OurWeek in Politics (11/6-11/13/18)

Here are the main events that occurred in Politics this week:

1. In Stunning Rebuke of Trump Administration, The Democrats Retake House of Representatives

The Democratic Party regained control of the House of Representatives this week, potentially serving as a major roadblock to President Trump’s agenda.

Democrats took control of the House on November 6, a victory that will transform a Republican-controlled chamber that supported and protected President Donald Trump at every turn into a legislative body ready to challenge him politically. Victories in Republican-held suburban seats in both safe Democratic states such as California, Virginia, New York, New Jersey, as well as in swing states such as Texas, Georgina, and Florida allowed the Democrats to gain at least 25 seats, giving them control over the House of Representatives for the first time since 2010. The House Democrats aim to quickly usher in a new era and tone in Washington, starting with a legislative package of anti-corruption measures aimed at strengthening ethics laws, protecting voter rights and cracking down on campaign finance abuses.

Tomorrow will be a new day in America,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) declared from the Democratic Party headquarters in Washington. “It’s about restoring the Constitution’s checks and balances to the Trump administration. It’s about stopping the GOP and Mitch McConnell’s assaults on Medicare, Medicaid, the Affordable Care Act, and the health care of 130 million Americans living with pre-existing medical conditions.” Pelosi promised action on lowering the cost of prescription drugs and rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure and pledged to pursue bipartisanship where possible. “A Democratic Congress will work for solutions that bring us together because we have all had enough of division,” she said.

Despite his relentless criticism of her, President Donald Trump called Pelosi to congratulate her on her party’s success and acknowledged her call for bipartisanship. Additionally, in a Twitter post, President Trump stated that Nancy Pelosi deserved to become Speaker of the House after her parties win and urged Democrats to support her. Despite his relatively conciliatory tone, there are many points of possible conflict between President Trump and the new Democratic House majority. For example, Democrats are likely to launch investigations into numerous aspects of the Trump administration, from its ties to Russia to the President’s tax returns, as well as to step up oversight into Trump’s executive actions on immigration, the environment, and other regulations. “The country gave us a mandate to provide some check and balance on the executive that that has been sorely missing these last two years,” said Congressman Gerry Connolly (D-VA). “And that involves rigorous oversight and accountability. … This is not a time for holding back or being less than vigorous.”

The retaking of the House of Representatives serves as a significant vindication for Nancy Pelosi, who became the first female House speaker in 2006, only to lose the majority in 2010 as voters rebelled against former President Barack Obama’s health care law in the first midterm elections of his Presidency. Midway through President Trump’s first term, the elections once again focused on health care, only this time Democrats were on the attack against Republicans, attacking the Republicans over attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and its signature protections for people with preexisting conditions. Republicans who rode their opposition to Obamacare to the House majority in 2010 were forced to backtrack in many cases, insisting that they did support such protections.

Despite their resounding victory in the House elections, the Democratic party faces internal divisions as well. Even though their restored majority comes thanks to many moderate candidates who beat Republicans in districts that narrowly voted for Trump in 2016, the party will also welcome newcomers who ran on distinctly progressive agendas, calling for Medicare-for-all or abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Those lawmakers include New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who defeated longtime Democrat Joseph Crowley in a June primary, and Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib, who is set to claim the seat once held by veteran lawmaker John Conyers Jr.  That mix will be sure to create tensions over the party’s priorities, especially with a restive liberal base that has already begun calling for impeachment proceedings against Trump.

Heading into Election Day, Republicans had said their best-case scenario after the election was a narrower House majority than the 45-seat margin they now command. Republicans had pledged that, if returned to power in the House, they would get to work on a new 10 percent tax cut for the middle-class Trump spoke of in the closing days of the campaign. “We’ve known from the beginning that history was not on our side this election cycle. And big money was not on our side,” House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) said, citing a “motivated base” on the Democratic side who inundated Republican incumbents with small donations to their challenges.

House Republicans also face leadership questions heading into the next Congress, as well as internal ideological differences. On the Republican side, with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-WI) retiring from Congress, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) is his likeliest successor as the top Republican leader in the majority or minority. But he may not get there without a fight, since Scalise is also eyeing the job, and Congressman Jim Jordan (R-OH), a leader of the House Freedom Caucus and unwavering supporter of President Donald Trump, is the choice of some conservatives.

2. Republicans Expand Senate Majority Despite Losing House of Representatives

Despite losing control over the House of Representatives, the Republican Party increased their Senate majority with Trump-aligned candidates defeating moderate Democrat incumbents.

Despite losing control of the House of Representatives by a substantial margin, Republicans cemented control of the Senate for two more years on November 6 and positioned themselves for a more conservative majority, with victories by candidates who aligned with President Donald Trump. North Dakota Congressman Kevin Cramer, Indiana businessman Mike Braun, Florida Governor Rick Scott, and Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, all staunch Trump allies, won seats held by Democrats. The last time such a situation occurred under a Republican President was in 2002 when President George W. Bush’s post-9/11 popularity was enough for the Republicans to regain control of the Senate in that year’s midterm election.

The results held implications for coming battles over the federal judiciary, trade, health care, government spending, and immigration. President Donald Trump’s worldview is expected to be reflected strongly in those debates in the wake of Tuesday’s elections. The outcomes also held significance for President Trump himself. Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) spoke Tuesday night, according to McConnell spokeswoman Antonia Ferrier. “The leader and the president had a great conversation, and he thanked the president for all his help,” she said. The Senate Democratic caucus, meanwhile, is poised to shift to the left. The ouster of key centrists willing to work with Trump and the presence of several liberal senators gearing up for possible presidential runs could cause more polarization in the chamber.

With the map in their favor, Republicans — who currently control both chambers of Congress — were on track to preserve and possibly expand their 51-to-49 advantage in the Senate. Analysts across the political spectrum had favored them to remain in power, even as they said Democrats were likely to wrest control of the House. Some of the most closely watched Senate races pitted moderate/conservative Democrats against conservative Republicans who embraced Trump. Races in Missouri, North Dakota, Indiana, West Virginia, and Tennessee fell into this category. Even before Tuesday’s vote, Senate Republicans were poised for a more pro-Trump roster next year.

Democrats tried to defeat candidates who marched in lockstep with Trump by running on preserving health-care protections and other so-called “kitchen table” issues. In key races, they fell short. In North Dakota, Kevin Cramer’s defeat of Senator Heidi Heitkamp means that a close ally of Trump will replace one of the chamber’s few moderate Democrats. Trump personally recruited Cramer to run. On major issues, Cramer endorsed Trump’s positions. In Indiana, Businessman Mike Braun ran in Trump’s mold, as an outsider eager to shake up Washington. He defeated a pair of House members in the Republican primary before beating centrist Democratic Senator Joe Donnelly on Tuesday. In Missouri, Attorney General Hawley ousted Senator Claire McCaskill in a race with similar dynamics. Hawley, like Cramer, championed Trump’s views on trade, even as he faced criticism that farmers in his state would suffer under the President’s tariffs.

Despite having an unfavorable map, the Democratic Party did succeed in picking up two states in the Southwest. In Arizona, Democratic Congresswoman Krysten Sinema was able to defeat Republican Congresswoman Martha McSally by a close margin, becoming the first Democrat elected to the Senate from Arizona since 1988. In Nevada, Congresswoman Jacky Rosen unseated Senator Dean Heller, a one-time Trump critic who since warmed up to the President in recent weeks. Moreover, several vulnerable Democratic Senators such as Joe Manchin (WV), Jon Tester (MT), and Sherrod Brown (OH) were able to overcome the trends in their states and win re-election. In the Texas Senate race, Democratic candidate Beto O’Rourke was also able to nearly defeat Ted Cruz despite the latter gaining much support in recent weeks, showing that Texas is trending rapidly towards the Democratic party.

Despite gaining seats in this election cycle, the Senate Republican agenda is not expected to be nearly as ambitious as the past two years, when the Republicans controlled the federal government following Trump’s surprise win. The Democratic House takeover will likely be an impediment to reaching an agreement on most issues. Still, the Senate will have to navigate some high-stakes battles. The Trump Administration is preparing for a massive post-midterm shake-up, which could trigger nominations for Attorney General and other Cabinet posts the Senate would be tasked with confirming in the months ahead. Additionally, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnel has made confirming conservative federal judges a top priority, which will be easy to accomplish with a more favorable Senate composition.

3. Democrats Make Gains in Gubernatorial, State Legislative Elections

The Democratic Party made key gains in this weeks gubernatiroal elections, setting up a fight regarding Congressional redistricting efforts in 2020.

Democrats tried on November 6 to fight their way back to power in state capitols across the country by reclaiming governor’s seats in several key states, marking significant steps in their national strategy to reverse years of Republican gains in state capitols. Despite this, their victories in Illinois, Michigan, Nevada, and Wisconsin, were balanced by Republicans holding on to the governorships in Florida, Ohio, and Arizona. Additionally, the Georgia gubernatorial race remains too close to call and will likely be settled in a run-off race.

The defeat of Republican Scott Walker in Wisconsin completed a sweep for the Democratic party in the upper Midwest. Governor Walker was a top target of Democrats and a polarizing figure in his state, sweeping into office during the tea party wave of 2010 and gaining national attention by leading a rollback of union rights that led to protests inside the state Capitol. Walker survived a recall attempt before falling short in a bid for the Republican presidential nomination. The win by Democrat Tony Evers gives his party a chance to undo some of Walker’s accomplishments, including a strict voter ID law, a law that effectively ended collective bargaining for public workers, and gerrymandering that helped the Republicans gain control of a majority of Wisconsin’s Congressional seats. Democrats hope their victories signal a resurgence for their party in America’s heartland, where President Donald Trump romped in 2016. “I think the message is a simple one. A candidate with a moderate tone but progressive in thinking can win in the heartland,” former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, a Democrat who served from 1999-2007, said in a press release. “Winning the governorships is huge in beginning the process of changing the direction of our politics.”

In Michigan, Democrat Gretchen Whitmer defeated Republican Bill Schuette, ending nearly 24 non-consecutive years of Republican control of the state. The former legislative leader will become the second female governor in a state where Democrats heavily targeted other statewide and legislative offices. Republican Governor Bruce Rauner in Illinois easily lost his bid for a second term to Democrat J.B. Pritzker. The billionaire appears to have capitalized on both Governor Rauner’s lack of popularity, as well as President Donald Trump’s extremely low popularity in Illinois overall. In Kansas, Democratic state lawmaker Laura Kelly defeated Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a close ally of Trump. New Mexico also tipped into the Democratic column, as did Maine, where despite President Donald Trump’s relatively strong approval rating, Democratic Attorney General Janet Mills won the race to succeed combative Republican Governor Paul LePage, who was term-limited after eight years in office.

Democrats Andrew Cuomo in New York and Tom Wolf in Pennsylvania easily won re-election, as did two Republicans in Democratic-leaning states, Larry Hogan in Maryland and Charlie Baker in Massachusetts. In Iowa, Republican Governor Kim Reynolds (who earlier this year signed a controversial anti-abortion bill into law) broke the Democrats’ run of Midwest success by being narrowly elected to a full term. In all, voters were choosing 36 governors and ~6,000 state legislators in general and special elections that have attracted record amounts of spending from national Democratic and Republican groups. Republicans are in control more often than not in state capitols across the country, but Democrats were trying to pull a little closer in Tuesday’s elections. The political parties are trying not only to win now but also to put themselves in a strong position for the elections two years from now that will determine which party will have the upper hand in redrawing congressional and state legislative districts.

4. Attorney General Jess Sessions Resigns

Amid much conflict with President Donald Trump, Attorney General Jeff Session resigned this week, potentially risking the special counsel probe into President Trump’s connection with Russia and alleged financial crimes.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions resigned on November 7 at President Donald Trump’s request, ending the tenure of a beleaguered loyalist whose relationship with the president was ruined when Sessions recused himself from the control of the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign. In a letter to Trump, Sessions wrote that he had been “honored to serve as Attorney General” and had “worked to implement the law enforcement agenda based on the rule of law that formed a central part of your campaign for the presidency.” Trump tweeted that Sessions would be replaced on an acting basis by Matthew G. Whitaker, who had been serving as Sessions’ chief of staff. “We thank Attorney General Jeff Sessions for his service, and wish him well!” President Trump tweeted. “A permanent replacement will be nominated at a later date.”

A Justice Department official said Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker would assume authority over the special counsel probe into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, though his role will be subject to the normal review process for conflicts. Because Sessions recused himself, the special counsel probe had been overseen by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who also has had strained relations with President Trump, but is considered safe in his position for the moment. Rosenstein went to the White House on Wednesday afternoon for what an official said was a pre-scheduled meeting.

Though Sessions’ removal was expected, the installation of Whitaker sparked fears that the president might be trying to exert control over the special counsel investigation led by former FBI director Robert Mueller. A legal commentator before he came into the Justice Department, Whitaker had mused publicly about how a Sessions replacement might reduce Mueller’s budget “so low that his investigation grinds to almost a halt.” He also wrote in an August 2017 column that Mueller had “come up to a red line in the Russia 2016 election-meddling investigation that he is dangerously close to crossing,” after CNN reported that the special counsel could be looking into Trump and his associates’ financial ties to Russia. Trump has told advisers that Whitaker is loyal and would not have recused himself from the investigation, current and former White House officials said. Whitaker said in a statement: “It is a true honor that the President has confidence in my ability to lead the Department of Justice as Acting Attorney General. I am committed to leading a fair Department with the highest ethical standards, that upholds the rule of law, and seeks justice for all Americans.”

Democrats and others issued statements Wednesday urging that Mueller is left to do his work and vowing to investigate whether Sessions’ ouster was meant to interfere with the special counsel. “Congress must now investigate the real reason for this termination, confirm that Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker is recused from all aspects of the Special Counsel’s probe, and ensure that the Department of Justice safeguards the integrity of the Mueller investigation,” Congressman Elijah Cummings (D-MD), the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, said in a statement. Senator Mark Warner (D-VA), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement that “No one is above the law, and any effort to interfere with the Special Counsel’s investigation would be a gross abuse of power by the President. While the President may have the authority to replace the Attorney General, this must not be the first step in an attempt to impede, obstruct or end the Mueller investigation.” Senator-elect Mitt Romney (R-UT) tweeted that it was “imperative” Mueller’s work be allowed to continue “unimpeded.” Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) said that “no new Attorney General can be confirmed who will stop that investigation.”

Two close Trump advisers said the President does not plan on keeping Whitaker permanently. Among those said to be under consideration for the job are Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, former U.S. attorney general Bill Barr and former federal judges Janice Rogers Brown and J. Michael Luttig. An administration official said the president has also considered selecting another U.S. senator for the position, on the grounds that a lawmaker might have an easier confirmation, but so far GOP lawmakers have privately expressed little interest in the position. Two other officials said former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie might be under consideration.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions was the first US Senator to endorse Donald Trump and was the biggest supporter of the President’s policies on immigration, crime, and drug policy. Despite Attorney General Sessions’ agreement with President Trump on many policies, their relationship was overshadowed by the Russia investigation, specifically, Sessions’s recusal from the inquiry after it was revealed that he had met more than once with the Russian ambassador to the United States during the 2016 campaign, even though he had said during his confirmation hearing that he had not met with any Russians. Trump has never forgiven Sessions for his recusal, which he regarded as an act of disloyalty that denied him the protection he thought he deserved from his attorney general. “I don’t have an attorney general,” Trump said in September. Privately, Trump has derided Sessions as “Mr. Magoo,” a cartoon character who is elderly, myopic and bumbling, according to people with whom the president has spoken.

the author

Matt is a student at Seton Hall Law School and graduated from Monmouth University. Matt has been studying and analyzing politics at all levels since the 2004 Presidential Election. He writes about political trends and demographics, the role of the media in politics, comparative politics, political theory, and the domestic and international political economy. Matt is also interested in history, philosophy, comparative religion, and record collecting.

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