The 2018 midterm elections were the first official opportunity for Americans to pass a judgment on the success, or lack thereof, of the Trump presidency. Entering the midterms, the Republicans controlled both the House and Senate. The matter in contention was whether the alleged “blue wave” will wash over Republican chances, or whether the Republican-leaning nature of the House and Senate races will help them regain control of both chambers?
What are the midterm elections and what do they tell?
The US holds congressional elections every two years. In each election the whole of the House of Representatives and one third of the 100-member Senate are elected. The representatives thus serve a two-year term, and the senators six years.
It’s natural to look to the 2018 results as tea leaves that can help us predict the future. Trump fascinated Americans for decades long before he got into politics, and now that he’s president, everyone wants to know whether he will continue to be president.
But the reality is that midterms never truly present an accurate forecast for the presidential elections scheduled two years after. Barack Obama swung from a landslide victory in 2008 to a horrific defeat in 2010 and then bounced back to a decisive win in 2012 — only to see the electoral map fundamentally shift by 2016.
In 2002, George W. Bush scored one of the strongest midterm elections for a president’s party. Then he nearly lost his 2004 reelection bid due to weakness in the pivotal Electoral College state of Ohio. That didn’t seem likely in 2002, when in the midterms, Ohio Republicans won a landslide 20-point win in the gubernatorial election and won the popular House vote by 12 points.
This time, however, it was Trump who made the midterms about himself—and a referendum on his presidency. The President toured the country extensively, crowding out rational messages by Republican candidates about the booming economy with an emotional message of nativism. Trump made the elections about him and his openly far-right agenda. That left little space for non-Trumpian, let alone anti-Trumpian, Republicans.
The Republican party lost control of the House as Democrats capitalized on anti-Trump sentiment and the retirement of a large number of incumbent Republicans. Currently, the Democrats have registered a gain of 36 seats in the House, with votes of 6 more races still being counted. The Democrats have finally gained control of the House after a long wait of 8 years.
It's the most House seats gained by Democrats since the wave election following Watergate. President Richard Nixon resigned in August 1974, leading to Democrats' pickup of 49 seats that fall.
The Senate, on the other hand, remains Republican-controlled. With 33 of the 35 races declared, it is clear that the Republicans will at least match their previous 51-49 Senate majority.
The 2018 elections marked the fourth midterm since World War II that the President’s party lost ground in the House, but gained in the Senate. What explains this split outcome?
For starters, the number and nature of seats each party had to defend varied a lot between the two chambers.
All 435 seats were up for grabs in the House, and the GOP held a 240-195 seat majority, so Republicans had more seats to defend. Democrats needed to pick up 23 seats to win a majority and looked to the suburbs and exurbs around major metropolitan areas for GOP-held seats, many of which flipped to give Democrats the bulk of their House gains.
But in the Senate, Democrats were very much on the defensive. Of the 35 seats contested in 2018, 26 were held by Democrats, including 10 in states that President Trump carried in 2016 — five of which went for Trump by at least 18 percentage points. In midterm elections since 1914, this was the greatest number of Senate seats the nonpresidential party had ever had to defend.
The 2018 midterms took place in the backdrop of an ideologically fractured national consciousness.
An analysis of the rhetoric employed by the parties demonstrates the Republicans embracing populist radical right wing sentiments, with the Democrats pushing harder with their agenda of multiculturalism.
It is also difficult to assess which narrative emerged stronger. Several far-right Republicans were re-elected, including Louie Gohmert, Steve King, and Ted Cruz. Not only was right wing agenda reiterated but it was in fact emboldened and radicalized. Old-school Republicans were replaced by more brazenly Trumpian ones – as, for example, Katie Arrington in South Carolina (House of Representatives), Brian Kemp in Georgia (Governor), and Ron DeSantis in Florida (Governor).
Simultaneously, left-wing ideas were argued and embraced. Issues such as universal healthcare, fully funded public education, and the abolishment of ICE were at the forefront of midterm debates. Even though progressive Beto O’Rourke narrowly lost out to Ted Cruz, several analysts see the extremely close nature of the race in Texas (a Senate seat the Democrats haven’t captured since 1988) as a win in itself. In a landmark win, Ocasio-Cortez, a democratic socialist, became the youngest woman elected to US Congress.
Democrats featured historic diversity on their ballot. Their winning candidates included Massachusetts’ first African-American female member of congress, Ayanna Presley, as well as Michigan’s Rashida Talib and Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar, the first two Muslim women to serve in congress. Sharice Davids, elected in Kansas, became the first Native American woman and first lesbian Native American in congress.
Law professor Khaled A Beydoun writes in Al Jazeera,
“Two Muslim women are headed to US Congress, a place they have never been a part of. And in the aftermath of their historic wins, the collective prayer of please don't be Muslim that follows every terror attack was replaced with I'm so proud to be Muslim, uttered by Muslims across the US.”
Immigration emerged as another major flashpoint. Starting October 13, thousands of migrants from Central America began marching north towards the US, seeking to escape persecution, poverty, and violence in their home countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.
On 29 October, Trump took to Twitter to suggest that “Many Gang Members and some very bad people” were present among the migrants and threatened that “our Military is waiting for you!” Trump politicized the issue, suggesting that the Democrats want “radical socialism and open borders” which could only lead to “lawlessness”.
Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi responded in a recent joint statement,
“The president is desperate to change the subject from healthcare to immigration because he knows that healthcare is the number one issue Americans care about..."
"...Democrats are focused like a laser on healthcare and will not be diverted.”
The Democrats went all-in backing their healthcare agenda. They made it clear they want to stop any further efforts by Republicans or the Trump administration to roll back and undermine the Affordable Care Act or overhaul Medicaid and Medicare.
With a House majority, it now remains to be seen how successful the Democrats are in creating a stable healthcare agenda.
“Tomorrow will be a new day in America,” Representative Nancy Pelosi, the leading candidate to be the next speaker of the House, told Democrats at a party in Washington. “Today is more than about Democrats and Republicans. It’s about restoring the Constitution’s checks and balances to the Trump administration. It’s about stopping the GOP and Mitch McConnell’s assaults on Medicare, Medicaid, the Affordable Care Act, and the health care of 130 million Americans.”
Given Republican control of the Senate and White House, Democrats will have little chance to enact their policy priorities. Where they are likely to make their biggest impact is in oversight of the Trump administration. The House majority means Democratic chairs of committees will have subpoena power, and are likely to deluge the Trump administration with requests for documents and testimonies on a range of issues.
Democrats are in discussions about the best way to get the Treasury Department to hand over President Donald Trump’s tax returns, according to the incoming chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee Representative Richard Neal, a Massachusetts Democrat,
“We don’t have a timetable yet, but we’ve talked about it, and we are certainly intent on doing it”
In October, the New York Times published a striking report that revealed how Trump had used sketchy schemes to avoid paying taxes on his income and the wealth he inherited from his father — nearly $413 million in today’s dollars. The report’s analysis and tax experts suggested that the antics the Trump family used could possibly be criminal, though the statute of limitations would have long since passed. Democrats and government watchdogs also believe his tax returns could reveal any number of critical conflicts of interest, including those with foreign governments.
Another important issue is the ongoing Mueller investigation—which is looking into serious potential crimes on Trump’s part, including alleged Russian support for his 2016 campaign, and Trump’s obstruction of justice (especially with the firing of FBI Director James Comey). The Democrats are now vowing to do everything in their power to protect the special counsel as he enters what may be the final phase of his work.
The most obvious benefit to Mueller is that Democratic control of the House presumably makes it more difficult for President Trump to oust the special counsel or shut down the probe early. There’s talk, once again, about passing a bill that would allow fired special counsels to appeal their dismissal to a panel of judges and potentially be reinstated. This legislation, which has been floated many times as protection for Mueller, remains out of reach unless Senate Republicans support it, which is possible but seems unlikely.
However, the Democrats don’t even need to depend on the Republicans to secure protection for the Mueller investigation. With subpoena powers in their toolkit, they can demand oversight if it appears that Mueller’s investigation is being stymied or important information is being suppressed.
Some Democrats are already promising to call Whitaker, Trump’s controversial replacement for Jeff Sessions, to testify about his “expressed hostility” to the Mueller probe, and they’ve sent requests asking top Trump administration officials to preserve documents and evidence related to Mueller’s probe and Sessions’ resignation. Democrats could even end up calling Mueller to testify before Congress about his findings. This is especially likely if he’s fired.
With newfound power, the Democrats will obviously be curious to pursue several measures to keep the Trump administration in check. But they must not lose sight of the need to establish and fulfill a constructive agenda of their own. This becomes particularly crucial given Trump’s rhetoric about a “witch-hunt” against him. As per David Axelrod, a Democratic strategist and former top adviser to Barack Obama,
“Trump’s great genius is to try and reduce everyone to his level and approach, and he wants to be able to paint Democrats as single-mindedly bent on his destruction.”
With the Trump easily being the one of the most controversial presidents ever, it will fascinating to examine how his brazen disregard for constitutional procedures is now received by a Democratic House majority.
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About the Author
Parth Maniktala is a student of LLB at the Faculty of Law, Delhi University. He is the a former President of the Hansraj College Debating Society, where he also completed his Bachelors in English Literature. Parth has been recognized as one of Asia’s top 10 speakers at the United Asians Debating Championship held in Cambodia in 2017. He has also been the chief adjudicator of the annual national schools debating championship of Nepal. Apart from debating, he has a keen interest in cinema and literature. He has in the past served as the literary editor of the St. Columbas School's magazine.