Unlike the earthquake the shook American politics two years ago, the 2018 midterm elections went largely as predicted. As in most midterms, the results favored the party that does not hold the White House—in this case the Democrats. When Congress reconvenes in January, Democrats will control the House of Representatives for the first time since 2011. With the partisan divide in the U.S. still deep, Congressional Democrats are poised to act as a check on the Administration, including its approach to Russia. The likely result is more investigations into Trump’s ties to Russia, and more sanctions.
Democrats picked up at least 36 seats in the House of Representatives, and will take control of the chamber when it reconvenes after the winter recess. Republicans will retain control of the Senate, though with a narrow majority. Democrats also did well at the state level, picking up at least 7 governorships and taking control of 7 state legislatures, which will have implications for policy at the state level, and for issues like the redrawing of Congressional maps after the 2020 census. At the federal level, the Democratic pickups are significant because they end unified Republican control of the executive and legislative branches, and because–coming at a time of relative economic prosperity—they suggest fairly widespread opposition to Trump, which in turn suggests he has less political capital now than he did before November 6.
With Republicans narrowly hanging onto the Senate and a Republican president, the next two years are likely to see partisan gridlock in Washington and little in the way of legislative accomplishments. The Democratic-controlled House will have subpoena power and the ability to initiate investigations into the Administration. Given questions about Trump’s business dealings and corruption in the administration, investigations will multiply quickly. Even if such investigations do not lead to criminal proceedings, relations between the two parties, and between the administration and Congress, will remain tense, as all sides maneuver ahead of the 2020 presidential election.
Of course, the investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into the Trump campaign’s dealings with Russia in 2016 is set to continue. The midterm results will make it harder for the administration to interfere with this investigation, as the backlash over Trump’s replacement of Attorney General Jeff Sessions with a political loyalist suggests. If Trump had any thought of trying to cut off the investigation, the Democratic takeover of the House makes that step unlikely, and extremely perilous. Results of the Mueller investigation will be presented soon, possibly before the new Congress is sworn in in January. The findings of the investigation, which could include criminal charges against people close to the president, will also be an important factor in relations between the administration and the new Congress. Congressional Democrats will use the results of the probe to hammer the White House, and for at least some Congressional Democrats, to call for impeachment.
Ever since the 2016 election, relations with Russia have deeply divided Republicans and Democrats—even though Congress has given bipartisan support to multiple rounds of sanctions. Because of Trump’s support for better relations with Russia, many Republicans (especially outside of Congress) have questioned the narrative of Russian interference in the 2016 election and opposed the push for sanctions. Their position is becoming less tenable. Between the Democratic gains and the approaching climax of the Mueller investigation, U.S. policy toward Russia is likely, if anything, to become more confrontational in the short-medium term. Many Democrats are still angry at what they perceive as Russian support for Trump in 2016 and continued Russian support for right-wing groups and causes in the United States.
Republicans, meanwhile, will have a narrow path to tread; while they still want to avoid crossing Trump, elected Republicans will mostly be looking out for their own interests and re-election prospects. That means taking seriously any charges that emerge from the Mueller investigation, and likely continuing to support sanctions legislation. To the extent the investigation creates political problems for Trump, the best path for Congressional Republicans is to look tough on Russia in the hope of avoiding blame by association. The new year is likely to prove difficult for Trump, and for U.S.-Russia relations.