When we set out to try to look back on the year that was in politics, we started with a list that grew … and grew … and grew. After a couple of days, the list was just shy of 100 news events. That’s about one notable story every three days.
Yes, it’s been that kind of year. So we narrowed the list to 50 and asked readers on social media to pick what they thought were the 10 most important political stories of the year. Because voting took place last week, some important developments didn’t make the cut, like, for example, Ret. Gen. Jim Mattis resigning as Pentagon chief, Trump pulling U.S. troops out of Syria or Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg undergoing surgery for lung cancer.
Here are the top 10 most selected stories — by you the readers — with No. 1 being the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation battle and the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford.
1. Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation battle and Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony
For all the news that happened in 2018, there might not have been a more emotional day than Sept. 27. A reluctant witness accuses a man nominated for a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court of sexual assault while they were in high school decades ago, and the nominee then lashes out with a defiant defense and partisan testimony. From there, senators and onlookers retreated into political corners.
The saga dragged on for more than a week, as a retiring Republican senator defected from party ranks, calling for a further FBI investigation — and eventually voting for the nominee. It was another cultural wound in the Trump era that has highlighted massive fissures in the American populace.
2. Democrats take over the House in midterm wave
A blue wave crashed ashore in 2018. Democrats will have control of the U.S. House once again come January because of an uprising in the suburbs and among women and independents. They helped Democrats net 40 seats, the most in any election for Democrats in a generation, since just after Watergate.
It was a remarkable accomplishment that will have massive consequences for President Trump, with incoming Democratic committee chairmen preparing subpoenas and about to ramp up investigations of the Trump administration, the president’s businesses and perhaps even his personal finances.
3. Parkland shooting spurs youth political engagement
In February, tragedy struck again at the hands of a mass shooter, at yet another school — this time, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Seventeen people were killed. But instead of fading into the background as other shootings have, the event led many of the students who survived to take center stage and become politically involved.
There were mass walkouts at schools and marches across the country. Under political pressure, many states, including Florida, passed gun control measures. There has been little movement at the federal level — though the Trump Justice Department did ban bump stocks.
In the 2018 election, 10 percent of voters said guns were the most important issue facing the country, according to exit polls, and 70 percent of those voters voted for Democrats. By 59 percent to 37 percent, voters said they support stricter gun control measures, and the new House may well take up the issue. Still, nothing divides Americans quite like gun ownership.
4. Trump administration enacts migrant family separation policy
Trump took his hard-line immigration views to another level of controversy with this policy. It has been an issue of moral outrage for many Americans, as overwhelming numbers of Democrats and a majority of independents were against it, making for a very unpopular policy. It’s yet another issue that led to consequences at the ballot box for Republicans.
Thousands of migrant children remain detained in the U.S., mostly those who arrived unaccompanied, not those separated from parents, with doctors warning of short- and long-term repercussions for the children emotionally.
5. Record number of women run and win in midterm election
A record number of women ran, were nominated for the House and won in 2018. More women than ever — 127 — will serve in Congress this January (adding in Republican Martha McSally, who was appointed to fill a Senate vacancy in Arizona). But this was not a bipartisan phenomenon — 106 of the women are Democrats, and Republicans will have fewer women in Congress next year.
In the previously dubbed “Year of the Woman” in 1992, after the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings, 24 non-incumbent women were elected to the House; in 2018, it was 36 (35 Democrats and just one Republican), according to the Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics. It’s an improvement, but women will still make up less than a quarter of Congress, despite being more than a majority of the electorate.
A record number of women will serve in state legislatures, too, up to 29 percent from 25 percent of all state-level seats across the country.
6. Voter turnout hits 100-year high for a midterm election
Turnout in the 2018 election was 50.3 percent (and could go higher when all votes are counted), according to the U.S. Election Project at the University of Florida. That is higher than at any time since 1914.
That tells you something about the level of opposition to Trump in this year’s election that saw a backlash to his policies, demeanor and approach. Voters were saying, at higher rates than in past elections, that the president was a factor in their vote.
An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll just before the election found that roughly two-thirds of voters saw Trump as at least a minor factor, 20 points higher than those who said so of President Barack Obama in 2014. And: “47 percent of voters said their opinion of Trump makes them more likely to vote for a Democrat for Congress, while 34 percent said their opinion of Trump makes them more likely to vote for a Republican.”
7. White House and administration chaos and scandal
Trump has topped past presidents for senior staff turnover — and that record was set as far back as March, as NPR’s Tamara Keith has reported. At least 34 top people left the White House, the administration or Trump’s close orbit in 2018, according to a CNN count and adding in Mattis, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and White House chief of staff John Kelly.
There has been scandal within the administration, like at the Environmental Protection Agency with its former head Scott Pruitt, as well as with Zinke. Mattis’ resignation was a stinging rebuke to the president. The secretary of defense was the first Cabinet official to bow out with sharp criticisms of the commander in chief since perhaps Cyrus Vance as Jimmy Carter’s secretary of state, NPR’s Tom Bowman has noted.
What all the turnover tells you is that Trump’s White House is becoming increasingly insular, kind of how the Trump Organization was run: one person that matters most, with a small circle of advisers and family around him.
8. Voter purge efforts, long lines in Georgia and other election problems
Voters, especially African-Americans in some places, waited in lines for hours in parts of Georgia. That was combined with aggressive voter roll purge efforts by Republican Brian Kemp, the governor-elect who ran while serving as secretary of state.
Election Protection, a nonpartisan voter rights coalition led by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, issued a report about the 2018 elections earlier this month and noted:
“Voters in 2018 faced widespread attempts at voter suppression and disenfranchisement across the country — obstacles that made voting more difficult or impossible. Election Protection kept track of the top barriers to the vote in 2018, which included: long lines due to poor staffing, insufficient materials, and faulty voting machines problems; aggressive voter registration purges or failure to process applications; poor poll-worker training; restrictive voting identification requirements; and failure to receive or count absentee ballots. The root causes of these barriers are burdensome and arbitrary voting laws and policies, lack of planning and investment by election administration, and racism and xenophobia.”
Democrat Stacey Abrams lost a contentious race for governor of Georgia to Kemp by roughly 55,000 votes.
9. Federal deficit jumps 17 percent as tax cuts eat into government revenue
Despite a strong economy and no wars where troops and artillery are being poured in at high numbers, the United States’ federal deficit jumped to $779 billion by the end of the fiscal year in October. A big reason: those GOP tax cuts.
As NPR’s Scott Horsley reported:
“The government is expected to borrow more than a trillion dollars in the coming year, in part to make up for tax receipts that have been slashed by GOP tax cuts. Corporate tax collections fell by 31 percent in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, despite robust corporate profits. That’s hardly surprising after lawmakers cut the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21.”
10. Trump reshapes federal judiciary as GOP Senate confirms judges at record rate
Judges were a big reason the Republican base rallied around President Trump. He has not only delivered two conservative U.S. Supreme Court justices, one of whom replaced the court’s swing justice, but he is also reshaping the federal judiciary.
With the help of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who got rid of the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees, Trump has continued to get a big number of federal judges confirmed — 29 appeals court judges and 53 district court judges, as of Nov. 15, all lifetime appointments. About three-quarters of Trump’s nominees have been men; about 4 in 5 have been white; and they don’t rank as highly qualified by the American Bar Association when compared with Obama’s nominees.
BONUS: Michael Cohen pleads guilty, puts President Trump in legal jeopardy
We’re including this because it came very close to being in the top 10 — just two votes short.
What happened this year is remarkable. President Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, his former national security adviser Michael Flynn, his former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen, and a host of others were found guilty as a result of charges stemming from the Mueller Russia probe.
Cohen, after pleading guilty to tax evasion, campaign finance violations and lying to Congress, was sentenced to three years in prison earlier this month. He is also cooperating with the feds and said he is determined not to be the “villain” of the Trump story. He accused the president of knowing the truth, that Trump directed Cohen to make illegal payments to two women Trump allegedly had affairs with in order to help the Trump 2016 presidential campaign. (Trump has acknowledged payment to one of the two women but denies the underlying allegations of sexual relationships with both women.)
It’s a remarkable turn of events, given there was no greater Trump defender in 2016 than Cohen.
And who knows what’s to come in 2019.