As the dust settles on a rollercoaster midterm election in the middle of a rollercoaster presidential term, it’s worth taking stock of what just happened. Things aren’t nearly as bad for President Trump as his political and media foes would have you believe, and Tuesday’s election was far from a clear-cut victory. Trump is in trouble, but the Democrats have a long way to go before they can be assured that this really is the beginning of the end for Donald.
The Blue Wave did not materialise:
At least not to the extent that Democrats needed in order to permanently cripple the Trump presidency. While counting is ongoing, the scale of the losses when the last ballot is tallied will pale in comparison to the losses which President Bill Clinton experienced in the 1994 midterms (a loss of 54 House seats and 8 Senate seats) or those which President Barack Obama went through in 2010 (a loss of 63 House seats and 6 Senate seats).
Not only were Trump’s losses smaller than other recent two-term presidents, his party succeeded in increasing its razor-thin majority in the Senate by taking out four vulnerable Democrats representing red states: Heidi Heitkamp (North Dakota), Joe Donnelly (Indiana), Claire McCaskill (Missouri) and Bill Nelson (Florida). Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell now has a secure working majority, and will likely shift further attention to the one piece of Trump’s domestic agenda which has universal support within Republican ranks: appointing as many conservative judges as possible.
By holding on to the Senate, Trump has maintained the ability to act in crucial areas, and to continue to solidify his support base in preparation for 2020.
But Trump’s Red Wall has crumbled:
On Election Night 2016, Democrats watched with shock and horror as the Blue Wall – the large states that had voted Democratic for 6 previous presidential elections – was systematically destroyed. Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin all opted for Trump, and the Blue Wall became history.
On Tuesday, all three of these states returned to the blue column, at least for now. In Pennsylvania, Senator Bob Casey Junior easily fended off the challenge of the Trumpesque Republican Congressman Lou Barletta. In spite of a spirited campaign, the charismatic African-American veteran and businessman John James failed to dislodge the incumbent Democrat Debbie Stabenow in Michigan. And in Wisconsin, the staunchly conservative Scott Walker’s luck finally ran out, when he was narrowly defeated while running for his third full term as governor.
Does this mean that Trump cannot win these purple states again in two years? Of course not. But he will not have the luxury of running against Hillary Clinton next time, and these results have showed why other Republican candidates fell short in these three states so many times before 2016. It wasn’t easy for them, and it won’t be easy for him in 2020.
With Pelosi as Speaker, Trump will find it harder to function, but easier to survive:
In spite of the difficulties of presiding over an obstreperous team of over 200 members, should she be elected as Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi will have serious powers at her disposal. Democrats will have majorities on all House committees, and will certainly use these to launch as many investigations into Trump and his administration as possible. Committee chairpersons also have subpoena power: they can demand that witnesses appear before them or that documents be handed over for inspection. Expect them to use it liberally, particularly when it comes to issues to do with the Mueller probe into supposed Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Yet Pelosi has never been a popular figure in American politics, and President Trump could well benefit from her ascent to power by focusing the conservative base’s energies on resisting her and her party’s control of the House. For the last two years, the Republicans only had themselves to blame for any failures to pass legislation. Now Trump has a real adversary to contend with, and the President’s megaphone will always be louder than that of the Speaker of the House. That could count for a great deal in 2020.
Democrats are going to find it extremely hard to take back the Senate:
Republicans have picked up four seats in the Senate, while losing one, with one more Republican-held toss-up seat yet to be decided in Arizona. The balance in the Senate is sure to shift upwards from 51-49. While the Democrats have achieved one goal by taking back the House, Chuck Schumer is not about to become Senate Majority Leader.
In 2020, the Senate map will be somewhat more forgiving for Democrats, but it will remain deeply challenging, as Michael Tomasky noted recently in The New York Times. Republicans will be defending 22 out of 33 seats, but most of these are in solidly Republican states which opted for Trump. The states where the Democrats could make gains include Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Maine and North Dakota: none of which will be a cake-walk for a Democratic candidate. Also, the Democratic Senator for Alabama Doug Jones; – who well-informed readers will remember narrowly defeated the pervert Judge Roy Moore in last year’s Senate special election – is virtually certain to be replaced by a Republican who isn’t Roy Moore.
All things considered, the Democrats may have cause to rue their failures in the 2018 Senate races for some years to come.
Kavanaugh mattered, and the courts have never mattered more:
Those who do not think that the scorched-earth battle over Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court was a decisive factor in achieving Republican gains in the Senate either weren’t paying attention or are now in denial.
Though on a national level, the Kavanaugh battle mattered little, it was of vital importance in the socially conservative red states where Democrats desperately needed to hold on. Of the most vulnerable half-dozen Democratic senators up for re-election, five of them voted against confirming Kavanaugh. Four of these (Donnelly, Heitkamp, McCaskill and Nelson) are now unemployed. A fifth, Montana’s Jon Tester, narrowly defeated a surprisingly strong challenger. The only Democrat to vote for Kavanaugh was West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, a fact that helped to ensure that he was re-elected in a state where Trump defeated Clinton by a 40+ point margin. In states where the Democrats lost Senate seats, polls showed that the Kavanaugh vote was an important factor for voters.
Republican control over the Senate is going to lead to many more conservative judges being nominated and confirmed for federal courts over the next two years. What’s more, with the two oldest Supreme Court judges being left-leaning (85-year-old Ruth Bader Ginsburg and 80-year-old Stephen Breyer), there is a good chance that President Trump will get the chance to replace a liberal Supreme Court justice with a conservative one.
And because of their defeat this week, Senate Democrats won’t be able to stop it. Justice Brett Kavanaugh really will end up having the last laugh.
Texas is not turning blue:
In the immediate aftermath of the election, a massive amount of media attention was placed on the Democratic Congressman who had challenged Senator Ted Cruz, and who had achieved a respectable result of over 48% in the most conservative large state in America.
Congressman Robert Francis O’Rourke – an Irish-American who styles himself ‘Beto’ in spite of having absolutely no Hispanic heritage – raised more than $70 million to contest the election and outspent Cruz two-to-one. O’Rourke’s $70 million campaign meant that he significantly outperformed Cruz’s 2012 opponent, who had managed to get 40% of the vote on a shoestring budget.
The Democratic dream of turning Texas blue, and removing its 38 electoral college votes from the Republican Party, is understandable. It explained the short-lived media sensation that was Wendy Davis in 2013-2014, and it explains ‘Betomania’ now.
There are certainly demographic issues facing the Republican party, even allowing for the fact that the Texas branch has been more successful than most others in appealing to Hispanics and other minorities. But the landslide re-election victory for the popular Republican governor Greg Abbott this week, combined with O’Rourke’s massively expensive defeat to one of the most unlikable men in politics suggests that Texas will not be changing colour anytime in the immediate future.
Trump’s behaviour is not getting any better:
Every president reacts differently to setbacks. When Bill Clinton lost both Houses of Congress in 1994, for example, he shuffled around his team of advisers, brought in new blood and adopted a policy of triangulation: stealing the Republicans’ most popular policies while opposing other parts of the GOP’s agenda. It worked wonders for him.
Trump, in contrast, responded to losing the House by immediately demanding the resignation of his Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who Trump feels has not done enough to shield him from the Mueller probe. There is every possibility that Mueller will be fired next. Faced with adversity, Trump is adopting the tactics of a surrounded frontiersman in the Wild West: circling the wagons and shooting anyone who looks suspicious.
Wishing that he would change his behaviour at this point is beyond futile, this is the man he is. It explains his poor judgment in other areas like the Luis Bracamontes ad – this cannot but have damaged the Republican brand going into this election, particularly with minorities.
Unfortunately for the Republicans, there really is no telling what he is going to do between now and the next election, when the fact that he will be on the ballot is likely to bring his inner street fighter to the fore.
The Democrats have no obvious standard bearer for 2020:
But there’s a ray of hope for Republicans. The Democratic rock stars in this midterm election included the candidate for Governor of Florida, Andrew Gillum, the candidate for Governor of Georgia, Stacey Abrams and the aforementioned Robert Francis O’Rourke. All of whom…lost.
This is a real problem for the Democrats. While Trump is far from being popular enough to be assured of re-election, there is no obvious candidate to take him on. There is a strong sense that the former Vice President Joe Biden is yesterday’s man, someone who has tried and failed to reach the highest office in the land twice before. Bernie Sanders has strong support on the left of the party, but will be 79 by Election Day. Self-promoters like Corey Booker and Kamala Harris are unlikely to play well outside of the deep blue areas where they are already fêted and always will be.
Elizabeth Warren is an exceptionally flawed candidate, as shown by her ridiculous and widely ridiculed claim to have Native American ancestry. If Trump’s tweets could goad her into releasing a shambolic DNA test, God knows what he could actually make her do in a televised debate.
If none of these can establish themselves as the front-runner before the primaries begin, Hillary Clinton might well follow through on her threat and enter the race, to the enormous benefit of Trump and the entire Republican Party.
As Hunter Thompson used to say: “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” That was a weird midterm election, but all the signs are that Election 2020 is going to take this to a whole other level.