US midterm elections: Democratic Party takes control of House, Republicans retain control of Senate

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Indiana voters casting their ballots at a fire station in Indianapolis, Indiana, on Nov 6, 2018. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON - The Democratic Party has clawed itself back to a majority in the House of Representatives in America's closely watched midterm elections, giving the party real levers of power to check President Donald Trump and Senate Republicans.

The Republican Party retained its majority in the Senate, picking up at least three seats in the first national election since Mr Trump captured the White House in a 2016 upset.

All throughout the midterm election campaign, Democrats had held out hopes of a "blue wave" of their supporters sweeping them into the House of Representatives, and possibly also the Senate. But early results show that there is no sign of the "blue wave" the Democratic Party had hoped for.

Nevertheless, Democratic Party leader Nancy Pelosi told cheering supporters: "We owned the ground; tomorrow will be a new day in America."

It was the first time in eight years that the party has captured the House. All 435 seats in the House, 35 seats in the 100-member Senate and 36 of the 50 state governorship were at stake in an election seen as a referendum on Mr Trump's presidency.

"Today is… about democracy and… strong constitutional checks and balances to the Trump administration," she said.

President Trump reportedly called Ms Pelosi - who is likely to be the Speaker of the House - to congratulate her.

Mr Carlos Condarco, 32, a Democrat supporter in Florida, said: "I think a few people are quite surprised by the results. I think the national, and certainly the local, narrative was that we were going to have a banner year for the Democrats, but apparently the results may be bearing out that that may not necessarily be the case."

Analysts have said that the political environment in the United States is unlikely to get less vicious after the Nov 6 midterm polls as political parties and candidates segue into positioning for the 2020 election season.

That, some analysts warn, risks internal distraction for the Trump administration, hampering strategic thinking on foreign policy.

The Democratic Party's House majority will mean a stronger oversight of the Trump administration. But that will have little or no effect on the broader direction of foreign policy under the two-year-old Trump administration.

Dr Denny Roy, senior fellow at the East West Centre in Honolulu, and a specialist in Asia Pacific security, told The Straits Times:"The US political system is designed to place a lot of constraints on the President in domestic policy-making, but it gives the President strong foreign policy powers.

"Nevertheless, there are few if any big partisan disagreements over US policy towards the Asia-Pacific region," Dr Roy said.

On the domestic front, the House under a Democratic majority will unleash investigations and subpoenas, setting the stage for confrontations between both sides. It can subpoena Mr Trump's tax returns, which he has yet to reveal. It can also revive a probe into connections of key Trump family and campaign figures to Russia which is accused of influencing public opinion in the US during the 2016 presidential campaign.

A House under a Democratic majority could investigate US Cabinet members for corruption. And it can scrutinise Budget spendings, agreements with foreign countries and US' arms sales. Analysts expect it to push the Trump administration to get tougher with Russia, Saudi Arabia and North Korea.

While the Democratic Party won a majority in the House, it had some disappointing results in bellwether races.

The Republican Party held on to the Florida and Georgia governorships, with Mr Ron DeSantis defeating Mr Andrew Gillum's bid to become Florida's first Democrat governor in three decades and its first black governor.

In Georgia, Mr Brian Kemp fended off Ms Stacey Abrams, who would have been the country's first black female governor had she won.

In Texas, Democratic challenger Beto O'Rourke lost to sitting Senator Ted Cruz.

"The blue wave was uneven; it crashed against some stiff rocks. Trump will claim victory by keeping the Senate and winning in Florida," said Dr Keith Noble, a fellow at Florida International University.

But in other key results, Democrats Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib became the first Muslim women elected to Congress after they won in Minnesota and Michigan respectively.

The overall result was in line with historical trends; incumbent parties usually lose seats during the midterm elections.

Democrat supporters The Straits Times spoke to in Florida said that although Democrats had showed up to vote in high numbers, Republicans did too.

Above all the issues that have dominated headlines during the campaign, there is the President himself - and his own base is fanatically loyal.

Mr John Zogby, founder of the Zogby International poll operation, told journalists in Washington: "Donald Trump is the issue in this election. This is a referendum on Trump. He has a habit of making everything about himself and he's been very successful in doing that."

Tuesday's (Nov 6) elections saw a record turnout - possibly the highest in 100 years for midterm elections - buoyed by young and first-time voters and, to some degree, female voters. Earlier in the day, TV networks and analysts had suggested that the record turnout could favour the Democratic Party.

Younger and first-time voters are more reflective of the growing diversity in the American population.

The Democrats were seen to have a three-to-one advantage in the young voter category.

The Democratic Party had painted the election as a choice between two different Americas: one inclusive and embracing diversity, and the other narrow and exclusionary, and favouring corporate interests at the expense of ordinary Americans.

The Republicans, with Mr Trump leading the charge, played on a visceral fear of weak borders and caravans of migrants heading from Central America to the US, and of the bogeys of runaway crime and socialist "mobs", if the Democrats were to gain control and stall the President's agenda.

Democrats also focused on healthcare, emphasising that Republicans were intent on abolishing the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, and replacing it with a more restrictive scheme which denies eligibility in cases of pre-existing conditions. This and the worry that Republicans will strip money from social welfare schemes, have resonated with voters, analysts say.

"This is about stopping the GOP assault on Medicare, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act," Ms Pelosi said. "It is about not allowing special interest free reign over Washington."

Ms Pelosi pledged a Congress that "works for the people".

She promised action on infrastructure and lower pharmaceutical drug prices.

"The people's interest will prevail, not dark special interests," she said.

She added: "The Democratic Congress will be led with transparency and openness.

"We will have accountability and we will strive for bipartisanship...

"We will find common ground where we can, stand our ground where we can, but we must try; we have a bipartisan marketplace of ideas that makes our democracy strong. We have all had enough of division. American people want results."

The Democratic Party can use its House majority to unleash investigations and subpoenas, tying down President Trump and the Republican Party, as the US increasingly shifts its focus inward with an eye on the 2020 presidential race.

Analysts say Mr Trump is quite likely to move to consolidate his position by firing Attorney-General Jeff Sessions and deputy attorney-general Rod Rosenstein in an attempt to defang the probe led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into possible collusion between some members of Mr Trump's campaign team and Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign. Mr Trump and Russia have denied the allegations.

On foreign policy, there would be little difference, as the President has wide latitude on foreign affairs. But the House would be in a position to scrutinise foreign agreements, arms sales, and has power over budgets.

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