New York: on the subway

Paul Maidment, Director of Analysis, explains his thinking on the US elections of 2018 and 2020


New York: people at metro station Grand Central wait for train to times square and Queens

The No 7 train needs to rumble only a few stops east of our Midtown Manhattan offices to arrive on its elevated tracks in that northern part of the borough of Queens that comprises the southern section of the New York 14th congressional district. There, in late June, 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, an electoral, if not campaign neophyte and self-described Democratic Socialist, sent a shock wave through the Democratic party by beating in a party primary the district’s incumbent ten-term Representative Joe Crowley, the fourth most senior Democrat in the House of Representatives and ‘boss of the Queen’s machine’.

Should the Democrats run on a progressive agenda or appeal to traditional supporters who voted Trump last time?

That result went to the heart of the debate that now divides the Democrats. Come November’s midterm elections, is the party better served running on the progressive agenda espoused by Ocasio-Cortez and a cadre of mostly young and female candidates who have won insurgent primaries victories, thus taking a head-on ideological challenge to ‘Trumpism’ (although he will not be on any ballot in November). Or, should it acknowledge the turn in voter sentiment seen in 2016 that sent many traditional blue-collar Democrat voters into the Trump column, and amend or abandon long-standing policy positions on such as free trade, immigration and welfare?

Moreover, can Democrats square the circle that while the former approach would likely be successful in their safe districts, there is no evidence that it would be in the crucial battleground states, as evidenced by both recent federal special elections and the defeated 2016 presidential bid by Hillary Clinton, the nominee the party preferred to the veteran leftist Senator Bernie Sanders.

The die, in truth, is already cast for November. The primaries are done; the candidates are who they are. The pollsters have the Democrats variously just making the 218 seats needed to take back control of the House to a majority in low double figures. However, the margin of error turns that range at one end into a Republican hold to bare Democrat majority and, at the other, into the Democrats' hoped-for blue wave, similar to that that swept in the Republicans' Tea Party candidates in 2010, marking the start of the current round of highly polarised US politics.

The electoral arithmetic for the Senate is more challenging for the Democrats. To secure a majority, they would have to hold five seats in states that voted for Trump in 2016 plus win two of four competitive races with incumbent Republicans.

If the Democrats win the House, what legislative impact will it have, and what does it mean for the selection of the 2020 presidential candidate?

If the Democrats do take back the House, then the analysis that is needed falls into two areas. First, what legislative impact will it have, and second, how will it shape the party’s selection of its candidate for the 2020 presidential campaign when Donald Trump will be seeking a second term, and able to use all the power of incumbency to his advantage?

On the former, it will likely mean new House investigations into the president’s conduct, although political capital is unlikely to be wasted on initiating impeachment proceedings as that will require a two-thirds Senate majority to be successful.  More salient for companies and investors will be the change of leadership of key House committees, notably the purse-controlling Appropriations and Ways and Means. That implies more contestation of Republican legislative initiatives in the areas of taxation, trade and infrastructure spending.

On the latter, the extent of the ‘blue wave’, if there is one, will colour the debate -- fight would be a better description -- between the party’s Progressive and centrist wings, and especially if the progressives mount a wounding, fatal or otherwise, blow to the Democrats ageing House leadership.  The vanquished Crowley, at 56, was the youngest of the touted successors to Nancy Pelosi as leader of the House Democrats, so scarcely a fresh face.

However, that will not alter the main constraint on Democrats’ choices of candidates for 2020, their thin bench as a result of the Republicans hugely successful 'schoolhouse-to-the White-House' strategy to create a well-stocked escalator of candidates with legislative and executive experience that can move up through the levels of government. This is particularly evident at state governor level, which is the most common political springboard to the White House. Democrats have just 16 of the 50, fewer than half as many as Republicans.

Ocasio-Cortez’s picture stares out from her election flyers still hanging in many storefronts in northern Queens, one of the most diverse parts of the United States. New York's 14th district is rock-solid Democrat district, so at 28, she is set to be the youngest woman to be elected to the U.S. House Of Representatives.

She is already, if far too prematurely being talked of as a future presidential candidate. But she has become the poster child for the young, progressive wing of the Democrats, the inheritors of the mantle of Sanders, for whom she used to work. It is not the mantle of the Democrats' still-Clintonian leadership in the House headed by Pelosi, who was first elected to Congress two years before Ocasio-Cortez was born.

Therein lies the stark gulfs the Democrats still have to bridge, first between their two wings, and then between grassroots victories in safe districts and the multiple hostile fronts of a presidential campaign. Both are far more than the distance of a subway ride.