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7 November 2018

The “blue wave” has left Congress and US politics more diverse than it has ever been

The midterm elections on Tuesday swept a record number of women and ethnic minorities into elected office.

By Sophie McBain

The hotly anticipated “blue wave” may not have been as large as many of the left had hoped, but the Democrats have retaken Congress – and there’s another reason for optimism too: more women that ever have won their races this year, and American politics has never looked so diverse.

The Centre for American Women and Politics and Rutgers University, which has been keeping track of the number of women elected, showed that even before all the races had been called, women had broken previous records in the Congress. Their latest figures (updated at 4am EST) show that 95 women have won their House races so far.

Many of these women are trailblazers in other respects too. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Abby Finkenauer of Iowa are both 29 years old, making them the youngest women ever elected to Congress. (Finkenauer is also the first ever congresswoman from Iowa.)

Deb Haaland of New Mexico and Sharice Davids of Kansas are both the first Native American women in Congress. Davids will also make history as the first openly gay woman of colour in Congress, and forms part of what the New York Times has described as an “LGBT wave” who hope to counter the threat posed to civil rights by legislation such as the so-called “bathroom bill” and the Trump administration’s attempts to define transgender out of existence.

Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota will together be the first Muslim women in Congress. Their stories are both remarkable: Tlaib is a social justice attorney who grew up in Detroit, the eldest of 14 children born to Palestinian parents, and ran on a progressive platform including a $15 minimum wage and Medicare-for-all. Omar is a refugee from Somalia, who spent four years in a Kenyan refugee camp before arriving in the US aged eight and is similarly running on a left-wing platform.

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Ayanna Pressley has become the first black woman to represent to Massachusetts in Congress, and Jahana Hayes the first black woman to represent Connecticut in Congress. The 31-year-old nurse and former healthcare adviser to the Obama administration Lauren Underwood will become the first African-American woman to represent her district and is one of several people of colour to win in majority-white seats. In Texas, Veronica Escobar and Sylvia Garcia, have become the first Latinas ever to represent the state in Congress.

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And in the gubernatorial races there have been a string of firsts, too. In Colorado, Medicare-for-all progressive Jared Polis has become America’s first openly gay governor. In Maine Janet Mills has become the state’s first female governor.

Things are looking less hopeful in Georgia, where progressives had high hopes that Stacey Abrams could become the first black woman appointed to governor. Abrams is currently behind in the polls but has declined to concede until every vote is counted. Her opponent, Republican Brian Kemp, was in charge of overseeing his own election and the state has become one of the worst examples of voter suppression in the country.

This newly diverse cohort of politicians has been boosted by this year’s astonishingly high turn-out. The New York Times is estimating that 114 million votes were cast in this year’s elections, up from 83 million in 2014, almost unprecedented for a midterm year. In some states, turnout is higher than it has been in decades.

Analysis by ABC suggests that minorities, women and young people are voting in higher numbers than usual, which boosts the Democratic vote and could help explain voters’ support for diverse candidates with non-traditional backgrounds. Early results suggest that non-white voters made up 29 per cent of voters nationally, up from 25 percent in 2014. They suggest that 18 to 29-year-olds made up 13 per cent of voters, up from 11 per cent in 2014. Women made up 53 per cent of voters, a record high, and LGBT voters made up 6 per cent (up from 4 per cent in 2014 and 2010).

When young people, minorities and women are more engaged in politics it’s rarely good news for Republicans – but it is great news for democracy.