Reflecting the mood of the United States at large, the 2018 midterm elections delivered the expected result – a divided Congress. In a clash between the Democratic ‘blue wave’ and the Republican ‘red wall’, a record number of voters, thought to be about 113 million, flipped control of the House of Representatives to the Democratic Party, while the Republican Party (GOP) maintained its grip on the Senate.
Intriguingly, for the first time since 1892, a party lost ground in one chamber despite gaining control of the other. Although this might seem a trivial statement plucked from obscurity to fit this scenario, it highlights a major shift of power in the US, combined with an undercurrent of change that will impact future elections.
Results and repercussions
Split elections, whereby one party gains seats in the House while the other gains in the Senate, are uncommon yet not rare, having now happened seven times since World War II. Such elections tend to occur when there's limited public disquiet in America and – exhibited by small gains for one party in the House and similarly small gains for the other in the Senate – don't greatly alter the status quo.
The 2018 midterms, however, witnessed a significant change. At the time of writing, a handful of seats remain too close to call; however, the Democratic Party will gain at least 30 seats in the House, and is currently favoured to claim an additional five seats that remain undecided. Comparatively, this gain is somewhat small when juxtaposed with either the GOP’s 54-seat gain in 1994 or its 63-seat gain in 2010. Yet, it's critical to note the underlying facts that indicate a larger trend towards Democrats than meets the eye.
As shown by The New York Times, the average congressional district swung 10 per cent towards the Democratic Party, and by 21 per cent in the seats that Democrats gained. Further, Democratic pickups were largely in suburban areas that have traditionally been GOP strongholds, while pundits and commentators have focused extensively on the increasing impact of female voters and the greater prevalence of female candidates as an additional factor aiding Democrats.
Despite these shifting demographics, Republicans maintained control of the Senate.
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Simply, electoral math favoured the GOP in 2018. The staggered electoral system forced Democrats to defend unfavourable seats with limited opportunity to steal many away. As it stands, the GOP has won three seats previously held by Democrats (Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota), while only one Republican seat, in Nevada, was stolen away.
Although three contests remain undeclared, the GOP holds a 51-46 edge in the Senate, which ensures that the GOP can check the power of the Democratic House.
Perhaps more importantly for President Donald Trump, however, the power to affirm any open Cabinet appointments (including the role of Attorney-General vacated by the fired Jeff Sessions) as well as judicial nominees remains under Republican control.
Of particular importance are nominations to fill potential Supreme Court vacancies. Liberal justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg (85) and Stephen Breyer (80), simply by consequence of their age, are the most likely to vacate the bench in the coming years, which could grant Trump the opportunity to add a sixth conservative voice to the nine-seat bench.
As votes continue to be counted in Arizona and Florida, combined with a run-off election scheduled for November 27 to decide the Mississippi special election, the power balance of the Senate will shift. It's clear, however, that bipartisan negotiations – both within and between the Houses – will become exponentially important once the new Congress convenes on January 3.
Navigating the divide
Divided control of Congress is hardly a new prospect for the US government. Quite recently, during the 112th and 113th Congresses between 2011 and 2015, Democrats maintained control of the Senate despite a Republican surge to power in the House.
During these four years, the Republican House, buoyed by the popularity of the insurgent Tea Party movement, stalled much of the Democratic agenda under President Barack Obama, with the House, Senate and White House clashing on key policy measures where bipartisanship was difficult to find.
Impeachment stands as a somewhat likely action of the upcoming 116th Congress; however, removal of Trump from office is less likely – as the power to remove lies with the Senate.
Mirroring the middle years of Obama’s tenure, President Trump faces a hostile House that will likely do more than hamper the advancement of his pet policies. Once the new Congress takes effect, Democratic lawmakers in the House attain greater investigative powers. Consequently, Democrats will likely further scrutinise the Trump administration and the controversies surrounding his ascension to office with the potential of presidential impeachment.
Impeachment stands as a somewhat likely action of the upcoming 116th Congress; however, removal of Trump from office is less likely – as the power to remove lies with the Senate. Still, with partisanship now more pronounced and the parties more polarised, efforts to impeach, and perhaps remove, Trump from office will likely bring about further division and limit the legislative capacity of Congress. A point of caution for Democrats.
Undoubtedly, Republicans and Democrats will spin the results of the 2018 midterms to contend that their party won and that their opponents lost. Aside from the ostensible political victories, however, November 6 also brought about victories for unelected American citizens.
At all federal elections in the US, both in presidential and midterm cycles, additional decisions are made at a state level – from proposed amendments to state constitutions to more simple legal changes. For example, on Tuesday, three consistently conservative states – Idaho, Nebraska and Utah – voted to expand Medicaid, while another two – Arkansas and Missouri – voted to raise their minimum wage.
In measures that could influence electoral results in 2020 and beyond are voting reforms passed in Florida, Michigan and Nevada – three states decided by razor-thin margins at the 2016 presidential election. Florida, covered extensively by the media, expanded voting rights to include 1.5 million former felons, while Michigan decided to allow an expansion of voter registration, and Nevada approved the automatic registration of voters (unless the resident declines) when a driver’s licence is either issued or renewed.
Expansions to voting rights tend to favour the Democratic Party. Therefore, despite the divided victories of this midterm election, 2018 could mark the beginning of blue dominance in the federal sphere.