In 2016, United States electoral political norms were shattered and leading prognosticators were way off in predicting the outcomes for the Presidential and other federal races. In the 2018 congressional mid-term elections, even with a lot of conflicting wildcards (e.g. youth vote, economy, Kavanagh, immigration, spending by Democrats, and of course the biggest wildcard of all, President Trump), the norms were back, electoral adjustments were made the Trump effect, and the prognosticators pretty much nailed it.
First, the political norm that every congressional midterm is a referendum on the sitting president held true with exit polls showing that over two thirds of voters stated President Trump was a factor. Also holding true to form was the norm that the party of the incumbent president loses ground during midterm elections. Over the past 21 midterm elections, the party of the president has lost an average of thirty seats in the House and an average four seats in the Senate. In this election, the GOP is likely to lose about 35-37 seats in the House almost exactly the number predicted by several leading prognosticators. In the Senate, the GOP broke the norm (for the first time since 1982) by picking up 1-2 seats (depending on the outcome of the Florida races), but no one reasonably expected the GOP to lose their majority in the Senate.
Second, voter turnout was strong. While the Dems had the early enthusiasm advantage starting the day after Trump was elected, in the last month or so before the election, between Kavanagh, the caravan and the fact that GOP support for Trump has not wavered, GOP enthusiasm rose steadily to close the gap. While the President’s focus on immigration likely hurt the GOP in some moderate GOP congressional districts, it was also likely a determining or amplifying factor in several GOP Senate wins. Ultimately, turnout on both sides exceeded expectations. Estimates are that about 115 million votes were cast this year, well above the 83 million votes cast in the 2014 midterms and the 91 million ballots cast in the 2010 midterms. As a percentage, the 49.2% turnout was the highest since the 1914 midterm.
David Brooks wrote in the New York Times a couple days before the election, “This is not a wave election; it's a realignment election. The results Tuesday will not be shaped by some crest of momentum behind the Democrats. They are going to be shaped by the fact that people are hardening into their categories, and those categories tend to produce a Democratic House and a Republican Senate. Everybody’s political positions are more dug in. College-educated suburban women really don’t like Republicans. White men without college degrees really don’t like Democrats. Urban America is really blue. Rural America is really red. The race in 2016 entrenched those positions on the presidential level. The 2018 race entrenches them all the way down the ticket. Congressional elections are now mostly just mini-versions of presidential elections. The quality of any individual candidate matters a lot less, and there’s much less variation in how different candidates are conducting their campaigns.”
Brooks was pretty much spot on. First, college educated women voted for Democrats by a margin of 69% to 30% (overall, women accounted for 52% of the vote). White men without a college degree voted GOP 60% to 40%. Second, in suburban GOP districts where Hilary Clinton won in 2016, Democrats won nearly all those seats (19 out of 25) and also won a number of suburban districts that Trump won by single digits. Dems now represent 70% of all suburban districts. It did not help that of the 41 GOP members who retired this year, many were from these suburban swing districts. In the Northeast, the GOP was decimated. Of the 60 total congressional seats in the Northeast (including NY/NJ), the GOP now holds just nine seats (having lost six), with just one of those seats outside of NY/NJ. Conversely, the GOP won 81% of rural districts. Finally, while the youth vote was up, as a percentage of the electorate it remained the same (around 13%). However, the Hispanic vote jumped from 7% of the electorate in 2014, to 11% in 2018 with 69% of Hispanic votes going for the Dems.
What to Expect From the 116th Congress
Now heading into a Presidential election and with Congress more polarized than ever, it is doubtful that anything beyond essential legislation (spending bills, debt-limit, and certain authorizations) will get done, and even accomplishing the essentials could be tough. One popular big item both sides like to talk about is infrastructure (and both sides seem to have no problem increasing the federal deficit), but don’t bet on it. And while there is bipartisan support for comprehensive immigration reform, the prospects for a deal seem laughable. As for security related legislation, the current Congress has seen some significant bipartisan activity on data breach notification legislation and cybersecurity and that may continue next Congress. There is also support for extending the protections of the SAFETY Act to include cyber events, as well as for legislation related to supply chain security. Other bipartisan security issues that have seen movement are IoT security and data privacy. However, passing any legislation through both a Dem House and GOP Senate will take compromise and with House Dems gearing up to go full bore on oversight of the Trump Administration don’t expect much compromise!
At the House Committee on Homeland Security, former Democratic Chairman and current Ranking Member Bennie Thompson (D-MS) will take back the gavel he held from 2006 to 2010. Democrats in the House are not limited in how long they can be the Chairman or the Ranking Member. Republicans are thought, and accordingly, current Chairman Mike McCaul (R-TX) is at the end of his six-year Chairman limit. It is expected that Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL) will take over the top GOP spot on the Committee.
Thompson, like other Democrat committee chairs in the House, likely will prioritize oversight of the Trump administration, particularly its “contentious” immigration and border policies. He is also the co-chair of the House Democrats’ election security task force and he has said that will be a top priority. Disaster response (specifically Hurricane Maria) is likely to get attention and public/private cybersecurity issues will be in the mix. Congress also just enacted an FAA bill that included many provisions related to TSA, and Committee is likely to scrutinize the implementation of those provisions, especially those relating to screening. Finally, a favorite topic for Thompson is DHS’ relationships with small businesses.
TSA will also be a focus of the House Oversight Committee. Its expected Chairman Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) has said that one of his top priorities will be overhauling TSA in the areas of security operations, personnel management and transparency.
At the House Judiciary Committee, likely Chairman Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) is one of the most vocal critics of the president and expect that Committee to review everything from immigration to guns to voting rights, but not necessarily impeachment. Nadler sides with Democratic leaders in taking a cautious approach to impeachment and wanting to wait on the Mueller investigation report.
At the House Energy and Commerce Committee, incoming Chairman Frank Pallone (D-NJ) has set his sights on efforts to bolster the nation’s energy infrastructure, among other issues.
On the Senate side, Claire McCaskill’s re-election loss in Missouri deprives the Dems of their top member on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. McCaskill was a champion of supply chain security and her bill with Chairman Johnson (R-WI) to create a council that would evaluate the government's risks when purchasing IT and communications technology was passed by the Committee in September. Nonetheless, it is expected that the Senate Homeland Committee will continue to explore cyber and supply chain issues and, as mentioned previously, consider “cyber” SAFETY Act. It looks like they also will have to consider a DHS Secretary nomination.
The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which oversees transportation security, artificial intelligence and other security related issues, is likely taking a bigger hit at the top. Ranking member Bill Nelson (D-FL) is behind in a too-close-to-call race now in a recount. And on the GOP side, Current Committee Chair John Thune (R-SD) is likely going into the ranks of Senate Leadership and will give up his gavel on the Committee. Senator Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) is expected to replace Thune as Chair and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) will become the Ranking Member.
While one should not expect much from the 116th Congress in terms of legislation, there will be a lot of action on security related issues and ASIS will continue to share important developments on the issues that matter to the world’s security professionals.