By the time Nancy Pelosi took the stage in Washington—to chants of “Speaker, Speaker!”—it was nearly midnight. The House Democratic leader was there to tell her party that despite a night of equivocal results and occasional heartbreak, they had won, and she was the proof: Democrats, she said, “have taken back the House for the American people!”
If Democrats hoped the midterm elections would deliver a decisive rebuke to President Donald Trump and his Republicans allies, they did not quite get it. As of early Wednesday, the party was on track to capture the House of Representatives by a healthy margin, flipping more than 30 GOP-held seats and winning the total vote by about 9 percentage points. But the GOP gained ground in the Senate, easily defeating at least three Democratic incumbents in states Trump won in 2016. And while the Democrats elected a slate of new governors, chipping away at the GOP’s nationwide advantage, their gains in statehouses were less than party strategists had hoped.
In Washington, only the House will change hands, as voters elevated the Democrats to serve as a check on the scandal-plagued President and his party. Pelosi, the minority leader and former speaker, intends to again seek the speakership; if she is successful, the 78-year-old veteran pol will become Trump’s principal foil and foe. Democrats may not have gotten the sweep they yearned for, but they got what matters to Pelosi—power.
From their new foothold in Congress’s lower house—one-half of one-third of American government—the Democrats can engage in asymmetric warfare, seizing partial control of a political narrative that for two years has been dominated by Trump alone. Democrats are already drawing up plans for a panoply of investigations aimed at the President and his allies, who are bracing for the storm to come—including potential impeachment proceedings.
If all that makes the midterms a success for Democrats, it still wasn’t the censure party officials had hoped for. Instead of a sweeping rebuke to Trump that might signify the 2016 elections was an aberration, the results showed an intensification of the trends that put the President in office. Democrats racked up massive margins among women, young people, and nonwhite voters. They ran up the score among voters with college degrees and flipped seats in historically Republican suburbs of cities like Richmond, Chicago and Denver. At the same time, much of the country’s deep-red interior got redder, allowing the GOP to easily dispatch Democratic senators in Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota. Fresh-faced Democratic candidates whose candidacies vaulted them to national celebrity—Beto O’Rourke in Texas, Stacey Abrams in Georgia, Andrew Gillum in Florida—lost hard-fought contests that bitterly disappointed progressive activists.
This was not a normal midterm election: turnout surged to levels not seen in decades in a non-presidential contest. Often, a president’s party loses ground in midterms because the opposition is roused to anger. But in 2018, it wasn’t only Democrats who were riled up. Republicans, too, turned out at high levels, perhaps vindicating Trump’s strategy of ginning up his base voters with culture-war appeals. The nation didn’t come together in agreement; the fault lines running through it split further apart. Both sides rose up to register their objections to one another. As Trump revealed two years ago, America remains an angry and divided country whose citizens blame each other for its ills.
The new Congressional majority will look very different from the one that preceded it. For the first time in American history, more than 100 women may serve in the 435-member House, at least 28 of them newly elected and representing at least 18 of the districts Democrats flipped. The new Democratic majority will include the youngest congresswoman ever elected, 29-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York; two of the three first Native American congresswomen, from Kansas and New Mexico; and the two first Muslim congresswomen. Texas elected two Latina congresswomen, Iowa sent its first two women to the House and Massachusetts elected its first black congresswoman.
In a stark illustration of the demographic divides that increasingly define American politics, the Democrats’ side of the aisle appears set to be only about one-third white and male, while the Republican caucus is on track to be 90% white men. The Democrats’ center of gravity has moved leftward, but the new members come from a diverse array of ideological backgrounds. At least seven of the new members have said they won’t support Pelosi in the leadership elections set to be held in late November. But if she prevails—as expected—this young, diverse, potentially unruly big-tent caucus will incongruously be led by the same figurehead of the past 15 years.
The consequences for policy are likely to be small. While Pelosi called for bipartisanship in her election-night remarks, most observers expect divided government to produce more gridlock. The new Democratic House is unlikely to find common ground on legislation with the GOP Senate and President. That’s partly because many Democrats are in a fighting mood. But it’s also because the midterm results may tie the GOP even closer to the President. The Republicans who remain in Congress are the ones in the safest districts, who hewed closest to Trump. They embody a party now tethered to Trump’s polarizing closing message of racial provocation, anti-immigrant fervor and jingoistic aggression. The Democrats rode to victory on a wave of anti-Trump grassroots fervor two years in the making. When the Resistance comes to Washington, it will be up against a thoroughly Trumpified GOP.
Pelosi, in her victory speech, vowed to “find common ground where we can, and stand our ground where we can’t.” Elections, she said, “are about the future.” But as a new political chapter opens in the Trump era, the future looks like a pitched battle between two starkly different versions of what America should be.