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It's not just about the White House

There is another important story in the US election cycle. It has to do with the US congress.
Last modified: 6 Nov 2012 08:24

Most around the world are watching the US election and wondering whether Mitt Romney will win the White House, or if Barack Obama be handed another term. But there is another important story in the US election cycle.

It has to do with the US congress. More specifically, which political party, the Democrats or the Republicans, will control the US senate?

Currently, the lower chamber in congress, the House of Representatives, is firmly in Republican hands. That is not expected to change after November 6. What is less clear is whether the Democrats, who control the senate, will hang on to that majority in the 113th congress.

Get out your pencils and pads, because there’s math involved here. Now, of the 100 seats in the US senate [there are two senators from each of the 50 US states], 33 are up for grabs, and 23 of those seats are held by Democrats. Right now, the Democrats and their independent allies control a narrow majority of 53 seats in the senate.

The Republicans control 47 seats.

There are about a half dozen senate races that are too close to call. That means, it's hard to tell whether they will go Democrat or Republican.

State of Maine

It is the US state of Maine, however, which might be the one senate race that will decide everything.

Why? That’s because in Maine, there are three candidates running – a Democrat, a Republican and an Independent.

Right now, that Independent, Angus King, is refusing to say which party he would align with if he wins the election. Polls show he has a very good chance at victory.

King is a popular former governor of the Canadian border state of Maine. He’s also a former Democrat and supporter of Barack Obama. Most assume he will caucus with the Democrats. But he is keeping his options open.

So, until Mr King makes up his mind, control of the US senate could remain a little foggy. To understand why, well, you need to get your pencils back out, because there's more addition involved.

Now, if President Obama wins the election, Democrats need just 50 Democrats or a Democratic aligned independent like Mr King to keep control of the senate.

The same can be said for the Republicans.

Equally divided

Here's where it gets tricky. According to the US constitution, the vice-president of the US is the presiding officer of the senate.

That means, when the senators are "equally divided" on an issue, the vice-president is called on the cast his (or maybe someday her) vote and break the tie.

So, if one party wins the White House and the other party wins control of the senate, then 51 votes are needed for a senate majority.

Confusing? Yes.

Why does it matter? It matters because this election is going to be close. America is polarised and it's anyone's guess how control of the senate will play out. Elections this tight, often take time to call. Instead of hours, we could be looking at days.

The other reason this is big is that the senate is a powerful body of legislators. Terms in the senate last six years and come with a lot more prestige and power to wield the legislative direction of the US.

That’s why it would be nice if Mr King would at least give us a hint of what he’s thinking. It would certainly help simplify the math on what’s bound to be, a very long election night.