How to win the 2018 midterm elections

David Sirakov and Sarah Wagner

Version 1: November 7, 2018, 2:53 p.m.
Updated: November 9, 2018, 12:38 pm

The US congressional elections have resulted in a majority change in the House of Representatives. This makes it much more difficult for Donald Trump and his administration to bring laws in motion that follow his agenda. The involvement of the Democrats is now necessary for this and clear resistance is to be expected.

On November 6, 2018, Americans were called upon to elect the 435 House Representatives, 35 Senators and 36 Governors. There was also a large number of national and regional elections. So far, so unspectacular for so-called midterms, if Donald Trump had not emerged as the winner of the 2016 presidential elections. His policy, which continues to polarize the already divided American society, in its unconventional form of communication and in its entirety unprecedented presidency, was particularly eligible for election, even if Trump did not appear on the ballot papers by name.

However, the presidential elections two years ago also had a profound impact on the two major parties in the United States. While the Democrats have to nibble at the severe and for the majority of observers unexpected defeat, Trump's election victory, which is just as surprising for the Republican establishment, calls into question the ideological and programmatic foundations of the Republicans. Both parties are in crisis and major upheavals. The elections had at least the potential to provide information about the state of the US party system.

1. The House of Representatives

In the now expiring 115th Congress, the Republicans had 235 seats, a comfortable majority of 42 seats in the House of Representatives. The Democrats had to gain at least 23 seats to their previous 193 seats in order to achieve an absolute majority. Analysts at website FiveThirtyEight saw an 88 percent chance the Democrats would do the same the day before the election. And they should be right.

Even if not all constituencies have been completely counted, it is already clear that, according to ABC News, the Democrats have gained at least 30 seats and will thus have the necessary majority of 218 MPs.

If you look at the historical data on gains and losses in seats in the House of Representatives, the previous trend is continued. Trump had an approval rating of 40 percent in the last few days before the midterms. The presidential parties with values ​​below 50 percent lost an average of 37 seats.

2. The Senate

In the current Senate, the Republicans have a slim majority of two votes. In the event of a tie, according to the American constitution, the Vice President of the USA, who is also the President of the Senate, decides (this is what happened with the confirmation of Education Minister Betsy DeVos). In order to prevent the Vice President as a tiebreaker, the Democrats had to win at least two votes. This endeavor was particularly difficult given the structure of the states in which Senate seats were elected this year. In the 35 Senate elections, 24 Democrats and two independents voting with them (Bernie Sanders (VT) and Angus Young (ME)) first had to defend their seats. In contrast, the Republicans only had to defend nine seats in order to maintain the status quo. Not surprisingly, the polls and analysts were optimistic about the Republicans. FiveThirtyEight calculated a probability of 81 percent in the event that the Republicans would defend the Senate majority and possibly expand it. And the calculations were even exceeded. The Republicans have most likely managed to win up to four Senate seats by turning Indiana, North Dakota, Missouri and possibly Florida and Montana (the counts are still ongoing) and only losing Nevada to the Democrats.

In Mississippi, the successor to Republican Thad Cochran has to be decided in a second round of elections, but the seat can be awarded to the Republicans, as the Republican votes in the first round were split between two candidates from the Republican Party (Hyde-Smith and McDaniel). The Democratic candidate Mike Espy will therefore have no chance in the second round.

One of the most exciting races was in Texas, where Democrat Beto O’Rourke challenged incumbent Ted Cruz. The latter defended his seat despite losing 12 percent in the 2012 Senate election.

The unfortunate election map this year from the Democrats' point of view can be seen in the Senate elections, particularly in terms of the votes received. In the 45 Senate races, the Democrats received over 47 million votes, while the Republicans received just over 34 million votes.

Nonetheless, Republicans will likely be able to act with a head start in the Senate from 2019 onwards. An exact specification of the seats for Democrats and Republicans is currently not possible due to scarce results in Arizona and Florida.

In contrast to the House of Representatives, the historical perspective on profits and losses in the Senate is not entirely clear. Although the president's party lost an average of one seat, there have been repeated gains in history despite low approval rates. Republicans won an additional seat in 1982, despite a comparatively low approval rate of 42 percent for the then President Ronald Reagan.

3. Governors

Of 50 state governors in the US, 33 were Republicans, 16 Democrats, and one was Independent. With the election of 36 governors, the Democrats had the opportunity to reduce the Republican lead, to draw level, or even to provide a majority. Analysts saw up to 11 states in which the party change to the Democrats seemed possible.

According to the previous counts, the Democrats were able to gain seven states and thus reduce the Republicans' lead on two governors. Especially with a view to the 2020 census and the associated redrafting of the constituencies in the states, these elections have important effects.

4. What the result means for the 116th Congress and the President

Significant changes are to be expected with regard to the House of Representatives. After these mid-term elections, which were successful for the Democrats, it is likely that Nancy Pelosi will become the future Speaker of the House.

The committees responsible for overseeing the government (House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and House Intelligence Committee) will in future be headed by Democrats, which is likely to result in a turnaround in the House of Representatives’s dealings with the Trump administration, which have so far been barely or not at all critical. Through their committee chairmen, the Democrats will in future also be able to issue subpoenas for members of the Trump administration and should thus massively disrupt or complicate the already bumpy course of government in the White House.

From the President's point of view, legislation will be more difficult in the future than it has been up to now. Legal regulations will not be possible without the approval of the Democrats. The president will possibly make even more use of the instrument of the presidential decree (executive order) than he has already done. Trump has to approach the Democrats, especially when it comes to budget legislation, which will not be easy for him in view of his extremely polarizing style.

The extended lead in votes in the Senate, on the other hand, makes the confirmation of judges (be it for the Supreme Court or the federal courts) and high government officials much easier. Republicans can now handle up to 5 dissenters without jeopardizing an appointment. The more moderate Republican Senators thus lose influence and assertiveness.

As far as the majority in the two houses is concerned, the 119th Congress “normalizes” again. After a two-year phase of “unified government” in which Congress and the White House were dominated by the same party, Donald Trump will rule in a “divided government” for the next two years. Since the end of the Second World War, this constellation was in place for two-thirds of the time.

5. What the results mean for the parties

After the election is before the election. Both parties and their ambitious candidates have long had the presidential election and the 2020 congressional election in mind and will therefore interpret the results of this year's elections for themselves in this sense. While the President said, “Tremendous success tonight. Thank you to all! ”On Twitter and called the election a“ Big Victory ”, the Democrats also got into position. Nancy Pelosi spoke up euphorically on election night and spoke of a "historic victory [...] within our grasp". So did both politicians have the same election?

In the case of the Democrats, the progressive challengers who have won their seats in states like Michigan, Minnesota, Kansas or Massachusetts will pass the pressure of the activist party base on to the party leadership and argue that the races won speak for a more left-wing course in the elections 2020. However, it could also be argued that the Democratic Shooting Stars in states like Florida, Texas and Georgia (Andrew Gillum, Beto O'Rourke, Stacey Abrams) were able to gain percentages, but the races ultimately went to the Republicans. This internal discussion will occupy the party for some time and may also be reflected in the House. Could the Congressional Progressive Caucus develop into a thorn in the side of Nancy Pelosi with the newcomers and pull the party further to the left? And would that worsen the confrontation between the Democratic majority in the House and the President? The signs for cross-party cooperation are definitely not under a lucky star. The role of states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania or Wisconsin will also be rolled out again in 2020. Whereas in 2016 the states narrowly went to Trump, voters have now opted for Democratic senators and governors in all three states.

It should also be mentioned that the Democratic Party is becoming more and more diverse and there were a number of "firsts". The first indigenous American women will now be represented in Congress for districts in New Mexico and Kansas. In Massachusetts, Ayanna Pressley will be the first black woman to run for the state in Congress, in Michigan and Minnesota the first Muslim women have won electoral districts, and Texas will be two Latinas after Washington D.C. send. The much-touted “gender gap” at the ballot box has also set in, according to CNN. Female voters decided with 59% to 40% in favor of the Democrats, the younger voters also predominantly favored the Democrats. When the detailed exit polls are available in the next few days and weeks, the analysis will be interesting again. To what extent was the party able to mobilize minorities for the election, and was it able to win back voters who had turned around in 2016?

On the Republican side, the trumpization of the party has progressed further and can be considered almost complete. The number of those on the Republican side who are critical of the president has decreased even further. And it remains to be seen how senators such as the newly elected Mitt Romney (UT) will position themselves as president.

The question of how to deal with Trump's agenda and closeness to the president must be asked in particular by Republican senators with a view to the 2020 congressional elections. Then there will be significantly more Republican (20) than Democratic (11) seats up for re-election. In order to maintain a majority in the Senate through 2021, the Republicans are forced to defend all 20 seats. Can Trump then act as a boost or will Republican candidates avoid him as much as possible? Only time will tell.


Changes to the original version:

November 9, 2018, 12:38 pm
The seats won by Democrats have grown from 28 to 30.

The lead in the number of votes for the Democrats as opposed to the Republicans in the Senate has risen to almost 13 million.

In the first version, we assumed that the Republicans had a clear lead of 54 to 46 seats in the Senate. In view of the very tight census results in Arizona and Florida as well as the victory of the Democrat Jacky Rosen in Nevada, the exact lead of the Republicans in the Senate cannot yet be quantified.