BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific Spanish Portuguese Caribbean

BBC News World Edition
 You are in: Americas  
News Front Page
Middle East
South Asia
Talking Point
Country Profiles
In Depth
BBC Sport
BBC Weather
Monday, 21 October, 2002, 09:08 GMT 10:08 UK
US mid-terms finely balanced
George W Bush greets the crowds
Republicans plan to capitalise on Mr Bush's popularity

With the balance of power on Capitol Hill in Washington so evenly divided, this promises to be one of the most intriguing US mid-term elections in years. In the Senate, a net gain for the Republicans of just a single seat would wrest control from the Democrats.

And in the House of Representatives, a net loss of just six seats could enable the Democrats to take back a chamber which they have dominated for much of the past 40 years, but not since the famed "Republican Revolution" of 1994.

Senate seats
Democrats: 50
Republicans: 49
Independents: 1

On such hair-breadth margins are questions of massive significance decided, affecting everything from the flow of new legislation to how public money is spent.

House seats
Republicans: 223
Democrats: 208
Independents: 1(Three vacant)

As things stand now, the Republicans are in charge on the House side, the Democrats control the Senate.

As so often in their history, Americans have elected a divided government. The checks and balances upon which their political system was built has been reinforced by the popular will.

Open in new window : US poll results
Click here for a state-by-state guide to seats

These are by far the most important elections since George W Bush won back the White House for the Republicans in November 2000.

Additional drama

In the upper chamber, a third of the 100 Senators face re-election. In the House, all 435 lawmakers have to seek a fresh two-year mandate from voters.

To add to the drama, 36 state governorships are also up for grabs, including those of California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan - America's eight most populous states.

The bad news for the White House is that the party of the sitting president tends to lose out in the mid-term elections. Remarkably, in 32 of the last 34 off-year elections, the presidential party has suffered losses on Capitol Hill.

Bill Clinton
Bill Clinton bucked the trend in 1998
More worrying still, the only two presidents to reverse that trend were Democrats - Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1934 and Bill Clinton in 1998.

At first blush, George W Bush seems well placed to join them, largely because he enjoys approval ratings unparalleled by a US president going into the mid-term elections.

The anniversary commemorations marking the 11 September attacks cemented the intimate personal relationship he enjoys with much of the American people and which lies at the heart of his political appeal.

'Kitchen table' issues

The problem for George W Bush is that he appears to lack "coat-tails". That is to say, his own popularity has not seemed to rub-off on other members of his party.

Last November, the Republicans lost the governorship of New Jersey and Virginia, a crushing setback for the GOP (the Grand Old Party) at a time when the president was riding high.

Peace protester in Washington
The Iraq tension is likely to figure in the election
That said, Republicans are hoping that the elections will become a referendum on George W Bush's handling of the war on terrorism and Iraq crisis.

When the political debate is dominated by international affairs and national security, Republicans tend to do well.

For that reason, the Democrats want to steer Campaign 2002 towards "kitchen table" issues, like jobs, education, pensions and health care.

The worrying state of the US economy should work in their favour - so, too, the wave of corporate scandals which started with Enron and continued over the summer.

Economic message

A recent poll by ABC News showed that 67% of the American people think that the country's economy is "not good" or "poor".

The central problem for the Democrats is that their economic message is being drowned out by the bombast of war.

Senior party officials have even claimed that the timing of the "showdown with Iraq" has been intricately choreographed by the White House to distract attention away from economic issues closer to home.

Not that Iraq helped his father much in 1992. The first George Bush has gone down in history as the president who won Desert Storm in 1991, then lost the presidential election the following year.

American voters simply thought he was focusing too much attention on foreign affairs when millions were losing their jobs at home.

Going into the congressional election season, it is always worth remembering the mantra of Tip O'Neill, the Democrats' legendary Speaker of the House. "All politics is local" said O'Neill, an "up-from-the-precinct" Boston politician who knew that issues which failed even to register in Washington could often decide local races.

Close race

That remains true. In Florida, where the president's brother, Governor Jeb Bush, faces re-election, a well-publicised scandal involving the state-run child welfare agency is having a big impact on the race.

In Arkansas, Tim Hutchinson, the sitting senator, has encountered problems after leaving his wife of 29 years for a much younger woman.

That is why the outcome of Campaign 2002 is so hard to predict, why American elections so often produce such confusing and contradictory results; and why the balance of power in Washington tends, historically, to be so evenly divided.

Since the end of World War II, it is rare that one single party, either Republican or Democrat, has been able to dominate both the presidency and Congress. That will probably remain the case after this round of mid-term elections.

The BBC's Matt Frei
"There is still a mistrust of all things of the Federal Government"

Key races




Links to more Americas stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Americas stories

© BBC ^^ Back to top

News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East |
South Asia | UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature |
Technology | Health | Talking Point | Country Profiles | In Depth |