Imagine this scenario: In November’s elections for the U.S. House, Democrats win the national House vote by a few percentage points and gain nearly 20 additional House seats,1 by both winning open seats and defeating some longtime GOP incumbents. In the Senate, Democrats pick up Nevada; win races in states President Trump carried in 2016, including in Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and West Virginia; and only narrowly lose in the GOP strongholds of Indiana, Missouri and Tennessee.
That sounds like a pretty good night for Democrats. But it wouldn’t be. That scenario would leave Republicans with a majority of, say, 222-213 in the House and a 51-49 advantage in the Senate.
Don’t get me wrong — I share the view of other analysts that Democrats are favorites to win the House this fall, and that an accompanying Democratic win in the Senate is somewhat less likely.2 But based on the data we have now, the scenario above is certainly possible — just as possible as, say, Trump being elected president and Republicans winning both houses of Congress on Nov. 8, 2016.
That potential outcome didn’t get enough coverage in the run-up to the 2016 election. So let’s avoid repeating that mistake in 2018. How would the political world react if Republicans maintained control of Congress in November? I can’t say for sure, but here are four likely responses.
Renewed GOP attempts to shrink government
If Republicans control the House and Senate next year, I would expect them to push some kind of health policy proposal that uses the so-called reconciliation process, which requires only a majority of votes in the Senate, rather than a filibuster-proof 60. That legislation could be a full-scale repeal of Obamacare. Or it could be a bill that doesn’t repeal all of Obamacare but both cuts spending on Medicaid and turns Medicaid into a block-grant program where states can choose to spend the dollars they get from the federal government as they see fit. Overhauling Medicaid was a key plank of the various Obamacare repeal bills Republicans pushed in 2017.
Republicans in the House are currently trying to add requirements that food stamp recipients be either employed or actively looking for a job in order to continue to receive those benefits. That legislation is currently stalled, but it’s a long-held GOP goal.
You might think that doesn’t sound like a particularly popular agenda heading into the 2020 elections. And shouldn’t last year have convinced Republicans to give up on health care? After all, they struggled to pass an Obamacare repeal bill in the House when they had more than 230 members, and it failed in the Senate. So why would Republicans come back to this? Well, some conservative lawmakers on Capitol Hill, major party activists and officials in the Trump administration want to.
“They will be searching for an agenda, and health care is a natural place for them. And there will be pressure for them to act,” said Yuval Levin, a conservative health policy expert who served in the Bush administration.
And the political environment in 2019 could shift in ways that both force Republican party leaders to move in a more conservative direction and make it easier to get conservative proposals through both houses of Congress.
Sure, the GOP’s overall margin in the House might narrow. But the House and Senate Republicans who are defeated in November will likely come from the bluer districts and states that the party currently holds — including some where Clinton won in 2016. So the remaining Republicans will, on average, represent more conservative constituencies than the current group does. They will not be scared to vote for an Obamacare repeal — after all, they voted for one in the run-up to 2018 and kept their seats. And they may face intense pressure back home from conservatives if they oppose it.
Moreover, the more conservative factions among House Republicans, particularly the Freedom Caucus, are likely to have more influence in 2019 if the party retains the majority. With Speaker Paul Ryan retiring, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy is the favorite to become the top Republican in the House, but Freedom Caucus members are looking for ways to either get one of their own elected speaker or extract some concessions from McCarthy. The Freedom Caucus strongly pushed for an Obamacare repeal even after the effort’s failure in the Senate, and the caucus has also been pushing the party to be much more aggressive in cutting federal spending. So McCarthy may have to pledge to pursue an Obamacare repeal and other conservative fiscal policies if he wants to be the speaker.
“They will be dominated by the Freedom Caucus and will get serious about slashing safety-net expenditures,” said U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, a Democrat from Kentucky. “The Senate will not go along, so it will be worse gridlock, I would think.”
Yarmuth is right to bring up the other chamber of Congress. Even with continued GOP control of the House, if the party’s advantage in the Senate stays narrow, more moderate members like Maine’s Susan Collins and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski remain potential barriers to major spending cuts.
Weakening of the investigations against Trump
If Democrats don’t control the House or the Senate, they can’t initiate investigations of Trump or some of his more controversial cabinet members, such as Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt.
More importantly, after the 2018 elections, the electoral process will recede as a constraint on the president and GOP in terms of the Russia investigation (assuming it’s still going) — at least for a while.
We don’t really know why Trump, despite his constant criticisms of the investigation, has not fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions or Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, or why he has not directly tried to stop the probe by special counsel Robert Mueller. Maybe Trump, despite his rhetoric, has some real respect for the rule of law. I think it’s more likely that Trump understands that firing Rosenstein or making a drastic move to stop the Mueller probe would increase both the chances of Democrats winning the House and/or Senate this year, and the odds that the resulting Democratic-led chamber(s) would feel compelled to push to impeach Trump. But if the GOP emerges from 2017 and 2018 without losing control of the House or the Senate, I suspect that, with the next election two years away, the president will feel freer to take controversial steps to end the Russia probe. And I doubt Republicans on Capitol Hill would try to stop him.
“If the GOP retains the House, Trump will claim credit,” said Didi Kuo, a scholar at Stanford’s Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law. “He will be emboldened to do as he pleases with respect to the Mueller investigation.”
In fact, certain Trump defenders on Capitol Hill, particularly House Intelligence Community Chairman Devin Nunes, could emerge emboldened from a 2018 election in which Democrats directly targeted them for defeat but failed. Republicans like Nunes, already in effect running an investigation of Mueller’s investigation, could take more steps to push back against the FBI, Justice Department and any other part of the federal government seen as threatening Trump’s power.
A Democratic freakout
Nancy Pelosi already had Democratic critics who felt she had stayed on too long as the party’s House leader, blocked a younger generation of lawmakers from taking power and failed to lead Democrats back to majority power. But that situation has gotten worse in the first few months of 2018. Republicans are running millions of dollars in ads linking Democratic congressional candidates to the unpopular Pelosi, leaving some of these Democratic hopefuls feeling compelled to distance themselves from the California Democrat and say they do not want her to remain the party’s leader. If Republicans win the House this fall, I expect Democrats on the Hill will force Pelosi out as leader after pinning at least some of the blame for their defeat on her (or just deciding that they need someone new).
“It will be like 2016 for Democrats. They will think they lost an election they should have won,” said Seth Masket, a University of Denver political scientist who is working on a book about the post-2016 Democratic Party. “There would be enormous anger directed at Pelosi.”
But I don’t think she would be alone in being deposed. The No. 2 and No. 3 Democrats on the Hill (Steny Hoyer of Maryland and James Clyburn of South Carolina) are basically the same age as the 78-year-old Pelosi (Hoyer is 78, Clyburn 77) and considered part of the old guard by some younger Democrats. It’s more likely that Hoyer and Clyburn will be pushed out of leadership completely than that one of them will be asked to replace Pelosi and lead the party into the 2020 elections. Some party activists are dissatisfied with the Democratic National Committee too, and I’m not sure DNC Chairman Tom Perez can survive a major Democratic underperformance this fall either.
This freakout could go way beyond sidelining the Democratic leaders in Washington, though. Would the calls asking for a figure from outside of politics (say, Oprah Winfrey) to run for president to save the Democratic Party and save the country from Trump get louder, in effecting casting aside more traditional presidential candidates like Sens. Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren? Before the 2020 presidential election, would party activists beg former president Barack Obama to get more involved in electoral politics, taking a 2018 defeat as a sign that the current crop of Democrats are not equipped to take on Trump?
I’m not sure about the specifics, but that seems like the right scale here; if Democrats feel they’ve underperformed in 2018, we may come to see the party’s post-2016 reprisals as only the warm-up act for the internal strife that would follow these midterms.
A media reassessment
The initial media reaction to the 2016 election (“Should we cover Middle America more often?”) has largely been supplanted, I would argue, by news organizations investing more time and resources in covering the Trump administration, particularly the Russia investigation. That’s a logical decision. There is a lot of news in Washington — and that news is probably both more important and more likely to attract clicks and eyeballs (media is a business) than what’s happening in, say, small-town Wisconsin.
That decision has also been reinforced by two factors. The Mueller investigation and the media’s own reporting has shown that there is much to be covered in terms of Russian interference in the election and connections between Russians and Trump allies, if not the president himself. And polling since Trump’s election has suggested that American voters are not particularly enthusiastic about Trump or congressional Republicans — even if the voters gave the GOP total control in the 2016 election. Trump is unpopular for a president this early in his tenure, and polls suggest a majority of Americans disapprove of the job he’s doing and a plurality would prefer Democratic control of the House.
So the media has covered the Trump story largely through Washington, not Middle America, and has covered Trump fairly negatively.
I suspect that a Republican win in the House, even if the majority of voters back Democrats (Republicans’ built-in seat advantage makes it possible for the party to hang on to congressional control while losing the nationwide popular vote), would spur some rethinking of that tactic. Coverage might go in a somewhat pro-Democratic direction, asking if something is amiss with the electoral system if Democrats keep winning the national popular vote but remain shut out of power. But I think there will be renewed questions about whether the media is out of touch with a country that not only elected Trump but also kept his party in power in Congress despite intense coverage of the president’s foibles.
Other important things would happen, of course. GOP control of the Senate would allow Trump to continue to fill federal courts with conservative judges. Moving the judiciary to the right has become one of the chief goals of the administration and a major part of Trump’s appeal to more traditional Republicans who might otherwise be wary of his political style. Additionally, a good 2018 for the GOP might send the message abroad that the American public has ratified Trump’s domestic and foreign-policy approach, and world leaders like Germany’s Angela Merkel might begin to more forcefully distance themselves from the U.S.
“For all those [foreign leaders] who have found reassurance in the idea that this is a temporary aberration and that America will go back to its regularly scheduled programming soon, it would be an argument for starting to recalculate,” said Daniel Kurtz-Phelan, the executive editor of Foreign Affairs magazine.
In any case, it’s worth thinking through the repercussions of various 2018 outcomes, even relatively unlikely ones. As we all should have learned by now, unlikely isn’t the same as impossible.