Six takeaways from Donald Trump’s State of the Union address

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Late on Tuesday evening, President Donald Trump delivered his State of the Union address in Congress; his second of his presidency so far. The speech comes against a difficult backdrop for the President: firstly, this address follows the Republicans’ loss of the control of the House of Representatives to the Democrats, which weakens the President’s power in Congress and is still fresh in the minds of both parties in Washington. Secondly, the US Government has only just emerged from a lengthy and painful government shutdown – the longest in US history – which delayed the address; there still remains the risk of another shutdown in the weeks to come if spending agreements cannot be reached. However, here are the six key points we can take from Tuesday’s State of the Union address, and what it tells us about the state of American politics as well as the Donald Trump Presidency.

 

The President painted a positive view of America

Donald Trump used his address to highlight positive movements in terms of economic growth, job creation and energy production among other things that have been accomplished under his administration. The President said that an amazing quality of life for all Americans is within reach, and even said that Congress had priorities to lower drug prices and to protect patients with pre-existing conditions, which gained almost instant approval from Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. There was even a nice moment where the President paid tribute to all the women serving in Congress, 100 years after women were given the right to vote. There was a visible core of women Representatives in the chamber who were dressed in white to mark the occasion, and this mention was a cause for great cheer from them. In spite of anything else that may have happened, it was quite a touching moment in the address. This marked a welcome departure from what some commentators were expecting from his address, which they felt could be an aggressive anti-Democrat speech.

 

The President struck an early bipartisan tone…

One of the President’s most notable tones at the start of his address were his calls for bipartisanship, including calls for Congress to choose greatness over gridlock, and for America to “reject the politics of revenge, resistance and retribution”. Trump stated that “victory is not winning for our party. Victory is winning for our country”, continuing on from the vision he set that continued American greatness can be achieved if both parties come together. With the loss of the House of Representatives to the Democrats, Trump himself is going to need to rely on bipartisanship to avoid gridlock over the next two years, as well as – crucially – another shutdown.

 

…But it didn’t last long

Before too long, however, Trump turned his attack on the Mueller investigation in all but name, which he referred to as “partisan investigations”. Trump told Congress that, if they want peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation, and that the investigations should be brought to an end. Essentially, Trump’s argument is that America can’t pursue economic growth if they’re busy investigating him, his campaign, his taxes and his company among other things. Some commentators have likened this to Richard Nixon’s 1974 State of the Union address, in which he called for an end to the Watergate investigations, saying “One year of Watergate is enough.” Calls for bipartisanship are one thing, but we can be fairly sure Trump will blame the Democrats for obstructing him as the investigations continue.

Furthermore, there was quite possibly another shot at the Democrats during the President’s calls for bipartisanship when he called for an end to the politics of “revenge, resistance and retribution”; the word “resistance” has been used to refer to those groups who vehemently oppose Trump; perhaps this was a nudge to those groups? CNN immediately followed that statement with a shot of an angry-looking Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, so perhaps that was how it was meant. There was also criticism aimed at Democrats for not voting through his plans for the Southern Border Wall.

 

Trump stuck to his guns and his base

On the subject of the Wall, any need for compromise or no, Trump is not going to be letting this one go. The President quickly turned to matters of the southern border and national security, of caravans and cartels and illegal immigration. He made sure to give time to discussion of the wall (or the fence made of vertical steel slats as it may end up being), how Democrats had previously voted on it but never delivered it, and that he was prepared to finish the job, saying “I will get it built”. It sounded at this point like the President was addressing his supporters, rather than congress, as he turned to illegal immigration and how he intended his Wall to help in the fight against it. Even issues like school choice were good rallying cries for grassroots Republicans.

Trump even hit on some uncomfortable points, including attacking new abortion legislation in New York and Virginia, further talks with North Korea, and the US’s withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) with Russia. But it’s all red meat to his supporters who don’t want to see him going soft in the face of Democratic opposition. Donald Trump is willing to compromise, just not too much.

 

A lot of Democrats have still not been won over…

Some Democrats are still vehemently opposed to Donald Trump, and probably will be for as long as he’s around. This was visible in some of the reactions to the address in the faces of some of the seated Democrats. Chuck Schumer was often seen with looks of pained and sometimes amused endurance, and there was shots of eye-rolling from Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (NY) and Kamala Harris (CA). Mention has already been made here of Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez.

Others cheered him, with Democratic Senators including Joe Manchin (WV) and Jon Tester (MT) drumming up some degrees of enthusiasm, although they will still hold an awareness of Trump’s popularity within their respective states, and so will need to be seen as on-side with the President occasionally. For other Democrats however, the partisan divide is still clearly visible, and Tuesday’s address will probably not have been enough.

 

…But 2020 presidential challengers are weighing him up

Depending on whose coverage of the address you were watching (I was watching CNN), it was almost guaranteed that there would be multiple shots of Trump’s possible Democratic challengers in 2020: Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren and even Bernie Sanders were all shown not just as present in the chamber for the address, but in quiet observation of the President. They will be looking for his weaknesses and to see where there are gaps, and where he is failing to deliver. The 2020 election is still just under two years and another State of the Union address away, but the road to the election is well underway, and potential candidates have a lot of constituency-building to do. Can they push a better line than the President on infrastructure, the economy and jobs, particularly in blue-collar states neglected by Democrats in recent years? It is highly likely that, in the chamber last night, Donald Trump was being stared down by his 2020 opponent.

 

Overall, Donald Trump is a complicated man with a complicated presidency. His State of the Union address called in part for compromise and bipartisanship, but at other times an unwillingness to deviate from his own personal agenda. Tuesday’s State of the Union address was a lot like what we’ve come to see from Donald Trump in his major public speeches as President, so really there weren’t many surprises. However, positive or not his view of what America can achieve if people come together, it is highly possible that we just go straight back to a partisan stalemate following the address: the threat of a new shutdown is still looming, and if Trump is as rigid as he was throughout December and January, then there will be little from the address or his personal agenda which can be accomplished. As it stands we may have between two and six years of the Trump Presidency left, and it’s unlikely this address will ultimately go any way towards making those years productive.

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The US federal government shutdown: what’s going on and when will it end?

Observing American politics never ceases to be interesting. The new Congress has taken its seat, but it has not been an easy start: the United States federal government is shut down. As of Saturday January 12th, the shutdown became the longest in US history (government shutdowns were first allowed in 1976), surpassing the Clinton shutdown between 1995 and 1996. This includes accounting for the break over Christmas. At the time of writing, the shutdown has lasted for 24 days.

So why has the government shut down this time? Essentially, federal government shutdowns occur in the US when Congress and the President cannot agree on spending plans. If no spending plans can be agreed to, then no money can be spent, and all non-essential federal government functions cease until spending plans can be agreed. This includes the furloughing of federal government employees, which means they will be without a paycheck until the government opens up again.

In this case, the shutdown concerns one of President Donald Trump’s flagship policies: the southern border wall between the US and Mexico. President Trump refused to sign any spending legislation which didn’t guarantee funding for his border wall – to the tune of $5.7 billion – and so by not signing any spending legislation, the President has let the government shut down over this issue.

While some Republicans are pushing for a compromise to include funding for Trump’s border wall, the Democrats, by and large, are opposed to the funding and construction of the wall. With the Democrats now in control of the House of Representatives, obtaining funding from Congress for his wall is only going to be more difficult for the President. And with the Republicans in control of the Senate, that only leads to more deadlock. Furthermore, the President also threatened to declare a national emergency in order to bypass Congress in its construction.

So the wall is the issue here, but what happens next? The shortest answer is that the shutdown will continue until an agreement is reached, with or without funding for the wall. Democrats in Congress, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer continue to meet with the President, but have refused to negotiate on spending legislation until the government has re-opened. On the Republican side, some figures are attempting to get things moving again, even if just temporarily: Lindsey Graham (R-SC), for example, asked the President to sign legislation to temporarily re-open the Government, but the President refused any legislation which does not include funding for the wall. Rob Portman (R-OH), meanwhile, has introduced a bill with Senate colleagues to end government shutdowns entirely.

Of course, Trump will take more flak for the shutdown the longer it continues: with the first federal government shutdown of Trump’s presidency around twelve months ago, the ownership of the three-day shutdown lay largely in the Senate. However, in this case, this is a shutdown which the President himself sought. Indeed, according to a poll by The Washington Post and ABC News, 53% of Americans blame the President and the GOP in Washington for the shutdown. The same poll showed that the majority of Americans oppose the construction of the border wall, with 54% opposed compared to 42% who support it. It is not likely to do the President many favours, therefore, to continue to keep the government closed over an issue which is not seen as a priority by the voting public, never mind if the Trump enacted emergency powers over it.

So when is the shutdown likely to end? Ultimately, it depends on whenever a deal can be reached. One side will have to cave in: President Trump would need to step back on his demand for funding for his border wall, and although he has refused to do that, he has suggested that the definition of “wall” is up for discussion. The Democrats in Congress could also give in and agree to support some kind of funding package for border security (including construction of the wall), even if it is not the full $5.7 billion the President wants. The Republicans, meanwhile, could seek to work with Pelosi and the House Democrats to produce a proposal which could keep both sides happy, even if just temporarily. However, the President has gained a reputation for being temperamental, and so commentators cannot afford to rule out the possibility of him enacting emergency powers in order to begin construction of the wall. The longer the shutdown continues, the greater this risk becomes.

Eight key takeaways from Tuesday’s midterms

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Tuesday night’s midterm election results were certainly interesting: the next sitting of congress will be divided, with the Democrats controlling the House of Representatives and the Republicans controlling the Senate. However, both chambers swung in opposite directions, with the Democrats taking over the House of Representatives and the Republicans solidifying their lead in the Senate.

In my previous projections for Tuesday’s elections, I surprised myself with how close my Senate and Gubernatorial predictions were. A couple of states in each case were different, but my overall numbers were pretty accurate. My House of Representatives totals underestimated the Democrats slightly. However, whatever people’s projections were, there is certainly a lot to discuss. Here are eight key points which we can take away from Tuesday’s election.

Urban vs Rural is the main divide in America

Most of the Democrats’ House gains came in urban and suburban districts, where Donald Trump is unpopular amongst Republican voters. As cities and suburbs become more Democratic-leaning, rural areas and small towns are becoming increasingly Republican. Even states like Texas and Oklahoma saw urban and suburban seats move to the Democrats, while rural Republican districts in West Coast states saw stronger Republican leads. If the urban/rural divide is going to be the battleground which the parties now have to fight on, then they’ll have to learn new strategies in order to voters on both sides of the divide. Having said that though…

Red states are getting redder; blue states are getting bluer

Five fewer states have split-Senate delegations after Tuesday’s elections. Fewer voters in certain states are splitting their tickets between both parties. It almost looks as if the days of traditional swing states are over; with more purple states breaking more for one party over another, the number of reliable swing states is getting smaller. With the defeat of Joe Donnelly and Claire McCaskill, the Democrats now hold no statewide offices in Indiana or Missouri. Despite some House of Representatives gains, Iowa and Arizona are still Republican trifectas with two Republican Senators (subject to verification in Arizona). On the other hand, Colorado swung towards the Democrats on Tuesday night in a number of races, while the Republicans in Virginia rolled further back. Democrats and Republicans may need to think more carefully as to which states to spend time, money and resources campaigning in in the future.

The blue wave didn’t hit

While the Democrats made some impressive gains across the country, including gaining control of the House, their gains were largely limited, with the party making a net gain of around 30 seats, much lower than what many pundits were expecting. Furthermore, while the Democrats captured six governors’ mansions, impressive as their victory in Kansas was, many of them were in traditionally Democratic states, including Illinois and New Mexico, this was stacked up against disappointing losses in Iowa, Ohio and – particularly – Florida. Meanwhile, the Democrats’ night in the Senate speaks for itself. The Democrats’ night can best be described as mixed: a mix of impressive and positive gains along with disappointing losses. While the same can be said for the Republicans, a blue wave on Tuesday it certainly wasn’t.

…but Trump’s job may get a bit more difficult

With the House of Representatives now under Democrat control, Congress is now going to see a lot more deadlock. The President is going to need to take a more bipartisan approach to lawmaking in the next congress, as he will no longer be able to rely on House Republicans to push his agenda through. Of course, the risk of a government shutdown is much greater with a Democratic House and Republican Senate, and if both parties remain partisan then another shutdown is something we could well see in the next two years.

Holding the House of Representatives also means that Nancy Pelosi could push for impeachment of Trump, although this would be incredibly risky; the Democrats’ House Majority is not that big, the movement would likely fail, and would not impress voters in 2020 who would likely move to Trump.

Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination didn’t hurt the Republicans

While Dean Heller in Nevada was a Republican casualty in the Senate, the Democrats’ Senate losses were much greater. Red state Democrats who opposed Kavanaugh were defeated: Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Donnelly, Claire McCaskill and Bill Nelson all lost on Tuesday night, and Jon Tester came painfully close to being unseated in Montana. Joe Manchin, who voted in favour of Kavanaugh, survived. While it’s too early to reliably say how much of a role voting against Kavanaugh played in these Senators’ defeats, it certainly didn’t harm the Republicans’ chances too much. Now the Republicans have as greater Senate majority than before, meaning that voting through Supreme Court nominees will only be easier for Trump and Mitch McConnell.

Florida is a reliable bellwether

While the Democrats picked up two congressional districts in the southernmost part of Florida, the Republicans still led the state in terms of the popular congressional vote, taking 54% of the statewide House of Representatives votes to 45.5% for the Democrats. Despite a high-profile campaign, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum was beaten by Republican Ron DeSantis, and Senator Bill Nelson was bested by current Governor Rick Scott by an even slimmer margin (subject to a recount). Ultimately, the Democrats were hoping for a blue wave, and they fell short; the election results in Florida are a good representation of this, as well as showing that – as with two years ago – the Republicans are still quietly winning even though it may not seem like it.

…but Ohio is a red state now.

This is one I included for myself as this is my academic area. While Sherrod Brown – a fairly popular incumbent Senate Democrat – won re-election, it was evident on the night that he was not performing as well over Republican Jim Renacci as he was expected to. According to RealClearPolitics’s polling average, Brown was given poll leads of 14-16 points. However, his margin of victory was only around six points. The Republicans also held on to every statewide office (Governor and Lt. Governor, Secretary of State, Attorney General, State Treasurer and State Auditor), despite polls saying the gubernatorial race was too close to call and that they were set to lose all the others; Mike DeWine ultimately beat Democrat Richard Cordray by around four points. The Republicans also held onto their supermajorities in both chambers of the state legislature, as well as two highly-competitive House of Representatives districts, including the 12th District which saw a rematch between Congressman Troy Balderson and Danny O’Connor. We will have to wait for the next Presidential election to see if this trend continues.

The road to 2020 has already begun

Of course, another thing we have to remember is that the next time major elections like this take place will be in 2020 when the Presidential election takes place. Everything I’ve discussed in the above takeaways will feed into this: who will be the Democratic nominee? Where will they come from? Will they nominate a clichéd candidate from a Democratic state, like Kamala Harris or Cory Booker, or will they look to middle America for a candidate with broader appeal, like Amy Klobouchar or John Hickenlooper? Will the Democrats move their platform to the anti-Trump left a la Bernie Sanders, or will they try and occupy the centre ground so as to pull in the disaffected-by-Trump Republican vote? How and where will the Democrats focus their campaign? And will Trump be primaried by another Republican candidate? Where are the Democrats’ and Republicans’ centres of political gravity going to be? There is much to be discussed, but the 2020 Presidential race has now begun.

So while we have to wait until January for the new congressional term as well as all the other terms to begin, we can already begin to see the impact that Tuesday’s election results will have on the political map of the US. There is certainly plenty of discussion to be had.

My final projections for the November 6 midterms: Senate, House and governors

So, just a few days to go before Tuesday’s midterm elections, here are my final projections for the Senate, House of Representatives and gubernatorial elections. I originally talked about it on my podcast, The Spin Off, but I’m posting them here as well for people who want to visualise it with maps (but go listen to The Spin Off anyway and subscribe to it on iTunes).

Looking first of all at the Senate: currently the Republicans hold a 51-49 majority in the Senate, meaning the Democrats only have to gain two seats from the Republicans in order to gain control. If a Senate vote is tied 50-50, then the deciding vote is cast by the Vice President. Therefore, a 50-50 Senate is effectively controlled by whichever party holds the Presidency. However, even as things stand now, only two dissenting Republican votes are needed in order for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to lose a vote.

But – only a few days before the election – what are the Democrats’ chances of doing that?

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My projection for the Senate elections.

To put it bluntly, they’re not very good at this point. The Senate Democrats are already entering this year’s midterms on the back foot, as they are defending several marginal seats, including in many Republican states and states which Donald Trump won in 2016. The Republicans, meanwhile, entered the race with two highly marginal seats: Arizona and Nevada. Over the months and weeks leading up to November 6th, the Democrats have also managed to be competitive in Tennessee and Texas, while solidifying their chances in Rust Belt states.

However, recent polling in Nevada has turned more positive for incumbent Republican Senator Dean Heller: whereas a few weeks ago Democrat Jackie Rosen was leading by an average of 2.3 points according to RealClearPolitics, Heller has managed to turn that into a 1.7 point average lead over Rosen, so if the polls are beginning to turn in Heller’s favour this close to election day, then his chances of holding on are looking better. Meanwhile, in Arizona, where Jeff Flake is not running for re-election, Republican Martha McSally has turned Democrat Kirsten Sinema’s 4.4 average lead from a few weeks ago into an average 0.7 point lead for herself. So in my final projection, I’m keeping both Arizona and Nevada in the Republican column; Tennessee and Texas I think will be beyond the Democrats’ reaches this time around.

We can probably expect some more mixed results from Democrat-held seats I expect incumbent Democrats will hold on in Florida, Montana and West Virginia. I’m also keeping Indiana as a Democrat hold, as incumbent Joe Donnelly has been leading in the last couple of polls. However, I think Indiana may be one of the toughest Senate races to call.

Unfortunately, this is about as good as it gets for the Democrats: it is largely agreed upon by most commentators at this point that they are set to lose North Dakota, where at-large US Representatve Kevin Cramer has been leading Heidi Heitkamp by as much as sixteen points in recent polls. Meanwhile, Missouri is almost as close as Indiana is, but I have this down as a Republican pickup. Republican Josh Hawley is leading Claire McKaskill by an average of two points according to RealClearPolitics in what is an increasingly Republican state today.

As you can see in the map above, my final projection keeps the Republicans in control of the Senate with a total of 53 seats, an increase of two on their previous total.  This will be good news for Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell, as this gives them a slightly stronger grip on the chamber, especially when it comes to Supreme Court nominees. However, this will probably be the best story for the Republicans on Tuesday night.

Now onto the House of Representatives – and while the Democrats still seem likely to gain control of the House, it is perfectly possible that the result could be a lot closer than many might have thought.

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My (approximate) projection for the House of Representatives election.

It would take too long to run through every seat, so I’m going to let the map do most of the talking here. The map is just an approximation and I’ve taken a guess on a number of seats. However, what I can largely expect to see is urban or suburban toss-ups mostly breaking for the Democrats, thanks to anti-Trump suburban Republicans either backing Democrats or just not voting for Republicans. This will be more visible in states where Democrats hold strength, including California, Virginia and New Jersey.

However, I expect that Democrats will underperform some of their projections in the Midwest, and may fail to flip key districts in states such as Iowa, Minnesota and Ohio. Indeed, we may simply see blue districts going bluer and red districts going redder. While the Democrats could gain as many as 30 House seats nationwide, any Republican gains from the Democrats are likely to be negligible.

My projection for the House is that it will be much closer than some are projecting: this model puts the Democrats on 219 and the Republicans on 216, with a party needing 218 seats for control. As this map is just an approximation, I’m going to project that the Democrats will probably win between 214 and 224 seats, with the Republicans taking between 211 and 221. So while the Democrats probably still have the upper hand here, it is certainly not guaranteed, and likely to be far removed from the idea of a Blue Wave. If the Democrats take the House they will certainly have cause for celebration, but their margins might not be enough to do anything drastic, such as seeking to impeach the President.

Finally, the Gubernatorial elections. This is where things are looking more positive for the Democrats.

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My projection for the gubernatorial elections.

As it stands, I am forecasting the Democrats to pick up six Governor’s Mansions from the Republicans across the country. This still includes three in the Midwest: Illinois, Michigan and Wisconisn, along with New Mexico, Maine and Florida. The Republicans currently hold Nevada, but Governor Brian Sandoval is term-limited. I initially had Nevada down as a Democratic pickup as well, but due to Dean Heller having pulled away slightly in the Senate race, I’ve moved the gubernatorial race to the Republican column.

Perhaps the most uncertain gubernatorial race in this cycle is in Ohio. Many people will be watching Ohio because of it’s perceived “bellwether” status (even though Ohio is effectively a Republican state – I wrote my Masters thesis on Ohio’s bellwether status, so contact me for more information on this), and so perhaps might tell us something about how the country is viewing the Trump administration. My gut instinct is that Mike DeWine will hold on to the Governor’s mansion for the Republicans, but Democrats are currently leading in the elections for the other statewide offices including Attorney General, Secretary of State and State Auditor. However, the Republicans are forecast to hold onto the State House and State Senate. However, based on that and the Republicans’ overall strength in gubernatorial elections in Ohio, I am cautiously marking this down as a Republican hold. I also have the Republicans holding on in Georgia, even though the election may well go to a run-off. I am also expecting the Republicans to take back Alaska from independent Bill Walker, who is not running for re-election after a difficult term. However, this is about as good as I expect it to get for the Republicans in the gubernatorial elections.

The projected totals for the gubernatorial elections, therefore, will give us 28 Republican governors nationwide to 22 Democrats, reflecting six governors’ offices flipped from Republican to Democrat and one Republican pickup from an Independent. This is very good news for the Democrats and brings both parties’ totals of governorships a lot closer together. However, as governorships are state offices, rather than federal offices, it may not be clear how much of the outcome relates to state politics rather than national politics and opinions of the President.

So to summarise this final projection, I project that next week the Republicans will hold on to the Senate but the Democrats will narrowly gain the House of Representatives. While gaining control of the House of Representatives will no doubt be a great accomplishment for the Democrats, such a narrow margin will be no guarantee that they will effectively be able to stand up against Donald Trump. With the Republicans’ Senate Majority projected to be larger than it currently is, this will likely be all the more difficult.

However, the Republican rollback in gubernatorial elections, particularly in the Midwest and other areas where Trump won will present a concern. While it will no doubt be encouraging to see them do better-than-expected in the South West, the backslide in the Midwest could temporarily halt any hopes the Republicans had of becoming the party of the Midwest.

However, it’s important to remember that midterm elections – like local elections and by-elections in the UK – are often used as referenda on the performance of the current administration, and so are not always reliable indicators of what the outcome of the 2020 Presidential Election might be. There are also numerous state legislatures up for re-election, as well as countless local elections and initiatives, so the House, Senate and Gubernatorial elections may not tell us the whole picture of the political balance of the Midwest, or any part of the US for that matter. Indeed, come 2020, we may see a completely different set of results.

In the meantime, I shall have to wait until Tuesday night to see how close my projections were.

All information is correct at the time of writing – new polls may have come in since.

Forget Kavanaugh and Ford for a moment – partisanship has been running this hearing

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Yesterday was a good day if you like live coverage of political events. For over eight hours today, the Senate Judiciary Committee sat to hold its hearings with Dr Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Brett Kavanaugh.

This was a highly anticipated and hugely important event, not just on the grounds that it concerned the nomination of a Judge to the Supreme Court of the United States; Dr Ford was in the room to testify about her allegations that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her at a party in 1982 when they were both high school students. As a Supreme Court Justice is a lifetime position, a thorough vetting process is important. But given the nature of the sexual assault allegations against Judge Kavanaugh, whether true or not, the hearing throws out other questions about whether Kavanaugh’s temperament is right for the Supreme Court.

I will state again, as I have stated before, that Dr Ford was incredibly brave for taking the stand yesterday. Sexual assault allegations are serious and need to be taken seriously and heard thoroughly. It was right that Dr Ford was heard yesterday, and many will agree that Dr Ford’s testimony was compelling and believable, and many also believe it was truthful, whether or not Kavanaugh is guilty. But we must uphold the rule that anyone accused is innocent until proven guilty, especially if there are no witnesses willing to testify. However, if there is any doubt in the Senators’ minds about Kavanaugh’s involvement or temperament, then they should suspend the vote so that a more thorough and conclusive investigation can take place.

In any case these allegations were troubling to me as they should be for anyone. However, in all honesty, I am not certain how much the allegations by themselves would have affected the outcome of these hearings, or if the process would be any less divisive without them. One thought which was running through my mind during yesterday’s hearings was how much finding the truth matters in this process. I say this because the decisive and divisive factor in the nomination process was already present long before the allegations came out: partisanship.

The poison that is deep, divisive partisanship is very much alive and well in American political culture today. This is not just playing out at the ballot box, on social media or in the culture wars: it is very present in Washington, too. It defined yesterday’s hearings: whilst Dr Ford was incredibly brave to take the stand, the hearing seemed more like both she and Kavanaugh had their own team of supporters, and both teams were going after each other. It was hard much of the time to get the sense that the committee – for the most part – was seeking to uncover the truth or hear evidence. When Dr Ford was testifying, the Democratic Senators for the most part turned their attacks on the Republicans and their handling of the process, while Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley used his opening statement to criticise the Democrats and independent prosecutor Rachel Mitchell questioned Ford on behalf of the Republicans. I was equally troubled by Kavanaugh’s testimony, blaming the allegation on “revenge on behalf of the Clintons”. Whether guilty or not, this was an unsubstantiated partisan claim from Kavanaugh almost bordering on conspiratorial behaviour.

Many have commented on how 11 male Republican Senators were serving on the Committee, and that no female Republican has ever served on the committee. To that end, I think that deferring their questioning of Ford to Ms Mitchell was a sensible idea, as having a female prosecutor questioning served to both counter the all-male image of the Republican grouping on the Committee as well as to get some non-partisan questioning so as to avoid party politics influencing the questioning too much. When Kavanaugh took the stand, however, the Republicans did not avail themselves of Ms Mitchell’s services as much, with most of them vocally defending him and decrying the allegations (by now most of us have seen Lindsay Graham spitting fire accusing the Democrats of holding a “sham” hearing), while the Democrats treated Kavanaugh to the probing questioning which they did not subject Ford to.

However, it was not just in the Committee Room that partisanship was being played out: following Kavanaugh’s testimony last night, Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy emerged from the Committee Room and was asked if the Republicans were making a mistake by moving to a mark-up vote on Kavanaugh. Leahy responded that he thought the Republicans made a mistake when they blocked Merrick Garland for over a year.

For me, this statement alone tells us a lot about the Democrats’ position on Kavanaugh’s nomination. As long as Democrats remain embittered about the Republicans’ blocking of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, we will never really get a balanced nomination process for any Supreme Court justice. It makes me question the extent to which the Democratic Party and Senators such as Leahy are really on Dr Ford’s side and on the side of the women who have come forward, or if the Democrats’ simply have an agenda to push for which Dr Ford serves as a useful carrier.

I am certainly not downplaying the allegations presented by Dr Ford or by anyone who has shared their experience in light of this hearing. But throughout yesterday’s hearings I was seriously questioning how important these allegations were to the process, or how many Senators had already made up their mind as to how they were going to vote on Kavanaugh without hearing any additional evidence, and if they are using either Dr Ford’s testimony or Kavanaugh’s passionate defence as justification for the choice they had already made.

However, let’s pretend for a moment that these allegations never came forward; even without these allegations, would this nomination process be any less divisive? I have previously said that both parties were playing politics with Kavanaugh’s nomination process (including Diane Feinstein who withheld Dr Ford’s letter, and the Republicans who sought to rush the vote), but partisan divides were visible before Kavanaugh was named as President Trump’s nominee. Rather than considering what qualities and experience we should be looking for in a new justice, focus was placed on bitterness over Garland’s nomination, obsession from both sides over whether Roe v Wade should be upheld or overturned, and what might be best for each parties’ prospects in November’s midterms.

I don’t believe any of these factors would have changed if any conservative- or liberal-leaning justice had been nominated. Partisanship slammed the door shut on any discussion about what or who a good Supreme Court Justice needs to be, and instead dictates our keenness to get a liberal or a conservative justice on the Supreme Court above anything else. This was the case long before the allegations came out, and this is what got us into the position we are in now. Such partisanship has not always been the norm: in 1993, Ruth Bader Ginsburg – a very liberal Justice – was confirmed to the Supreme Court with 96 votes to three. Even President Richard Nixon nominated Democratic Justices to the Supreme Court.

So how do we get round this partisan or ideological way of thinking? As I have said in the past, it starts with us as individuals. If we want to seek the truth, we will need to learn to stop thinking purely in linear, partisan terms, and find more common ground by pursuing truth and justice, and what is right. The questions we should be asking ourselves in this case should be “what do we believe to be true?”, “do we think Brett Kavanaugh’s temperament is right for the Supreme Court?” and “what is best for the country?”. Do we trust the FBI and the American Bar Association, or do we have an agenda we need to push through at all costs?

We can change our way of thinking by stopping judging or dismissing people simply by how they vote or what their political positions are. We can stop assuming someone is bad simply because they don’t agree with us. We can bring political discussion off social media in back to amongst ourselves, and remove the anger and hate from our dialogue. We can do this by being more open to having discussions with people we don’t agree with, rather than building our own echo chambers for ourselves by shutting them out. If we can do this, we can have a greater, open, more inclusive about different issues, including what makes a good Supreme Court nominee. This will help us to identify nominees of good standing and temperament – regardless of their political position – rather than seeking to pack the Supreme Court and political spheres with those who might promote our agenda.

This will not be owned by the Democrats and will not be owned by the Republicans. It can only happen if we all change how we think not just towards issues, but towards each other as well, independent of what our party preference, voting history or political positions may be. We have to be prepared to stand for what’s right, even if it rocks the boat a little bit. Without such stark partisanship, we can all seek the truth without feeling as if we have line to follow. We can still all be Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals, and we do not have to sacrifice the ideals which we believe in and that drive us.

I do not know if Brett Kavanaugh is innocent or guilty of the allegations. However, I believe Dr Ford, I believe that Kavanaugh’s yearbook comments are telling of his character while at Georgetown Preparatory School, and I think that rushing the vote through at this time is wrong, and more time is needed to properly consider the nomination and all the information surrounding it. In any case, whether you believe Brett Kavanaugh is innocent or guilty of the allegations, or whether or not you think it is right to nominate him to the Supreme Court, it was ultimately partisanship and ideological divisions which got us to a point where pushing an agenda is more important than truth and investigation. Once again, this is something that we can fix, but it’s yet another thing that starts with us.

The allegation against Brett Kavanaugh needs to be heard, but the parties need to stop playing politics

Image result for brett kavanaugh

The nomination hearings for President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, have been in the process for over two months now. Whilst previous concerns about Kavanaugh’s appointment revolved around issues such as Roe v Wade, campaign finance and the executive powers of the President, the Justice is now the subject of a decades-old sexual assault accusation – one which poses the risk of sinking his nomination.

To fill in those who may not be up to speed, the accusation relates to a claim by Dr Christine Blasey Ford, a College Professor from California who claims that Kavanaugh attempted to sexually assault her in front of another individual while they were all in high school, during which time Kavanaugh was a student at Georgetown Preparatory School in Washington DC. Ford thinks the incident took place in 1982, when Kavanaugh was 17 and she was 15.

Dr Ford sent a letter, dated July 30th, 2018, to California Senator Dianne Feinstein, a ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The letter had been sent including a request for anonymity from Ford; however, as a result of leaks and risks of her name being released, Ford decided to speak out publicly about the allegation.

The Senate Judiciary Committee has asked Ford to appear at the hearings next week in order to give evidence. However, Ford has suggested that she will not wish to appear before the committee until an FBI investigation into the alleged incident has taken place. The Committee is happy for Ford to testify either publicly or privately. However, Republicans in the Senate have suggested that a vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination will go ahead if Ford refuses to testify on Monday (September 24th). The Committee’s chairman, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) has set a deadline of 10am this Friday (September 21st) for Ford to say if she will testify, otherwise the Senate Republicans will press on with Kavanaugh’s nomination; they hope to have Kavanaugh installed by October 1st, the start of Congress’s Autumn sitting.

Democrats want to delay the hearing until the FBI has investigated the allegation. However, the response to this suggestion from supporters of Kavanaugh is that there is no need for an FBI investigation as Ford and Kavanaugh – along with the third individual – are the only people involved in the case, and so there is no need for additional information to be uncovered. Furthermore, Kavanaugh’s supporters also argue that – as the accusation is now public – there is no need for the FBI to source confidential information relating to the case.

Of course, there is no doubt that this allegation needs to be taken seriously; Kavanaugh, himself as a Justice, can surely understand the need for this. Any Supreme Court nomination needs to involve a complete and thorough vetting process, and this incident – regardless of whether or not it took place and any context or circumstances surrounding it – needs to be included as part of this. I am not a legal expert in any way, but it is unlikely that – if the allegation is true – this accusation will lead to any criminal charges due to Kavanaugh’s age at the time. However, it is still important information to consider during his hearing.

There are three main questions which we need to ask regarding this matter: the allegation, Ford’s letter and all the surrounding discussion. First of all – and most importantly – is the allegation true? Did it really happen and is there enough credible evidence that Kavanaugh was involved in this? What sort of role should this information play in the nomination process? Once again, this allegation of sexual assault needs to be taken seriously and investigated thoroughly, but there is no justice being done if it throws Kavanaugh’s nomination without being thoroughly investigated, heard and discussed.

Secondly, there is a question from Kavanaugh’s supporters over why these accusations are coming out now, during his nomination to the Supreme Court. As it happens, Ford first contacted her Congresswoman and the Washington Post about her allegation when Kavanaugh was still a shortlisted candidate for the Supreme Court position. However, Kavanaugh has been a circuit judge and as a member of the George W Bush White House before that, and no such complaints against him had previously been heard, either from Ford or anyone else.

Thirdly, if Senator Feinstein received Ford’s letter in July, why did she hold onto it until now? Despite the letter being dated from July, Feinstein only referred the letter to the FBI for investigation last Thursday (September 13th), around the time the allegation became public. Surely as Kavanaugh is being evaluated for an appointment to the highest court in the United States, this allegation is of a higher importance than to be left for nearly two months? Considering the hearings that have already been taking place at the level of the Senate Judiciary Committee, of which Feinstein has been a part, and the Democrats’ calls for the hearings to be delayed, it does seem as if Feinstein is attempting to play politics with this accusation by holding on to the letter until a more opportune time.

This is certainly not the time to play politics, either on the Democrats’ part for looking for any opportunity to delay the case or on the Republicans’ part for attempting to rush through the nomination at any cost. Once again, Ford’s allegation, whether true or not, is a serious one and deserves to be taken as such. Ford should be allowed to testify in the hearing – without being subject to any threat or fear of reprisal, I might add – and Kavanaugh equally should be allowed to respond to the accusation in the same process as well as benefit from a full and thorough evaluation by the Committee. This is no different to if a trial was taking place in court over the issue: if a witness or victim refused to give evidence, then there is no evidence that can be considered, and no conviction can be made. If this leads to a delay in the nomination process, then so be it. Equally, if Ford refuses to testify against Kavanaugh or the facts of the allegation against the Judge cannot be substantiated, then the issue cannot play a part in the nomination process and any discussion of it will only have served to stall for time in the process.

Ultimately we will have to see over the coming days what this means for Brett Kavanaugh. One thing is clear, however, is that this is a serious issue that has the potential to throw Kavanaugh’s nomination. In an era where congressional partisanship is still at a high point, the two parties in Congress were already divided enough over President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee. But as I have said, this is not a question that we should be playing politics over; this allegation needs to be heard as part of a full and just vetting process, but the nomination process still needs to continue.

Ohio’s 12th District Special Election – how good are the Democrats’ chances?

Image result for danny o'connor special election ohio

Ohio’s 12th Congressional District has been vacant since January, when incumbent Representative Pat Tiberi resigned to head up the Ohio Business Roundtable. That means that a Special Election will be held in Ohio’s 12th district on August 7th, just three months before November’s midterm elections.

This will be the last special election before the midterms, as well as the last before the new Congress sits in January, and so the race is generating plenty of interest as it could end up as an indicator of how the Midterms could play out. Both parties are fighting hard for the win: the Republicans are putting forward Troy Balderson, a State Senator from Zanesville, while the Democrats have put their hopes in Danny O’Connor, the Franklin County Recorder.

The race has already gained a high profile, due in part to what it could mean for the upcoming midterms; if the Democrats can win in Ohio’s 12th District, then it would give them hopes of winning in other competitive Congressional Districts, along with competitive Senate seats and Governor’s Mansions. But what are the chances that the Democrats can flip the district on August 7th?

Of course, it’s possible, especially considering that this is a Special Election during a time of unpopularity within the White House/Congress, with a Gallup poll from the 1st-11th July reporting a 77% disapproval rating compared to just 17% approval of how Congress is doing its job, a net approval of -60%. Meanwhile, Donald Trump scores slightly better, with an average disapproval rating through July of 54%, giving a net average of -12.

So while plenty of voters may be keen for a change, the fact is that Ohio’s 12th Congressional District is a Republican district. Apart from a single two-year Congress from 1981 to 1983, the district has been held by the Republicans since 1939, including between 1983 and 2001 by John Kasich himself. Throughout their combined 35 years representing the District, both Kasich and Tiberi often carried the district with over 60% of the vote. According to the official 2016 primary results from the Ohio Secretary of State’s Office, as part of his statewide win in Ohio, Kasich carried the 12th District in the Republican primary with 56.7% of the vote, compared to 24% for Donald Trump and 14% for Ted Cruz.

However, while this area of Central Ohio covered by the 12th District is Republican Country, it is not Trump country; just Republican country. The voter base which pushed Donald Trump to victory across the Midwest in 2016 – white working class, blue collar industry and Rust Belt workers – is not present so much in Central Ohio. A study put out by the Bliss Institute of Politics at the University of Akron, which discusses Ohio being made up of five Ohios (Northeast, Northwest, Central, Southeast and Southwest), describes Central Ohio as “[resembling] the west in terms of professional/managerial roles and college degrees”. So while Central Ohio is certainly Republican country, along with much of the rest of the state, it is not Trump country. It’s probably more Kasich Republican country.

Indeed, Kasich has given his endorsement to Troy Balderson, which will no doubt give him a boost among moderate and anti-Trump Republicans in the district. However, Balderson describes himself as a “strong supporter” of President Trump’s administration. O’Connor, meanwhile, has largely stayed away from attacking or criticising Kasich so far in his campaign, most likely as an attempt to appeal to those anti-Trump Republicans who may be looking for a change in Congress.

So these factors in mind, how is the election looking so far? Polls from June by Monmouth and JMC Analytics showed Balderson leading by 9 and 11 points respectively, with shares of 48-39 and 46-35, while a new poll from Monmouth published on August 1st had both candidates effectively tied, with Balderson on 46% and O’Connor on 45%, so the race is still very much ongoing.  Meanwhile, CNN Politics, Sabato’s Crystal Ball and The Cook Political Report are rating the race as a toss-up, and Real Clear Politics and Inside Elections have put it as tilt or lean Republican. Sabato’s Crystal Ball managing editor Kyle Kondik gives some reasons for the toss-up rating: Kyle cites early voting being stronger for the Democrats than in 2016, and the popularity O’Connor may command in the areas of Franklin County closest to Columbus which are covered by the district, as being factors that give O’Connor at least a good look in, if not victory in the race.

Taking into consideration these areas of Franklin County, and thinking back to what we were talking about earlier about the characteristics of Central Ohio, it’s not difficult to see why they might throw O’Connor a bit of a chance. Columbus is a growing city, where business and tech sectors are booming, and with this growth comes an increasing suburban sprawl. As the suburbs push outwards, the dynamic of central Ohio changes.

While the Ohio as a state is becoming more Republican, the Democratic vote is concentrating in growing urban and suburban areas, such as in Columbus and Franklin County. Understanding the political change that’s taken and is, indeed, taking place in Ohio is key to understanding why the race is competitive. Whilst Delaware County is still strongly Republican, it has seen an average swing of 2.4 points to the Democrats in every Presidential Election cycle since 2000, which we can see from crunching election data available from the Office of the Ohio Secretary of State. The swing in Franklin County has been slightly larger towards the Democrats, at 3.1 percent. The map below shows the average Presidential Election swing in Ohio counties between 2000 and 2016, with the 12th District superimposed for reference; it is clear to see how much the urban-rural divide is changing the political map of Ohio, and how the growth of Columbus’s urban area northwards into Delaware County can affect the political dynamic of the District.
Ohio swing 00-16 with 12th district

So what can we expect to see on the night of August 7th? While the reasoning behind the various ratings agencies’ decisions to move the district to a “toss-up” is fairly clear, I still think that Ohio’s 12th District will stay with the Republicans next week. Based on the polling thus far, which is fairly limited, I don’t think there is enough to indicate that the Democrats will be able to flip this district. Also, whilst there may be a growing Democratic vote in the northern areas of Franklin County and southern areas of Delaware County, I don’t think this will be enough to tip the state away from the continuing Republican vote in the more rural and small town areas of the District. Even if the Democrats do manage to flip the district next week, the district could well just flip back to the Republicans in November.

Now, that’s not to say it won’t happen, as no election outcome is guaranteed. Indeed, if the Democrats can win in Ohio’s 12th District, there will be questions as to what other damage they could do to the Republicans in November. If the Republicans win, they will win some room to breathe – for now.