Around the halls: Brookings scholars react to the 2018 midterms

Voting booths are seen at a polling site during the New York State Democratic primary in New York City, U.S., September 13, 2018. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid - RC1303206050

2018 Midterm Elections

With the results of the midterm elections (mostly) in, we asked Brookings scholars for their reactions to what happened and their reflections on what will come next in U.S. politics and policy. You can read each of them below:

Intensified polarization

Gridlock is a safe prediction after this week’s congressional elections. With Republicans holding a Senate majority and Democrats regaining control of the House of Representatives, it is hard to imagine serious legislation taking place. The Democratic priorities of protecting the Affordable Care Act, building an inclusive economy, and passing tough ethics rules will run headlong into the GOP focus on confirming conservative judges, being tough on immigration, and protecting President Donald Trump’s flank during new House investigations. The political parties have such different electoral bases and policy visions right now that hyper-partisanship and extreme polarization are likely to intensify in the coming year.

In my forthcoming Brookings book Divided Politics, Divided Nation: Hyperconflict in the Trump Era, I explain how politics became a “blood sport” over the past 40 years and why liberals and conservatives no longer trust one another. I draw on my experiences growing up in a conservative rural Ohio community, teaching in the liberal Ivy League, and working in the heart of the D.C. establishment to explain the political, economic, and cultural aspects of polarization. The tensions unleashed by the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, tribal wars between the left and right, and economic disparities between the coasts and heartland have inflamed partisan disputes and led to a dangerously divided country. Nothing that happened this week is going to reduce those disputes. –Darrell M. West

Hidden moderation

There are several mistaken or misshapen narratives regarding the 2018 midterm elections. The most pervasive is the one about how the midterm election results furnish further evidence of unprecedented and deepening polarization. But what might count as counter-evidence to temper if not to overturn this left-to-right conventional wisdom?

Start with relevant recent survey research studies that paint dark polarization clouds but are not without their silver linings. For instance, as noted in the executive summary of “Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape,” a 2018 report by More in Common based on a substantial national survey, there is “substantial evidence of deep polarization…rooted in something deeper than disagreements over policy,” but also “some evidence for optimism, showing that 77 percent of Americans believe that our differences are not so great that we cannot come together.”

Next, consider the national election results themselves. For instance, it is true that Congress, once home to nontrivial numbers of conservative or centrist Democrats and of liberal or moderate Republicans, now has precious few members who meet either description. That has been true and getting truer for a generation now. It was true for the outgoing 115th Congress, and it will be true for the incoming 116th Congress.

But, among Tuesday’s House seat winners were center-left Democrats who won in closely-divided or predominantly red districts (like Pennsylvania’s Conor Lamb) and center-right Republicans who won in closely-divided or predominantly blue districts (like Pennsylvania’s Brian Fitzpatrick).

And while a plurality if not a majority of the unprecedented number of women who will be in Congress come January are progressive Democrats, as a class, this cohort of congresspersons may well prove notable not only for making Congress less dominated by men but also less dominated by hyper-partisans.

And a little historical perspective is needed. Recall that in 1994, when the Republicans won control of the House for the first time in 40 years, there was lots of chatter about it being an earthquake election. In fact, the country was closely divided then, too: had fewer than 20,000 votes shifted from R to D in just a baker’s dozen of House races, the Speaker of the 104th Congress would have been not Republican Newt Gingrich, but Democratic incumbent Tom Foley.

Finally, nobody can truly believe that today’s America is more riven by politically salient social and civic differences than was the America of Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Barry Goldwater. But the leaders of earlier eras, left to right, were generally able to forge alliances, strike bargains, and effect compromises. They were pretty adept at forming party coalitions that did not depend on people liking or loving each other, or on Americans having homogeneous ideals or interests.

America’s moderate majority awaits a new generation of coalition- building leaders in both parties. The poisonous primary process might forestall their rise at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, but there is still reason to hope. –John J. DiIulio

Education policy from the top to the bottom of the ballot

What do the midterm election results mean for education policy? Expect House Democrats to convene oversight hearings that feature Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and other top Department of Education officials. Democrats are likely to examine the Department’s policies related to a wide spectrum of civil rights issues and other issues, such as the regulation of for-profit colleges and proposed changes to Title IX policies related to campus sexual assault. DeVos’s public testimony during previous hearings has drawn sharp critiques but no detectable changes to her policies. Whether any impending hearings have an effect on policy remains to be seen.

The seven newly elected Democratic governors who are replacing Republicans may pursue progressive education agendas, focusing on issues like increased state funding for public K-12 education and universal, state-funded pre-K. Governors in three of these states (Kansas, Michigan, and Wisconsin) must work with Republican legislatures, which may create roadblocks.

Chief state school officer (CSSO) and state boards of education are also consequential positions for education policy. Elections for those positions have thus far produced little to no partisan change in either direction (races for CSSO in Arizona and California remain too close to call). However, in other states, we can expect some new Democratic appointees in these roles. Of the seven states that flipped to Democratic governors, four have unified Democratic government, and governors appoint the CSSO and/or school board. In Maine and Nevada the governor appoints both the CSSO and state board, in Illinois the governor appoints the state board, and in New Mexico the governor appoints the CSSO. In this context, we may expect Democrat-led shifts in education policy in these states. –Elizabeth Mann Levesque

Economic Issues May Take Center Stage in 2020

The midterms are just the beginning of a much bigger political fight leading up to 2020. The President campaigned primarily on the immigration issue while Democrats focused on health care. The chances that either will be resolved before 2020 are close to zero. There will be no wall and access to health care will not improve. More importantly, the current recovery is already one of the longest on record, so we could see a slowdown or a recession in the next two years. Watch, then, for a return to a focus on the economy.

There are three big questions yet to be answered:

  • Can Republicans win by continuing to focus on supply-side policies if the economy tanks despite their successful efforts to deregulate and cut taxes?
  • Will the white working class stick with Trump for cultural reasons in the face of a slowdown and evidence that wages are still growing very slowly while a trade war is taking its toll on many of their jobs?
  • Are the suburban women who mobilized for the midterms going to go back to baking cookies?

The political war for the soul of the country isn’t over but the battlefield could look very different by 2020. –Isabel Sawhill

Legislative stalemate

Legislative stalemate occurs more often during split party congresses (1981-6, 2001-2, 2011-13), compared to periods of unified or divided control.

With the parties poised to split control of Congress, increasingly polarized parties and an approaching presidential election will dampen enthusiasm for bipartisan deal-making. Trump says he’s willing to work with Democrats—so long as they don’t investigate his administration. Democrats won’t take that bait. That means Trump is unlikely to work with Democrats to repair infrastructure or improve health care. What’s more, Democrats will be wary about cutting taxes on the middle class without raising them on the wealthy, and a Democratic House will oppose any cuts to entitlements. Nor is a split-party Congress likely to agree to a congressional budget. That means Republicans will not be able to resort to reconciliation bills—which cannot be filibustered—to advance measures by simple majority.

But Congress will not grind to a halt. The government is expected to hit its debt ceiling in early March. And lawmakers will want to lift strict limits on domestic and defense spending come fall 2019. How Trump and Congress exploit these must-pass bills remains to be seen. But the sausage-making won’t look or smell very good. –Sarah Binder

An extreme minority

For all the drama of election night, the midterms ended up more or less where many Congress watchers expected they would: Democrats took control of the House by picking up at least 30 seats (as of this writing), many in suburban areas and including at least 15 districts won by Hillary Clinton in 2016. In the Senate, meanwhile, Republicans leveraged an especially favorable map to a net gain of two or three seats—more than some expected at various points this year. But given that Democrats were defending 10 seats in states won by Trump in 2016, Democratic losses could have been much more significant than they were.

As we look towards the 116th Congress, major changes are in store for the House, and not just in terms of party control. More than 40 percent of current House Democrats have never served in the majority. Add the new House freshmen, and you get a new majority with a notable learning curve. On the Republican side, the Republicans leaving seats picked up by Democrats tend to be among the relatively more moderate members of the current conference. A more extreme minority, then, likely awaits the new Democratic majority. –Molly Reynolds

The stolen Georgia election

The midterm elections have confirmed that some opportunities can be stolen. The most flagrant demonstration was in the Georgia governor’s race where acting Secretary of State and candidate, Brian Kemp, made it harder for certain residents to register and exercise their voting rights, especially those who might have favored his opponent, Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams.

Leading up to election night, Kemp used his role to deny 55,000 voter registrations that failed “exact match” verification. Seventy percent of these applications were from black voters. He also blamed Democrats for hacking the state’s voter systems, a claim that was never substantiated. On the day of the election, polling locations had broken systems and were insufficiently staffed. Before certain polling locations closed, the courts ordered extended hours due to these flagrancies.

All of these activities were on Kemp’s watch as the steward of his state’s electoral processes.

On the day after the election, Kemp dismissed Abrams’ request for a vote-by-vote count of ballots, while loudly claiming victory in the race. His office also published the personal information of the state’s absentee voters.

While Georgia has historically been embroiled in voter suppression efforts, Kemp’s efforts to disenfranchise his state’s voters are incorrigible and unfair.

Kemp’s actions were perhaps the worst-case of contemporary voter suppression. While Abrams has not yet conceded, one thing is clear—elected officials who are supposed to be responsible for ethical and fair electoral processes should either be recused from these roles from the date of their intent to run, or step down all together. On Thursday, Kemp finally stepped down.

An election may have been stolen on Tuesday and this time, we know the thief. –Nicol Turner Lee

The most important takeaway from the 2018 midterm elections

Not surprisingly, President Trump at his post-election press conference described the midterms as a big victory for him. He cherry-picked his way through the results and found convincing evidence that his personal involvement in the campaign played a central role in his party’s stunning and unprecedented success. After 6,000+ documented untruths (otherwise known as lies) from him during his 21 months in office, we’ve become inured to his flights of fantasy. But lies are the currency of would-be tyrants. An effective resistance to tyranny must insist on truth if it is to retain the blessings of liberty and justice. Let us start with the midterm elections.

With the hardening of partisan identities and the nationalization of elections, midterm elections are increasingly referendums on the performance of the president. The best measures are the national popular vote for the House of Representatives and the shift in seats won by the president’s party since the last election. Republicans lost that contest by seven percentage points, and fell ten points lower than they won in the previous midterm elections. They lost a net of 30 to 35 seats in the House (pending final counts), giving Democrats a clear majority. The President’s net approval rating was a negative 10 percentage points, mirroring his party’s national vote for the House. Turnout jumped from 37 to 49 percent of the eligible electorate. Thirty million more Americans were motivated to vote in 2018 than in 2014, an unprecedented increase.

Democrats in the House now have the means as well as the incentive to check the abuses of power in the presidency and begin the long and difficult task of reclaiming our democracy. –Thomas Mann

What’s not the matter with Kansas

Do Trumpism and tribalism reign supreme in red America? Or do real-world performance and local issues count? One race I watched as a bellwether is the gubernatorial contest in Kansas, which posed the question cleanly–and showed the limits of Trumpism, even in the Republican heartland.

Former Gov. Sam Brownback, elected in 2010, was a fiercely ideological conservative who tested the limits even in his predominantly Republican state. In what he called a “real live experiment” in supply-side economics, he and the Republican legislature deeply cut taxes. The result was not as advertised. “Kansas has been struggling for years with massive budget shortfalls,” wrote The Washington Post. “Those have cut deep into budgets for roads, schools and hospitals in a way that’s hard for the average Kansan to miss.” Deeply unpopular (with an approval rating in the low 20s), Brownback stepped down in January of this year to take a Trump Administration job, and Lieutenant Governor Jeff Colyer took over.

The stage was thus set for a vivid contrast in the 2018 Republican gubernatorial primary battle: Colyer, a mainstream conservative with a solid record in statewide office, faced Kris Kobach, a nationally ambitious architect of President Trump’s wars on immigration and (imaginary) voter fraud. Trump endorsed Kobach, who won the primary. In the general election, Kobach then faced Democratic state senator Laura Kelly, an unflashy legislator who had supported a bipartisan tax increase to repair the state’s finances. On Tuesday, Kelly won.

A Kobach victory would have signaled that Kansas was on board with Trump’s agenda and was willing to overlook Brownback’s failure and Kobach’s extremism. Instead, the voters signaled that ideology and party have their limits even in the red heartland. It is not lost on Republicans that they would probably have won with Colyer, whom the party establishment had favored.

Implication? In Kansas, the GOP base veered too far right, Trump overplayed his hand, governing still matters, and accountability won. –Jonathan Rauch

Obstruction and collusion

The president’s ability to dodge accountability for him and those around him for possible obstruction and collusion ended on November 6th. If at least one house of Congress had not changed hands, he could perhaps have terminated Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation with impunity. Now, the House of Representatives is there to pick up the torch if he tries—or even if he doesn’t. There will be oversight of much more as well, including emoluments, ethics violations, nepotism, and outrageous self-dealing by Mr. Trump, his family and his cabinet and appointees. But the greatest personal exposure for the president is on obstruction, with significant risk on collusion as well. We explained both in recent Brookings reports. –Norman Eisen