Three take-aways from the 'choose your own narrative' midterms

Who won? It depends on which of these results you think is most important and how national politics plays out in months and years ahead.

Mike Blake/Reuters
A vote sign points people to a local poling location during midterm elections in Newport Beach, California on Nov. 6, 2018.

The midterms are over. Now the struggle over their meaning begins.

National elections in the United States are big, complex events, and voters can interpret their results in different ways, depending on partisan predilections. For the midterm vote of 2018, the narrative seems to be no narrative, noted Marquette University political scientist Julia Azari on FiveThirtyEight early Wednesday morning.

The House and Senate are now split by party, as polls predicted. Democrats and Republicans can thus emphasize the bits they like and ignore or play down the ones they dislike, framing the outcome as a party victory.

Democrats won back the House, a flip that they say is the most important change of the election. The House is the chamber of US government most directly reflective of the national mood, as all members answer to voters every two years, and it moved decisively in a Democratic direction. Two years ago, Democrats lost the national House vote by 1 percent. This year they won it by around 8 percent. That nine-point swing is the biggest such move toward Democrats since 1948.

Republicans, for their part, expanded their existing majority in the Senate, with a net gain of at least two seats. They gained power in the red rural states that have outsize influence in the senior chamber of Congress. Pointing to this, President Trump began claiming victory on Wednesday morning. “Yesterday was such a very Big Win!” he tweeted shortly after dawn.

Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP
Florida Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis answers questions from reporters with his wife, Casey, after being declared the winner of the Florida gubernatorial race at an election party Nov. 6 in Orlando, Fla.

Governorships are where much important policy gets done in America today, on budgets, the environment, abortion, and other issues on which the national legislature is gridlocked. There, Democrats won big on the overall numbers, taking seven governorships away from Republicans. Democrats flipped Wisconsin, defeating incumbent Scott Walker. But the GOP held on to big prizes, narrowly keeping the Ohio and Florida governors' mansions despite spirited opposition. Friendly governors in those key swing states could be a big help to Mr. Trump as 2020 approaches.

So who won? It depends on which of these results you think is most important and how national politics plays out in the months and years ahead. But some changes seem predictable. Here are three things the 2018 vote changed:

WOMEN IN OFFICE. At the time of writing, more than 100 women, including the first Native American women and first Muslim women ever elected to Congress, were projected to win seats in the House, easily shattering a record. Currently there are 84 female congressional members. The majority of these women are Democrats, and their gains were reflected in gains at lower levels of politics throughout the nation.

Colin E. Braley/AP
Democrat house candidate Sharice Davids reacts before speaking to supporters at a victory party in Olathe, Kan., Nov. 6, 2018. Davids defeated Republican incumbent Kevin Yoder to win the Kansas' 3rd Congressional District seat.

HOUSE INVESTIGATIONS. Democrats have big legislative plans for their newly won House majority, with an agenda that includes such things as bills intended to preserve the Voting Rights Act. Given the GOP hold on the Senate and White House, the chance of any of these things getting far seems close to zero. But Democratic House committees can freely launch investigations, and those probes are likely to make the administration miserable over the next two years. Trump’s businesses, his taxes, his D.C. hotel, his use of government funds for golf trips – all these will be on the line as well as administration policies. Remember the Benghazi probe? Multiply that effort by 10.

GOVERNMENT HEALTH CARE. "Obamacare," having barely survived Supreme Court scrutiny and Republican repeal efforts, is step by step establishing itself on a increasingly national basis. Ballot initiatives to expand Medicaid under Affordable Care Act rules passed in three conservative states: Nebraska, Idaho, and Utah. Kansas elected a Democratic governor who supports Medicaid expansion. In Maine, GOP Gov. Paul LePage, who has resisted implementation of Medicaid expansion, is term-limited out of office and says he is moving to Florida. Gradually an expanded Medicaid program is becoming a national policy.

With the midterms over, the 2020 presidential race now begins in earnest. (Yes, it was under way already, on both sides. Democrats are jockeying for position among big donors, key officials, and so forth.) But how President Trump reacts to the vote may be the most important near-term, post-midterm news. Will he fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions and other cabinet members? Will he shuffle his White House staff? Will he take action against special counsel Robert Mueller?

Or will Mr. Mueller move first? With the midterm finished, new indictments in the Russia probe could now come at any time.

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