US midterm elections: everything you need to know

On Tuesday, America goes to the polls for the first nationwide election since 2016. Will there be a Blue Wave, or will it be a blowout? Here are the key things to watch out for.

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Tomorrow’s election is set to be the first real test of Trumpism, and the first opportunity for Democrats to see whether the huge wave of activism triggered by Trump’s election in 2016 will translate into support at the polls.

All 435 seats in the House of Representatives are up for grabs (terms in the lower house of Congress are just two years long), as well as 35 out of 100 Senate seats and 39 state or territorial governorships.

Here’s what to keep an eye out for as the results start to come in:

The House of Representatives

It seems pretty likely that the Democrats will take back control of the House from Republicans. 538.com’s forecasting model is currently predicting an 87.4 per cent probability that the GOP will lose control of America’s lower chamber.

The real question is by how much. The Republicans currently have a 45-seat majority in the House. There are dozens of marginal, often suburban seats in which Republican candidates have suffered because of their association with Trump. Many of them have avoided talking about the president or have tried to distance themselves from him.

Polling aggregator RealClearPolitics lists 11 Republican-held seats as “lean Democrat”, meaning they are likely to change hands, and another 39 seats as “toss-ups”, of which 33 seats are Republican-held and six are Democrat-held. Only one Democrat-held seat is listed as “lean Republican”. If Democrats keep all of the seats they currently hold, they will need to flip 23 Republican seats in order to win a majority and wrest control of Congress. 

538.com calculates that there is an 80 per cent chance that they will gain between 21 and 59 seats, and only a ten per cent chance that they will gain fewer than 21. Many have talked about a “Blue Wave” of young progressive candidates contesting some of those seats, and New Statesman America has profiled some of them here.

If the Democrats gain only a small majority they may still have overplayed the expectation game. With people expecting a bloodbath, it is likely Trump and the GOP will claim victory if they only lose control of the house by ten seats or so.

But really, all eyes on the night will be on:

The Senate

The upper chamber of Congress is arguably its most important. Senators serve much longer terms than members of the House, and the Senate has some crucial duties on top of passing legislation that the House lacks, key among which is the confirmation of presidential appointees, including federal judges. Brett Kavanaugh, Trump’s most recent appointment to the Supreme Court, was passed by a razor-thin vote after a brutal confirmation battle.

The importance of the Senate is hard to downplay; if the Republicans lose the majority there, it could spell the end of the Trump administration, both because a Democratic majority could block and delay judicial appointees the way the Republican majority did to Obama towards the end of his term, and because it would open the door for successful impeachment proceedings as the Senate also acts as the jury in the case of presidential impeachment.

The GOP currently hold an effective majority of just one – there are 51 Republican senators, 47 Democrats, and two independent senators (Bernie Sanders and Maine’s Angus King) who vote with the Democratic caucus – which means that the few close Senate races in this cycle are incredibly important. Because of the specific seats that are up for grabs this cycle, winning control of the Senate will be much tougher for Democrats than winning the House.

Democrats only need to take two seats from the Republicans to gain control, but that is going to be much more difficult than it sounds. Of the 35 seats up for grabs, some are unlikely to change hands: 15 of those 35 races are for seats already strongly held by Democrats and are unlikely to change. Four are similarly safe Republican seats.

The real problem is that Democrats hold more of the remaining seats in play than the GOP, and therefore have more to lose. Of the seven listed as toss-ups by RCP, five are already held by Democrats: Florida, Indiana, Missouri, Montana, and West Virginia. Joe Manchin, the Democratic senator from West Virginia, has a particularly difficult mountain to climb: Trump won his state in 2016 by more than 40 percentage points. The Republicans can almost certainly rely on taking at least one seat, North Dakota, from the incumbent Democrat, Heidi Heitkamp.

But there are a few glimmers of hope. One of them is Nevada, where the tight race between incumbent Republican Dean Heller and Democrat Jacky Rosen is showing some promising results from early voting. Another is Florida, where Democrat incumbent Bill Nelson is currently clinging on to a slight lead in the polls (of about 2.5 per cent, according to RCP) despite the fact that he’s running against a sitting governor, Rick Scott, who smashed Senate fundraising records during the last quarter of the campaign – though that was in part because of a $16m cash injection Scott gave his campaign out of his own pocket.

The polling isn’t looking so promising in Texas, where insurgent Democrat Beto O’Rourke is trying to unseat former presidential candidate Ted Cruz. RCP currently has Cruz ahead by 6.5 points – but anything can happen in American politics, and O’Rourke has mounted a stalwart campaign and raised an unprecedented amount of funds from small donors. And Texas’ demographics are changing fast, with the Latino minority on its way to becoming the majority in the state.

Democrat Claire McCaskill is fighting for her political life in Missouri, too, which would be a bad loss; it might be counterbalanced, however, in Arizona, where Rep. Kyrsten Sinema appears to have a (very slight) edge over Republican Martha McSally. Overall, 538.com’s forecasting model give the Democrats just a 16.4 per cent chance of taking control of the Senate, but if people in groups which historically have had low voter turnout, such as college students, are motivated enough by the Trump administration to go to the polls this time, it could still happen – especially if O’Rourke can pull off an upset in Texas.

The other key races happening tomorrow will be:

The Governors

In the 39 elections for state and territorial governors taking place tomorrow, the Democrats can take some measure of hope. Polling suggests they are almost certain to take back the governor’s mansion from Republicans in Illinois, Maine, and New Mexico. In Nevada, a devastating advert in which the Republican gubernatorial candidate’s own family advised people not to vote for him means the Democrats have a slightly better shot at taking the governorship there than they do the state’s Senate seat, though both will likely be close.

You should pay particular attention to the gubernatorial race in Georgia, where the Democrat Stacey Abrams has run a hard-fought campaign despite evidence of egregious voter suppression by her opponent, Brian Kemp, who – as the state’s Secretary of State – is responsible for election security. My colleague Sophie McBain has gone into detail on voter suppression in Georgia here, but if the results are close enough that Kemp’s shady attempts to suppress minority turnout could have swung the overall result, it seems plausible that Abrams would have grounds for a legal challenge.

And in Florida, an unashamedly progressive candidate, the 39-year-old African-American former Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum is currently running three points ahead of Republican Mike DeSantis, according to RCP’s polling average. Gillum’s policy positions would have been unthinkable just two years ago: he has said he would abolish the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE), he has pledged to sharply increase corporate taxes to pay for a Medicare-for-all healthcare program, and he has also said he would repeal Florida’s “stand-your-ground” law, the controversial statute – popular with gun-owners – under which George Zimmerman was acquitted for shooting and killing a black teenager, Trayvon Martin, in 2012.

Even worse for Republicans, it’s looking like Scott Walker – who was once thought of as a frontrunner for the presidency in 2016 before Trump appeared on the scene – might lose the governorship of Wisconsin to Democrat Tony Evers; a recent NBC News/Marist poll put Walker a full eight points behind, and though other polls have put the race closer to a tie the fact that a party grandee like Walker is struggling to keep his head above water is a matter for not inconsiderable glee for Democrats.

Other things to watch

It’s not just governors and Congress being elected on Tuesday: all across the US local city and state elections will be taking place. One particularly interesting race is one in the city of Pahrump, Nevada, where reality TV star and brothel-owner Dennis Hof seems likely to win his state assembly race despite having died two weeks ago – it was too late to remove his name from the ballot, and Republicans will get to appoint whoever they choose to his seat should he win.

And in five states – Michigan, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Utah – voters will also be deciding on ballot-measures regarding various levels of legalization for marijuana.

Update: an earlier version of this piece included Minnesota as a state where the Democrats were likely to take back the governors' mansion from Republicans. In fact, previous governor Mark Dayton is a member of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party, which is associated with the Democratic party.

Nicky Woolf is the editor of New Statesman America. He has formerly written for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.