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Split verdict

Division in Washington will likely multiply investigations and legislative gridlock, but critical judicial appointments march on

Split verdict

(Win McNamee/Getty Images)

In the weeks before Democrats won control of the U.S. House of Representatives on Nov. 6, U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., told a crowd of supporters how to approach Republican politicians they disagree with on immigration:

“If you see anybody in that [Trump] Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd. … And you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere.”

When asked to clarify, Waters doubled down, saying Americans would “absolutely harass” Trump officials until they relent. President Trump responded by branding Waters “an extraordinarily low IQ person” and calling her the “Face of the Democrat Party.” 

Come January, Waters will also likely be the face—and the chairwoman—of the House Financial Services Committee, a powerful position that would allow her to probe Wall Street banks—and the finances of Trump and his associates.

Waters won’t be the only congresswoman launching probes. Democrats recapturing the House have promised to serve a bounteous buffet of congressional investigations into Trump and his administration. 

The president won’t like what’s on the menu, but Democrats have their own tough meal to swallow: An expanded GOP majority in the Senate means Republicans will hang on to—and likely strengthen—their powers to shape judicial appointments far beyond a single administration.

Indeed, the country’s split verdict on Election Day likely means congressional investigations will ramp up and major legislation will grind down for at least the next two years. But it also means that Trump and conservatives in the Senate have an opportunity to continue shaping the judiciary for decades to come.

Robert F. Bukaty

Voters wait in line at Brunswick Junior High School in Brunswick, Maine. (Robert F. Bukaty)

WHEN  IT COMES TO AN INVESTIGATIONAL BUFFET, at least some of the choices could be healthy.

No president or administration is above accountability, and the legislative branch wields the important power to probe and press for transparency. The same holds true for the Trump administration, though the road ahead could prove especially combative.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., recently called Congress’ power to subpoena documents “a great arrow to have in your quiver in terms of negotiating on other subjects.” Trump called her comment “an illegal statement.”

The statement itself wasn’t illegal, but the notion of congressional subpoenas as a political weapon could cast doubts over any Democratic investigation and embolden Trump to fight any probe. (In some cases, Trump could invoke executive privilege to resist handing over documents, though opponents often paint such moves as an effort to cover up questionable activity.)

If Democrats ask Pelosi to return as speaker of the House in January, the entrenchment likely would worsen. Indeed, a handful of moderate Democratic candidates ran their campaigns partly on promises not to vote for Pelosi as speaker. Democrats will elect their leader after Thanksgiving.

Richard Drew/AP

Traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange watch Trump’s Nov. 7 news conference (Richard Drew/AP)

Whomever they choose, Democratic congressmen already have dozens of subpoenas ready to serve. Their leadership roles on congressional committees would give them power to launch investigations into everything from immigration policy to Russian connections to Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination process to President Trump’s tax returns.

Meanwhile, legislation in a divided Congress is likely to slow to an even greater crawl. Even before Democrats take over the House in January, the lame-duck session in Congress portends a stalemate that could lead to a partial government shutdown on Dec. 8, if Congress doesn’t pass a spending bill that includes funding for the Department of Homeland Security.

Congressional leaders had delayed a debate over funding the border wall until after midterm elections. Trump has indicated his willingness to see the government shut down if Congress doesn’t approve billions of dollars for the project.

Immigration became especially contentious in the last weeks before Election Day, as Trump sent thousands of U.S. troops to the Mexican border ahead of a caravan of Central American migrants still hundreds of miles away. Such showdowns over funding and immigration policy are likely to intensify in a divided Congress and a polarized political environment.

David J. Phillip/AP

Cruz supporters cheer during a campaign event in Cypress, Texas. (David J. Phillip/AP)

That polarization helped propel Democrats to victory in suburban areas where many voters—particularly women—appeared to reject Trump, even after voting for Republicans in past elections.

U.S. Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., who won his seat after beating House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in an upset primary victory in 2014, lost the seat on Nov. 6 to former CIA operative Abigail Spanberger in a district with many women voters in the Richmond suburbs. Democrats flipped at least seven GOP governorships, including four in the Midwest.

Though the blue Democratic wave that some pundits predicted didn’t materialize in its fullness on Election Day, an important trend did prove accurate: If the blue-collar white male became a focal point for the 2016 presidential elections, it appears the suburban woman might become a crucial voting bloc for 2020.

The Senate was more favorable to the GOP going into Election Day but turned out better than perhaps even some Republicans expected. The party flipped Democratic Senate seats in Missouri, Indiana, and North Dakota, and by early the next morning appeared poised to flip a Democratic seat in Florida.

Democrats flipped a Republican Senate seat in Nevada, but Republicans appeared to maintain a crucial hold in Arizona. They also held on to a seat in a state where they didn’t expect to wage such a close fight: Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas prevailed in a tight race over Democratic candidate Beto O’Rourke.

Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP

Spanberger supporters react to an online vote tally at an election night party in Richmond, Va. (Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)

An extended majority in the Senate means Republicans would be able to continue the often less-noticed, but immensely significant work of filling federal judicial appointments. It also means any potential Supreme Court nominees might have a smoother nomination process with more Republicans in the Senate.

The issue of the Supreme Court appeared at least partly to shape Republicans’ success in the Senate on Nov. 6. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s embattled confirmation hearing stoked GOP voter enthusiasm, according to polls before the election. It also may have proved part of the reason why some Democrats suffered losses.

In Indiana, Missouri, and North Dakota, already vulnerable Democratic senators who voted against Kavanaugh lost their races. Joe Manchin, the only Democratic senator to vote for Kavanaugh’s confirmation, won his tight race in West Virginia.

BY NOV. 7, President Donald Trump was declaring a “Big Victory,” with Republican gains in the Senate. Meanwhile, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was declaring that Democrats’ win in the House brings “a new day in America.”

In some sense, perhaps both are true. What didn’t seem to change by Wednesday morning was the polarization that marked the run-up to the midterms. That seems sure to continue as the battle for the 2020 presidential election starts to unfold in the coming months.

President Trump, at least, seemed ready for a fight, tweeting the morning after the election:

“If the Democrats think they are going to waste Taxpayer Money investigating us at the House level, then we will likewise be forced to consider investigating them for all of the leaks of Classified Information, and much else, at the Senate level. Two can play that game!”


Craig Hudson/Charleston Gazette-Mail via AP

West Virginia (Craig Hudson/Charleston Gazette-Mail via AP)

States’ fights

While all eyes were on the battle for Congress on Nov. 6, voters in 37 states decided on 155 ballot measures that brought many national debates to the local level.

On abortion: West Virginia and Alabama voters approved measures aimed at preventing public funding of abortion. The measures in both states also declared that the states’ constitutions do not establish a right to abortion. That language could become important if the Supreme Court ever overturns Roe v. Wade and returns the question of legalized abortion to the will of individual states.

On marijuana: Michigan voters approved the recreational use of marijuana for residents 21 and over. Michigan is the first state in the Midwest to approve the recreational use of pot, joining nine other states and the District of Columbia. Voters in Missouri and Utah approved marijuana for medicinal use. (Republican and former presidential candidate Mitt Romney opposed the measure in Utah, but won a U.S. Senate seat in the state.)

Marilyn Humphries/Newscom

Massachusetts (Marilyn Humphries/Newscom)

On voting: Voters in Florida approved a measure to reinstate voting rights for convicted felons. The measure will allow felons to vote after completing their sentences, but it doesn’t include felons convicted of murder or sexual offenses. The measure gives voting rights to more than a million convicted felons in the state.

On transgenderism: Massachusetts passed the first statewide referendum aimed at affirming transgenderism. The measure upholds an anti-discrimination law and requires allowing people to use the public restroom they say aligns with their gender identity. —J.D.

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the political beat and other topics as national editor for WORLD Magazine. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.