So Who ‘Won’ the Midterms? Democrats’ gains in the House and at the state level give them the upper hand for 2020 Yonah Berenson (‘20), Executive Editor Everyone was claiming victory November 6. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), likely to resume her duties as Speaker of the House after an eight-year hiatus, hailed what she called the restoration of “the Constitution and checks and balances to the Trump administration” in her victory speech. President Donald Trump, meantime, called the midterms “very close to complete victory” for Republicans. So, with the 116th Congress officially sworn in January 3, who really won?
Democrats: Democrats took the House of Representatives, becoming the majority party there for the first time since 2010. They won 40 House seats, the most since Watergate. (Democrats could potentially pick up another seat depending on what happens in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District, where the state election board won’t certify Republican Mark Harris’s 900-vote lead after alleged election fraud was discovered and where there will almost definitely be a special election.) It was a slow victory, with many elections being called weeks after Election Day, but a victory nonetheless for Democrats. What had been projected to be a blue wave was closer to a slowly rising tide. Democrats gained seats slowly, and the blue wave did not immediately materialize in election returns. Only after all ballots were counted did it become clear that these elections had ushered in real, visible change, visible especially right here in Southern California (see “California Republicans” under “Losers” for more on that). With control of the House, Democrats now have control of the legislative agenda, so they can block conservative legislation. They will also take control of House committees with the power to investigate Mr. Trump and subpoena records, including his tax returns, which Mr. Trump has been withholding. Finally, a House majority gives Democrats the ability to impeach Mr. Trump, should they find enough evidence of wrong-doing. Although Democrats did not flip the Senate, they met expectations there. The 2018 Senate map was just horrific for Democrats from the get-go. Twenty-five Democrats (including two Independents who caucus with Democrats) were up for reelection in the Senate this year, compared to eight Republicans. And many of those Democrats up for reelection were fighting to keep seats in red states where Trump won big two years ago. That any of them were able to keep their seats speaks to the powerful blue tide. And Democrats made two key pickups in Arizona and Nevada, which are seats they will actually be able to defend in 2024 because those states are close to the political center, unlike some of the Democrats’ pickups in 2012.
Control of the House gives Democrats the ability to impeach Mr. Trump if the evidence suggests wrongdoing. Nancy Pelosi: Having agreed to a term limit to gain rebel Democrats’ votes for speaker, Mrs. Pelosi took the speaker’s gavel January 3 for the first time since 2010. She will be subject to a caucus vote to reauthorize her speakership in 2020 and after that she will be ineligible to serve as speaker again under caucus rules. Democratic 2020 Chances: With control of the House, Democrats will hold high-profile investigations of the president, keeping excitement within the party high over the next two years. And at the same time, the American people will expect next to nothing of Democrats in terms of policy because they control only one house of Congress. Meanwhile, despite the fact that Republicans face the same challenge as Democrats to passing legislation, Americans see the GOP as the majority party, so the burden of passing legislation falls to them. Republicans are unlikely to live up the the expectation, and they will definitely not succeed in sweeping legislation like tax reform. Separately, Florida voters passed a state constitutional amendment that restores voting rights to released felons who were convicted of most crimes. An estimated one million ex-cons were enfranchised by the amendment. More voters usually translates to Democractic wins. Donald Trump: Mr. Trump’s handpicked candidates prevailed in most elections (Kansas gubernatorial candidate Kris Kobach being a notable exception), providing an ego boost for the president. Mr. Trump also avoided the major rebuke that former President Barack Obama suffered in 2010, when 61 Democratic House seats flipped over to Republicans. That’s not to say the president got off easy. The new Democratic House ends Mr. Trump’s chance to enact broad policy and subjects him to constant scrutiny. Trump’s Judicial Nominees: With a more robust six-seat majority in the Senate, Mr. Trump can breathe a sigh of relief. Whether at the district, appellate, or Supreme Court level, Mr. Trump’s judicial nominees are very unlikely to face the intense scrutiny that Justice Brett Kavanaugh did. If Justice Kavanaugh, who was accused of sexual assault in his teen years, was confirmed with a two-seat majority, Mr. Trump has nothing to worry about with a six-seat majority. Women: Well, Democratic women. Other minorities also had a successful night, many being the first of their minority group ever elected to Congress. Female candidates made history throughout the nation on Election Day, being elected to the House and Senate for the first time in many states. One-hundred-two representatives in the next House (all but 13 are Democrats) will be women, an all-time record in both houses of Congress. Still,
only about 24 percent of seats will be occupied by women, who make up 51 percent of the U.S. population. And there will be fewer Republican women in this Congress than in the previous one. Pollsters: Pollsters have still been smarting from Mr. Trump’s unexpected victory two years ago, but these midterms were a different story. While many pointed to individual races in mocking polls’ fallibility, pollsters’ overall predictions were vindicated: Democrats took the House by a large margin; Republicans kept the Senate in a year when many vulnerable Democratic incumbents faced an uphill battle in deep-red states; and Democrats picked up several governorships.
Republicans: Despite Mr. Trump’s insistence, Election Day was not “very close to a complete victory” for the GOP––not by a long shot. Republicans lost the House and a significant number of governorships. They kept the Senate, but Democrats had little chance there to begin with. And many Democratic senators who were up for reelection this year and lost were running in red states in which they had little chance. They had initially won those seats only as part of the excitement of Mr. Obama’s 2012 reelection, excitement that understandably fizzled out after six years. That the Republicans kept the Senate and even picked up a few seats in a non-election year is far from blocking a blue wave. In fact, they just barely met expectations, expectations that they needed to exceed. Perhaps more significantly, Republicans lost over 300 seats in state legislatures. That may not sound like a big deal, but state legislatures are responsible for redistricting, so if one party is in charge of both houses and the governor’s mansion, it can gerrymander districts to favor that party. Republicans won many so-called “trifectas” during the Obama administration, but on Election Day, they lost three and Democrats won six, meaning that Democrats will be in charge of more state legislatures over the next two years, which may allow them to increase possible congressional wins for 2020, or else give independent commissions control over redistricting. In terms of immediate impact, Republicans will not be able to pass the kind of budget they want in the House. Mr. Trump will have to compromise on a budget and end this shutdown sooner or later, and he has no chance of getting his wall anytime in the next two years. Progressives: Some progressives won (like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), but they did so in deep-blue districts. In the past, Democrats have run conservatives or moderates to try to flip red states. The main test for progressives this year was whether a charismatic progressive could win in a red state where a moderate Democrat could not. These progressive candidates came close in many instances, but alas, close doesn’t count for much. Georgia’s Stacey Abrams, Texas’s Beto O’Rourke, and Florida’s Andrew Gillum all came within percentage points of winning––Mr. Gillum within a half of a percentage point––but all lost. The question for the Democratic Party is simple: could a moderate have flipped these states? The answer, at least for Texas and Georgia, is probably no, so this was not a catastrophic defeat for progressives. But it was not encouraging either. The upshot is that a progressive Democrat would have a very hard time winning the electoral college. California Republicans: In addition to the general loss for Republicans, California Republicans were hit especially hard. They were not elected to any statewide offices (they haven’t been since 2006), and they lost Orange County––all of it––traditionally a Republican stronghold. Finally, Proposition 6, which would have repealed a recent tax on gas and was championed by Republican gubernatorial candidate John Cox and retiring Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), failed, with 55 percent of voters rejecting the measure.
Mr. Trump will not be able to function with a Democratic House issuing subpoenas to him and his staff and holding hearings about his every move. President Trump: Yes, Donald Trump sees himself as a winner, but as president he will not be able to function with a Democratic House issuing subpoenas to him and his staff and holding hearings about his every move. It is unlikely that the president will be able to get any legislation through a divided Congress. He might be a dealmaker, but Republican senators are not. With prosecutors in the Southern District of New York announcing new investigations into the president’s business dealings and apparent conflicts of interest and into those around him, and with the release of Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller’s report expected soon, Mr. Trump has a lot to fear with a Democratic House. There are enough moderate Democrats to stave off a frivolous impeachment, but if the evidence of wrongdoing in any of the several investigations becomes undeniable, they will not hesitate to impeach him. That’s a real fear that will persist through the two remaining years (or, if it’s up to the Democratic House, perhaps fewer) of the Trump administration.