A look into the chamber of the House of Representatives in Washington, DC: In the foreground one can see the members of Congress looking towards Donald Trump. Donald Trump can be seen in the background, standing behind the lectern, delivering his State of the Union address.

US Midterm Elections: Trump Surfs The Blue Wave

In the next two years, US President Donald Trump has to face stronger opposition in Congress: The Democrats regained control of the House of Representatives, while the Republicans keep the majority in the Senate. Michael McKeon, Manager of Economic and Legislative Affairs at the Bertelsmann Foundation in Washington, DC, analyzes which effects this will have on American politics until the 2020 presidential election.

The 2018 U.S. midterm elections turned out as many observers had expected: Republicans expanded their majority in the Senate, and Democrats rode a modest blue wave to gain control of the House of Representatives. Political pundits and congressional candidates of both major parties had framed the midterm elections as a referendum on President Donald Trump, whose policies and rhetoric have divided the electorate and galvanized each side to support or reject his agenda at the ballot box on November 6.

The political landscape of the 116th Congress, which will convene in early January 2019, creates a new balance of power in Washington. No legislation will reach the president's desk without bipartisan support, and House Democrats will exercise their constitutional duty to conduct more robust oversight over this administration differently than their Republican colleagues have. Senate Republicans, emboldened by gains in Missouri, Indiana, and North Dakota, will continue efforts to scale back entitlement programs and shape the judiciary in favor of conservative ideals. They will be pressed over the next two years to address legislative priorities sent to them by a House of Representatives keen to deliver on the priorities for which Democrats campaigned including infrastructure, immigration reform, and healthcare.

If the midterm election was, in effect, a referendum on Donald Trump, the electorate expressed neither a full embrace nor a complete repudiation of the president and his policies. The resulting composition of the incoming Congress portends a more aggressive, and, potentially, politicized House, and — if compromises can't be found — little meaningful legislation. The run-up to the 2020 presidential election has already begun as Democrats and Republicans alike seek to parlay policy success or failure into their next bid for power.

Demographic Shifts and Fixed Political Map

Every two years, all 435 members of the House of Representatives and approximately one-third of U.S. senators face re-election. Most hold on to their positions – incumbency rates are generally well above 90 percent, despite typical approval ratings below 20 percent – especially if they represent states or districts in which the majority of voters identifies consistently with one party or another.

In the 2018 election cycle, 35 Senate seats were up for grabs. With one exception in the state of Nevada, the nine Republican senators who faced re-election represented states that are considered steadfastly conservative. Democrats, on the other hand, faced a much greater challenge, as nine of the 24 incumbents represented states that Donald Trump won handily in 2016. The president remains popular in these states, especially among rural voters, who turned out in high numbers to support his agenda in policy areas such as immigration and trade.

Given that each state, regardless of population, is represented by two senators, the actual weight of each senate vote is skewed.  In this election, Democratic candidates for the Senate received 13 million more votes than Republicans, yet Republicans still managed to expand their majority in the chamber.

In contrast, the 435 districts represented in the lower chamber of Congress shift every decade to account for population changes, with each constituency containing approximately 711,000 people. States with smaller populations, such as Vermont, Delaware, and Alaska – the largest U.S. state with a land mass four times the size of Germany – have only one representative in the House, while states with large populations, such as California, Texas, and New York, have dozens.

Democratic Party success in this election was concentrated primarily in cities and suburban areas, including many that had voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. While many college-educated, white, suburban voters had supported candidate Trump's promise of tax cuts, a significant number of them were turned off by his rhetoric and policies on issues such as immigration, the environment, and gun control. The president's shift to nationalistic, extreme-right positions seem to have eroded support from this key voting demographic, which, in replacing their Republican representatives with Democrats, seek to place a greater check on his agenda during the next two years.

On the Agenda for 2019 in the House of Representatives

Republicans and Democrats will have to work together if they hope to advance meaningful legislation in the coming year. Democrats in the House of Representatives are unlikely to deliver an overly-ambitious legislative agenda, since any bill they pass will need the support of the Senate and approval of the White House. They may, therefore, opt to focus on mutual priorities, such as infrastructure improvement and modernization. This is one of few objectives that congressional Democrats share with the president, and it presents an opportunity for early legislative success.

On politically polarizing issues, such as environmental regulation and gun control, the party will struggle to achieve much beyond symbolic acts during the next two years. Not only would President Trump veto legislation that conflicts significantly with his party's platform, but Democrats expect that the mere proposal of radical change on these issues would be weaponized against them in the next election campaign.

One notable exception is immigration reform. Democrats are eager to codify into law protections and a path to permanent residency or citizenship for so-called DREAMers – people who were brought to the United States illegally as children and continue to reside in the country. President Trump is keen to secure funding for a border wall with Mexico, which Senate Republicans have so far been unwilling to finance given its estimated cost of $25 billion. In spite of the president's vitriolic anti-immigrant rhetoric in the weeks leading up to the midterm election, Democrats see an opportunity for compromise here, wherein positive immigration reform might be struck in exchange for enhanced border security. Beyond ideological support for immigration reform, Democrats also see their positioning on this issue as politically expedient, given the evolving demographics of the American electorate.

On the Agenda in the Senate

In the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has signaled the need to scale back entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid (government-subsidized health care for the elderly and poor, respectively) and Social Security (social insurance program for the elderly and disabled) during the 116th Congress, but it is highly unlikely that the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives would support any such legislation.

The Republican Senate may just have to be content with confirming judges in the powerful U.S. district court system, as well as senior positions in the executive branch. With an expanded majority in the Senate, Republicans can more easily advance controversial candidates whom moderate members of their caucus and Democrats might reject. Senator McConnell has been reluctant to pursue infrastructure modernization in the past, citing its cost, so any movement on this issue in the Senate will likely require a significant push from both the House of Representatives and the White House.

Impeach or Investigate?

Oversight of the administration may well be the primary objective of Democrats in the House of Representatives, with particular focus on corruption issues, such as the president's tax history and financial ties to states like Russia and Saudi Arabia. Influential Democrats have already vowed to scrutinize the president's tax records, which he has refused to release himself.

Although some members have repeatedly called for impeachment – the process whereby Congress levels charges against the president, which can ultimately result in his removal from office – Democratic leadership would be reluctant to pursue such a course without definitive evidence of illegal activity. A Democratic offensive that voters might perceive as overzealous or partisan could backfire, damaging the party’s prospects for the next election in 2020. Instead, Democrats will await the findings of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into possible collusion between Trump campaign officials and Russian operators for alleged interference in the 2016 election, conduct rigorous oversight, build a case against the president and his party through congressional hearings and public campaigns, and, ultimately, let the voters decide.

Eyes on 2020

Members of Congress will carry out their legislative and oversight duties over the next two years with an eye toward 2020. While many represent districts or states that lean heavily in one political direction or the other, others who are more vulnerable to shifting political winds are certain to face scrutiny in 2020 for their support or defiance of President Donald Trump during the next two years.

For his part, the president will undoubtedly tout legislative success as evidence of his ability to cut deals, and legislative failure as the result of Democratic obstructionism. With that in mind, it is clear that the greatest shift in congressional activity – and by extension, the power balance in Washington – will be in the institution's oversight of the administration, which, in the end, may be of greater consequence than any law it might pass.