The election results show how deeply divided the electorate is and that division is reflected in the make-up of the government with a Democratic President and House and a Republican Senate. Neither Republicans nor Democrats have hit upon the right recipe to realign their party and shift a substantial portion of the voters in their direction. Joe Biden, the scrappy kid from Scranton, staked his victory on winning back the upper Midwest states that President Trump won in 2016 and it worked. But Trump beat expectations and likely helped Republicans retain control of the Senate.
Preexisting voter trends, especially the strong support of Black women, propelled Biden forward. Biden won union household voters by a 17 point margin nationally, which is twice as much as Hillary Clinton in 2016. He won union household voters by a 15 point margin in Michigan and a 19 point margin in Wisconsin helping to claim those key states.
Let’s delve more deeply into what divided government means for legislating. The simple answer is it’s a recipe for gridlock. Biden, a moderate, has a long history as a bipartisan dealmaker. He worked closely with Senate Leader McConnell when he was a Senator and President Obama often dispatched him to cut deals with his former Republican colleagues. Whether McConnell confirms Biden’s cabinet nominees quickly will be one of the earliest signals of the tone that he will set. We predict that judicial nominees will move slowly in the new Congress.
We expect to see Senate Republicans return to their traditional position of seeking to limit federal government spending. They signaled this return to form over the summer when they shut down negotiations over additional COVID relief bills based on this position. Yet under President Trump, Republicans enacted substantial tax legislation and several massive COVID relief bills, which belied their stated position on federal spending.
McConnell said he hopes to pass additional COVID relief in the lame duck session. This is a shrewd move as it would likely give Republicans more leverage to negotiate their priorities into the bill. McConnell also announced that he and Speaker Pelosi agree on the need to fund the government, rather than pass a short-term continuing resolution, to avoid a government shutdown in December. We’ll see if these bills come to pass.
In the new Congress next year, divided government takes the wind out of the sails of the more progressive parts of the Democratic agenda, but bipartisan cooperation on legislation is still possible. For example, components of Biden’s Build Back Better plan synch with bipartisan interest in passing a significant infrastructure bill. Bipartisan synergies also exist for Biden priorities to strengthen U.S. manufacturing and “get tough on China.” Congress will likely muster bipartisan support to re-orient technology and pharmaceutical supply chains, so the United States is not dependent on non-allied countries.
Of course, a sharply divided Senate will increase the importance of moderates on both sides of the aisle—such as Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and Republicans Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine—who will act as “swing votes” on important legislation or nominees.
In terms of changes to the leadership of key Senate Committees, we expect Senator Grassley of Iowa to return to chair the Senate Judiciary Committee, which would free up Senator Crapo of Idaho to chair the Senate Finance Committee. With Senator Alexander of Tennessee retiring, Senator Cassidy of Louisiana may take the gavel of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee but that is not clear yet.
Looking ahead, the 2022 election cycle is challenging for Senate Republicans given that they have to defend many more seats than Democrats. Despite likely losing the election, Trump has shown that he has a substantial following among the electorate. He can choose to remain a powerful force in politics, influence the next cycle, and possibly run again in 2024.