Election treats to be in short supply for Obama

If Republicans win the Senate, it would almost certainly spell the end of immigration reform plans — and dash the hopes of some 50,000 Irish living illegally in the US, writes Bette Browne

THE US midterm elections today could reshape America’s political landscape, dealing a body blow to President Barack Obama’s agenda and Hillary Clinton’s likely presidential bid and dashing hopes of Irish illegals for immigration reform.

The key battle is for control of the Senate. Republicans are likely to retain the House of Representatives but must gain six seats to wrest control of the Senate from the Democrats.

Polls are showing Republicans on course to take the Senate but in recent days the races have been tightening.

Three Democratic seats — in Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia — will almost certainly go Republican, while Democratic incumbents are trailing in Arkansas, Colorado, and Louisiana, and barely holding on in North Carolina and New Hampshire. Republicans are fighting to hold on to three seats in Georgia, Kansas, and possibly Kentucky.

The battle is being fuelled by record amounts of money. The Federal Election Commission has said that by the start of October, $739m (€591m) had been raised by candidates in the House and $438m by candidates in the Senate.

But this does not include possibly hundreds of millions in so called “dark money” raised by the controversial special political action committees, know as super PACs.

Republicans have successfully filled the void by making Obama’s growing unpopularity a rallying point, so much so that even Democrats don’t want him campaigning for them.

Instead, Bill and Hillary Clinton have stumped for Democrats in key states. Michelle Obama has also proved to be a big draw as a campaigner. She is painfully aware that if Republicans end up controlling both Houses of Congress it could doom much of her husband’s agenda, if not his legacy.

House Republicans would be joined by their Senate colleagues in blocking his every move on such issues as raising the minimum wage and immigration reform, an issue close to the hearts of millions of undocumented immigrants, including about 50,000 Irish illegals.

If Republicans win the Senate it would almost certainly spell the end of immigration reform but if Democrats prevail it could give it a shot in the arm. Obama has been pushing the House to back a Senate deal that offers a path to citizenship for illegals but a new Republican-controlled Senate would be likely to let the issue die.

Obama could introduce some immigration measures on his own through executive orders that could help people without status find a way to remain legally until Congress finally acts.

So body blows don’t have to be fatal. Bill Clinton was down this road when he lost both Houses of Congress to Republicans in the 1994 midterms. Despite this — and the Lewinsky scandal — he left office as one of the most popular presidents.

But if Republicans win the Senate battle today, they may not necessarily win the presidential war in two years’ time. If all they can show after two years is that they have blocked Obama’s agenda, the likely Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton will probably paint them as a do-nothing Congress that couldn’t be trusted to also hold the White House.

This also plays into the idea that Americans don’t tend to like Congress and the White House in the hands of one party only.

A Republican-controlled Congress might well open the White House door that much wider for a Democratic candidate in 2016.

It should be noted, too, that midterm elections generally tend to revolve around local issues and therefore may not be an accurate barometer for the nationally-driven presidential vote.

These elections are not just about the Senate. A tough battle is also on for control of 36 state governorships and the outcome will have major implications for each party’s political agenda and for the presidential race.

Having a Republican or Democrat at the helm in a state, especially if there is gridlock in Washington, can mean notching up important legislative victories for the right or left, while boosting coffers and energising the vote. One recalls the difference it made to George W Bush that his brother Jeb was governor during the crisis over the disputed Florida presidential vote in 2000.

Of the 36 races for governor, a number of states are in play. Republicans are hoping to pick up Massachusetts and Connecticut, where their standard bearer is former US ambassador to Ireland Tom Foley. Democrats are chasing possible wins in Florida and Georgia, where their standard bearer is former president Jimmy Carter’s grandson, state senator Jason Carter.

But the biggest deciding factor in the elections is not necessarily the platform of the Republican or Democratic candidates but rather which party succeeds best in getting out the vote.

A lower turnout would tend to favour Republicans, who are fired up against Obama, while Democrats are less likely to rally around a president whom they see as under-achieving.

But regardless of how committed a voter is, it has now become more difficult for people to cast their vote under more restrictive voter ID rules that are being legally challenged in a number of states.

Opponents say cutbacks to early voting and ID restrictions, often passed by Republican state legislatures, are meant to deter Democratic-leaning minority and low-income voters from the polls. Proponents contend they are necessary to prevent perceived voter fraud. These restrictions include requiring a government-issued photo ID to vote and proof of citizenship to register, cutting back on early voting and eliminating election day registration.

“The first stirrings of a new movement to restrict voting came after the 2000 Florida election debacle,” according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, which is involved in many of the challenges to the measures. It says in 15 states, 2014 will be the first major federal election with these new restrictions in place.

But even after they get to the polls, the tension for voters may still not end on Tuesday night. Indeed, it may not end for weeks or even months. Candidates in two states may not win the 50% required for victory, triggering run-off elections in Louisiana on December 6 and in Georgia on January 6 — three days after the rest of Congress is sworn in.


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