After an energetic midterm election campaign season, voters across the country went to polls yesterday and elected members of the 116th Congress. Venable's Legislative and Government Affairs team has provided a debrief on the results of the elections and what we can expect next from Congress as the 115th Congress winds down and the 116th Congress kicks off in January.
What Happened Last Night?
As of 10:30 this morning, Democrats have picked up at least 26 seats* to take control of the U.S. House of Representatives, winning a 229-seat majority with 23 races still undecided. In the U.S. Senate, Republicans expanded their majority. While not all races have been called, Republicans have secured at least 53 seats, with slim leads in Montana and Arizona, which remain too close to call.
If there is one theme or conclusion we can draw this soon after the votes are counted, it is that President Trump was a major factor and the "Trump effect" is real. The president continues to be popular among his base in rural and exurban areas, but at the same time he is losing support in more affluent suburban and urban areas throughout the country. While not an electoral wave, Democrats outpaced Republicans by almost 10 percentage points in voting, a significant margin by historical standards.
Democrats also picked up governors' seats in the key battleground states of Nevada, Wisconsin, and Michigan, and easily held Pennsylvania. With losses in statehouses in the key battlegrounds of Florida and Ohio, along with red-state Senate losses, the Democratic Party will have to figure out how to make inroads in states with large rural and exurban areas in order to win the White House in 2020.
Before the gavels change hands, and the 2020 presidential race starts, there is work left to be done. Both the House and Senate are scheduled to remain in session for a week before breaking for Thanksgiving. We expect they will return to continue the lame duck session for the week of November 27, when they will need to address government funding, including money for a border wall, flood insurance, and the farm bill, and perhaps tax extenders and technical corrections before they adjourn for the year. Leadership anticipates sending members home by December 14, the deadline for funding the remaining federal agencies covered under the stopgap CR.
How Will the Democrats Run the House?
It is expected that Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) will regain the House speakership in the new Congress, and we anticipate Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and James Clyburn (D-SC) will remain in their leadership roles as well. However, Pelosi has made public comments implying a possible transition "at some point" without committing herself to a term limit. This indicates her appreciation of the need for a new generation of Democratic leadership.
As speaker of the House, we believe Pelosi will find ways to include more members on her leadership team, with a focus on younger and more diverse members. She could include members such as DCCC Chair Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM), who will likely run for chairman of the Caucus (the #4 position); Cheri Bustos (D-IL), from a Trump district, who engaged in significant fundraising for other candidates and is co-chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee; Linda Sanchez (D-CA), the current House Democratic Caucus vice chair, who publicly announced her intention to run for chair; Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), co-chair of the DPC; Katherine Clark (D-MA), running for vice chair of the Democratic caucus; Pete Aguillar (D-CA), a young CHC member also running for House Democratic Caucus vice chair; and David Cicillene (D-RI), co-chair of the DPC, who announced his bid for assistant Democratic leader and who would also be the first openly gay member of leadership. This group of members represents key constituencies within the caucus and are considerably younger than the current Democratic leadership in the House, who are all in their late seventies.
Most of the current ranking members will become committee chairs, including Ritchie Neal (D-MA) at Ways and Means, Maxine Waters (D-CA) at House Financial Services, Frank Pallone (D-NJ) at Energy and Commerce, and Nita Lowey (D-NY) at House Appropriations.
Here at Venable, we are watching for Pelosi to lead a Democratic caucus with a focus on oversight, a few large policy bills, and many "messaging bills" in preparation for the presidential election in 2020. Their focus will be to act as responsible opponents of the Trump administration, which means no government shutdowns, targeted investigations, and a few signature pieces of legislation. Pelosi wants to demonstrate to voters a Democratic ability to govern by consensus, with a focus on popular issues such as ethics reform, campaign finance, drug pricing, DREAMers, and protection of coverage for pre-existing conditions.
How Will House Republicans Work as the Minority?
House Republicans are scheduled to regroup on November 13 with a special conference meeting that night, and more meetings for leadership elections, steering committee regions, conference rules, and earmarks the rest of the week. It is widely anticipated that Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) will run for minority leader and Steve Scalise (R-LA) will run for minority whip; we expect both will win their contests.
The Republican conference is slated to decide on House committee ranking members during the week of November 27. Because of term limits, retirements, and losses there will be changes among the top Republicans across the committees, including Judiciary, Appropriations, Financial Services, Foreign Affairs, Homeland Security, and Transportation & Infrastructure.
What Happens in the Senate?
Republicans will retain their Senate majority in the 116th Congress. As in the House, the scheduled date of adjournment is December 14. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) will continue in his role at the top, but because of leadership term limits, John Cornyn (R-TX) can no longer serve as the Senate majority whip. Senator John Thune (R-SD) will run to succeed him, with the rest of the leadership team expected to step up a rung.
His majority retained, McConnell will continue his laser focus on the confirmation of judges, with administration turnover widening the scope of nominees beyond the federal bench. Under newly divided government, his legislative attention will primarily center on spending packages and debt ceiling fights. The Senate will serve as a bulwark against anything unacceptable to the White House that comes out of the House.
After barnstorming the country in the closing days of the election, the president will receive much of the credit for protecting and expanding a Senate majority that is now more pro-Trump. With the departure of Bob Corker (R-TN) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and the addition of Trump-friendly members, there will be little dissent in the GOP conference against the president's agenda.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the aisle, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) will be tasked with leading a caucus even more dedicated to the anti-Trump resistance, with half a dozen or more Democratic senators exploring a run for president. Schumer will have little desire to cut deals, because of the makeup of his caucus and with only a single red-state Democratic incumbent to protect in 2020. Furthermore, after a 2018 cycle in which they played mostly offense on a lopsided map, Republicans must defend 21 incumbents of their own, versus just 12 for Democrats, adding to Schumer's political upper hand.
Change is afoot in Washington, and, regardless of how you view the next Congress, Venable's Legislative and Government Affairs Practice is well suited for this moment. Our bipartisan team consists of veterans of multiple administrations, including the current Trump administration, the U.S. Senate, and the U.S. House of Representatives. We know what to expect because we have been there before.
*"House Election Results: Democrats Take Control," New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/11/06/us/elections/results-senate-elections.html (accessed November 7, 2018).