The dust will take some time to settle from last night’s midterm elections, but one thing is clear. Both sides won and both sides lost in a way that heightens the showdown coming in two years, and in a way that guarantees nothing much gets done until after the presidential election. If then.
The good news for Democrats is obviously that they won back control of the House, although the scope of that victory is unclear at the moment. If it holds up to projections, Democrats should net around 35 seats when it’s all done, which would give them around half of all the competitive districts in the election. That’s enough to give them a 12-seat majority, which might be too small to effectively manage for any significant legislation. Just ask Paul Ryan how well a 23-seat majority worked for the past two years, even with a friendly White House and (barely) friendly Senate. Put simply, nothing that passes out of the House will be relevant unless Nancy Pelosi — or whoever gets elected Speaker — bargains for it with Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell.
Democrats could impeach Trump, maybe, but with a majority of a dozen seats? That seems unlikely, especially since more than a few of those new Democrats came from districts where Trump gets a lot of support. If Robert Mueller reports impeachable offenses, that might provide them enough cover, but the current House might have done that anyway. What Democrats can do is conduct endless investigations, which will produce ammunition for their 2020 nominee to attack Trump. If they overplay that hand, however, Republicans will use it to grab some of those seats back.
So the good news isn’t all that good. For Republicans, the limited amount of good news gives them a little more breathing room for Trump and his appointments, especially to the judiciary. As things stand at the moment, McConnell will have a 55/45 majority, having won five pickups in the Senate: Florida, North Dakota, Indiana, Missouri, and likely Montana, while only losing Dean Heller. (Arizona’s race is still very close and very slow to finish, but Martha McSally leads by 16,000 votes with 99.26% of precincts reporting as of publication.)
If that holds up, Trump can continue filling openings on the federal judiciary at breakneck speed without having to court Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski. If there is another Supreme Court opening, say hello to Justice Amy Coney Barrett, in other words. Perhaps more importantly, Trump can now start replacing some of his Cabinet officials without too much worry over losing confirmation votes, so say goodbye to Attorney General Jeff Sessions. (And maybe say ‘welcome back’ to Senator Jeff Sessions, who would then be available to run for his old seat against Doug Jones in 2020.)
However, those gains may not be enough to hold the GOP majority if the 2020 elections go badly at the presidential level. In the next cycle, Republicans will defend more seats than Democrats, although they won’t have the same level of exposure as Democrats did this time around. Still, races in Maine (Collins), Colorado, North Carolina, and maybe Kansas might get competitive, and Arizona will have a special election to fill the late John McCain’s seat. A five-seat majority now lessens the chances of losing the majority after 2020, but it doesn’t eliminate it — and that assumes we have no retirements, either.
Essentially, both sides will have two years to do nothing but make a 2020 presidential argument. That will be the key, and practically the only impact left in a divided capital.