The midterms delivered a split decision that primes both parties for battle
By the time Nancy Pelosi took the stage at the Hyatt Regency in Washington on Election Day, it was nearly midnight and the panic had passed. After an evening of equivocal results and occasional heartbreak, the House Democratic leader was there to assure the cheering crowd that their party had won, and she was the proof: Democrats, she said, “have taken back the House for the American people!”
The message was met with relief more than triumph. Democrats had hoped the country would deliver a decisive verdict to President Trump and the Republicans, but it did not. Pelosi’s party took the night’s biggest prize, flipping about 30 GOP-held seats to take over the House of Representatives. Democrats won large majorities of women, young people and nonwhite voters, according to exit polls; ran up the score among voters with college degrees; and captured contests in historically Republican suburbs of cities like Richmond, Va., Chicago and Denver. They chipped away at the GOP’s edge in governor’s mansions, reclaimed the Rust Belt strongholds that put Trump in the White House and won the total vote by about 9 percentage points.
But a President who turned the election into a referendum on himself saw plenty to like in the results as well. The GOP gained ground in the Senate, easily defeating Democratic incumbents in Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota, states that Trump won in 2016 and that he campaigned in just days before the midterms. Much of the country’s deep-red interior got redder, and Trump-hugging GOP candidates appeared to turn back strong challenges from talented Democrats–Beto O’Rourke in Texas, Stacey Abrams in Georgia, Andrew Gillum in Florida–who had vaulted to national celebrity.
Rather than a country rising up as one to rebuke the President and reverse 2016, the election showed an intensification of the trends that put Trump in office. The President’s party typically loses ground in midterm elections because only the opposition is roused to anger. But these were not typical midterms: turnout surged to levels not seen in decades for a nonpresidential contest. In 2018 it wasn’t only Democrats who were riled up–Republicans, too, came out at high levels, perhaps vindicating Trump’s strategy of ginning up his core supporters with race-based and culture-war appeals. The nation didn’t come together in agreement; it drew further apart. America remains, as Trump revealed it to be two years ago, an angry and divided country whose citizens blame one another for its ills.
Now, for the first time in the Trump presidency, those two sides will square off in a divided government: voters elevated House Democrats to serve as a check on a scandal-plagued President and his party. While Pelosi called for bipartisanship in her election-night remarks, the Democrats are more likely to use their control of Congress’s lower house–one-half of one-third of American federal government–to torment Trump. Already, incoming committee chairs are drawing up plans to investigate the President and his Administration, who in turn are bracing for everything from financial and influence-peddling probes to potential impeachment proceedings.
The midterms revealed the politics that will inform those battles. If the fight was ugly in a year when Trump’s spot on the ballot was symbolic, the year to come will be much worse. The new congressional majority looks very different from the one that preceded it. For the first time in American history, more than 100 women may serve in the House, at least 31 of them newly elected and representing at least 19 districts Democrats wrested from Republicans. The Democratic caucus will include the youngest Congresswoman ever elected, 29-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York; two of the first Native American Congresswomen; and the two first Muslim Congresswomen. Texas elected two Latina Congresswomen, Iowa sent its first two women to the House, Massachusetts and Connecticut elected their first black Congresswomen, and Colorado gave a nod to the first openly gay governor in American history. Rookie African Americans defeated Republican incumbents in majority-white districts, from New York’s Hudson Valley to exurban Chicago to conservative Dallas. But where only a third of congressional Democrats are projected to be white and male, the Republican Hill caucus is on track to be 90% white men.
The contrast sets up an even brighter divide in Washington. 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 message of racial provocation and stringent border security. The Democrats, for their part, rode to victory on a wave of anti-Trump grassroots fervor two years in the making. The Resistance is coming to Washington, where it will confront a thoroughly Trumpified GOP.
The Democratic army has its own seasoned field general in Pelosi, the once and ostensibly future Speaker who knows how to manipulate the levers of power in Washington as well as anyone. If the 78-year-old pol quashes the murmurs of rebellion in her ranks–at least nine new Democratic members have said they won’t support Pelosi in expected elections scheduled for late November–this young, diverse, potentially unruly caucus will be led by the same figurehead of the past 15 years. In her victory speech, Pelosi 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 fight opens in the Trump era, the future looks like a pitched battle between two starkly different versions of America.
When Abigail Spanberger took the stage at her victory party at the Westin hotel in Richmond, Va., among the crowd were the members of a group called the Liberal Women of Chesterfield County. In the days after Hillary Clinton’s defeat, the group had formed as a kind of ad hoc postelection support group to talk through the disappointment of Trump’s victory. It morphed into a political force that propelled Spanberger, a 39-year-old former CIA analyst, to Washington. Virginia’s 7th District, which had been in GOP hands since 1971 and is represented by Tea Party poster boy Dave Brat, was not even on the party’s radar of possible pickups in the House. When Spanberger eked out a victory by just after midnight Wednesday morning, it became clear that a wave was poised to wash away the House Republican majority.
The national Democratic rebellion took root in places like this: affluent communities with two-car garages and big-box stores, where educated suburban women recoiled at Trump’s incendiary rhetoric and lined up behind candidates who looked and spoke like them. The progressive uprising was a leaderless movement built on a grassroots infrastructure that didn’t exist two years ago. Perhaps the most powerful network, Indivisible, grew out of a Google doc of organizing guidelines thrown together by a few Democratic Hill staffers. It went up in mid-December 2016; by the end of January, it had been downloaded a million times.
The clearest sign of the movement’s power was the Women’s March, when millions surged into the streets to protest Trump’s ascension in likely the biggest single-day protest in American history. The marches drew crowds all over the country, but party bigwigs were so oblivious to the budding revolt that only one of the seven candidates for Democratic National Committee chair attended any of the protests. The rest had sequestered themselves at a conference for Democratic megadonors near Miami. In short order, many of the protesters formed local Indivisible groups aimed at using Tea Party–style tactics to pressure their local representatives. They stormed airports to protest Trump’s travel ban, staged sit-ins at congressional offices over health care and flooded town halls to protest tax cuts. Six million people signed an online petition calling for Trump’s impeachment. More than $1.6 billion in campaign donations was funneled to Democratic candidates through the online fundraising portal ActBlue. Volunteers used the tech-based Swing Left to knock on 2 million doors in the weekend before the election alone.
Even some of those who initially voted for Trump began to have second thoughts. “I believed what he said, his campaign promises, to make America great again,” said Mary Joyce, a 55-year-old longtime Republican voter in the suburbs of Kansas City, Kans. “I feel he’s made a sham of the office.” In Joyce’s district, Sharice Davids, a gay Native American lawyer and former mixed-martial-arts fighter, defeated a four-term moderate Republican Congressman. Kansas also rejected Republican gubernatorial candidate Kris Kobach, a Trump acolyte known for his crusades against illegal immigration and imagined voter fraud.
Kansas’ was one of seven Republican-held governorships that Democrats won Nov. 6, including the Wisconsin seat held by Scott Walker, whom Democrats finally ousted in his bid for a third term. The Democrats flipped control of seven state legislative chambers, wins that will shape education and health care policies for millions of people and affect redistricting after 2020. In ballot referendums, three red states approved Medicaid expansion, three legalized marijuana for recreational or medicinal use, and two raised the minimum wage. Florida restored voting rights to more than a million felons, a move that could shape future elections in the nation’s largest swing state.
Most notably, Democrats won back states that had been crucial to Trump’s 2016 victory. In Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, Democratic Senate and gubernatorial candidates swept Republicans, shattering assumptions that Trump’s 2016 victory had ushered in a permanent Rust Belt realignment. In many of these races, Democrats eschewed a focus on Trump in favor of pocketbook issues. Chief among them was health care: nationally, polls showed it was voters’ No. 1 issue. It figured in 57% of federal Democratic advertisements in October, a staggering reversal after years in which Democrats viewed Obamacare as a liability.
Ignoring Trump was a lesson Democrats learned from 2016: the way to win, most Democrats decided, wasn’t to crusade against Trump but instead to relentlessly address local policy messages. In Wisconsin, Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin coasted to re-election with a campaign that focused doggedly on the crisis afflicting the state’s dairy farmers. In eastern Iowa, 29-year-old congressional candidate Abby Finkenauer beat a Republican incumbent with a message that emphasized the student-debt crisis. Democrats also adopted some of Trump’s populism; two years after Clinton was pilloried for her ties to Goldman Sachs, more than 70% of Democratic congressional challengers in high-priority races trumpeted their refusal to accept corporate PAC donations.
Perhaps most important to the Democrats’ victory was their attention to local political needs rather than adherence to a strict ideology. The party’s winners spanned the ideological spectrum, from middle-of-the-road moderates to insurgent liberals like Massachusetts’ Ayanna Pressley. Candidates like Harley Rouda in California forged a combination path, mixing pro-business rhetoric with support for single-payer health care.
Watching at the White House, the President seemed to read the results as a victory that was all about him and his divisive approach to politics. Establishment Republicans had seen the President steamroll their professional politicians in 2016 with a message that emphasized banning Muslims and walling out immigrants rather than the traditional party platform of lower taxes and less regulation. The 2018 primaries, in which Republicans who broke with Trump lost to those who embraced him, made it clear the party and Trump are now effectively one.
Even if some Republicans had qualms about this, the party had little choice, given the way the President enthralled the base and dominated the news cycle. At an August meeting in the White House Map Room, two of Trump’s top political advisers, Bill Stepien and Johnny DeStefano, presented him with a midterm plan–a proposed itinerary of political travel, fundraisers and rallies that would outpace the midterm campaign schedules of recent predecessors. They considered it an aggressive plan. But Trump wasn’t satisfied. “There’s not enough,” he said. In the final six days of the campaign, he made 11 stops to activate the GOP base.
Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan urged him to focus on congressional accomplishments and the booming economy at his multiple campaign rallies. But the message was entirely overshadowed by darker ones. To confront a caravan of legal asylum seekers thousands of miles away, Trump sent more troops to the southern border than the U.S. has deployed to fight ISIS. He promised a undeliverable tax cut. He mocked the woman who’d accused Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault, and blamed the media for an attempted assassination of top Democrats by a pipe bomber, who was in fact a professed Trump acolyte. Rather than salve the nation’s wounds after 11 Jews were gunned down in their Pittsburgh synagogue, he complained that the attack had stalled his political momentum. He tweeted about polls that didn’t exist and warned that police would be on the lookout for voter fraud. “Pretend I’m on the ballot,” he told voters at a rally in Southaven, Miss., in early October.
GOP insiders reoriented to accommodate Trump, pointing the President to deep-red areas where he could drive up base turnout–an apparently successful effort that may have saved the party’s candidates in Florida. At the same time, the GOP spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to blunt the Democratic wave in suburban districts.
Trump watched the election returns late into the night Tuesday in the East Room of the White House, surrounded by his wife, advisers and three eldest children. Stepien delivered running updates on the results. Others, like longtime adviser Corey Lewandowski, told the President he had played a key role in delivering what they described as a major victory.
Trump happily absorbed that message, crowing about his influence on the trail in a press conference the morning after the vote. “It was a great victory,” Trump said. The White House argued that, in historical terms, midterm losses were to be expected and Trump’s were far less than in the two wave elections during Obama’s tenure. They pointed to places like Florida and Ohio as proof that Trump had energized the party. And in case anyone missed the “with me or against me” message he had been driving since 2016, Trump listed those Republican candidates who had “decided for their own reason not to embrace” him, and offered mocking consolation for their losses.
For all Trump’s confidence, however, the midterms have made many GOP insiders nervous. The country’s increasingly young and diverse voters swung hard to Democrats on Election Day, while the people Trump motivates are getting older. The party can’t afford to cede the suburbs. And these Republican operatives worry Trump’s dark and divisive message will haunt the party in 2020 and long after.
For now, the action will shift to Capitol Hill, where two years of conflict lie ahead. The House GOP, purged of its moderate, swing-district members, will be even more ideological and Trump-loyal. In Iowa, a state Trump won by 9 points, two moderate Republicans lost to Democratic women, leaving anti-immigration zealot Steve King the lone Republican in the state’s House delegation. Ryan’s retirement leaves Kevin McCarthy, a Trump-friendly Californian, the favorite to lead the minority caucus.
The nature of the new Democratic majority may depend on who emerges as its leader. Many Democrats benefited from Pelosi’s largesse in 2018, while many others have run as far from her as possible. The party is scheduled to hold a secret-ballot vote at the end of November, and despite widespread grumbling, no one has yet announced a challenge to Pelosi. If she gets the gavel back, she has a track record as a disciplined and effective Speaker, adept at corralling her diverse crew through persistence, favors and fear.
Lawmakers and aides say the new House majority’s theme will be accountability, starting with legislation that includes campaign-finance reform, voting rights and ethics–a reprise of Pelosi’s approach the last time she took control from Republicans in 2006. The bills are still being drafted, but Democrats expect to introduce several early in the new Congress. Other legislative priorities include infrastructure and combatting rising prescription-drug prices, ideas some Republicans also support.
Despite these legislative ambitions, the new Democratic majority is poised to spend the bulk of its time blocking GOP priorities and holding the Trump Administration’s feet to the fire, according to Pelosi and others. Multiple House committees plan to use their subpoena power in an attempt to curb what they say is rampant corruption. The effort will be led by the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. “We need to get in there and see what’s happening,” says Maryland Representative John Sarbanes, who sits on the Oversight Committee. “Our job is to put the information in front of the American people.”
Many of the investigations are likely to center on the President and his family. Among the possible targets: his finances, including a subpoena for his long-hidden tax returns; his son-in-law Jared Kushner’s security clearances; and the entanglements of the Trump Organization, which the President declined to place in a blind trust and which Democrats allege he has used to profit from his office. Party elders have urged restraint. “What I’ve been telling my Democratic colleagues and friends is that they have a responsibility to use the oversight powers responsibly, in a credible way,” says former Representative Henry Waxman, who led Democrats on the Oversight Committee for over a decade. “If they abuse those powers, they will have no credibility.”
Beyond the White House, Democrats see a target-rich environment in the Trump cabinet. Numerous departments have been rocked by scandal, from the Environmental Protection Agency to Housing and Urban Development. Even the Census, overseen by the Commerce Department, is under the microscope. “The waste, fraud and abuse is plain to see,” says Representative Elijah Cummings, the likely Oversight Committee chair, “and the most important thing for the Oversight Committee to do is to use its authority to obtain documents and witnesses, and actually hold the Trump Administration accountable to the American people.”
And then there’s the big one: the Russia probe. Under Republican leadership, the House Intelligence Committee split along partisan lines and pre-emptively pronounced the matter closed. Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation hasn’t ended and could soon produce a report on its findings. For now, Pelosi has discouraged talk of impeachment, pointing out that she resisted Democratic pressure to impeach George W. Bush a decade ago, but she has acknowledged that the Mueller report could change her mind.
The Democratic base already supports impeachment. Tom Steyer, the megadonor who spent millions on TV ads promoting an impeachment drive, says he’ll continue to pressure his party. “The actual remedy in the Constitution is to impeach the President when you have a lawless President,” he says. The White House has been preparing for this likelihood. Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani has openly acknowledged that Trump’s complaints about the Russia “witch hunt” are aimed at poisoning public opinion so that any impeachment effort is seen as a purely political affair. Republicans in the Senate, Giuliani argues, will be pressured by their base to oppose impeachment, no matter what facts come out.
One longtime Trump ally who will no longer be in the middle of the fight is his Attorney General, Jeff Sessions. Just 90 minutes after his triumphant press conference, Trump tweeted that he had removed Sessions, setting up a battle on the Hill to confirm a replacement who will be charged with protecting the independence of the Justice Department from political meddling and the work of the Mueller probe as it closes in on a final report.
Heading into the final two years of Trump’s first term as President, the situation could hardly be more fraught. Democrats and Republicans are as mobilized and divided as they have been in a generation. The House is now controlled by Trump’s ardent opponents. A potential constitutional crisis looms. And the stakes for the presidency, American justice and the country as a whole just keep going up.
–With reporting by ALANA ABRAMSON/NASHVILLE; CHARLOTTE ALTER/BLOOMFIELD, MICH.; BRIAN BENNETT/HOUSTON; TESSA BERENSON/BOZEMAN, MONT.; PHILIP ELLIOTT/DALLAS; and ABBY VESOULIS/WASHINGTON
This appears in the November 19, 2018 issue of TIME.