November’s US mid-term election saw 82.5 million Americans take to the ballot box with 34 Senate seats, all 435 House seats and 36 governorships at stake. In a much awaited Republican victory, the ‘Grand Old Party’ reclaimed a House majority and strongly reduced the Democrats’ hold on Congress’ upper house. Republicans captured 239 House seats – a 60 seat net gain – leaving Democrats with a meagre 189. Seven seats remain undecided. In the Senate, Democrats saw their 57 seat majority reduced by 6 seats, whilst the GOP celebrated a 5 seat gain.
Alaska, America’s ‘Last Frontier’ state, inevitably conjures up the ubiquitous presence of former vice presidential candidate and conservative chouchou Sarah Palin. Riding high on the waves of sudden stardom, the Alaskan helicopter-hunting hockey mum and odds-on presidential favourite for 2012 became one of the fresh faces representing a new conservative force in America: the Tea Party Movement. Having started as a symbolic backlash against the election of President Obama and increased government spending during his tenure , the Tea – Taxed Enough Already – Partiers quickly rose to national prominence and succeeded in supplanting numerous ‘mainstream’ Republican candidates during the primaries. Significant examples include newly elected Senators Marco Rubio (Florida), Rand Paul (Kentucky) and unsuccessful candidate Sharron Angle (Nevada), who nevertheless came shockingly close to unseating Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Obviously, an energetic popular movement like the Tea Party helped mobilize conservative anger at Obama’s allegedly ‘socialist’ economic policies, which in truth have been centrist at the most. The president’s controversial health care reform legislation garnered only limited popular support and further geared conservative outrage and allegations of ‘big government’ policies. It is the current financial turmoil, however, which seems the biggest nail in the Democratic coffin; Obama’s administration has seen unemployment rise above a staggering ten percent.
But then again, midterm setbacks for a governing party are hardly exceptional. In midterm elections, Americans traditionally turn against the party that has clinched the White House two years before, in what seems to be a national – and arguably healthy – democratic spasm within a system built on the principles of “checks and balances”. In 1994, two years after the election of Bill Clinton, Republicans captured Capitol Hill and thereby forced the president into a much more moderate stance. In 2006, Democrats in turn carried both the House of Representatives and the Senate two years after the re-election of George W. Bush. Likewise, in 2008 Democrats won by virtue of not being Republicans. This time around, they were punished for being Democrats.
And yet, the recent Republican reconquista does have serious consequences. First, the new GOP House majority, likely to be headed by incoming Speaker John Boehner (Ohio), has pledged to repeal parts of what they have come to pejoratively refer to as “Obamacare” as well as the government’s increased regulation of Wall Street and the financial markets. Republicans are likely to push for Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy and reduced Social Security spending. No surprises there.
A final and perhaps more interesting factor is the congressional coup of the Tea Party and its status within the GOP. American political parties, as a result of the fairly rigid two-party system, are by definition large, vaguely delineated coalitions consisting of battling factions. This structure leaves significant room for internal ideological diversity, from differences in economic or social convictions to attitudes towards foreign policy and security. More moderate and established Republicans are likely to feel threatened by the rising ultraconservative Tea Partiers, who are expected to put massive pressure on their party brethren to block many – if not all – of Obama’s attempts at curbing the economic fallout. Whether the Republicans will eventually fall prey to internal tension and head towards an inevitable rift, it is clearly too early to speculate.