The 2018 midterm elections offer a snapshot of what America has become and where it is headed. And what we see in the results of congressional, state and gubernatorial elections is at once encouraging, depressing, uplifting and frightening.
The congressional elections essentially played out as predicted. The Republicans retained control of the Senate in an unequal contest that is being touted by Trump as a personal victory; the Democrats took back the House by a margin yet to be finalised — but perhaps as great as thirty-five seats — in a better-than-predicted swing against the Republicans.
Was it a blue wave? The red wall held in the Senate, helped by the fact that small rural states like Wyoming, which traditionally favour Republicans, have the same level of representation as populous states like California. On top of that, the political landscape was extremely unfavourable for the Democrats, who were defending ten seats in states carried by Trump in 2016, including five he won by eighteen percentage points or more. The president focused all his energy on these seats, which certainly galvanised his base, and Republican-driven voter-suppression efforts hindered voting among members of many minorities.
Together, these facts explain how the Democrats could gain 55.4 per cent of the vote but still lose at least two seats, and maybe four. It was far from a rout: Beto O’Rourke came close to beating Ted Cruz in Texas and recounts in Florida and Arizona might yet change the final outcome. For his part, Trump tweeted that the night was a “tremendous success,” and in one respect it was: he is reassured of a Senate majority that will approve his nominations and protect him from a hostile House of Representatives.
A blue tsunami might not have eventuated in the House, but the Democrats are projected to win the popular vote by nearly nine percentage points. This is a bigger swing than the Republicans managed in 1994, 2010 and 2014, and the Democrats in 2006. If those elections were waves, then this is one too. Nate Cohn of the New York Times characterised this as a wave that reached quite some way up the hill and is far more impressive than it appears.
Trump’s shadow fell over the House races, too, even if he wasn’t campaigning for them. He made it hard for Republican incumbents to dissociate themselves from him and his most disliked policies — the repeal of the requirement for health insurers to cover pre-existing conditions, for instance, and the administration’s hostile immigration policies and erosion of women’s reproductive rights. In the face of presidential bullying and the power of the extreme right of the party, led by the Freedom Caucus, large numbers of Republicans chose not to contest re-election.
Those retirements contributed to a Trump-fuelled wipe-out for House Republicans in northeastern states like New Jersey, New York and Connecticut (once the bastions of moderate Republicans, of whom only senator Susan Collins remains). At the same time, states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, which Hillary Clinton was surprised to lose in 2016, appear to have repented of their rightward turn.
The final outcome? President Trump’s autocratic agenda will be constrained and we’ll see a raft of investigations into his administration’s kakistocracy and his family’s kleptocratic corruption. (I’m borrowing political commentator Norm Ornstein’s wonderful language here.) The possibility of impeachment proceedings looms.
It is clear from Trump’s post-election words, actions and demeanour that this prospect, in combination with the soon-to-be-released findings of the Mueller investigation, will trigger the worst in him. What that might mean for his respect for the rule of law and the office of the president remains to be seen, but it certainly won’t increase the likelihood that he’ll negotiate legislation with House Democrats and deliver on promises such as new infrastructure investment.
Even in the best of circumstances, the possibilities for bipartisan action are small. Trump thrives on conflict, and conciliation has been rare during his presidency. The White House has said that its agenda won’t change, and while Democrat leader Nancy Pelosi has promised to strive for bipartisanship and common ground, she added a caveat: “When we can’t find that common ground, [we will be] standing our ground.”
Partisan stand-offs might suit Trump, and might even suit the Democrats, but they bring dangers for both sides. They could mean a loss of business confidence, which might bring the current economic boom to a halt, and they could mean more government shutdowns and a further erosion of public confidence in the mechanisms of government. Trump will be quick to sheet such problems home to the Democrats in the lead-up to 2020 elections.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that the House Democrats, headed by Pelosi, bring a wealth of experience and expertise in using government processes for legislation and oversight (as demonstrated in the 111th Congress, 2008–10), leavened by new members who are younger, more female and more racially diverse. A record number of women will sit in Congress (at least 103 have won election or re-election, and they join ten women in the Senate who were not up for re-election). The new Democrat caucus will have two Muslim women, two Native American women, several women who identify as LGBTIQ, and the two youngest women ever elected.
One little-noted fact is that fifteen House Republicans with “A” ratings from the National Rifle Association lost to Democrats with “F” ratings, who are likely to help drive support for gun control. On this issue and others the House will work to show voters what a Democratic-controlled Congress and White House could deliver, as an enticement for their votes in 2020.
This election has only served to entrench the tribalism that has increasingly come to define Trump’s America, and is indeed the president’s defining political weapon. His campaigning didn’t expand his base in any way; it served to cement it and to drive away those who don’t share his increasingly nationalistic views.
Exit polling shows that stark divisions along the lines of gender, race and education are increasing. Democrats are overwhelmingly favoured by young voters, African Americans and white female graduates; white Americans with less education — particularly men — are most likely to vote Republican. The midterm vote was also highly correlated with views of Trump’s performance: of the 45 per cent of voters who approved of his performance, 88 per cent voted Republican; of the 54 per cent who disapproved, 90 per cent voted Democratic.
These patterns carried over into state elections. Arguably the “blue wave” hit state governments hardest. Democrats flipped seven governorships, six state legislative chambers, and more than 300 state house and senate seats on election night. They secured trifectas — control of the governorship and both state legislative chambers — in Maine, Connecticut, Colorado, Illinois, Nevada, New Mexico and New York. And their coat-tails were quite dramatic in Texas, where Beto O’Rourke is described as having “lost the battle but won the war.” All nineteen of the African-American women who ran for judicial positions in Houston won.
Exit polls also confirmed that healthcare was a key issue in this election. This was reflected in the level of support for a number of ballot initiatives, sending a warning message to Trump and Republicans about continuing attacks on Obamacare. Voters in Idaho, Nebraska and Utah (traditionally red states) overwhelmingly endorsed ballot initiatives to approve Medicaid expansion, and Kansas, Maine and Wisconsin all elected Democratic governors who are proponents of Medicaid expansion.
Given the growing popular support for Obamacare, and the fact that the Republicans’ resolve to destroy it may have cost them the House, it’s interesting to speculate whether reforms to this law could become the meeting point for bipartisanship in the new Congress.
One of the most concerning consequences of these elections and Trump’s incumbency is the very obvious erosion of voting rights and the lack of respect given to democratic processes. Voter suppression is not new in the United States, but current restrictions on voting reflect a weakening of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court in 2013 and Republican efforts to hold on to power by making it harder for people of colour to vote. In June, a Supreme Court decision upholding an Ohio effort to purge voter rolls was widely seen as an erosion of democracy and a boon to Republicans.
These efforts are continuing. Republicans are filing lawsuits in the closely contested elections for the Senate in Florida, for the governorship in Georgia (both involving Democrat candidates who are African-American) and for the Senate race in Arizona.
In Florida, scene of an unexplained “undervote” for the Senate in Broward County (a Democrat stronghold), former governor Rick Scott, the Republican candidate, is leaning on conspiracy theories involving Hillary Clinton to halt the recounting of votes. The efforts to suppress African-American voter turnout in Georgia, where African-American Stacey Abrams trails in the race for governor, led a voting-rights expert to write that if this race had taken place in another country, the US media and the State Department “would not have hesitated to question its legitimacy.”
It did not take long for Trump to join in with the conspiracy theories about electoral corruption. In a series of tweets he has attacked and tried to sow doubt about the results of the yet-to-be-finalised Senate and gubernatorial races in Florida, Arizona and Georgia. “There’s a lot of crooked stuff going on,” he told the media, but when pressed for the evidence, said, “I don’t know. You tell me.” This tactic, not new for Trump, risks inflicting long-term damage on the legitimacy of US election processes, already revealed as in need of reform. It also further undermines the willingness of Americans to be part of a participatory democracy.
More disconcerting than the undermining of election outcomes and his increasingly vicious attacks on journalists are the steps Trump is taking to protect his own political future and potentially shut down the Mueller inquiry. He has fired attorney-general Jeff Sessions, whom he has constantly criticised for recusing himself from the investigation into Russian interference in the Trump campaign, and named Matthew Whitaker, a long-time critic of the Mueller investigation, as acting replacement.
This has prompted an outcry from Democrats and even some Senate Republicans, who fear Whitaker will attempt to interfere with the special counsel. Moreover, Whitaker’s appointment may be unconstitutional. There are concerns that Trump sees the Department of Justice as his personal lawyers. There are likely worse actions ahead.
The willingness of the Republican Party to accede to Trumpism and the voting responses of Americans means the two major political parties are increasingly becoming very different entities. Once pragmatically conservative, the Republican Party has become a Trump cult, defined by his policies, his xenophobic and unpresidential language, his unwillingness to be accountable, and his attacks on opponents.
Trump’s rebukes of those who dared separate themselves from his views (“Mia Love gave me no love and she lost”; “Those that worked with me in this incredible Midterm Election, embracing certain policies and principles, did very well. Those that did not, say goodbye!”) sends an ominous warning for candidates in the 2020 elections. But then again, maybe these candidates will realise that a Trump endorsement is generally the kiss of death — just twenty-one of his seventy-five endorsees won this month.
On the other hand, the new Democrats bring to the 116th Congress a caucus that is diverse, looks much more like the people they represent, and is much more hopeful and moderate. Norm Ornstein has picked up on this sense of hope, writing that the Republicans broke Congress but the Democrats can fix it. In the lead-up to 2020 they will face their own problems: the need for a seamless transition to a more youthful House leadership team; how to reach out to disaffected blue-collar voters; how to stand up to Trump’s excesses without resorting to Trump’s nasty tactics.
There is plenty of evidence to show that the midterms don’t predict the outcome of the following presidential election. Trump has already demonstrated that he will not shy away from using his presidential power to reinforce his standing heading into 2020, and in just the last few days we have seen that there will be no reprieve from the Trump chaos. The most likely factor that will ensure he is a one-term president is if a Republican is brave enough to challenge him in the primary. •