Presidential proclamations of victory aside, the results of Tuesday’s US midterm elections have fundamentally shifted the balance of power in Washington.
A key part of the Republican voting base, well-educated and middle-class suburbanites, switched their votes or stayed home and the Republicans lost between 30 and 35 seats in the House of Representatives and with it control of the chamber.
Republicans did manage to expand their slim majority in the Senate, likely netting 2 or 3 seats. But even that modest expansion is owed to an historically-anomalous map favourable to the Republicans. Of the 35 Senate races at stake, Republicans will have won only 11 or 12.
At the state level, Democrats picked up 7 governorships including large states like Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin. They further flipped well over 300 state legislative positions, resulting in the shifting of control of up to 7 state houses.
While certainly more time and data are needed for detailed analysis, it is clear from the geography of the Democratic pickups that suburban voters turned on the Republican party in 2018.
When the dust settles, it will likely show that President Trump’s singular focus on stoking fear about immigration and crime will have made rural red areas more red, urban blue areas more blue but ultimately drove away enough suburban voters to cost the Republican party a great deal of political power.
Where do these results fit historically?
The party holding the presidency typically doesn’t do well in midterms. Since 1934, the president’s party has lost an average of 27 House seats and just under 4 Senate seats.
But this was in no way a typical year. Unemployment is at an historically low 3.7 per cent, GDP growth is a robust 3 per cent, wages have finally started to rise, and inflation is running at modest 2 per cent.
The last time a midterm election was held with such good macro-economic statistics was 1998, when President Clinton’s Democrats gained 5 House seats and broke even in the Senate.
With some counting still to go, the Democrats will likely win the collective House popular vote by 7 to 8 per cent. This places it well within the recent ‘wave’ elections of 1994 (Republicans by 6.9 per cent), 2006 (Democrats by 8 per cent), and 2010 (Republicans by 6.8 per cent).
Only the partisan gerrymandering of districts and the geographic concentration of their voting base kept the Democrats from winning even more House seats.
Where to next
With the two houses of Congress now under divided control, opportunities for significant legislation will be few and far between.
Though, somewhat ironically, the annual budgeting and appropriations process should now be less contentious than it was when Republicans controlled the House. Speaker Nancy Pelosi is unlikely to have to deal with an uncompromising faction similar to the so-called Tea Party wing of the Republican caucus. The chances of dramatic political theatre like government shutdowns have gone down considerably.
However, we should expect swift, broad and sustained activity in the House’s use of their oversight powers.
The US Constitution vests in the Congress broad powers to oversee the executive branch and the federal bureaucracy. Both the House and the Senate have standing committees that have the power to open investigations, hold public or private hearings, subpoena people and documents, and even grant immunity to compel testimony.
These powers have largely gone unused by the Republican-controlled House and Senate over the first two years of the Trump administration. Now that the Democrats have ‘won the gavels’ and will control these committees in the House, expect their powers to be pushed to the limits.
Some top priorities are likely to be:
- Whether President Trump, his family, or the Trump Organisation have used the office of the Presidency for financial benefit
- The numerous conflict-of-interest, spending & other ethical scandals involving President Trump’s cabinet
- The implementation of the immigrant child-separation policy
- The response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2017
These investigations are likely to cause no end of trouble for President Trump and his White House.
The President will no longer be setting the public agenda and dominating the discourse with social media disputes. He will now face an institution with real Constitutionally-mandated powers.
A longer term view
Looking further ahead, there are real concerns about the long-term governance and problem-solving capacity of the American political system.
A system with three distinct branches of government, multiple legislative choke points like the filibuster and the Presidential veto, and a complex federalism with unclear lines between the layers of government requires cooperation and compromise to address big public policy issues.
President Trump’s aggressive and divisive approach have only deepened the divisions in an already politically polarised country. Republican voters have long resisted compromise with the Democrats and Democratic voters have started to follow suit in the Trump era.
With demographic changes likely to give the Democrats an advantage in holding the House, the mal-apportionment of the Senate towards low-population constituencies gives the Republicans an advantage there.
Divided government of various stripes might be the norm for the foreseeable future. But the toxic political environment dominating in America may make the required cooperation and compromise all but impossible.
The world’s most powerful county may find itself unable to address its greatest challenges.
This article is co-published with the University of Melbourne’s Election Watch.
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