Labor Day is in the rear view mirror and the contours of the upcoming election are coming into view. Midterm elections are influenced by a lot of factors, some of which are specific to candidates and local considerations, but there are enough overarching forces at work to permit political analysts (including me) to speculate about what the outcome will mean for national politics.
This election isn’t just about what team you’re on or whether you prefer conservative or progressive policies. In this precarious moment, when a president with authoritarian impulses is enabled by a party desperate to hold on to power, democracy itself is on the ballot. More is riding on the outcome than at any other time in our lives (regardless of your age). With this in mind, here are three possibilities as I see them for what November might bring. Each has its particular risks and dangers.
Total Annihilation. This is the nightmare scenario for the Republican Party, the one Republican operatives fear when they talk about the election off the record. If Democrats and independents looking to put a check on executive power outnumber Republican voters to an extent not seen in recent midterm elections, you could have a wave large enough to overwhelm the structural advantages protecting Republican power. In the House, this would mean overcoming a heavily gerrymandered map and handing control to Democrats. In the Senate, it would mean defying very long odds created by the most Republican-leaning electoral map in memory, allowing incumbent Democrats in half a dozen deep red states to hold their seats while a handful of Democratic challengers in unlikely places like Arizona, Tennessee or even Texas win their contests and flip control of the chamber. In gubernatorial races, where Republicans enjoy fewer defensive advantages, it would mean washing away years of Republican control of state houses across the South and Midwest. Down ballot, it would mean Democrats reclaiming state legislative chambers long held by Republicans, winning attorney general contests, reclaiming city councils, and electing mayors, county executives, drain commissioners and dog catchers across the country. To channel Sarah Palin, it would be a total refudiation of Donald Trump and his administration.
This outcome would have dramatic consequences for Trump and the Republican Party. Apart from giving congressional Democrats the authority to conduct real oversight of the administration (which I will discuss below), it will place Republicans in a no-win situation ahead of 2020. A washout of this proportion would be a huge flashing neon warning that supporting Trump is a path to oblivion in the next general election. But this past summer has already taught Republicans that crossing Trump is a path to oblivion in Republican primaries. This is a recipe for intra-party chaos. Some, perhaps many, will feel they have no choice but to stick with the president. Others will risk the wrath of the base and Trump’s twitter fingers and try to separate themselves from his most outrageous excesses. Party divisions presently being kept under wraps risk breaking out in the open, and a serious challenger could emerge for the Republican presidential nomination. For his part, Trump would be enraged by a loss of this scope and attempt to blame everyone, including the voters and Republicans he considers weak. Expect an elevated level of instability, an increasingly unhinged president—and a lot of Senate retirements.
Subpoena Power. Everything would have to break in the Democrats’ direction for the above scenario to occur. The outsized enthusiasm we have seen for Democrats in special elections over the past year would have to materialize coast to coast; turnout among traditionally unlikely voters like young people and people of color would have to exceed expectations; intentional efforts to discourage or disenfranchise Democratic constituencies in many states would have to prove insufficient in the wake of the building wave; and Russian efforts to hack the election would have to prove ineffectual. If Democrats are unable to overcome these obstacles, they may still be able to win a split decision by taking back the House (the odds at this point strongly favor but do not guarantee it), holding the Republican senate majority to a slim one or two seats, and winning a number of governorships, primarily in the Midwest. This scenario would position Democrats to blunt Republican efforts to gerrymander legislative maps when they are redrawn after the 2020 census and, more immediately, would hand them subpoena power in the House, with which they could initiate investigations into many administration transgressions.
While an outcome of this magnitude might unnerve but not unravel the Republican Party, subpoena power in the Democrats’ hands would change the world. It would let them focus public attention on a laundry list of scandals by holding televised public hearings where they could compel administration officials to answer questions under oath. How many things could they investigate? Here is a list of 52 possibilities, ranging from the Russia conspiracy to presidential and administrative corruption to allegations of obstructing justice. Minority parties do not have a way to drive a narrative the way majority parties do. Democrats would now have the opportunity to reach voters who hate corruption but have been getting partial or cloudy messages about the nature and extent of what has been happening. They could force every elected Republican to defend the administration. And as investigations take place in daylight, the pressure for impeachment will certainly build—as will pushback from Trump supporters who will see an inquisition designed to take from them what they believe is legitimately theirs. Battle lines will harden. We will enter a stage of heightened instability and uncertainty, greater than what we experienced this year, building to a potentially dangerous denouement.
Democrats Fall Short. This is the nightmare scenario for democracy. If a sufficient wave fails to materialize or is held back by external tampering, Democrats will pick up House seats (all indications make this a near certainty) but fall short of taking control. Republicans will breathe a deep sigh of relief, knowing they can continue to defend the president without facing certain defeat in a general election. There will be no oversight of the administration, no legislative checks on the president for the next two years. For his part, Trump will become more emboldened and defiant. After all, expectations for a blue wave have been building for a year. He will take credit for the victory and feel empowered to indulge his worst impulses, believing—correctly—that no one will stop him. He might attempt to end the Mueller investigation unilaterally. He may feel empowered to take more aggressive moves against his domestic enemies. The consequences for the republic would be profound.
It is unusual to face an election where so much is riding on the outcome, and where every outcome poses risks and dangers. But here we are. Normally, we would be talking about important but less grandiose consequences. When Democrats lost the 2010 midterms, it put a permanent end to the legislative phase of the Obama presidency. That was highly significant. But the consequences of 2018 transcend policy and even partisanship, and speak to the fate and future of the American experiment.