The Winners and Losers of the 115th Congress

Key legislators saw their fortunes reshuffled on Election Day in ways good, bad, and ulcer-inducing.

Gretchen Ertl / Gary Cameron / Eric Miller / Joshua Roberts / Joshua Cameron / Jonathan Ernst / Yuri Gripas / Reuters / The Atlantic

Quack. Quack. Zoom. With visions of unified Republican rule dancing in their heads, congressional leaders in both chambers are keen to keep the lame duck session quick and painless. (House members are already fleeing town, starting the holiday recess a week early.)

Pretty much everyone could use a bit of extra time off to prepare for the new president and the vastly altered political landscape he brings. Across the Hill, Trump’s shocker of a win has revalued the stock of members on both sides of the aisle, in both chambers. Some are obvious. (Poor Nancy Pelosi.) Some less so. (What will Jason Chaffetz do without a Democratic president to torment?) As the Trump Era looms, keep one eye on these notables, who saw their fortunes reshuffled on Election Day in ways good, bad, and ulcer-inducing:

Senator Orrin Hatch. The Senate’s senior Republican took a risk this cycle, coming out relatively early for Trump and sticking by him through all the bump-and-grind. As Utah’s Mormon population blanched at Trump’s personal piggishness, most of the state’s elected officials stiff-armed the nominee. (Or, in the case of Representative Jason Chaffetz, executed a dizzying embrace, shun, re-embrace three-step.) But no way Hatch was going to get tarred as a fusty establishment tool. He wooed the Latter Day Saints for Trump, both inside Utah and beyond, right up through Election Day. (Keeping the bonds strong, Hatch’s chief-of-staff has joined the Trump-Pence transition team.) And now comes the payoff. As head of the Finance Committee, Hatch will be a key player in replacing Obamacare, producing an infrastructure package, overhauling the tax code—and any number of other big-ticket agenda items the new president feels moved to pursue.

Senator Elizabeth Warren. Yeah, I know: Duh. The Massachusetts firebrand was already poised to be the Democrats’ champion of progressivism. Now, she has as good a claim as any to being the voice of the entire party. Progressive activists and pundits are already pushing for Warren to step up, and she is near or at the top of most lists of 2020 contenders. With a pugilistic demagogue in the Oval Office, Warren’s in-your-face style could prove useful as her party struggles to get its mojo back. (She was the rare public official who gave as good as she got from Trump during the campaign.) If Warren has any interest in higher office, she now has a platform, a message, a party desperately in search of a leader--and four fewer years to wait.

Representative Jason Chaffetz. Talk about a letdown: The media-savvy chairman of Oversight and Government Reform was all revved up for a rousing four-to-eight years of probing the dickens out of President Hillary. Benghazi, bootleg email servers, the FBI’s handling of the whole mess, pay-to-play Clinton Foundation accusations—you name it, Chaffetz was ready to drill down. And now? Nothing. No Hillary. No more Obama. And at least four years of a president from Chaffetz’s own party who, even if the chairman were inclined to investigate, has a gift for flouting political norms with impunity. (Tax return questions? Conflicts of interest? Crony capitalism? Pish-posh!) Sure, Chaffetz can chase the tail end of this or that Hillary-inspired tizzy (#Pizzagate, anyone?), but with her political moment over, where’s the fun in that? Life on Oversight promises to be vastly less zippy in Trump’s Washington.

Senator Chuck Schumer. In recent years, Schumer’s reputation has morphed from that of partisan warrior to pragmatic deal-maker. As the new Democratic leader, he’ll need to keep both these personas in delicate balance—especially with a wheeler-dealer in the White House and the opposing team controlling both chambers. Among his early challenges, Schumer will need to continually assess which of his members defending seats in 2018 need to play ball with Trump on certain issues. Particularly for those hailing from states Trump carried, there will be a perpetual tension between the need for team unity and the need to go their own way. Managing that tension will be Schumer’s enduring headache.

Senator-elect Chris Van Hollen. With their hopes of retaking the Senate shattered, Democrats are now facing a heart-stopping 2018 midterm: They will be defending 23 seats (25 if you count independents Angus King and Bernie Sanders), 10 in states won by Trump. This would be a herculean challenge even if the party weren’t demoralized and its donors grumbling about wasted contributions. To help manage the chaos, Schumer has turned to incoming Maryland Senator Chris Van Hollen, the first senator-elect ever tapped for the job. Van Hollen is hardly a newbie. He did two terms as head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, handling the 2008 and 2010 cycles. His goal, obviously, is to make 2018 more like 2008 than 2010 for his team.

Senator Ben Sasse. The brainy young conservative was among the earliest, loudest, and proudest Never Trumpers on the Hill. It was a principled move, but one that could make the next few years decidedly unpleasant if Trump and his people hold a grudge.

Senator Ted Cruz. The mind reels to think of Cruz’s suicidal, Trump-antagonizing speech at the Republican nominating convention this summer, followed shortly by his flip-flop endorsement of Trump and subsequent half-hearted stumping for him. The end result: Cruz wound up looking like both a jerk and a coward. And after all that, Trump won, meaning that Cruz isn’t in a position to restart his presidential motor again for at least years.

Senator Mitch McConnell. For all of 2016, McConnell stuck to a drag-your-feet-and-don’t-take-any-unnecessary-votes approach to legislating--or, more accurately, not legislating. Most controversial was his refusal to even pretend to consider filling the Supreme Court seat left vacant by the death of Antonin Scalia in February. For months, critics predicted McConnell & Co. would pay a political price for such blatant obstructionism. Democrats worked to fire up their voters over the issue. But post-election, the Majority Leader’s strategy looks like sinister genius. The GOP is gearing up not only to install a conservative replacement for Scalia but to erase as many signs of the Obama era as possible. Yet again, The Turtle has proved a master of the game.

Representative Nancy Pelosi. The Democratic leader has long had a reputation among her conference as a wee bit imperious and controlling and not always open to divergent points of view. For some, this latest election fail was simply the last straw. Pelosi beat back a challenge to her leadership but in the process had to accept reforms that give younger members a louder voice (including creating vice-ranking positions on each committee) and slightly loosen her grip on the caucus overall. (The heads of the campaign committee and the messaging committee will be elected by the caucus rather than appointed by leadership.) Even so, the rank-and-file are restless, and there is grumbling that, after this term, Pelosi really needs to step aside. That said, there’s a dearth of obvious successors. (With Steve Israel, Chris Van Hollen, and Xavier Becerra all leaving the House, Joe Crowley is the remaining name most often floated.) If the queen does not appear inclined to relinquish the crown, it is not clear who is in a position to depose her—which could make the troops even twitchier.

Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Oof. It was ugly enough when DWS, in her capacity as head of the DNC, blew herself up in her overeagerness to deliver Hillary the nomination. (Count her among the casualties of Wikileaks’ electoral meddling.) But to then have Hillary lose? Now, not only are Bernie Sanders’ fans miffed at DWS, she can’t turn to a grateful President Hillary to help restore her brand. Even Democrats who like DSW say she’s too toxic for any sort of leadership role in the foreseeable future. Her travails, followed closely by Donna Brazile’s heartburn atop the DNC, makes one wonder if the committee chairmanship is worth all the effort.

Representative Keith Ellison. Speaking of leading the DNC, the Minnesota congressman wants the job bad—so bad he has offered to resign his seat to devote himself to the committee full time. This puts Dems in a tricky spot. The need for a full-time chairman has been the primary objection voiced by those who don’t support Ellison’s bid, but it is not the only issue. An African-American Muslim from the party’s progressive wing, Ellison stands as a rebuke to the racial and religious demagoguery of Trumpism. At the same time, plenty of Dems fear he’d focus the party too much on identity politics or that he simply isn’t the right guy to win back all those white, working-class, Rust-Belt voters who abandoned the party this election. Touchier still, Ellison is under fire for making remarks critical of Israel and for having long-ago played footsie with the anti-semitic Louis Farrakhan. (The ADL is not amused.) Still, win or lose the DNC job, Ellison intends to make himself heard in the Age of Trump.

Senator Tom Cotton. When it was assumed that Trump would lose, Cotton set his sights on 2020. Tongues wagged as he gallivanted around the early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. The Arkansas conservative will need to table those big ambitions for now. But Cotton is young—and, unlike, say, Ted Cruz, he managed not to humiliate himself this cycle.

Speaker Paul Ryan. Why even bother going down this rabbit hole? Perhaps never has the relationship between a new president and a House speaker been so tortured, so twisted, so ripe for conflict and abuse. And these guys are on the same team! Ryan is exactly the kind of snotty know-it-all Trump has always felt was looking down his nose at him—which, yeah, Ryan probably is most of the time. The $64,000 question is which issue will goad the men into Thunderdome mode—tariffs? infrastructure spending? Medicare!?—and what pithy new nicknames President Trump will dream up for the speaker.