America has voted, the results are in, but the country’s future remains uncertain – for now.
Tuesday’s Congressional midterm elections were billed – rightly – as among the most important in US history. Decades of widening division have been exacerbated by an aggressive Donald Trump willing to remake the American system (some might say overrun it) with his rhetoric and executive orders.
After 35 Senate races and verdicts on all 435 House seats, there is no clear resolution. Democrats did take the House of Representatives with a large swing; but Republicans not only clung to the Senate, they increased their majority.
In some races, the Republicans (GOP) pulled off upsets. The current governor, Rick Scott, grabbed the Florida Senate seat narrowly from incumbent Bill Nelson, a victory replicated in the governor’s race by Ron DeSantis over Andrew Gillum – who would have been the first African-American to head Florida. The Republicans regained the Indiana seat by a larger margin with Mike Braun defeating incumbent Joe Donnelly; they took North Dakota as expected and are narrowly ahead in three other key races — a combination which could produce a 55-45 GOP advantage in the Senate for the next four years.
But Democrats flipped more than 30 House seats, in some cases by double-digit majority, in all areas of the country. They regained Trump territory, notably in Pennsylvania and even the deep-red state of Texas.
Across the US, the Democrats held a 9% margin over the GOP – the largest gap since 2008 and one of the biggest in midterm history.
So with no clarity, what’s American future from November 7, 2018?
1. City-Suburb v. Country
This was an election that only widened the gulf between cities and their suburbs and rural areas. That split meant Democrats could pick up GOP House seats in areas such as northern Virginia, southern Florida, the suburbs from Pennsylvania to Colorado, and even the heartland of Kansas. But it also limited the advance in House seats that spanned urban and rural areas, such as the close-run race in central Kentucky.
And it was decisive in the vital state-wide victories in the Senate. The Democrats never had a chance in the deep red state of Tennessee. In Florida, the Democrats rolled up big margins in cities from Miami to Tallahassee but this was overtaken by the GOP tallies in the smaller but numerous rural districts from the Panhandle through the centre. Indiana went back to its deep Republican country roots to outnumber Democrat majorities in Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, and Evansville. North Dakota, the fourth most Republican state in the US, went back to the GOP, and rural Montana may also go.
2. Health care not enough to redraw map… yet
Exit polls showed that healthcare, despite being down the list of headline issues in the campaign, was the number one priority for a plurality – about 40% – of voters. That portion topped the 20% each for the economy and immigration.
But that did not translate into a decisive rejection across the US of the GOP’s efforts to gut Obamacare. It remains to be seen whether this was an uneven priority, with voters in some states – and House districts within states – putting more emphasis on the issue than others. Or it could be that a “soft” attachment to healthcare for more voters was outweighed by a “hard” emphasis on the economy and immigration for others.
3. Nor is surge of youth and women
The extent of the surge in turnout is still to be calculated, but exit polls point to a sharp rise in involvement of 18 to 24-year-olds and women. Some conventional wisdom held that this shift would boost Democrats – and exit polls showed a 19% advantage among women and 35% among the 18-to-24 group. Again, on a statewide level, this did not necessarily translate into gains.
But there was a Blue wave in the overall vote – and more than 100 women, the large majority Democrats, will be seated in the Congress in January.
Is there still more to be done by Democrats to galvanise the under-25s and women? Or is this an issue of a surge among dedicated older voters that will continue to bolster the Republicans?
4. Trump a double-edged sword for GOP
The spectre of an immigrant “invasion”, Trump’s primary theme, offers a paradox. The false drama may have helped Republicans in unaffected areas far from the border. But in the immigration frontline of Texas it may have cost the GOP. And, in pockets like Kansas, Trump declarations such as the ending of “birthright citizenship” may have upset Republican campaigns and led to unexpected losses because of a backlash against the anti-immigrant drive as well as its effects on local communities.
In addition to Beto O'Rourke’s near-upset of Ted Cruz, Democrats took a series of House seats, overcoming the urban-rural split in Texas and also flipping the GOP Senate seat in Nevada. Could Texans and Nevadans – the young, the suburban areas, Hispanic-Americans – have recoiled from Trump’s scorched-earth rhetoric and policies such as indefinite detention and the separation of children from parents?
And Trump had some reverse Midas touches where his patronage contributed to defeat. In Kansas, Kris Kobach – a loud Trump cheerleader who headed the ill-fated White House voter fraud commission – unexpectedly lost the governor’s race.
5. Trump didn’t win, but he will tweet ‘#Winning’
Donald Trump did not win these mid-terms. His party lost the House of Representatives. Some of his allies fell. And, if there was no Democrat Blue wave to retake the Senate, there are fast streams of opposition in many urban and suburban areas.
But Trump is never one to accept a reality offering less than victory. So he will seize upon the increase in the Republican majority in the Senate as not only a vindication, but an outcome due to his personal intervention. He will point from Florida to North Dakota as he persists with his anti-immigrant campaign. He will rail against a “fake news” media that does not grant him acclaim, and he will falsely claim voter fraud that prevented more “#Winning”, especially in the House.
6. More uncertainty – if Russia doesn’t get Trump first
So it’s two more uncertain, possibly chaotic, years in the US. In “normal” times, a split Congress would be labelled as gridlock. But in the abnormal Trumpian years, the White House occupant is already beyond gridlock.
The Trump administration has not governed through legislation – it has only one bill, the December 2017 tax cuts, to its credit – but through executive orders and commands to agencies. These have ranged from immigration to tariffs to shredding of environmental protections and corporate regulations to ripping up international agreements.
Trump will press on. The language will be even more aggressive, the proposals more brash. He will be egged on by hardline advisers, including the xenophobic, anti-immigrant Stephen Miller, as well as some of the majority in the Senate, and Republicans who have held on in the House, including the “white nationalist” Steve King of Iowa and the indicted Duncan Hunter of California.
The 2018 midterm elections have not checked Trump. Democratic control of the House will not stop him, despite a possible attempt to subpoena Trump’s tax records amid questions over his finances, alleged fraud and tax manipulation, and conflict of interest.
Perhaps the only barrier until 2020 is the Trump-Russia investigation led by Robert Mueller: its announcements and indictments have been paused this autumn but will now resume and possibly close with a showdown with Trump.
Last week, I concluded an assessment, “The most important person in America on November 7 will be Robert Mueller.” This morning, amid the lack of clarity, I am doubling down on that evaluation.