one of the most exciting stories of this election.

"Neal is the new head of the Ways and Means Committee, which means he has power to seek Trump's tax returns," O'Dowd said. "He's relatively obscure, very Irish, and suddenly catapulted into one of the biggest jobs in American politics." [Asked what he was going to do first thing, Neal replied: get Trump's tax returns.]

I asked O'Dowd if he had met Beto O'Rourke, been surprised by his following, or thought he was the next great hope for the Democratic party. "I think it is him," he said simply. "I'm very convinced by him. He didn't run against Cruz, he ran on issues and values. He never got personal with other Republicans."

O'Dowd said he believed Nancy Pelosi and Democrats like her were to be praised for their focus on healthcare, and issues other than immigration. He called this "staying out of the swamp".

Chris Riddiough, a longstanding organiser with Democratic Socialists America, told Review she was concerned America was by now "more inured to" the negativity that 2016 brought out.

"This election feels very different to 2016," Riddiough said, "in part because in 2016 it was so astonishing to contemplate those results."

Support for socialist Bernie Sanders' presidential bid was a new frontier for Democratic Socialists America, and while Sanders' bid disappointed, his commitment to socialist ideas and visions was fortuitous for the movement.

Now the organisation is actively seeking to ally itself to candidates capable of spreading positive things about socialism, "not strictly through the Democratic Socialists of America," Riddiough said, "more people have heard about democratic socialism, and we want more people."

Women performed well, and in meaningful places, but there will be one less woman in the Senate after this election: the number drops from 23 to 22.

Cynthia Terrell, the founder and director of RepresentWomen, was bright but reserved on Wednesday. "I think a lot of great candidates won yesterday, and that's a great sense of empowerment among women," she said. "Partisan polarisation is less than what it was."

But Terrell noted that Democratic "pick-ups" of seats, but said that many of the seats concerned were held by Republicans "in error". She pointed out that "it's not as though some record has been set with nine female governors".

"I often feel my role in America is to be a big, wet, blanket," Terrell said with a laugh.

It helps to have one: she added that cheering for the performance by female candidates was well and good, but America's record of equal representation - just now on a par with Eritrea and the Czech Republic - is probably still not good enough for a democracy of its age, sophistication, and resources. "The party of the president usually loses seats in the midterms," she said, suggesting that the Democratic "wave" was no more than routine.

"The only thing that fundamentally changed," said Niall O'Dowd, "is that Trump woke up on Wednesday morning to real opposition for the first time in his presidency."

America votes: Ballot measures

A selection of ballot measures that made the cut (and some that didn't):

✦ Massachusetts passed a state-wide vote on protection from transgender discrimination;

✦ Idaho, Nebraska, and Utah, voted to pass expansion of Medicaid, or Obama Care;

✦ Montana rejected a measure to do so;

✦ Florida passed an amendment that will allow 1.4 million former felons to vote again;

✦ Arkansas and Missouri voted to add to the minimum wage;

✦ Michigan legalised marijuana;

✦ North Dakota rejected a measure to do so.

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