With the Democrats seizing control of the House of Representatives and the Republicans increasing their majority in the Senate, yesterday’s midterm elections appeared to offer something for everybody.
Yet for all the headaches the loss of the House will undoubtedly entail, the results suggest Donald Trump’s populist movement retains much of its potency, and that the Democrats can take nothing for granted as they prepare to take him on directly in two years’ time.
That the houses moved in different directions is mostly down to their different term lengths — two years for the House and a staggered six-year arrangement for the Senate, with a third of the Senate up for re-election in each cycle.
This meant the benchmark for performance in the House was the result in 2016, while the Senate came off the very different result in 2012, when the Democrats rode high on the back of Barack Obama’s re-election.
That Democratic Senate incumbents were unable to make lighting strike twice in such unpromising states as Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota should not come as any great shock.
However, the Republican winning margins in these states were greater than anticipated, as if to illustrate the widening chasm between the liberal and cosmopolitan big cities and the predominantly white America of the small towns and rural areas.
This phenomenon has its upside for the Democrats, which was illustrated in Nevada, where the Las Vegas vote gave them their one gain in the Senate; in Texas, where their emerging competitiveness brought Beto O’Rourke within striking distance of Republican heavyweight Ted Cruz; and in Virginia, where urban overflow from Washington DC seems to make the Democrats stronger with every passing electoral cycle.
Democratic incumbents also enjoyed encouraging victories in each of the industrial states (Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin) that so spectacularly repudiated Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Overall though, the Senate result can only have been a disappointment for the Democrats, given their painfully narrow defeats in Texas and, it seems, Florida and Arizona — results that will very likely ensure Republican control extends beyond 2020, regardless of what happens in the White House.
It was a happier picture for the Democrats in the House, despite an early scare as quirky readings from Nate Silver’s prediction model unleashed a flood of money on betting markets for the Republicans.
As votes were reported in meaningful numbers, a picture more in line with pre-election expectations began to develop.
Given the two great hurdles they had to overcome — Republican gerrymandering, and the wasteful concentration of their support in ultra-safe big city districts — the Democrats’ achievement in gaining control of the House should not be underestimated.
However, it shouldn’t be overestimated either — the success was not of a greater order than the Republican victories at the two midterms of Barack Obama’s presidency, neither of which portended a win in the popular vote at the presidential elections that followed.
Certainly the upsurge in participation by the young has been encouraging for the Democrats, but Republican constituencies have also proved more energised than would normally be expected from supporters of the governing party.
The overall turnout rate was a fraction shy of 50%, the highest at midterm elections since 1966, and comparable even to some of the more lightly attended presidential elections since that time.
Ordinarily, that would be regarded as a sign of robust democratic good health. But in the current context, it presents as one more symptom of America’s dangerous polarisation, which now stands to be played out within a divided Congress.