Lines Long as Americans Render Midterm Verdict on Trump
A sharply divided U.S. electorate voted Tuesday to elect a new Congress and to render a midterm verdict on President Donald Trump, in a vote that could shift the balance of power in Washington and alter the next two years of Trump's presidency.
Voter turnout was expected to be very high, despite bad weather in virtually the entire eastern U.S. Polling stations across the country saw long lines, and in some cases there were problems with voting machines, in part because of wet conditions.
Main issues for voters were health care, immigration and the economy, according to polls, though Trump, who barnstormed across the country spurring fear Central American immigrants moving north toward the U.S.-Mexico border, was also on the minds of many voters.
"Of course it's motivation. I mean, I only became a citizen last year," said Kevin Ombija, a first-time voter originally from Kenya who now lives in Washington, D.C. "Issues of immigrants are very dear to me. … I definitely want to vote everything against [Trump]."
In Orange County, Calif., William Moody cast his vote for Republicans, even while offering qualified support for Trump.
"I defend his belief that the border has to be protected, [but] maybe not as severe as he would do it," Moody said. "The president is his own worst enemy with some of his remarks. If he'd tone it down and just do his job quietly, it'd help us all."
All 435 seats in the House of Representatives were at stake Tuesday, plus 35 of the 100 U.S. Senate seats and 36 of the 50 state governorships.
Public opinion polls and analysts suggested that opposition Democrats had an advantage in the battle for control of the House. Democrats were favored to win more House seats than they currently have, and they needed an overall gain of 23 to retake the House majority.
Republicans counted on Trump to rally his supporters to help maintain their narrow 51-49 edge in the Senate. Of the 35 Senate seats at stake Tuesday, Democrats held 26 and Republicans held nine.
Midterm elections are traditionally seen as a referendum on a sitting president, but this election seems especially so, in part because Trump held an unusually large number of rallies in support of Republicans and urged supporters to treat the election as a confirmation of his policies.
At those rallies, Trump consistently stoked fear of immigrants, insisting his political opponents supported things like "open borders" and crime.
"Democrats want to invite caravan after caravan of illegal aliens to pour into our country. I don't think so," Trump said at a rally in Chattanooga, Tenn., invoking images of the caravans of Central American migrants moving slowly through Mexico. "No nation can allow its borders to be overrun. And that is an invasion. I don't care what they say. I don't care what the fake media says. That is an invasion of our country."
Democrats got some high-profile campaigners to help them, including former President Barack Obama, who rallied voters in his home state of Illinois and told them Trump's deployment of U.S. troops to the border in response to the caravans was a "political stunt."
"When you vote, Illinois, you can reject that kind of politics. When you participate in the political process, you can be a check on bad behavior. When you vote, Illinois, you can choose hope over fear," Obama said.
Early turnout was huge in several states, especially for a midterm election, when total voter turnout often struggles to reach 40 percent of eligible voters.
Democrats felt increasingly optimistic about their chances of taking back control of the House. Last week, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi predicted it would happen.
Trump a central issue
But Trump was not only battling Democrats in this year's election, he was battling history.
"The big picture is that midterm elections go against the president's party," said John Fortier of the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. "I think there will be no difference here. The Democrats will do quite well in the House of Representatives, in the governorships and state legislatures."
Trump's low job approval rating was also a concern for Republicans. RealClearPolitics put Trump's average approval at 43 percent, with 53 percent disapproving. A CNN exit poll of voters today showed that 55 percent disapproved of Trump's performance while 44 percent approved of it. Moreover, 56 percent of those surveyed thought the country was on the wrong track and 41 percent said it was on the right track.
"The midterm history is pretty stark in that the president's party usually loses ground in the midterms, and it is usually a question of how much ground they lose," said University of Virginia analyst Kyle Kondik. "That is particularly true when a president is unpopular, as this president is."
Kondik noted that in the 29 congressional midterm elections held since 1900, the president's party lost House seats in all but three — 1934, 1998 and 2002.
Historically, though, Republicans have been more reliable voters in midterm elections. Gallup pollster Frank Newport said that trend put pressure on Democrats to make sure their supporters got out and voted.
"Under the expectation that Republican voters typically are more likely to turn out, can Democrats energize people who identify with the Democratic Party to turn out and vote for their candidates?" he asked.
If Democrats do win enough House seats to reclaim the majority, Trump will be forced to deal with a shift in the balance of power in Washington.
"The House has been a rubber stamp for the Trump agenda. It will no longer be a rubber stamp," said Jim Kessler of the centrist Democratic group Third Way. "Anything that gets done will have to be on a bipartisan basis."
Democrats hoped for a wave election that would bring them control of the House and gubernatorial victories in key states like Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin.
Republicans were counting on Trump's frenetic campaign pace in the final days to help them retain or perhaps even expand their narrow Senate majority.