Why Midterm Elections are Influential

by Steven Dugan

During last year’s midterm elections Americans went to the polls to decide many races. Among them were the entire House of Representatives, one-third of the Senate, numerous governors’ races, a variety of state and local offices, and here in California, our usual slate of petition-driven initiatives. The Constitution calls for this two-year voting cycle, with every other election being a presidential election. A common question asked during every midterm election is how influential are they? The answer is that they can be very influential. Don’t just look at November’s results for an example; consider what happened during the presidency of Republican William Howard Taft in 1910.

Theodore Roosevelt, Taft’s predecessor, hand-picked him to become president with hopes of continuing the work of the Progressive Era. Progressive policies included social activism (e.g., racial equality), political reform (e.g., direct election of Senators), economic reform (e.g., low tariffs), prohibition, women’s suffrage, and conservation (e.g., protecting natural resources including animals, plants, and their habitats).  After taking office, however, Taft did not pursue the Progressive policies as promised and conservative Republicans were more than happy to oblige Taft’s business-centric, limited government approach. When Taft aligned himself with these conservatives to raise tariffs, Roosevelt loyalists saw this as a betrayal. Taft’s rebuke of Roosevelt’s Progressive agenda alienated him so much that he facilitated an alliance between Progressive Republicans and Democrats in Congress, boldly challenging Taft’s leadership of the Republicans and the country. In retaliation, Taft attempted to defeat the Progressive candidates at the primary level, which was a colossal flop.

The Homestead collection includes this cabinet card of President Theodore Roosevelt with his wife Anna. It was taken during their visit to Los Angeles in May, 1903. By 1910, Roosevelt was leading the Progressive wing of the Republican Party.

The election of 1910 drastically flipped control of Congress. Democrats gained 57 seats in the House and 10 in the Senate. This gave them complete control in the House and working control in the Senate through their coalition with Progressive Republicans. Democrats also had significant victories in many governors’ races in previously strong Republican states. This new Congress blocked Taft and his conservative agenda for the next two years.

Professor Andrew E. Busch of Claremont-McKenna College explains that “…midterm elections can serve as a tool to block a president or force him to compromise,” essentially an extra check on the White House. He further notes that midterms can give the opposition a chance to bring about new leadership to unify the party. The 1910 Election did just that. The country was introduced to a new class of Democratic leaders, most notably Governor Woodrow Wilson of New Jersey and a state senator from New York named Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The Progressive and Democratic alliance in the 62nd Congress also allowed the Democrats to move their own agenda, so when Woodrow Wilson ran for president in 1912, he campaigned on the accomplishments of the Congress elected in 1910 and railed against Taft’s tariff policies. The result was a huge landslide win for the Democrats and Wilson, due in part to the alliance of the Progressives and Democrats, as well as Theodore Roosevelt’s failed third-party run for the White House. (And while it had no overall effect on the election, Roosevelt’s popularity was still strong enough that he received roughly one million more popular votes than Taft, as well as 88 Electoral Votes, as opposed to 5 for Taft.)

The Homestead collection includes this image of President Woodrow Wilson in a parade through the streets of Los Angeles in September, 1919.  Wilson benefited from the ideological split in the Republican Party between Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. Less than three weeks after this photo was taken, Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke which virtually incapacitated him for the remaining year-and-a-half of his second term.

Vote tabulation from the 2018 midterm election is finally finished, and significant changes occurred. The opposition party (Democrats) gained 40 seats in the House of Representatives, while Republicans held and increased their control of the Senate with a net gain of two seats. The Democrats saw their biggest net gain in the House since 1974, when they gained 49 seats, and the largest gain overall since 2010, when the GOP captured 63 seats.

Midterm elections play an important role in our representative democracy. It’s not simply the two major parties winning or losing seats in Congress. These elections influence policy, budgets, nominations, and quite possibly the next presidential election! The 2018 midterm elections resulted in a split government, and it will be interesting to see if the results serve as an extra check on President Trump’s agenda, or force him to compromise. More importantly, who will emerge as the Democrat’s and Republican’s next generation of leaders? We’ll have to wait and see.

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