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A Blue Splash: What the Midterm Results Mean for 2020

The 2018 elections weren’t just Donald Trump’s first midterm—they were an early presidential rematch. Who won, and what will change?

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The 2014 midterm elections, in which 83 million people cast ballots, marked the lowest point in a 70-year downward trend in nationwide voter turnout. On Tuesday, the downward trend ended with a dramatic spike: Voters overwhelmed polling places with an enthusiasm usually reserved for presidential elections. 2018 wasn’t just Donald Trump’s first midterm; it was an early presidential rematch.

Still, the 2018 midterms amount to a conflicted referendum on Trump and his GOP Congress. The Republicans lost more than 30 House seats and control of that chamber. The polls had always suggested the Democrats would retake the House. For months before the election, Republicans dared to assume they’d at least maintain control of the Senate. They were right. Republican challengers sunk Democratic incumbents in Missouri, Indiana, and North Dakota; and they’re currently within recount range of defeating Florida Senator Bill Nelson. Furthermore, Republicans successfully replaced their own retiring Senate incumbents, Jeff Flake and Bob Corker — two anti-Trump conservatives — with Trump loyalists in Marsha Blackburn (Tennessee) and likely Martha McSally (Arizona). The midterm results weren’t the stunning reversal that Democrats had hoped for, but they are the legislative setback that Republicans feared. In January 2019, the GOP’s total domination of the U.S. government will end.

The campaigns and their aftermath have redefined both parties. In June, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — a self-described socialist — defeated incumbent Bronx Representative Joe Crowley, in a Democratic primary upset that caught most observers, including the major hometown papers, by surprise. The Ocasio-Cortez upset was an early sign that Trump’s reactionary Republican Party would face a radicalized Democratic opposition in the general election. On Tuesday, Ocasio-Cortez defeated her Republican opponent, Anthony Pappas, by a predictably wide margin. Ocasio-Cortez represents a socialist resurgence among U.S. Democrats. More broadly, she represents her party’s vivid, left-wing backlash to Trump. Along with Ocasio-Cortez, more than 100 other women were elected to the House, a landmark result. In 2018, the Democrats launched their most confident midterm offensive in a generation, and the party’s House gains all across the country, including Trump strongholds, suggest Trumpism isn’t the only game in town.

The Senate elections were a far more treacherous battleground for Democrats. They struggled — and failed — to defend a crucial few seats held by moderate Democrats serving red states, such as Claire McCaskill (Missouri) and Heidi Heitkamp (North Dakota). The Democrats enjoyed one broad advantage over Republicans. Throughout the campaign season, polls identified health care as the most popular concern among voters, and a majority of voters said they trusted Democrats over Republicans in determining health care policy. Suddenly, Obamacare was a political asset for Democratic candidates in close races. Under Trump, GOP efforts to repeal Obamacare have faltered dramatically, and Republican candidates have suddenly (and rather incredulously) replaced a decade of “repeal-and-replace” sloganeering with a more complicated, ambivalent posturing about the ACA. In Arizona, Republican nominee Martha McSally embodied the GOP’s awkward Obamacare positioning; McSally desperately pledged to uphold protections for patients with preexisting conditions despite having repeatedly voted, alongside most congressional Republicans, to dismantle the federal law that prohibited insurance providers from discriminating against patients with preexisting conditions in the first place. At the time of publication, McSally was narrowly winning her race against the Democratic nominee, Kyrsten Sinema, one of several state leaders who’d advised Obama in the formative stages of the ACA.

Health care and immigration were the dominant policy concerns, but the high-profile races were also a contest of personalities — from Trump on down. In Texas, Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic challenger running for Senate, held Ted Cruz to a distressingly narrow margin in a state that hasn’t otherwise come close to electing a Democrat to the Senate for a quarter-century. Among Democrats, O’Rourke was Don Quixote. He was a rock-star candidate who struck up statewide enthusiasm without compromising his liberal bona fides. If the Ocasio-Cortez campaign symbolized the Democratic Party’s post-Trump swing to the left, then the O’Rourke campaign symbolized the potential for left-wing politics to succeed and destabilize Republican dominance in regions where center-left politics had previously faltered. O’Rourke lost to Cruz by a margin more narrow than any other Texas Democrat has managed in a generation. Still, the Democrats struggled throughout the South. While the party improved on past election performances in the Midwest — a pivotal region for Trumpism — Democratic candidates Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum lost the party’s two high-profile gubernatorial races in Georgia and Florida, respectively. The O’Rourke, Abrams, and Gillum losses may have shattered some Democrats’ dreams, but the relatively narrow margins provide the party some hope for red state elections to come.

But first, there’s governance. Under Trump, Republicans and Democrats have repeatedly clashed over big constitutional concerns, including the Mueller probe, lifetime court appointments, and impeachment proceedings against the president and his latest Supreme Court appointee, Brett Kavanaugh. In the House, Democrats now inherit the authority to lead investigations of the Trump administration while also overseeing — and protecting — the Mueller probe. Apart from their oversight efforts, the Democrats will spend the next two years playing defense against Trump and his emboldened GOP majority in the Senate. The Trump administration has already proved chaotic, inefficient, and — save for a round of tax cuts — unaccomplished. Under a divided government, Trump will prove even less effective but far more combative in his public posturing. Trump’s first two years in office afforded him the advantage of a GOP Congress. In the next two years, he will face the greatest disadvantage of his political career.

That said, majority status in the House creates new perils for congressional Democrats. Their leadership will inevitably shape the 2020 presidential election. For two years, Trump has vilified Democratic legislators despite their marginal influence within a Congress dominated by Republicans. Now, the Democrats are back in play, and their legislative accountability is real. They may have a mandate to oppose Trump, but House Democrats will likely struggle to do so. Trump is his most ferocious when the stakes are high, the odds are long, and the opposition is substantial. The Democrats have “resisted” Trump with angry dissents. Now, they will need to oppose him with a majority leadership and an actual, victorious plan.