Since Hillary Clinton’s defeat, Democrats have been determined to recapture the majority in Congress. Could Trump’s low approval ratings and legislative shortcomings clear the path to a Democratic majority in Congress and derail his vision for America?
The Contenders: Challenges and Opportunities
Outlook for the GOP
Since the 2014 midterm elections, Republicans have held a majority in both houses, with 51 seats in the Senate and 239 seats in the House of Representatives. In 2018, all of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives will be up for election, as well as 33 of the Senate’s 100 seats. Although races for both houses will be highly contested, it can be expected that Republicans will maintain a majority in the Senate. Out of the eight seats the GOP will be defending next year, only two could potentially flip. The two seats are those of Jeff Flake, Senator of Arizona, and Dean Heller, Senator of Nevada. Both states were highly contested in the 2016 presidential election. While Trump won Arizona with a slim margin of 49.5%, Clinton carried Nevada with 47.9% of the votes.
In the House of Representatives, Republicans will face greater opposition. Key seats the party will be defending include California’s 49th district, Rep. Darrell Issa’s seat. Hillary Clinton won the district in 2016 with 50.7%. Equally contested and also in California is Dana Rohrabacher’s seat (CA-48), another district Clinton won in 2016. Other important seats include NY-19, Rep. John Faso and Virginia’s 10th district and the seat of Rep. Barbara Comstock. Clinton won the district with 52.2% of the votes. Overall, around 20 districts are regarded as contested.
Republicans will face several major challenges. Firstly, they will find it difficult to decide on whether to run with a pro-Trump agenda or whether to distance themselves from the President. Trump-style messaging has been failing them, with losses in Virginia and Alabama last year. Republican candidate for the Governor of Virginia, Ed Gillespie, lost the race addressing topics such as sanctuary cities and confederate status.
Secondly, the Republican Party will be up against image problems with their perceived failure to push through major promises like repealing and replacing Obamacare. President Trump’s low approval ratings are another obstacle, having remained below 40% throughout his first year. And finally, although passing the tax bill after lengthy wrangling was an achievement, polls indicate that it is quite unpopular. The Senate Republicans’ $1.5 trillion tax cut could add $1 trillion to the deficit, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation.
Outlook for the Democrats
On the other side of the aisle, Democrats will have to defend a significant number of seats in both houses. Out of the 25 seats Democrats will be defending in the Senate in 2018, the seats of John Donnelly (D-IN), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), and Joe Manchin (D-VA) are located in solid Trump states. Not only did President Trump win these states with a significant lead over Clinton in 2016, he also maintains approval ratings above the national average. For instance, in West Virginia, which he carried with 68% of the votes, Trump’s approval ratings remained at 60% in the first half of his presidency, despite the Russia investigation and the failed attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare.
It is expected that it will be easier for Democrats to pick up seats in the House of Representatives. Overall, Democrats will need 24 seats in order to reach the majority. And although Hillary Clinton had 23 districts represented by the GOP, the Democrats still have to defend twelve districts Trump carried in 2016. The most contested seats include NJ-5, the seat of Josh Gottheimer, a district usually affiliated with the Republican Party. Trump carried the district with 48.8%. Meanwhile, Carol Shea-Porter will vacate NH-1 – another district carried by Trump. Equally important will be the race for MI-8. Trump won Rick Nolan’s district with 54.2%.
One of the main challenges the party has faced in the past is low voter turnout. However, in an effort to recapture Congress in 2018, Democrats have launched a series of campaigns, such as MoveOn.org, Indivisible, and Run for Something. One of clearest successes of these efforts is the gubernatorial election in Virginia in November, where Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam beat Republican candidate Ed Gillespie with 53.9%.
Most noteworthy is the successful mobilisation of millennials. While overall voter turnout increased from 42.7% in 2013 to 47.7% this year across party lines, voter participation among millennials increased by 8%. Overall, 81.4% of millennials voted for Ralph Northam.
US Midterm Elections: The issues
- Budget: Republicans are determined to cut non-defense and increase defense spending. Towards the end of 2017, collaboration between the Democrats and President Trump on the budget witnessed another low point, with Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer of New York and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California pulling out of a meeting with Trump after his statement that a compromise was unlikely to be achieved. In a joint statement, Schumer and Pelosi said that they would instead seek collaboration with Republicans in Congress.
- Economy: In an effort to appeal to America’s working base, Democrats introduced “A Better Deal”, a blueprint aimed to counter President Trump’s populist messages, which includes efforts for minimum wages. The proposal also includes efforts for the protection of American workers’ rights from foreign competition, which in context with the currently renegotiated NAFTA trade agreement could facilitate collaboration between the White House and Democrats in the House of Representatives.
- Infrastructure: Infrastructure improvement is another issue both President Trump and Democrats agree on, and which will likely be pushed forward by Democrats. In January, Senate Democrats introduced their “Blueprint to Rebuild America’s Infrastructure”. In addition to Trump’s proposed $1 trillion federal investments, Democrats launched another effort to win bipartisan support for the investment of $500 billion in infrastructure improvements in August.
- Gerrymandering: Elections in 2018 and 2020 will determine who will be allowed to redraw district lines after the 2020 census. In 43 states, the party controlling a state legislative will be able to shape politics for decades to come. While the GOP has already raised $125 million for its RedMap 2020 campaign, Democrats have raised $70 million for their Advantage 2020 campaign in an effort to be in charge of redistricting.
- Impeachment: A Democratic majority in the House of Representatives could also start an impeachment process against President Trump. In December, Rep. Al Green (D-TX) introduced articles of impeachment but suffered a defeat after the majority of House Democrats, including House Democratic leaders, voted against the effort. Future impeachment efforts would also face another hurdle in the Senate, which is likely to remain in the control of Republicans.
A Viable Challenge to #MAGA
One year ahead of the election, 45.5% of voters stated that they would vote for the Democratic Party and 37.2% for the GOP during the Midterm elections. Although, as outlined above, a majority in both the Senate and House of Representatives would be difficult to attain, a democratic majority in the House of Representatives would already have a significant impact on the course of the country.
The continuation of a Republican majority in both Houses would reinvigorate the GOP’s political agenda. The departure of Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Bob Corker (R-TN) will remove two of Trump’s most ardent critics and make it easier to push ahead – Bob Corker was the only Senate Republican to vote against the tax bill introduced in the Senate.
However, chances are high that Democrats will be able to regain the majority in the House of Representatives and allow them to pursue an even more fervent role as opposition party. A significant portion of Trump’s agenda will be affected, including budget, trade agreements, immigration reform, infrastructure, and deregulation of Wall Street. A Democratic majority in Congress will also have a major impetus on redistricting after the 2020 census and would provide the opportunity to impeach Trump.
Despite the President’s solid base, Trump is still struggling with low approval ratings, while his party has been unable to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Democrats meanwhile will have to be able to maintain the wave of enthusiasm that has engulfed its base and which was instrumental in a series of election victories from Virginia to New Jersey and ultimately Alabama. However, the 2018 midterm elections are also expected to increase polarisation and further broaden the growing urban-rural divide.
This effect was already observed in previous elections and has once more become apparent in the recent gubernatorial election in Virginia. Over the course of the past decade, Virginia’s western rural areas have become strongholds of the GOP, while urban areas in the northeast of the state, including suburbs, have aligned with the Democratic Party. Suburbs in particular have emerged as a key battleground in elections.
Historically, the President’s party loses seats in midterm elections. In 2010, for instance, Democrats lost 63 seats in the House of Representatives to the GOP. In the context of recent election victories, one of the most notable ones occurring on December 12th in Alabama, pundits are predicting a Democratic wave that could sweep away a significant number of seats in the House of Representatives.
by Friederike Andres