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The State of the Disunion: One Week to the Midterms


As the Toteboard has been saying since January last year – that’s twenty-two months ago – next week’s midterm elections are still looking to be very close, at least on the senate side. As of this writing, the analysts at FiveThirtyEight see it as exactly 50/50 for which party ends up controlling that chamber, and they have it at better than 2-1 odds that the final tally will shift no more than two seats in either direction. That’s really quite unusual. We have to look back to 1998, and perhaps 1990, to find a midterm cycle that had that “neutral” a result.

Of course, that may not be how things ultimately turn out. With things as close as they are, even a slight shift in the national mood, a late-breaking tilt toward one party, or a modest systematic polling error – all of which have happened before and are certainly possible again – could quickly turn things a lot more lopsided. But for at least this hot second, it’s looking like a nail-biter which really could go either way.

But what is most extraordinary about the upcoming election – and it’s something that no national analysts seem to have noticed – is not only that we could be heading toward a pretty neutral conclusion, but that we are also coming from a pretty neutral starting line. That is to say, both chambers of Congress are already essentially evenly divided – and this is after two really close presidential elections – and the forthcoming election may not do too much to change that. We are going into this election from a state of virtual deadlock, and we may come out of in a state of virtual deadlock. There is really no historical precedent for this sort of thing, period.[i]

So why is that significant? Well, the obvious significance is that it demonstrates how evenly divided the country is at this point in its history. It has definitely been that way for a while, and it may stay that way for a while. The country is in a highly tense political standoff.

But the sad thing is that social and political division does not have be synonymous with social and political vitriol, and yet, it is. Even a disparate hodgepodge of fifth graders on the playground have a natural instinct for employing “schoolyard rules” to disarm the potential conflicts that may emerge from various divisions. It’s not rocket science to settle for compromising, or “taking turns,” or finding a game that everyone can play. On the other hand, America, or at least the politicians Americans elect, currently reject such accommodations of one another. The country is divided. Angrily, nastily, ruthlessly. If you’re not depressed about it, you’re not paying attention.

How did we get to such a toxic place? There are, of course, many places to point fingers: conservative talk radio, Russian interference, and a whole slew of partisan bad actors acting badly. But the Toteboard lays responsibility for this poisonous trajectory squarely at the feet of George W. Bush. After his controversial razor-thin victory in 2000, with narrow control of both Congressional chambers (including a 50-50 senate requiring a vice presidential tie-breaker -- sound familiar?), there was much public speculation (and much hope) that Bush would recognize the precarious nature of his victory and strive to lead through consensus as a centrist coalition builder. But, no such luck. Bush immediately chose to govern from the right, acting as though he had a genuine mandate, rather than simply the good fortune of a few thousand elderly Palm Beach County voters who couldn’t un-flap their butterfly ballots. Abetted by some truly piggish minions like Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Armey, and Ailes, Bush adopted a muscular and wrongheaded foreign policy (including his catastrophic Iraq invasion), took flagrant advantage of the 9/11 attacks to advance his partisan agenda, played legislative hardball, corrupted the courts, and enabled dirty campaigns. And this doesn’t even touch on his role as the incompetent CEO who fiddled while the economy burned.

If the republicans acted like sore winners with an inflated sense of entitlement during Bush’s administration – “attitude reflects leadership” – they turned into sore losers with an inflated sense of entitlement during Obama’s, reinventing themselves as an aggrieved obstructionist bloc that routinely weaponized the filibuster, while rejecting any semblance of either compromise or fair play. By the time they shamelessly blocked Merrick Garland’s SCOTUS nomination, they officially established themselves as the party that fights dirty, as the party that abuses power, that cheats to gain unfair advantage, that jettisons ethics in the service of partisan gain, and that even resists the peaceful transfer of power. This is the party that gerrymanders and suppresses minority votes. This is the party that suspended senate rules to take over the Supreme Court, blithely ignoring evidence that Kavanagh couldn’t control where he stuck his winkie, and rushing through Barrett while RBG’s body was still cooling. This is the party you can’t trust as far you can piss.

And just as you can’t reason with someone who is unreasonable, you can’t deliberate with someone who won’t enter deliberations in good faith. You can’t compromise with someone who is planning their next coup.

And that’s why there’s so much at stake in this election. This midterm election, the kind of election that used to pass unnoticed by all but hardcore activists and political junkies, the kind of election that used to be marked by indifference and low voter turnout, will determine which party comes out on the upside of fifty percent. And it will determine an awful lot about the future of the country, because if the republicans win anything by even a single vote, by hook or by crook, they’ll do whatever the fuck they want.


Rather than offering a state-by-state breakdown, or even a party-by-party breakdown, of key races, this installment of the Toteboard focuses on the electoral significance of specific states or specific clusters of states. Here is how to tell score:

The Main Battlegrounds: Georgia, Nevada, and Pennsylvania. These are the races that will decide which party controls the senate. Whichever party wins the two-out-of-three playoff series wins the chamber. It is also possible that one party will run the table on these three states. That would mean the democrats are having a very good night, or the republicans (who would be flipping two seats) are having an excellent night. But there’s a more important implication if either party takes the whole pot. These three states, though all various hues of purple, are very different from one another in terms of demographics, voter elasticity, electoral history, and so forth. That is to say, there is no a priori reason to think these states should be correlated, i.e., that a late voting trend in Georgia would be indicative a similar trend in Pennsylvania. So if they all go one way or another, that may be indicative of a national trend, i.e., a shift in the national mood, and it may mean that some of the next dominoes are ready to go. But then again, maybe not. The odds still favor no more than one or two flips, so these may be the only ones to go. We’ll see.

First Sign of a Big Democratic Night: Wisconsin. This is a tough call, because Wisconsin, North Carolina, and even Ohio are all kind of next in line to go, as they all have the republicans at somewhere between 2/1 and 3/1 favorites. But Wisconsin is historically the bluest of the three, there must be enough cheeseheads up there who have gotten sick and tired of Ron Johnson by now, and (perhaps most importantly) there really haven’t been any reliable polls since early October, when the race looked to be very close. This one really could be a sleeper for the democrats.

First Sign of a Big Republican Night: Arizona. Incumbent Mark Kelly has been leading the polls by mid- to high- single-digits throughout the whole campaign, but the race has looked tighter in recent days, and the polls significantly overestimated his margin of victory two years ago. The state has recently been reclassified as a legitimate purple, as it has trended blue the last couple of cycles. It would be seriously demoralizing if this one fall out of democratic hands.

First Sign of a Democratic Wave: Ohio. Yeah, it’s probably a pipe dream that the in-power party can somehow muster a wave, but the republicans are especially despicable opponents, and their courts have only begun to chip away at our rights. If nothing else, Tim Ryan has made Ohio interesting. Win this one, and the blue celebration will be popping champagne corks well past Thanksgiving.

First Sign of a Republican Wave: New Hampshire. To some extent, it’s a silly game to try to distinguish a good night from a very good night, or a big night from a wave. But if this one goes south, the democrats will start drinking seriously . . . and they may not stop for a while.

Most Gratifying Democratic Upset: Florida. The republican ads in Florida make it hard to distinguish Nancy Pelosi from the Wicked Witch of the West, and they portray Val Demings as a generic “angry Black woman” (her mouth is wide open in every photo). A victory here would restore the Toteboard’s faith in the country. And in humanity.

Most Horrifying Republican Upset: Colorado. A 55-45 republican senate? Oink me out the door.

And so, that’s the Toteboard one week before the election. We’ll check in again this Monday evening. Fingers crossed?


[i] One could make a case that the 2002 midterm election went according to this pattern, as the republicans had thin control of both chambers after the knife’s-edge 2000 election, and only slightly increased that control in 2002. The main difference was that the 2002 results represented a major upset; the polls had predicted a fairly substantial democratic takeover of both chambers.

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