Deciphering the 2018 Midterm Elections and Its Implications for Science

November 16, 2018

The historic 2018 midterm elections are over with a record 49.2% of the eligible voting population casting ballots in congressional and gubernatorial elections nationwide.

The overarching outcomes are apparent—the U.S. House of Representatives will be controlled by the Democrats, while the Republicans will maintain control of the U.S. Senate.  Nonetheless, a week after the election and still unfolding, there are 8 undeclared races in the House and two in the Senate, leaving the balance of control in the House of Representatives at 228 Democrats to 199 Republicans and, in the Senate, 47 Democrats to 51 Republicans.  In the House, the Democrats “flipped” or turned over 36 seats, while the Republicans turned over three seats. In the Senate, the Republicans flipped three seats, while the Democrats turned over two.

Sheer numbers tell only part of the story.  An unprecedented 118 women were elected to the House, surpassing the previous record of 107, and 11 eleven women won their Senate bids.  The election outcomes also resulted in the most diverse Congress to date with the first female Muslim, Native American, and Palestinian-American members being elected.

Who lost, especially for those who follow science policy in the U.S. Congress, is almost as important as who won.  Four members in the House of Representatives who have been active on pivotal science funding and oversight congressional committees lost their reelection bids.  These members include Congressman John Culberson (R-TX) who chaired the Commerce, Science, and Justice Appropriations Subcommittee, which funds the National Science Foundation, and Congresswoman Barbara Comstock (R-VA), who chaired the Research Subcommittee on the House Science Committee.  In the Senate, Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) a former astronaut and Ranking Member of the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, was trailing in his re-election bid and awaiting the outcome of an ongoing statewide recount.

Perhaps the most notable change for behavioral and social scientists is that, as a result of the Democrats assuming the majority in January 2019, Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson will move from her seat as Ranking Member to Chair of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. The Congresswoman told Science Magazine recently that “ending the committee’s ideologically driven fights… is high on her agenda.” Retiring Chair Congressman Lamar Smith has been critical of some NSF-funded research and has sought to significantly cut funding for the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences Directorate as well as the Geosciences Directorate.

Congress returned to work on November 13 for a post-election “lame duck” session to resolve unfinished business of the 115th Congress, including passage of seven Fiscal Year 2019 appropriations bills. During this time, Democrats and Republicans will be holding leadership elections and, subsequently, determining future committee ratios and nominating new chairs and ranking members.  FABBS will keep its members apprised of these deliberations and their implications for agencies important to the behavioral and brain sciences as the results unfold.