EXPLAIN TO ME: What just happened in American politics?

You’re at a party. And someone brings up American politics.

You could run to the bathroom and start Googling. Or you could try and think of something profound to say based on something that you saw on The West Wing or Scandal.

Or you could just read this explanation of what happened overnight in the US midterm elections – and know why it matters.

In two sentences, what happened?

The Republicans (the American political party that reflects conservative views and is focused on individual rights) have won control of the Senate in America’s midterm elections and expanded their majority in the House of Representatives.

The Republicans now rule both houses of the US Parliament, but the leader of the country, President Obama, is a Democrat.

Young Republicans are loving it. 

What does that mean for the US?

The Republicans will now be able to pass legislation through both houses of Congress (ie, Parliament) more easily. But the Senate in the US does more than just pass laws. It also has the power to approve or reject the judges, cabinet members, political staff, and diplomats that the White House appoints – so the Republicans will now have this extra power.

What the Republicans won’t be able to do is pass bills without President Obama’s signature. They didn’t get the two-thirds majority that would allow them to pass a law, even if the President vetos it.

What does that mean for President Obama?

The President was not up for election, but he is a Democrat. So when the Democrats take a hit in the polls, then people tend to blame the President. President Obama stayed away from mid-term election campaigning because opinion polls show that he is a bit on the nose and he only has two years left in his Presidency (in the US, you can only be a President for a maximum of two four-year terms).

President Obama’s popularity is the lowest it has been since 2008, and he has been criticised over his handling of the Islamic State insurgency, immigration reforms and the US Ebola cases. He has also taken fire over perceived ineffectiveness – mostly due to many of his major reforms being stalled in the House of Representatives, which has been dominated by the Republicans (in this sense, the Republicans have had a win in painting the President as lacking leadership, even though they were the ones frustrating his reform efforts).

The party that a President belongs to normally loses seats at the midterm election – but the Democrats’ loss is the biggest since the Second World War.


Kim Kardashian posted this on her Instagram. Even though the President wasn’t up for election. But she voted, and that’s great. Two thirds of Americans didn’t vote at all…

After the results came in, the President said that he’ll need to work more closely with the Republicans if he wants to achieve anything legislatively for the rest of his Presidency:”I’m not running again, I’m not on the ballot, I don’t have any further political aspirations — my number one goal is just to deliver as much as I can for the American people in these last two years,” Obama said.

He also said that he would veto any plans to wind back his public health care plan (prior to President Obama, the US did not have anything like Australia’s Medicare. If you wanted to go to the doctor or hospital, you had to pay in full or rely on private health insurance).

What else happened in the US midterm election?

Voters in Washington DC and Oregon voted in favour of measures to legalise marijuana for recreational use, and Alaska looks set to follow suit. Meanwhile South Dakota, Arkansas and Nebraska all approved measures to raise the minimum wage and North Dakota and Colorado rejected measures that would limit women’s access to abortion on their ballot papers.

Wendy Davis, the Texas Senator who famously gave an 11-hour speech to delay the passage of legislation to limit access to abortion, lost her bid to become Governor of Texas.

Wendy Davis. She didn’t win.

A guy named Butch Otter was re-elected as Governor of Idaho, which is only really notable because of his sensational name.

George P Bush was elected Texas’s land commissioner, which is a little-known but relatively powerful post that sometimes leads to higher office. He is the grandson of George Bush Snr and nephew of George W Bush.

And a Governor running for re-election in Missouri inadvertently tweeted a picture of a fellow voter’s bum crack when he tweeted a picture of himself voting. He deleted the tweet a few minutes later, but it was too late: he was already the butt of many jokes.

Governor Jay Nixon voted at the crack of dawn.

Do you care what happens in American politics?