Neither Democrats nor Republicans should be satisfied with the results. The Republicans’ failure to keep control of the House despite a booming economy, low unemployment and the lack of an unpopular war doesn’t bode well for them if things get worse. Equally, the Democrats’ losses in the Senate expose the party’s weakness in rural and small-town America. Indiana and Missouri are fairly representative of the nation as a whole; Democrat incumbents losing their seats there is not a good sign. Democrats made the mistake of raising expectations, especially regarding Beto O’Rourke’s chances in Texas. Having failed to meet those expectations, the results look like a Democratic loss.
Trump’s re-election prospects just got better. In terms of the Electoral College, Trump’s 2016 map still looks pretty intact. Republican victories for governorships in Ohio, Iowa and Florida show the president’s persistent popularity in key swing states. Of course there were some losses, but nothing beyond what you would expect against a normal incumbent. The so-called ‘Democratic wave’ failed to materialise, so the usual rule of incumbency advantage will still apply in 2020.
In the post-Obama era, Democrats are finally taking state and local government seriously. Under Obama’s presidency, Democrats suffered huge losses at the state and local level. The number of governorships and state legislatures under Republican control rose to record levels. Democrats were so focused on the presidency, they forgot that political power in America is decentralised and dispersed, allowing Republicans to redraw congressional districts in their favour, repeal environmental protections and restrict abortions. Since the party no longer has a charismatic, unifying figure, they are reemphasising local government once again. A gain of seven governorships is something to be proud of.
Urban-rural polarisation still hasn’t hit its peak. The House results show Democrats making most of their gains in urban and suburban seats. Rural areas stayed solidly Republican, increasing the division between city and country. This doesn’t bode well for Democrats, since the electoral college and Senate give rural voters a disproportionate degree of influence on election results.
Expect the next two years to be even more unpleasant than the last two. Continued Republican control of the Senate means Trump is almost certainly safe from impeachment and can continue to make favourable judicial appointments. At the same time, Democratic control of the House will frustrate what remains of Trump’s legislative agenda. As a result, there will be yet more constant arguing, blaming the other side for everything and not taking responsibility. More importantly, these elections do nothing to resolve the Democrats’ divisions as to how to respond to Trump, nor do they provide a clear Democratic frontrunner for the 2020 presidential election. Neither the progressives nor the moderates in the Democratic Party have a convincing narrative to make from the results. Watching the Democrats squabble and provide feeble, incoherent opposition to Trump may be the most excruciating thing of all.