This was no wave election serving as an all-purpose indictment of Donald Trump’s administration. Nor was it an endorsement of his presidency. Instead, the most anticipated midterms in memory delivered a verdict so mixed that it’s now a very open question how each side interprets them. The rest of us are left to sort through a series of complexities, to try to figure out what we now know about the next two years of American politics and Donald Trump’s re-election prospects in 2020.
TRUMP IS WEAKENED, AND PROBABLY ALSO EMBOLDENED
Losing control of the House of Representatives is bad news for any president – and especially, in certain ways, for this one.
The margin by which Mr. Trump’s party lost the popular vote (about 9 per cent, unofficially) is wider than most midterm setbacks.
Hardly smooth in implementing a legislative agenda even with a relatively pliant Congress, Mr. Trump will now face the sort of gridlock that bedevilled less divisive predecessors.
Worse, from his perspective, is that Democrats will use their majority – and its subpoena powers – to probe everything from the President’s finances to his relationships with foreign governments.
But Mr. Trump, who hours after the midterms turfed his long-suffering Attorney-General, Jeff Sessions, may also feel strengthened.
Despite their congressional losses, Republicans’ statewide successes – thumping incumbent Democratic senators in three Western or Midwestern states, very narrowly winning Florida’s Senate and gubernatorial races – are more than most presidents at this stage of the cycle can claim. And Mr. Trump’s heavy campaigning in some of those states will let him take credit, rightly or not.
He also now has more of a stamp on his party than ever. Not every right-wing populist he backed in primaries over more traditional Republicans won, but a good number did. Meanwhile, Republican losses were disproportionately shouldered by representatives of moderate suburban districts. That should allow Mr. Trump to pursue nationalist policies, including anti-immigration ones, with even less internal opposition.
And that Democratic majority gives him a potentially useful foil. Even with congressional control, he tried to blame Democratic obstructionism for some of his failings; he’ll more credibly be able to do so now.
DEMOCRATS ARE EMPOWERED, AND DIVIDED
Democratic leadership – not least Nancy Pelosi, the frequently maligned House Leader – can claim some vindication. Despite disappointment over individual losses, the overwhelming imperative for their party was simply to retake the House. Sharp strategic discipline, including messaging almost obsessively focused on health-care policy, helped them do so.
Grassroots and organizational enthusiasm helped, too. Now that they have an opportunity to provide meaningful legislative opposition to Mr. Trump, Democrats should remain highly energized.
But they are also not much closer than before to figuring out an identity. And that process threatens to become tortuous.
They’re about to enter presidential primary season with no clear front-runner, and all sorts of room for interpretation about what Tuesday’s results suggest they should look for. (For example: Does Beto O’Rourke putting a scare in Ted Cruz in Texas suggest he should be taken seriously as a potential national contender, or does falling short mean his appeal is illusory?)
Their new representatives tend to fit into two categories: those elected running relatively moderate campaigns in closely contested suburban districts, and those who won primaries in safely Democratic urban districts running as insurgent progressives.
The latter group, personified by the likes of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York, can be expected to push hard for a leftward shift. It stands to make the struggle for the party’s direction, on display since Bernie Sanders squared off against Hillary Clinton, all the more front and centre.
DEMOGRAPHICS AREN’T DEMOCRATIC DESTINY … YET
The run-up to this election saw the revival of a theory popular before Mr. Trump’s 2016 victory: that reliably red southern states were about to turn blue or purple, because Republicans were over-relying on white voters rather than appealing to growing minority populations.
Again, that failed to happen. Stacey Abrams, a strong African-American gubernatorial candidate who made a mission of increasing voter registration, couldn’t quite beat Trumpian populist Brian Kemp to become Georgia’s governor. Nor could Mr. O’Rourke, working tirelessly to appeal to Texas’s Hispanic voters, pull off his Senate bid.
But just because something isn’t happening quickly doesn’t mean it’s not happening at all. Both elections were closer than any others in their states since decades ago.
The question now facing Democrats is how much they want to make such gains central to their strategy. If fully realized, they could represent future electoral dominance. But in the short term that may seem too aspirational, especially when predominantly white suburban voters – many in northern states that are key presidential battlegrounds – are perceived to have played the biggest role in Tuesday’s victories.
VOTERS SUPPRESSED, AND VOTERS ENFRANCHISED
Expect to hear a lot in the coming days about Americans – African-Americans, specifically – being denied or discouraged from voting.
It was particularly acute in Georgia, where Mr. Kemp used his position as Secretary of State of Georgia to conduct purges of people from voting rolls and make unfounded claims of voter fraud.
But Tuesday also saw a major step the other way, as Floridians passed a ballot measure to stop denying voting rights to felons who have completed their sentences. African-Americans, convicted at very high rates in Florida, stand to have more say in that state in the next election.
A mix of ballot measures elsewhere, with three states voting to make voter registration easier and two others voting to tighten identification requirements,meant it was all in keeping with a day in which the United States seemed to be going in different directions at once.
A 2020 LANDSCAPE THAT FEELS MORE COMPETITIVE THAN IT LOOKS ON PAPER
The midterms underscored what a tough path to re-election Mr. Trump should face.
All the GOP’s major wins were in states he carried in 2016. Meanwhile, it lost statewide races in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, all of which narrowly went for him last time. Losing those states would be enough to deny him another presidential win if he didn’t pick up elsewhere. And that’s not to mention pivotal Florida, where the aforementioned voter enfranchisement stands to make Republicans’ lives more difficult.
Yet Democrats’ restrained celebrations were telling. With the Republicans’ pickups and with many of their congressional losses falling within a few percentage points, this election didn’t feel like confirmation that Mr. Trump’s win in 2016 was the historical anomaly many hoped it would prove, any more than midterm losses were rebukes to other presidents, many of whom went on to win second terms.
One certainty, after unusually high voter turnout, is that Americans will be primed for the election two years from now. But the high level of engagement is among the only things that’s predictable, coming out of Tuesday.
The Globe and Mail, November 7, 2018