Matt York / AP

What to Know: The Congressional Midterms

By Russell Berman

With the House on recess and lawmakers back in their districts for the summer, congressional campaigns have begun in earnest. The course of the second half of Donald Trump’s term is up for grabs. Will it be two more years of GOP attempts to roll back President Barack Obama’s legacy and make a conservative imprint on national policy, or will a Democratic majority swamp the White House with subpoenas and investigations, and raise the specter of impeachment?

  • Dozens of elections for governor, state attorney general, and state legislatures are also on the ballot, giving Democrats an opportunity to take back offices Republicans dominated during the Obama years.

Here’s the baseline: Democrats need to pick up 23 seats to reclaim the House majority. Their base is enthusiastic, and a combination of polling, incumbent retirements, and historical trends suggests either a toss-up or a narrow Democratic takeover. Each of the last three presidents began his tenure with his party controlling Congress, only to lose both the House and the Senate in midterm elections. The Republicans have a slimmer, 51–49 majority in the Senate, but the fact that so many Democrats are defending seats in deep-red states keeps the GOP a modest favorite to retain control.

The great unknown: Who will show up? Historically, Democratic turnout among the party’s base of younger and minority voters has fallen off in midterm elections. But Democrats have flocked to the polls in key special elections and statewide races since 2016, and polls point to a surge in enthusiasm heading into the fall. The close race in Ohio’s special election on Tuesday is the latest sign of the potential for a so-called blue wave.   

  • The question is equally important on the Republican side, where turnout is usually more reliable. If GOP voters show up in their usual numbers against a surge of Democrats, the race for the House could come down to just a seat or two. But if suburban, college-educated, white Republicans who are frustrated with or turned off by Trump stay home or vote for the other party, Democrats could pick up 30 or even 40 House seats and possibly flip the Senate.

  • Fearful of that scenario, the president has embarked on a deliberate strategy of reigniting the culture war, attacking immigrants, Democrats, and the press in the hopes of waking up his base. Whether that will stem the GOP’s losses is anyone’s guess; a clearer picture of the national landscape will emerge over the next month as the final group of states holds their primaries. But turnout will remain a mystery until November 6.

One story to watch: Arizona. Democrats have an opportunity between now and 2020 to flip not one but two of the state’s Senate seats. The first is the one retiring Senator Jeff Flake is vacating this year. Three Republicans are vying for the nomination in the August 28 primary: Representative Martha McSally, the conservative state Senator Kelli Ward, and former Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who received a pardon from Trump for his federal contempt conviction last year. McSally, a former combat fighter pilot, is the favorite of national Republicans, but she is no shoo-in to defeat Ward, who challenged Senator John McCain in 2016 and is angling for a Trump endorsement.

  • The Democratic nominee for Flake’s seat will be Representative Kyrsten Sinema, a moderate who would enter the general election as a slight favorite over McSally and a heavier favorite over Ward or Arpaio. Trump’s immigration and border policies figure to dominate the general election, offering a preview of how the state will lean in 2020. And whichever candidate wins could quickly become a national star.

  • Arizona’s other Senate seat belongs to McCain, who is undergoing treatment for brain cancer and hasn’t returned to Washington, D.C., in nearly nine months. The seat will open up upon his resignation or death, sparking another intensely competitive battle that is likely to occur in 2020. Democrats haven’t won a Senate seat in Arizona since 1988, but it’s possible they could hold both by 2021.

The wild card in the midterms is Special Counsel Robert Mueller. At some point, he is expected to release what will likely be an exhaustively detailed report about whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government in 2016 and/or whether the president obstructed justice while in office. If that happens in the next several weeks—the timing is entirely unknown—the contents and conclusions of that report will dominate the midterm campaign. Many Democratic candidates have tried to keep their campaign focused on bread-and-butter economic issues such as health care and taxes. But the extent to which the president is implicated in or vindicated of wrongdoing could tip close races for the House and the Senate. If Mueller stops short of concluding that Trump knowingly broke the law, that finding could deflate Democrats and reenergize Republicans. A severely damaging report for the president, on the other hand, could reframe the midterm campaign as a referendum on impeachment.

What to Expect

Notes on the news to come

Entertainment

The video game Not Tonight, scheduled for release next Friday, has drawn attention for its controversial premise. You play as a bouncer in a dystopian post-Brexit United Kingdom, responsible for enforcing mounting restrictions on British residents with Continental ancestry. The game-play is reminiscent of an acclaimed title—Papers, Please—that celebrated its fifth anniversary this week. That game, in which you play as an Eastern European border agent granting and denying visas to immigrants on the basis of an increasingly byzantine set of entry requirements, presaged the anti-immigration fervor that has engulfed Western democracies. This time around, the makers of Not Tonight are courting controversy by offering a second Brexit referendum: If more members of a community dedicated to the game vote to reverse the 2016 decision and remain with the European Union, British players will pay the regular price of £15.49 for the game on Steam. If “Leave” wins again, British players will be charged a special price: £16.49. —Matt Thompson

The Skies

Get ready to witness the fragmented tail of Swift-Tuttle. The comet—it’s a big one, about the size of the asteroid responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs—is most famous for the annual meteor shower it causes. The detritus from its tail lights up Earth’s skies each year in a shower called the Perseid. The light show will be at its height on the nights of August 11 and 12. As many as 100 meteors, most the size of a piece of sand, will burn up in the atmosphere every hour. Some will flare out brightly, creating the fireballs for which the Perseid is famous. The shower will be made particularly stunning the evening of  August 11 thanks to a new moon. And don’t worry about reliving the fate of the dinosaurs: Swift-Tuttle won’t come close enough to give Earth a fright until the year 4479. —Parker Richards

Global

There's good news and bad news for travelers looking to visit Toronto from the Middle East next week. The bad news is that Saudi Arabia’s national airline, Saudia, is suspending flights to Toronto after Canada criticized the arrest of a Saudi human-rights activist. The good news is that the carrier Emirates is adding flights to Toronto. That airline is owned by the government of the United Arab Emirates, which has voiced support for Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic assault on Canada but, it seems, doesn’t want to take any concrete action that would disrupt its businesses. At least not in this case: The ruler of the UAE has been a mentor to the Saudi crown prince, and has joined him in bombing Yemen and isolating Qatar. But taking the fight to Canada is just too far to travel. —Matt Peterson

National

There will be no giraffe in the area formerly known as Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Sunday. Over the past few weeks, the city has denied numerous event-permit applications from those looking to hold demonstrations, gatherings, and other events at the site of the destructive 2017 Unite the Right rally, which took place one year ago this weekend. Rejected plans include one from Jason Kessler, the promoter of last year’s rally, as well as an application for a petting zoo. Instead, the newly renamed Market Street Park area will remain fenced off for the entire weekend, and access to nearby downtown areas will require guarded checkpoints. —Haley Weiss

Politics

Pakistan’s next prime minister, Imran Khan, may not be taking the oath of office on Saturday as he had originally intended, but some time later next week. Reports differ on the reason for the delay. It may be because his minority party lacks the strength in Parliament to actually elect him. The new Parliament hasn’t been summoned yet, meaning it can’t hold the vote of confidence required to install him. Meanwhile, some of Khan’s supporters are hoping for the swearing-in to take place Tuesday, Pakistan’s Independence Day. That would allow the country’s new civilian leader to usher in the future while national fervor is high. The holiday also celebrates the country’s past, which Pakistan may find itself mired in before it can move to its new future.  —Karen Yuan

100 Years Ago

It concerned the going to war of Joe Lewis. A frail little chap he was, so young and boyish for all his one-and-twenty years. There was that about him which spoke of knickerbockers and romping childhood laid aside but yesterday. I did not know Joe. He had passed through the mill of the draft as one of many; but we met for a brief sixty seconds one fine spring night at the station, just as the train was taking him away; and while memory lives, I shall remember Joe.

He looked down at me from a car-window, and as he said good-bye there was a twinkle in his eye as if he was amused that I did not know him.

“Say good-bye to Mary Jane for me,” he called as the train moved out.

“Who are you?” I cried, sprinting alongside the moving car.

“Ha!” he laughed; “I’m the grocer’s boy. Every day I came to your back door. Mary Jane knows me and so does the missus. Say good-bye to both of them for me.”

The train clicked away into the night. I turned back, swallowing a lump. It so befalls that the light of my household is a little two-year-old, and her name is Mary Jane.

Gordon Snow, August 1918

What’s New

Updates on your Masthead membership

  • One thing you should know: If the Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers who conduct deportations in the United States seem like they have something to prove, it may be because their agency has a lesser bureaucratic status than other law-enforcement bodies, according to Franklin Foer, who spoke with The Masthead in an exclusive chat. Those officers aren’t trained to collect evidence, and their pay scale is lower than that of customs investigators who work under the same umbrella organization. [Read the Masthead briefing on ICE’s inferiority complex.]
  • Where you can dive in: Join the argument over voter identification. Contrary to claims by the president, it isn’t really that common to require identification for transactions in everyday life, writes Vann R. Newkirk II. That means requiring ID at the voting booth would be an extraordinary burden on voters. Some members have pushed back, arguing that requiring ID is sensible, even if it’s not strictly required everywhere. That misses the point, Vann responded in the forums: “The remaining argument is one of utility. What is the utility of requiring a photo ID in a place where people without ID are more likely to be poor, elderly, or minorities?” [Jump into the thread and make your own case.]
  • What’s coming: Next week, we’ll kick off The Masthead’s August debate. There’s still time to weigh in on the topic. Do you have an unpopular opinion you’d like to defend against other Atlantic readers? Write back and let us know. [Email us at themasthead@theatlantic.com, on this or any other topic.]

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