US mid-term elections: 10 things you need to know

US President Barack Obama brings doughnuts and pastries to Democratic campaign volunteers on Oct 20, 2014, in Chicago, Illinois. -- PHOTO: AFP
US President Barack Obama brings doughnuts and pastries to Democratic campaign volunteers on Oct 20, 2014, in Chicago, Illinois. -- PHOTO: AFP

Americans cast their votes on Tuesday (Nov 4, 2014) in mid-term elections, with the nation's two main political parties - President Barack Obama's Democrats and opposition Republicans - battling for control of Congress. Here are 10 things you should know about the elections:

1. Why are the polls called mid-term elections?

The elections take place halfway through the four-year presidential term. Mr Barack Obama was voted into office in 2012, with the next presidential elections set for 2016.

2. Who are elected into office?

There are three polls for:

- House of Representatives: This is the lower parliament which makes and passes federal laws;

- Senate: This is the upper house which provides the checks and balances to other elements of the US government. For instance, it must approve treaties agreed to by the president, as well as the appointment of judges and government officials;

- State governorships

3. Who holds the balance of power?

Democrats hold the balance of power in the Senate, while Republicans do so in the House of Representatives. It is relatively rare for one party to control the presidency, House of Representatives and the Senate.

4. What is being contested?

Senate:

- 36 out of 100 seats are being contested.

- Republicans need to win six seats to regain control of it. Three Democrat-held seats in Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia are widely seen as already flipping Republican, leaving the party needing just three more seats to win the chamber.

- Currently there are 53 Democrats, 2 independents who are Democrat allies and 45 Republicans.

- Poll forecast: 45 Democrats, 47 Republicans, 8 toss ups

 House of Representatives:

- All 435 seats are being contested.

- Currently there are 233 Republicans, 199 Democrats and 3 vacancies.

- Poll forecast: 181 Democrats, 228 Republicans, 26 toss ups

 Governorships:

- 36 of the 50 US states are electing governors.

- Currently there are 21 Democrat governors and 29 Republican governors

- Poll forecast: 14 Democrats, 22 Republicans, 14 toss ups

5. What could happen in the elections?

If the general mid-term trend is anything to go by, Mr Obama's Democrats will suffer this time around. This is because mid-terms are often seen as a referendum on the president in office and the incumbent president often loses ground in mid-terms. Over the last 21 elections, the president's party has lost an average of 30 seats in the House of Representatives.

6. What's behind the prospect of Democrat losses?

A number of things are going against the Democrats, including near-record-low approval ratings for Mr Obama, a spluttering economy, frustration with the president's healthcare law and a projected low turnout among core voting groups.

Democrats are also suffering from the retirement of key senators and the bad timing of having multiple re-election battles playing out in states where Republicans performed especially well in 2012.

There are other forces at play too. One of them is the coordinated effort by Republican leaders to institute restrictive voting rules, placing hurdles in the way of would-be voters, particularly from Democrat-leaning backgrounds. In the last decade, the Republicans have introduced about 1,000 voter laws - requiring voters to produce photo IDs or restricting polling hours - and nearly 100 have been adopted. Inconsistent intervention by the courts has made for a complicated national voting landscape.

7. What are the key battleground states?

About 10 states are expected to see close fight for the Senate seats, but only two - Georgia and Louisiana - would likely have runoff elections because no candidate wins 50 per cent of the first vote.

In Georgia, Democrat Michelle Nunn is riding on her senator father Sam Nunn's political legacy and leading in some polls against Republican David Perdue, whom Ms Nunn has tarred as a wealthy businessman that outsources jobs. A Democrat victory for this open seat would be a humiliation for the Republicans. Libertarian candidate Amanda Swafford could force a Jan 6 runoff if nobody earns more than 50 per cent of the vote.

In Louisiana, three-term Democrat Senator Mary Landrieu is fighting against Republican Bill Cassidy, but steady Republican creep across the South puts her in jeopardy. Confidence in Mr Obama among Louisianans is about 39 per cent. A Dec 6 runoff is likely as no candidate in the crowded race is expected to win more than half the vote.

8. What happens if Republicans gain control of Senate?

It is unclear what strategy the Republicans will adopt once in power. Certain key Democrat initiatives, such as immigration reform and legislative action on climate change, have already succumbed to opposition from the Republican-led House of Representatives. If the Republicans gain control of the Senate too, they could do more to hobble the president, vetoing nominees for judgeships, cabinet positions and other appointments requiring Senate approval.

A Republican-controlled Senate could also mean Mr Obama being forced at last to wield the veto pen, which he has resorted to so far with historic infrequency. That will quickly change if a Republican Congress starts passing laws repealing Obamacare.

9. What challenges will the Republicans face?

Even if the Republicans have control of the Senate, many analysts have warned that they have to tread carefully when working with the president. If they are seen as too intransigent or antagonistic toward Mr Obama, they risk alienating the public and harming their chances to win the real prize: the White House.

The other challenge is that being in charge of the government means Americans will expect the Republicans to govern. They have made big promises to their base about cutting taxes and downsizing federal programmes. Failure to deliver is likely to come with a political cost.

10. When will we know the results?

There is a good chance that control of the Senate will not be determined until next year because of run-off elections in Louisiana and Georgia. This means those races will not be resolved for weeks.

SOURCE: EURONEWS, THE GUARDIAN, AFP, REUTERS, REAL CLEAR POLITICS,