Wendy Davis, who looks likely to lose her bid to be Texas governor. Photo: Stewart F House/Getty
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The US Midterms: the races you need to watch

Rarely has an election elicited a louder national cry of “meh”. But there are some important races buried beneath the banality.

America is abuzz with excitement today as it goes to the polls to elect a third of the Senate and all of the House of Representatives, as well as 38 governors of states or territories.

Well, no, actually, it isn't. In fact, despite the fact that more money will be spent on campaigns this year than in any other midterm election in America’s history, rarely has an election elicited a louder national cry of “meh”. Polls show that interest is record-breakingly low, and especially so among the undecided voters.

Americans are turned off by what many see as a choice between two fundamentally unappealing options: the Democrats, who have largely spent the campaign trying desperately to wriggle out of any suggestion of ties to the Obama administration; and the pretty much equally unpopular Republicans, including the extremist Tea Party.

The odd thing about all that is that actually this election is pretty important. Particularly, a couple of key races could decide whether the Democrats keep control of the Senate – the upper house of Congress – the balance of control of which currently relies on the narrowest of margins.

Then there are the gubernatorial races, which by and large have caught the media’s attention less. Wendy Davis, the Texas state legislator who held that incredible filibuster on reproductive rights last year, is looking likely to lose to current state Attorney General Greg Abbott. Wisconsin’s race is closer – Scott Walker, tipped as a possible Presidential contender in 2016, has the slimmest of leads. Florida, where former Governor Charlie Crist is trying to win back his old job against the genuinely alarming-looking current governor Rick Scott, is also close.

But the Senate is the really important thing about today’s election. Holding on to the upper house of Congress is crucial for the legislative possibilities of Obama's final two years in office, and the results today will shape the country in serious ways. The Republicans already control the House of Representatives; if they take the Senate too they will have carte blanche to pursue a right-wing legislative agenda.

The balance in the Senate could rest on a few key races; these are the ones that will receive the most coverage tonight:

 

Kentucky

The race between challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes and current Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell may not be looking as close now as it was a few weeks ago, but there’s still a chance Grimes could unseat the man who is otherwise the secont-most powerful Republican in the country. McConnell isn’t particularly popular, and has had trouble with his pledge to repeal Obamacare – mainly because Obamacare’s rollout in Kentucky has been a spectacular success. But Grimes has also suffered from an embarrassing episode in which she refused to say whether or not she voted for Obama in previous elections.

 

New Hampshire

Former Massachusetts senator Scott Brown has parachuted in to the state as something of a carpetbagger, but is currently neck-and-neck with incumbent Jeanne Shaheen, and the race is too close to call.

 

Alaska

The state that gave us Sarah Palin is a toss-up between incumbent Mark Begich and challenger Dean Sullivan. It’s a long way West, so polls don’t even close until 5AM GMT, so this will be one of the last races to be called – and last time around when Begich won, it was by so slim a margin that his Republican opponent didn’t concede until a full fortnight after election day.

 

Louisiana

Another popular Democratic incumbent, Mary Landrieu, is struggling to fend off a challenger. But under Louisiana’s electoral system, there can be multiple candidates from each party. If one candidate fails to get 50 per cent on the first ballot – which seems likely – then the state goes to a run-off election. There are two Republicans on the ballot, so once they combine, Landrieu could well be out of a job. But this one will run late.

 

South Dakota

A few weeks ago, nobody thought this was going to be interesting. But some recent polling has shown that an independent candidate, Larry Pressler, might be able to pull off an electoral miracle, beating both the Democrat and the Republican challengers. The incumbent is retiring, so the race is wide open. If the people of South Dakota opt for the outsider, it will be strongly emblematic of the people’s disgust with both parties.

 

Iowa

This one’s the big one. Obviously, each party wants to win as many Senate races as possible, but most election models portray Iowa as the bellwether. Polling has Democrat Bruce Braley running neck-and-neck with Republican Joni Ernst – who gained nationwide fame earlier in the campaign with this astonishing campaign ad.

 

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue