WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Donald Trump faced greater restraints on his presidency after Democrats won control of the U.S. House of Representatives and pledged to hold the Republican accountable after a tumultuous two years in the White House.
Trump and his fellow Republicans expanded their control of the U.S. Senate in Tuesday’s midterm elections, following a divisive campaign marked by fierce clashes over race and immigration.
But they lost their majority in the House, a setback for Trump after a campaign that became a referendum on his leadership.
With some races still undecided, Democrats were headed for a gain of more than 30 seats, beyond the 23 they needed to claim their first majority in the 435-member House in eight years.
Seizing the Senate had never looked a likely prospect for the Democrats, and in the event they fell short of a tidal wave of voter support that would have given them control of both chambers of Congress.
Winning the Senate majority would have allowed Democrats to apply the brakes even more firmly on Trump’s policy agenda and given them the ability to block any future Supreme Court nominees.
However, the Democrats will now head House committees that can investigate the president’s tax returns, possible business conflicts of interest and possible links between his 2016 election campaign and Russia.
The Democrats also could force Trump to scale back his legislative ambitions, possibly dooming his promises to fund a border wall with Mexico, pass a second major tax-cut package, or carry out his hardline policies on trade.
“Today is more than about Democrats and Republicans, it’s about restoring the Constitution’s checks and balances to the Trump administration,” Nancy Pelosi, leader of the House Democrats, told supporters at victory party.
Despite his party’s poor showing in House elections, Trump wrote on Twitter, “Tremendous success tonight.”
Trump – a 72-year-old former reality TV star and businessman-turned-politician – had hardened his rhetoric in recent weeks on issues that appealed to his conservative core supporters. He threw himself into the campaign, issuing warnings about a caravan of Latin American migrants headed to the border with Mexico and condemnations of liberal American “mobs” he says oppose him.
U.S. presidents often lose the House in midterm elections in their first term. Former President Barack Obama’s Democrats were hit with what he called a “shellacking” in congressional elections in 2010.
With divided leadership in Congress and a president who has taken an expansive view of executive power, Washington could be in store for even deeper political polarization and legislative gridlock.
European shares rebounded on Wednesday after the U.S. elections delivered no big surprise.
“With the Democrats taking over the House we will now have to see what gridlock in Congress means for policy. As for the market impact, a split Congress has historically been bullish for equities and we expect to see the same pattern again,” said Torsten Slok, Chief International Economist of Deutsche Bank.
Investors often favor Washington gridlock because it preserves the status quo and reduces uncertainty, even though many in the market this time around had been hoping for a continuation of the Republican agenda.
Losing the House will test Trump’s ability to compromise, something he has shown little interest in over the last two years with Republicans controlling both chambers of Congress.
There may be some room to work with Democrats on issues with bipartisan support such as an infrastructure improvement package or protections against prescription drug price increases.
“We will have a responsibility to find our common ground where we can, stand our ground where we can’t,” said Pelosi, who has been one of the most frequent targets for Trump’s scathing attacks on his critics and political opponents.
Every seat in the House was up for grabs on Tuesday. The Republicans had an advantage in Senate races because elections were held for only 35 seats in the 100-member chamber and many of them were in states that often lean Republican.
Republicans built on their slim Senate majority and ousted four incumbent Democrats: Bill Nelson in Florida, Joe Donnelly in Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota and Claire McCaskill in Missouri.
In the 36 gubernatorial contests, Democrats won governorships in states that supported Trump in 2016 but lost high-profile races in Florida and Ohio.
After their victory, House Democrats are expected to try to harden U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia, Russia and North Korea, while maintaining the status quo on hot-button areas like China and Iran.
They could make life difficult for Trump by launching another congressional investigation into allegations of Russian interference on his behalf in the 2016 election. The Democrats are awaiting the result of an ongoing federal probe by U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller into Russia’s role in that election.
Moscow denies meddling and Trump denies any collusion.
A House majority would be enough to impeach Trump if evidence surfaced of collusion by his campaign, or of obstruction by the president of the federal investigation. But Congress could not remove him from office without a conviction by a two-thirds majority in the Republican-controlled Senate, an unlikely scenario.
Most Democratic candidates in tight races stayed away from harsh criticism of Trump during the midterm campaign’s final stretch, focusing instead on bread-and-butter issues like maintaining insurance protections for people with pre-existing medical conditions, and safeguarding the Social Security retirement and Medicare healthcare programs for senior citizens.
WOMEN, YOUNG, HISPANIC VOTERS FUEL GAINS
The Democratic gains were fueled by women, young and Hispanic voters, a Reuters/Ipsos Election Day poll found. Fifty-five percent of women said they backed a Democrat for the House this year, compared to 49 percent in the 2014 midterm congressional election.
Voters between the ages of 18 and 34 backed Democrats by 62 percent to 34 percent, up from 2014 when 54 percent backed Democrats and 36 percent supported Republicans. Hispanic voters favored Democratic House candidates by 33 percentage points – higher than the 18-percentage point gap that Democrats enjoyed in 2014, the poll found.
Democrats turned out to register disapproval of Trump’s divisive rhetoric and policies on such issues as immigration and his travel ban targeting several Muslim-majority countries.
A record number of women ran for office this election, many of them Democrats.
In the House, Democrats picked up seats across the map. Democrats who picked up Republican-held seats included Donna Shalala, a former Cabinet secretary under President Bill Clinton, in Florida.
Some of the campaign’s biggest Democratic stars lost. Liberal House member Beto O’Rourke’s underdog Senate campaign fell short in conservative Texas against Republican incumbent Ted Cruz. Andrew Gillum lost to Republican Ron DeSantis in his quest to become Florida’s first black governor.
The hotly contested gubernatorial race in Georgia, where Democrat Stacey Abrams was seeking to become the first black woman to be elected governor of a U.S. state, remained too close to call early on Wednesday.
Republican gains in the Senate are sure to bolster the party’s efforts to ram conservative federal judges through confirmation proceedings during a “lame duck” session that starts next week, as well as from January when the new Congress convenes.
Voters also punished moderate Senate Democrats running in Trump-heavy states who opposed the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
The Republican caucuses in both chambers have become even more conservative with the loss of moderates within Trump’s party.
Reporting by John Whitesides; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey, Steve Holland, Roberta Rampton, Eric Beech, Julia Harte and David Alexander in Washington and Megan Davies in New York; Writing by John Whitesides and Alistair Bell; Editing by Howard Goller and Frances Kerry