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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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution