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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 15 November 2018

US midterms make or break the Trump presidency 

Americans brave bad weather to cast ballot, citing healthcare, education and immigration as key issues

People stand in voting booths while voting in the 2018 mid-term general election at a polling station located at Deep Run High School in Glen Allen, Virginia. EPA
People stand in voting booths while voting in the 2018 mid-term general election at a polling station located at Deep Run High School in Glen Allen, Virginia. EPA

Americans voted on Tuesday in midterm elections, with Republicans and Democrats fighting for control of both houses of Congress and the ability to make or break the second half of President Donald Trump's White House term.

Candidates had spent weeks campaigning for seats in the Senate and House of Representatives, where the Republicans currently have majorities, though the latter is widely expected to be won back by the Democratic opposition. Governor posts and seats in state legislatures across the country are also up for grabs.

The early hours of voting on the East Coast saw long lines outside polling stations in some cities, notably in Philadelphia where the Democrats are targeting some of the 23 Republican seats they need to increase their numbers and gain a majority in the House.

Mr Trump conceded in recent days that the Republican Party he represents was concentrating its efforts on retaining the Senate which, as the upper branch of Congress, controls the confirmations of top appointments such as Supreme Court judges and cabinet secretaries nominated by the president.

But if the Democrats win the House of Representatives they could stymie Mr Trump's agenda and block his forthcoming proposals to reform healthcare and immigration, the latter of which became central in the president's electioneering in the past week.

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“Democrats are inviting caravan after caravan of illegal aliens to flood into our country,” he said at a closing rally in Cleveland, Ohio. “If you want more caravans and more crimes, vote Democrat. If you want strong borders and safe communities, vote Republican,” he said.

The high-charged atmosphere and Mr Trump’s many public appearances in the last days of campaigning is aimed to maximise Republican voter turnout, analysts said. But if turnout is high among moderates the strategy could backfire by pushing such voters toward the Democrats as a sign of their rejection of Mr Trump’s presidency and agenda.

A series of tweets from the president on Tuesday extolled the importance of voting Republican.

His predecessor in the White House, Barack Obama, pushed the case for the Democrats in a more optimistic message.

“If you take that power and vote, something powerful happens. Change happens. Hope happens. And with each new step we take in the direction of fairness, and justice, and equality, and opportunity, hope spreads. Go vote!” Mr Obama tweeted.

Turnout is traditionally low in the US midterm elections, with the 2014 polls seeing a post-war record low of just 37 per cent. A sharp rise is likely this year, partly because of anger at Mr Trump’s tenure. The US Elections Project, an information source based at the University of Florida, predicted turnout would reach 44.8 per cent.

Even with bad weather conditions, turnout was heavy in a few districts in Arlington, Virginia, just south of the nation's capital.

Voters who spoke to The National said their top priorities were healthcare, education and immigration.

“Donald Trump was a big factor in getting me here, and not in a positive way,” said Marianne, who cast her ballot for the Democrats.

But others were choosing to effectively register a protest vote on account of the partisanship between Republicans and Democrats in Washington and nationwide.

A Virginia voter named Richard said he was supporting an independent candidate because “the two parties have failed and while Mr Trump is very bad” he wanted elected representatives who are better on tax spending issues and jobs.

Although the first results are expected late on Tuesday eastern US time, it may take several days for the full picture to emerge given several close contests taking place.

A key Senate seat is Arizona, a normally solid Republican constituency where the Democrats have been polling strongly in the run up to election day. Reflecting the nation's political divisions, the Republican candidate Martha McSally ran a relentlessly negative campaign and moved ever closer to President Trump's key issue of immigration. The Democratic Party candidate, Kyrsten Sinema, meanwhile has targeted undecided voters and focused on cuts to healthcare that Republicans will seek to enact by finally repealing the Affordable Care Act passed under then president Obama in 2010.

“McSally likely calculated that turning out the Republican base is the only viable strategy to winning a toss-up race,” said Sarah Binder, professor of political science at George Washington University.

“But given her campaign, if McSally wins, her victory will be interpreted as a win for Trump and his anti-immigrant rhetoric and agenda; no room for moderates at the Inn. If Sinema wins we'll no doubt see it as a sign that disapproval of Trump has broadened the map for Democrats.”

President Trump has faced widespread criticism for his language on the campaign.

On Monday, Facebook, NBC and even Mr Trump's favourite network, Fox News, said they would no longer broadcast a 30-second advertisement paid for by his campaign which featured an undocumented Mexican immigrant who killed two US police officers.