Have you ever stepped on a jagged piece of metal, slowly pulled it out of your foot in the midst of excruciating pain, and then realized that it’s made of solid gold? That’s roughly the feeling many people on both sides of the aisle have as they wake up this morning to the results of yesterday’s midterm elections: there are ways in which it might pay off in the near future, but it also really hurts right now.
Perhaps the clearest narrative coming out of this midterm election is a lack of a clear narrative. Republicans lost the House of Representatives for the first time in eight years, but the GOP maintained control of the Senate, likely with an expanded majority. Democrats lost the high-profile races that had captured the nation’s attention. In Texas, Beto O’Rourke failed to unseat Ted Cruz from the latter’s Senate seat. In two racially tinged (or outright institutionally and vocally racist) races for southern governorships, Ron DeSantis defeated Andrew Gillum in Florida, while Brian Kemp appears to have defeated Stacey Abrams in Georgia (denying the country what would have been its first black female governor), although Abrams has so far refused to concede the close election (which is unsurprising given the bad blood between the candidates and numerous questionable tactics employed by Kemp in his heretofore role as Georgia Secretary of State).
Despite these high-profile losses, Democrats managed to win governorships in seven states currently run by Republicans, most notably ousting Scott Walker of Wisconsin. Such results serve to loosen the unprecedented control the Republican Party currently enjoys over state governments. And several races resulted in victories not only for Democrats, but for representation and intersectionality, as 19 black women running for judge positions in Harris County, TX, all won their races, the nation will see its first openly gay governor, and the first two Muslim women and the first two Native American women (and possibly the first openly bisexual woman) were elected to Congress, adding to a trend of Congress becoming increasingly diverse to an extent not seen before in US history.
Overall, yesterday’s vote reflects a country that is not only diverse, but one that is divided along race, gender, religion, identity and ideas. Looking at exit polls of voters for the US House of Representatives, Republicans won among white men: Democrats secured solid majorities of every other racial group, and white women were split roughly down the middle (after having infamously supported Donald Trump in 2016). Republicans kept the support of Protestant Christians, largely driven by continued overwhelming support for the Republican Party from white Evangelicals. Catholics are roughly divided between Democrats and Republicans, while individuals practicing minority faiths tended to support Democrats. A majority of voters (54%) felt the country was going in the wrong direction, while a massive 76% felt the country was becoming more divided.
The elephant in the voting booth this election was of course President Donald Trump; as is often the case, the midterm election was largely a referendum on the president. Twenty-six percent of voters said that their vote for the House of Representatives was in support of Donald Trump, while 38% said their House vote was a vote against Trump; in other words, two-thirds of the electorate was motivated by the man whose name did not appear on any ballot this year (similar numbers voted in support of or opposition to President Obama in 2010).
This election was not just about politics, however, but also policy, and in terms of laws (and the potential for future legislation and decisions), both sides have reasons to celebrate and causes for concern. In the immediate aftermath of yesterday’s vote, progressives will celebrate victories for Medicaid expansion (Idaho, Nebraska, Utah), ex-felon voting rights (Florida), medical or recreational marijuana (Michigan, Missouri, Utah), transgender rights (Massachusetts), and holding police officers accountable for using deadly force (Washington). Meanwhile, conservatives in Alabama and West Virginia passed laws that could significantly restrict abortion rights, setting the stage for a fight that could make its way to the now solidly conservative Supreme Court. Evangelicals’ unwavering support for the Republican Party and Donald Trump appears to be paying off, as there is for the first time in a generation a significant chance, if not likelihood, of overturning or nullifying Roe v. Wade.
Looking toward the next two years, the divided Congress is a recipe for gridlock, or checks and balances, depending on your outlook. Donald Trump’s legislative agenda and that of Republican congressional leaders (which are often not the same) will likely be halted by the Democratic House, who will also have power to potentially subpoena information from the President and his cabinet. The divided Congress may even provide the impetus for the two parties to find common ground on legislation (perhaps prison reform?). Meanwhile, solidified control of the Senate will give Republicans a much easier time approving presidential appointments, most notably federal judges (and conceivably even another Supreme Court justice).
While voters were deeply divided in yesterday’s elections, they were uniformly energized: early numbers point to turnout not seen in a midterm election in decades (and maybe even rivaling voter turnout for the presidential elections of the 1990s), with significantly higher than average participation across various groups and identities. Democrats and Republicans, progressives and conservatives, all have reasons to be energized by the 2018 election results – victories for key candidates and policies, as well as defeats that could have repercussions down the line. Perhaps the main takeaway from the 2018 contests is that the 2020 election will be a fiercely fought contest unlike any we’ve seen in recent memory.