US mid-terms mean muddle and mess

Out of America: Americans go to the polls on Tuesday, and the battle for seats in the Senate is looking less clear-cut than ever
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As politicians like to say, God bless America. Things don't always go as they are meant to. Spacecraft explode (twice in three days), and while the rest of the world scrambles to help West Africa fight Ebola, the US fixates on a nurse riding her bike in Maine. (Just back from Sierra Leone, she was meant to be in quarantine.)

Expect the unexpected this week also when Americans go to the polls for the mid-term elections. They are proud of their tradition of democracy, yet it's a lot less pretty and tidy than it should be. Recent rulings by the US Supreme Court have allowed gigantic sums of money to distort the relationship between candidate and voter with almost zero transparency. Negative advertising has reached new heights, or depths.

Thus, the first thought of most Americans on Wednesday (voting is on Tuesday), will be to thank the Lord that it's over. They may also ask what it was all for. Because while there are bound to be Republican gains, there may also be a measure of muddle and mess. I also think Democrats will have less reason to be depressed than they think.

"Mess" suggests a lack of clear outcomes, and that may even be the case with the battle for control of the US Senate, the thing that exercises both sides the most. With a net gain of six seats in the 100-seat chamber, the Republicans will seize the majority. And because there are lots of vulnerable Democrat senators facing re-election this year, they have a decent chance of achieving that.

Yet we may wake up on Wednesday not knowing which party will hold the reins of the Senate thanks to two states that require that a candidate take 50 per cent or more of the vote before being declared the winner. Both – Louisiana and Georgia – have senate races this year that are too close to call with third-party candidates in the mix and run-offs seem likely. Georgia's wouldn't be until January.

Florida may provide the biggest foul-up if, as some expect, the ferociously foul governors' race between the Republican incumbent, Rick Scott, and his Democrat challenger Charlie Crist (who was a Republican as governor from 2007 to 2011) ends in a tie – which means their being separated by less than half a per cent – and a recount is triggered. We don't need to revisit 2000 and hanging chads.

The race for governor in the Sunshine State matters because whoever wins will smooth the path in the state for their party's nominee for the White House in 2016. If Hillary Clinton is to run for the Democrats, she very much needs Crist to prevail. I've just returned from there and I think he will, but only by a sliver.

In fact, Democrats should hold on to the fact that when it comes to governorships across the land, they may be poised to do rather better than Republicans. It's why we were likely to see President Obama escape the cocoon of the White House this weekend and campaigning for Democrat gubernatorial runners in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida and possibly Massachusetts.

This may seem like a small bright spot against the larger dark headlines looming for Democrats. There is no doubt at all that Republicans will consolidate their control of the House of Representatives and, at this stage, it would be surprising if they didn't also take the Senate even if a final declaration of victory is delayed by a month or two. The Obama progressive coalition has collapsed, the pundits will cry.

But that would be to oversimplify affairs, mostly because voters in mid-terms are not the same as voters in presidential elections. The presidential pool is much broader and therefore much more representative of where the country actually is politically. Traditionally, mid-term elections have a lower participation by young voters and ethnic minority voters, who generally vote Democrat.

There is also an accident here of timing. As it happens, in this mid-term cycle there have been an unusually large number of Democrats trying to hold on to Senate seats in otherwise Republican-leaning, or red, states. But it is also case that two years hence, in 2016, the coin will be flipped. There will be at least six sitting Republican senators in normally blue states who will be especially vulnerable.

Unless it is pure mud, we can assume that there will be some small recolouring of the country on Wednesday from blue towards red. Mr Obama, who after the 2010 mid-terms took to the microphones to admit he had taken a "shellacking" thanks to the Tea Party tipping the House into the GOP column, will again profess his disappointment and Democrats everywhere will shake their heads.

I think they shouldn't overdo it. The GOP control of the Senate could very well be short lived. I am not sure it will tell us very much about America's real political complexion. The loss of the Senate, moreover, will pressure Hillary Clinton to confirm soon what we all think to be true anyway, that she will be running in 2016. And that will shoot the caffeine back through Democrat veins like nothing else.

But, finally, the biggest mess of all will come if indeed the Senate falls into GOP hands this week. Mitch McConnell, currently the minority leader, will, as majority leader (if he is not defeated in his own race to keep his seat in Kentucky), have to prove to the country that with both chambers of Congress in their control, the Republicans can act responsibly and get things done.

It is a good bet, however, that they would continue with their obstructionist agenda of the past few years, sending bills to the White House that they know Obama will be completely unable to sign.

The result could be two years of gridlock even worse than Washington has witnessed so far. If that is their legacy when we arrive at the start of 2016, the Democrats, Mrs Clinton included, will be quick to exploit it.

Rupert Cornwell is away