2018 Midterms Reflect a Nation Divided

COMMENTARY: The midterm elections end with the Democrats controlling the House and the Republicans keeping the senate.

President Donald Trump attends a campaign rally in Pensacola, Florida on Nov. 3.
President Donald Trump attends a campaign rally in Pensacola, Florida on Nov. 3. (photo: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

In a reflection of the bitterly polarized and divided electorate, the 2018 midterm elections ended with a divided and polarized government. The Democrats took control of the House of Representatives from the Republicans for the first time since 2010, but the GOP not only retained control of the U.S. Senate but actually added to their majority.

Given that only a few months ago this was supposed to be a so-called wave election in favor of the Democrats, the results can be seen as a disappointment for them, even as it now sets in motion what will likely be a hyperpartisan political struggle as the country lurches toward the 2020 presidential election.

A Divided Government

Historically, the party in the White House has lost an average of 30 seats in the House of Representatives and four or five seats in the Senate in midterm elections. Only twice has a president actually gained seats in both chambers. The last time that happened was in 2002 under President George W. Bush.

As with all midterms, 2018 was a referendum on President Donald Trump. With low approval ratings, a galvanized Democrat Party and a secular media that has largely engaged in political warfare with the president – who has also embraced his own rhetorical campaign against the media – the stage seemed set for a massive defeat to be inflicted on the Republican Party and Trump. Certainly, the loss of the House is a terrible setback for any party in power, but with the Democrats on pace to pick up around 33 seats, they are consistent with the historical average. They are also falling well behind other true wave elections, such as in 1994 and 2010 when Republicans won 54 and 63 seats, respectively. Equally, the Democrat majority will be a narrow one heading into 2020 and may well be reduced further depending upon the inevitable special elections that may take place.

Just as worrisome for them are the results on the Senate side. Virtually all of the red state Democrats facing re-election in this cycle had uphill battles, and only Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia emerged victorious. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Claire McCaskill of Missouri all lost badly, and John Tester of Montana may also have been defeated (the votes are still being counted). Add in the loss of Bill Nelson in Florida, and the Democrats find themselves with more ground to make up in 2020. 

The electoral map was squarely against them in 2018, and the reverse will be true in 2020. But the sheer amount of wasted energy and money that went into the 2018 campaign may leave Democrat strategists worried about a general election.

As for the Republicans, the House was lost in the suburbs where Democratic and special interest money could make a key difference, especially in districts where Trump is unpopular and could be tied to Republican incumbents. Health care and the failure to deliver on a promise of seven years to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act were also significant factors in the loss of the House for the GOP, and Republican leaders were fortunate to have retained as many seats as they did in what might have been a far less forgiving electoral environment.

On the Senate side, Trump was not on the ballot, but he did play a significant role in turning out the vote against red state Democrats. In doing so, he achieved only the fifth time that a president in his midterm added seats in the Senate. That means he now has a political check on many of the actions that will be coming from the Democrat-controlled House, and just as important, his judicial nominees will continue to be approved at a record pace under Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. That may possibly include at least one more Supreme Court pick before the 2020 election.

Subpoenas and Social Justice Warriors

Legislative gridlock and political acrimony, however, are also going to be the main products of the next Congress. With both parties already profoundly opposed to each other, the levels of uncivility increasing and all eyes now on 2020, there will be little incentive to cooperate or search for common ground.

Moreover, the influx of new members of the Democrat House Caucus will hardly be conducive to creating an atmosphere of cooperation. 

Two figures, separated by almost 50 years in age, epitomize the new Democrat majority. Liberal California Democrat Nancy Pelosi, 78, returns as Speaker of the House. She will lead the charge against President Trump and will advance again an agenda that includes an aggressive promotion of abortion. She will be joined by 29-year old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York who is the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. 

Ocasio-Cortez is a declared socialist who has openly called for the impeachment of the president and whose knowledge-starved observations on such topics as funding universal health care, the hard truth about socialism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict became viral social media fodder. Unsurprisingly, she was an instant media darling and will speak for and with many new Democrat House members demanding Trump’s impeachment, including Ilhan Omar of Minnesota who just became one the first two Muslim women elected to Congress. The new socialist and other radical members of the House will push Pelosi and the party even farther to the left.

Democrats in the House are thus expected to launch investigations into Trump’s tax returns and revisit the Russian collusion narrative. Subpoenas will be issued within days of the start of the new term, and the grounds might be set for impeachment hearings not just for Trump but Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh as both are being demanded by the progressive Democrat base, the pro-abortion movement and fuming social justice warriors.

Exit polling will be studied carefully, but the midterms seemed to have taken a decisive turn coming out of the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings as Trump’s conservative base was mobilized by what many saw as a vicious campaign to derail the Supreme Court nominee. Notably, the only red state Democrat to vote for Kavanaugh was Joe Manchin, who was also the lone survivor politically on Election Day. The Kavanaugh backlash may be a warning to Democrats about overplaying their hand.

The Political Environment

The 2018 midterms were also important in assessing the current political climate in key swing states. House Republicans fared very poorly in traditionally blue Pennsylvania and increasingly blue Virginia. They also lost a Senate seat and the governorship in Nevada, a danger sign that the once reliably Republican state has been transformed by the influx of so many Californians. 

Meanwhile, Florida proved more reliably red than expected, with Republicans retaining the governorship and picking up a Senate seat. Florida will be an essential battleground for Trump in 2020. So too will Michigan, where the GOP lost the governor’s mansion, one of seven pickups for the Democrats in gubernatorial races. 

Also victorious were state amendments promoting the rights of the unborn. In Alabama, voters approved a ballot measure known as Amendment 2 that added to the state constitution that “it is the public policy of this state to recognize and support the sanctity of unborn life and the rights of unborn children.” Similar measures were approved in West Virginia but defeated in Oregon.

Trump and 2020

Finally, President Trump will find the Democrat-controlled House another enemy to add to the list that includes the media and most of Hollywood. He campaigned aggressively against red state Democrats across eight states and produced significant wins that helped him keep control of the Senate and to stem Democrat momentum. The result will be gridlock but also potentially a political opportunity by focusing and demonizing the Democrat leadership in the House.

In the last years, he has been aided by the overreach and blind rage of his opponents. Celebrities turned out again to defeat him, and from Beto O’Rourke in Texas – where the unpopular Senator Ted Cruz was primed for defeat but hung on in the end – to former President Barack Obama to Oprah Winfrey to Taylor Swift, star power and wrath were not enough to produce the crushing defeat of Trump that had been predicted.

We move now toward 2020. If we thought the elections of 2016 and 2018 were ugly…

Matthew Bunson is a Register senior editor.