What we know so far
The midterm elections promised high drama and did not disappoint. They offered cause or celebration for both Democrats and Republicans, and whilst Donald Trump’s tweet celebrating “tremendous success” might have been a little wide of the mark, it is the Republicans who are breathing the biggest sigh of relief.
The significant headline is that the Democrats have won back the majority of the House, whilst the Republicans not only retained but made gains in the Senate. A record number of women and minority candidates have been elected, including the first Muslim congresswoman, first openly gay man elected governor, and the youngest woman ever elected to Congress.
The Democrats win back the House
In the House of Representatives, Democrats will now be able to flex their muscles and be a true check on the power of the president. Their majority means they can launch subpoena-powered investigations into issues that have fired up their base – such as alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election and ethics scandals within the White House.
Above all, the new House will almost certainly try to force the president to publish his infamously private tax returns. So worried were Republicans in August at the prospect of the White House becoming a living legal nightmare that they collated a spreadsheet of potential investigations that the Democrats might launch if they won back the House. It was long then and will have got longer since.
On the more prosaic matter of legislation, the Democratic majority means that the president no longer has a unified legislature on Capitol Hill. Republican legislation will therefore only make its way to the president’s desk if it has Democratic support – a prospect that seems highly unlikely given the ultra-partisan nature of Washington politics right now.
One potential solution for the president is to recast himself as a champion of bipartisan politics and working across the aisle, a delicate act that Bill Clinton famously mastered. For Democrats, whose base were motivated to vote in support of core progressive policies such as healthcare protection as much as a protest vote against the president, there seems to be little incentive whatsoever to give Trump’s legislative agenda a helping hand. Therefore, short of a potential bill on infrastructure spending, we are probably heading into two years of legislative gridlock on Capitol Hill.
With their regained power comes a challenge in expectation management for the Democratic House leadership, namely Nancy Pelosi. The prospect of impeachment looms large, and the Democrats now at least have control of the right infrastructure to initiate it. But whilst the “I” word hangs over Washington, last year only 58 Democrats voted to support even debating Trump’s impeachment, and there is little evidence of that number growing significantly.
And even with impeachment proceedings initiated in the House, it would require a two-thirds majority in the Senate to impeach the president. With an increased Republican majority in the upper chamber, that prospect seems impossible. Therefore, much like the challenge Nicola Sturgeon faces in calming her base down in their demands for a second Independence Referendum, Pelosi may find that the ability to initiate impeachment proceedings is both a blessing and a curse.
Republicans buoyed by gains in the Senate
Despite talk of a ‘blue wave’, Democrats were facing a difficulty-drawn electoral map for them in their doomed attempt to win back the majority in the Senate.
It is worth remembering that 26 of the 35 seats up for election were held by Democrats going into the midterms. Nevertheless, whilst Republicans were confident of holding onto the Senate, the addition of two further seats represents a hugely welcome boost.
There was the jubilation of winning back North Dakota, where Heidi Heitkamp became the second Democrat of the night to lose re-election in what was long considered the most vulnerable incumbency of this cycle. Elation at this victory combined with relief in Texas, where Ted Cruz held off an unlikely Democratic insurgency led by Beto O’Rourke.
With more Republicans in the upper chamber, Trump will try to force through as many of his judicial nominees and political appointees as possible. With a relatively clear run for the next two years, the president will begin early preparation for the 2020 general election by delivering those appointees for his base whilst painting Democrats in the House as obstructionists hellbent on getting in his way.
The candidates that have emerged for 2020
Given the iron grip that Trump has secured over the GOP, there is little point wasting time considering Republican primary challengers to the president for 2020. It is close to impossible to foresee a serious challenge being mounted to a president who has an 88 per cent approval rating amongst Republicans (via Gallup).
For Democrats, the story is different, and the 2020 field is wide open. The darling of the progressives, Beto O’Rourke, became the breakout star of the 2018 campaign and has that rare ability in politics to be recognised only by his first name (think Donald, Boris and Jeremy). The Democrat raised an eye-watering $70 million, and only narrowly lost in a state that Democrats have not won state-wide in for 24 years.
Nevertheless, elections are binary and Beto failed to defeat Ted Cruz in the Texas senate race, but that is not expected to limit his ambitions in 2020.
A less obvious name to watch, Sherrod Brown, the Governor of Ohio, easily defeated his Republican challenger and immediately referenced a “blueprint for our nation in 2020”. He is clearly a man with presidential ambitions, in a party that has still not healed the wounds of the divide between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.
Analysis – Five final thoughts
- Blue ripple: Democrats had allowed themselves to get excited by the idea of a ‘blue wave’, but the result was more mixed. Democrats were expected to regain the majority in the House: the President’s party has lost House seats in 35 out of the 39 midterm elections since 1862. Republicans will be relieved to have retained control of the Senate, but ecstatic about making gains: the President’s party has only previously picked up Senate seats in 12 out of the 39 midterms since 1862 (here).
- The Trump effect: In the final week before the election, Trump held 11 rallies in eight states, focusing on tight races for Senate and governor places. Of the candidates he called onstage to speak at those events, his record in the races decided so far is seven victories to two losses.
- Obama-Trump voters. There are 21 districts that were won by both Barack Obama in 2012 and Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. So far, Democrats have either won or are winning two-thirds of those. Democrats will be pleased to have made gains, since a lot of these places that had slipped away from them — such as the North-East, especially Upstate New York, Staten Island and suburban New Jersey, as well as parts of the Midwest.
- The Pelosi effect: Pelosi is the new House Majority Leader and will lead the Democratic charge against the president on the Hill. With a Democratic majority, the president will face almost constant gridlock in Washington and struggle to pursue any kind of legislative agenda for the next two years. Both Trump and Pelosi are unpopular (with a 53 per cent unfavourable rating with Real Clear Politics), and the president will make her a leading feature of his campaign for re-election in 2020. Meanwhile, Pelosi and Democrats on House Committees will work hard to probe the Trump family, most likely demanding he publishes his tax returns.
- Turnout: Record turnout is expected for the midterm elections. In the early vote, voters age 50+ saw their electorate share drop from 2014 by 7.4 points, replaced by a surge in younger voters, driven primarily by voters under the age of 30 (via Target Smart).