The results of the 2018 midterm elections are a referendum against US president Donald Trump’s policies with the Democratic victory in the House of Representatives with 223 seats—results in five seats are still pending—and the Republicans narrowly expanding their majority in the Senate. The Democrats also picked up seven new governorships, thus revitalising their party ahead of 2020.
Going into the election, there was great deal of hope for the Democrats. In the 115th Congress, the Republicans controlled the House 235 to 193 and the Senate 51 to 47 with 2 Independents (both of whom caucus with the Left). The Democrats therefore needed to flip 23 seats in the House to gain a majority. The Democrats, in fact, gained 28 seats (and counting) which put them well past the 218 seats needed to control the House. The Senate was always an uphill battle for Democrats, who needed to defend 26 of the 35 seats in play, compared to just 9 for the Republicans. Many Democratic incumbents were in states Trump won in 2016, and they therefore faced a tough fight. The end result: a ‘tale of two’ Houses, with the Democrats making major gains in one and the Republicans solidifying their grip on the other.
That the Democrats took back the House is not a new phenomenon: the president’s party tends to lose seats during a midterm. Several factors are attributed to this loss: in most cases, midterms aren’t as exciting as presidential elections and the president’s coattails is absent during the midterms. By the time the midterm rolls around, the popularity of the president (or lack thereof) is reflected on his party.
Most past presidents have suffered reversals during the midterms. In 1962, the then president John F Kennedy lost four seats (the fewest ever). In 1894, Grover Cleveland lost an astounding 116 seats (the most ever). The 1994 Republican revolution was considered a referendum on Bill Clinton. Likewise, the 2006 election, considered a referendum on George W Bush’s war on terror and unpopular foreign policies, delivered a thumping victory for Democrats who regained both Houses of Congress. The 2010 and 2014 elections were considered referendums against Barack Obama’s domestic policy, especially with respect with the stimulus package, the auto bailout and The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).
The 2010 election results—even more than the 2014 polls—was voters expressing their dissatisfaction with Obama’s policies, healthcare in particular. The rise of the Tea Party was a sign of the level of opposition against Obama. Tea Party candidates were even able to displace traditional Republicans.
Voter turnout in the 2016 election dipped to 55.4 percent: a two decade low. However, though the turnout this time did not match 2016, turnout was high for a midterm. Compared to the 2014 midterms, Democratic turnout was greater in several states: namely Arizona, Georgia, Texas and Florida. This was a defining moment for them, as they saw the election as a way to regain a modicum of control over government. The polls also show Trump was a major factor: a minority of voters voted for Trump and his policies while the majority of voters displayed an anti-Trump sentiment.
The turnout this time around was ‘historic’ (in terms of midterm elections). Approximately 114 million votes were cast in House races in 2018, compared to 83 million in 2014. In Florida, more than eight million voters cast ballots: up from six million in 2014. Virginia saw 3.3 million votes compared to 2.2 million in 2014.
A record breaking number of female candidates were elected to the House and Senate, further shattering the glass ceiling. This was especially true in states south of the Mason-Dixon Line that elected their first-ever African-American governors. In Michigan and Minnesota, women were vying to become the first Muslim women in Congress. Native American women threw their hat into the ring in Kansas and New Mexico. On the East Coast, 29-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is set to become the youngest woman elected to the House. According to data compiled by The Associated Press, 237 women ran for the House as major-party candidates and 100 women will be sworn in come January 2019.
House Democratic leader and prospective Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the party would use its newly-won majority to pursue a bipartisan agenda for the country, adding Americans have “had enough of division”.
Checks and balances
The election also signalled a check on the powers of president Trump. The basic premise is that when government is unified, members of Congress are more likely to vote with the president rather than adhere to its constitutional role of checking presidential power. Therefore, with the midterm gains for the other party, there is hope of maintaining a balance in the policy making scenario. In winning the House, there is hope among Democrats, as well as voters, that presidential power amassed during unified government will be curbed. In the past, midterms have either acted to preserve the presidency by strengthening the president’s party in Congress or to punish co-partisans. The 2018 election seems to be the latter.
For the most part, Republicans of the 115th Congress handed Trump a ‘blank cheque’. Which is usually the case (post-Cold War) whenever government is unified. In the final analysis, after being out of power in the House for the better part of a decade, Democrats are looking ahead to curbing Trumpism.
One downside of the Democrats taking the House is the age old problem of deadlock. With Congress divided, the Senate might become even more protective of the president, thus providing a buffer against the onslaught of the Democrats (if they find it politically viable). It could very well lead to a far more polarised Senate. This would mean that Democrats and Republicans will lock horns, and the policy making process as well as passage of bills would be limited.
The Democrats were successful in rebuilding the ‘Blue Wall’ with victories in the rust belt states of Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. In 2016, Trump was able to break through rust belt and win by a razor-thin margin. However, once again, these states are proving they are the bell weathers. Democrats also won in Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota: states Trump won by large margins in 2016. The Democrats picking up governorships in Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, New Mexico and Wisconsin, but had a heartbreaking loss in battleground Florida. The Democrats thus regained their lost standing and are moving towards rebuilding that much coveted ‘Blue Wall’. Which only further strengthens their position for the 2020 election.
The author is a doctoral candidate at the School of International Studies, JNU. She was also a Fulbright-Nehru Doctoral Scholar 2017-2018 at the American University, Washington DC