By Heather E. Yates – UCA Professor of Political Science
The midterms are over, and it is time to sift through the results to understand what the political landscape looks like as the next presidential election quickly approaches. There weren’t many surprises on election night, and the results were mostly consistent with election forecasts. The Democrats won an electoral majority to take the House with a net gain of at least 33 seats, and the Republicans expanded its majority in the Senate. Congress is a split party institution heading into the next presidential election cycle, which likely ensures Congress will be held captive by partisan gridlock. The 2018 midterm election also revealed compelling trends that will shape each party’s targeted electoral strategies in 2020.
Diversification in Suburbs Increased Diversity in Congress
The 2018 elections show how our democratic institutions are diversifying. The newest class of freshman representatives is the most diverse yet. At 23 percent, a historic number of women will serve in Congress with 101 in the House and 23 in the Senate. Among them are two Native American women, and the first two Muslim-American women to ever be elected to Congress. Furthermore, people of color and openly LGBTQ candidates made historic gains for elected office at both national and local levels.
The newly elected cohort of diverse lawmakers is a result of the heightened social awareness as a response to the politics and policies of the current administration coupled with the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter social movements. Additionally, a record number of educators ran for political office as a result of state legislative bodies severely restricting public funds for school budgets. The new group of lawmakers has the highest number of political newcomers to arrive in Washington.
Another contributing factor to the diversification of Congress is the shifting demographic trends in America’s suburbs. Democrats gained ground in the growing suburban districts that supported Trump in 2016. City suburbs were once a strong base of GOP support – defined mostly as conservative, college-educated, traditional, white-collar working professionals, which is transforming as a result of local growth and expansion. Suburbs are now attracting younger, working-class professionals with advanced degrees and more people of color. With the aid of targeted campaign strategies, these demographic shifts translated into different voting patterns benefitting Democrats. Even Arkansas Democrats made inroads in one of the fastest growing regions in Washington County, where Republicans were once solid — Democrats flipped a house and senate seat in the state legislature.
America Remains Deeply Polarized
Conventional theories on political behavior suggested that political elites drove political polarization — and the voters weren’t as divided as the politicians. However, on election night, district-level results showed that America is a deeply divided nation. The polarization was noticeable in the closeness of heavily contested elections.
Symptoms of political polarization are not as observable in Arkansas as in other states because of its one-party dominance of all branches of state government. State and local elections are not heavily contested or decided by razor-thin margins. The marquee race for the state was Arkansas’ 2nd congressional district, the contest between incumbent French Hill and state representative Clarke Tucker, was a competitive contest, but it wasn’t necessarily a close one in the polls. The precinct-level data revealed stark partisan sorting between the Republicans and Democrats, especially in Faulkner and Pulaski counties. Arkansas may not be as acutely polarized as the nation, but voting patterns certainly revealed that voters sort themselves along partisan fault-lines.
Voters are not the only ones polarized; so, too, are our institutions. With a split party Congress and partisan gridlock almost a foregone conclusion, expectations for a productive Congress are decidedly low. Given the gridlock in Washington, it seemed that the states took matters into their own hands to address issues that Congress actively avoids through ballot initiatives and referendums. As the Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once remarked, the states are laboratories of democracy, and in this election cycle, several states experimented with a variety of ballot initiatives that addressed everything from health care to campaign finance reform to gerrymandering. For example, three states passed a state-subsidized Medicaid expansion effort, which is a principle feature of the Affordable Care Act. In Missouri, voters weighed in on gerrymandering by removing the legislature’s authority to redraw electoral districts, transferring that power to an independent body. In North Dakota, a ballot measure addressing campaign finance reform was approved, and voters in Nevada authorized automatic voter registration. The volume and content of ballot initiatives in this cycle serve as a reminder that the experiment of federalism is alive and well.
The partisan shift in Congress meant that the party leadership reshuffled, but with familiar players. Republicans elected Kevin McCarthy as minority leader and Democrats (barely) returned the speaker’s gavel to Nancy Pelosi. Reports circulated that the midterms could catalyze a leadership shakeup, especially for the Democrats and Nancy Pelosi. Despite the highly visible anti-Pelosi movement that underscored the midterm elections, no strong protest or revolt ever materialized. The parties now begin planning presidential strategies, and this is where the Democrats have their work cut out for them. Democrats’ recruitment efforts have yet to produce a viable front-runner for the party’s nomination in 2020. Democrats are not short on interest, but it appears that the 2019 Democratic presidential primary will be a crowded field of contenders before we know who will ultimately challenge Trump for the White House.