10 Takeaways from the 2018 Midterm Elections

The 2018 midterm elections delivered historic firsts and set the stage for power shifts likely to affect legislative outcomes on Capitol Hill and in state governments nationwide. APA's Jason Jordan and Catherine Hinshaw review the key takeaways from Election Day 2018.

Historic Firsts, Political Shifts Analyzed

1. Changes Coming to Key Hill Committees

With the shift in control of the House to Democrats, committees will see both new chairs and competition for ranking member positions among GOP members. It looks likely that Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) will lead the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) will assume leadership of the Financial Services Committee.

Even before the first returns were in, it was clear that there would be new leadership for some of the most important congressional committees overseeing key planning policies and programs. GOP retirements before Election Day meant openings at the House Transportation and Infrastructure, Financial Services, Appropriations, Judiciary, and Homeland Security Committees.

Changes are fewer in the Senate, but there will be a new chair for the Senate Finance Committee. The Senate Commerce Committee also may see a shift if the current chair Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) moves to leadership. New committee leadership could have significant implications for a range of issues, including infrastructure, federal spending, and housing.

Competition for new gavels is likely for most committees with some final decisions not made until the 116th Congress convenes in January.

2. More Oversight than Action

Democrats' control of the House of Representatives allows them to move legislation but does not mean that a GOP Senate with a bigger majority is more likely to go along. However, the lower-chamber majority has more control when it comes to exercising congressional oversight of the Trump administration.

Expect to see plenty of hearings on a range of issues. Split control of the House and Senate also means that we will not be seeing the use of budget reconciliation to move legislation through the Senate with a simple majority during the 116th Congress. Despite GOP gains in the Senate, the continuing tight and non-filibuster-proof margin for the majority means that only measures reached with bipartisan compromise are likely to pass the Senate.

With eyes already looking ahead to positioning for 2020, there may be limited opportunities for compromise.

3. New Majority Margins, Challenges to Compromise

The GOP will have not only a bigger majority in the 116th Congress but also a more conservative caucus. Those changes are likely to weaken the role of a handful of moderates on individual votes or issues. It also may make it more challenging to find common ground with the new Democratic House.

A big wild card in how Capitol Hill does or does not approach bipartisan compromise lies on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. It remains to be seen how the Trump administration will manage a new relationship with Congress. That work likely will get harder as 2020 gets closer.

4. New Lame-Duck Dynamics

The upcoming lame-duck session of the 115th Congress has a significant to-do list, including finishing work on remaining spending bills and lapsed authorizations for the Farm Bill and the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Lame-duck dynamics will shift in light of the Democrats' House majority in the new Congress.

Prospects for deals on the Farm Bill and LWCF remain good, but a spending deal may be tricky with Democrats emboldened. The current continuing resolution runs to December 7 and includes spending for the Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development. Leaders will have to either agree on a deal or punt the decision to next year.

Expect a row over funding for President Trump's plans for a border wall contained in the still-pending Homeland Security spending bill. Still, Republicans will likely find that compromises on pending issues in the lame-duck session are preferable to dealing with a new Democratic House next year.

5. A Congress that looks more like America

While final results in a handful of House and Senate races are still being tallied, it is already clear that the 116th Congress will set a new standard for diversity on Capitol Hill. The incoming Congress will see a record number of women, including the first two Native American women, two Muslim women, and the first black women elected to Congress from Massachusetts and Connecticut.

The next Congress will also see the first two Latinas elected to the House from Texas. There will also be two women in the House under the age of 30. Tennessee and Arizona will send women to the U.S. Senate for the first time. Nevada will join California, New Hampshire, and Washington with an all-female Senate delegation.

It appears that the diversity of the electorate is making a big difference in many districts and states.

6. Impact on Infrastructure

As in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, one of the first issues noted as an area of potential common ground is infrastructure.

In her victory speech on election night, Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the current Minority Leader — and likely next House Speaker — specifically called out infrastructure as an area where the parties could work together. In his first address post-midterms, President Trump also identified infrastructure as an area ripe for bipartisan action.

There will be a new chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Rep. Peter DeFazio, who has pushed some specific plans for a major infrastructure package and who grappled with committee Republicans earlier this year on the hardest issue for any infrastructure package — the future of the gas tax and how to pay for investment.

Infrastructure is atop APA's policy agenda in 2018 and has driven much of our work on Capitol Hill.

7. Whither appropriations?

One of the more striking features of the 115th Congress was the important progress made on appropriations despite a very polarized political environment.

The spending omnibus, which APA supported strongly, significantly increased funding for a range of key planning, infrastructure, and community development programs. Many of these programs saw their highest funding in a decade. That agreement set a two-year spending baseline.

The 116th Congress will have to find a way to craft a new spending agreement while navigating split control and strong differences in priority programs or projects. Advocacy on program funding to build on the new omnibus baseline levels will be particularly important.

8. State Legislatures Move Toward Single-Party Control

It has been more than a century since only one state had a divided legislature. Now Minnesota takes the title as the only state to be controlled by one party in the state senate (Republican) and another in the state house (Democrat).

This leaves state legislatures across the nation either solidly blue or solidly red, with Republicans controlling 30 of these. Also worth noting is that more women will serve in state legislatures than ever before in the history of the United States.

9. Trifectas gain prominence

Before the election, single-party control of both chambers and the governorship, also known as a trifecta, was overwhelmingly Republican (26 states). Not too far behind were divided governments, with 17 states splitting executive and legislative control, leaving Democrats with just seven trifectas.

As of Wednesday morning, these numbers tighten a bit, as Democrats now hold 13 trifectas. Democrats flipped seven gubernatorial seats. In Wisconsin and Illinois, Republican incumbents were unseated; in New Mexico, Congresswoman Michelle Lujan Grisham will become the nation's first Democratic Latina governor. In Kansas, the office shifted from Republican to Democrat Laura Kelly.

10. Ballot Measures Invest in Infrastructure and Housing

The failure of California's Proposition 6 is among those highlighted initially as a significant win for infrastructure, leaving the gas and diesel tax increase from 2017 still standing as a way to improve highways, bridges, and transportation.

Connecticut's Transportation Lockbox Amendment passed, designating all revenue in the state's Special Transportation Fund to be used solely for transportation.

In Hillsborough County, Florida's Number 2 Referendum, which aims to raise $276 million annually for transportation and road improvements, also passed. In Colorado, however, voters struck down two infrastructure measures, Propositions 109 and 110.

On the housing front, California and Oregon both passed measures seeking to address the housing affordability crisis, with voters saying yes to Proposition 2 and Measure 102, respectively.

Top image: Photo by Getty Images.

About the Authors
Jason Jordan is APA's director of policy. Catherine Hinshaw is APA's state government affairs associate.

November 7, 2018

By Jason Jordan, Catherine Hinshaw