After the Midterms: What Comes Next?
To win control of the government in 2020, Democrats will have to play dirty.
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What many politicians and media pundits have called “the most important election of our lifetime” took place on November 6. While the description is somewhat an exaggeration, it is true that the midterm elections have the potential to affect everything, from gun control to healthcare to immigration. The status of immigration and DACA, as well as addressing Obamacare and the protection of pre-existing conditions, were important campaign issues for candidates of both parties—issues that they will seek to address when they are sworn in in January.
The elections themselves were marked by the diversity and progressiveness of Democratic candidates. More women, people of color, and LGBTQ candidates ran than in any prior election. For Democrats, two campaign strategies were pioneered: running moderate candidates to attract Republican voters and running progressives to encourage those who wouldn’t otherwise have voted to do so.
Though progressives scored big victories in party primaries, their performance in general elections against Republican candidates was lackluster. Progressives like Beto O’Rourke and Stacey Abrams made inroads in traditionally Republican states, Texas and Georgia respectively, but still lost. Moderate Democratic candidates were much more competitive in districts that were traditionally conservative.
With the 2018 elections over, Democratic strategists will turn their eyes toward winning the 2020 elections. For a party to have control of the government and be able to effectively pass laws, it needs to have control of the presidency, the House of Representatives, and the Senate. When a party does, they can advance their legislative priorities. From 2008 to 2010, the Democrats were able to pass Obamacare and an economic stimulus plan to combat the recession. From 2016 to 2018, Republicans cut taxes and reduced regulations.
But when a government is divided, the unfortunate reality of modern politics is that the opposition party wants to make the government as unproductive as possible. This is mostly an electoral strategy: a president’s odds of being re-elected are lower if the government doesn’t pass laws during his tenure. From 2010 to 2016, Republicans pursued this strategy of obstructionism, and it worked: they managed to win the Senate, House, and presidency in 2016.
Now that the Democrats have control of the House of Representatives, they will want to block President Trump’s legislative agenda. They should also launch investigations into the President’s tax returns, policy decisions, and potential Russian collusion—something that Democrats have signaled an eagerness to do. Jerry Nadler, a Democrat who will lead the Congressional Judiciary Committee in January, said in an interview, “Donald Trump may not like hearing it, but for the first time, his administration is going to be held accountable.”
Seeing how they already control the House, Democrats will need to take back the presidency and the Senate to win control of government. President Trump actually has a fairly high chance of winning re-election in 2020; his approval rating has climbed by six percent over the past few months and is now only three percent below where Obama’s was in 2010.
Democrats’ two main choices for 2020 nominee are Joe Biden, Obama’s Vice President, and progressive Bernie Sanders. Joe Biden would be better suited to winning over vital white working-class voters in swing states that he and Obama won in 2008 and 2012 like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, which are especially important considering Democratic midterm losses in other swing states like Florida. Bernie Sanders, who is so ideologically left-leaning that he is not actually a member of the Democratic party, could turn off moderate Republican voters.
The tougher challenge for Democrats will be winning the 2020 Senate elections. After the midterms, the current Senate composition is 47-53 in favor of the Republicans. They are almost guaranteed to lose a seat held by Doug Jones in the deep red state of Alabama. To win even a 50-50 majority (the Vice President breaks ties), Democrats would have to take four Republican-held seats in 2020. They have a shot at winning in Colorado and North Carolina, which elected Democratic governors in 2018. Their next closest targets are Maine and Iowa, but both would be very difficult to win considering the margins by which their current Republican senators won. Winning all four of those seats would be nearly impossible.
Democrats’ only realistic hope for winning the Senate is an economic recession, which might turn voters away from the Republicans. Two-thirds of economists predict that a recession will begin by the end of 2020, and the results of the election will hinge on whether this happens before or after election day.
Ultimately, the impact of the midterm elections is uncertain. In terms of legislation, the answer is not much. With Democrats controlling the House of Representatives, no significant bills are likely to pass. And Democratic investigations into Trump’s policies and business deals will be met with fierce backlash from Republicans. As the Democrats seek to retake power in Washington, Capitol Hill will look less like a seat of government and more like a war zone.