The midterms: Should Democrats be celebrating?
Democrats were gloomy as the first midterm election results began trickling in last week, said Michelle Goldberg in The New York Times. As progressive favorites like gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum in Florida and Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke in Texas stumbled, it seemed as though the much-anticipated “blue wave” had shrunk to a “blue trickle.” But now that the dust has settled, it’s clear that Democrats enjoyed a historic night. The party regained control of the House of Representatives by flipping at least 32 seats. With a handful of races still undecided, Democrats are on track to win more House seats than in any midterm since Watergate. Democrats also turned at least 333 seats in state legislatures from red to blue. Republicans did oust at least three incumbent Senate Democrats, but Democrats flipped seats in Nevada and Arizona, where Kyrsten Sinema won the open seat of retiring GOP Sen. Jeff Flake. “It took a while for the conventional wisdom of the American political class, accustomed to treating Democrats as hapless and disorganized, to catch up.” But the blue wave was real, as Republicans paid a steep price for their embrace of the toxic President Trump.
Sure, the Democratic Party as a whole had a good night, said Michael Brendan Dougherty in NationalReview.com. But make no mistake, “progressives lost.” Gillum, O’Rourke, and Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams ran left-wing campaigns that progressives hoped would provide a template going forward. They all came up short. In the House, Kara Eastman in Nebraska and Scott Wallace in Pennsylvania campaigned on “Medicare for all” and lost winnable races. Swing voters might not like the Republican agenda, “but that’s not a signal that they’re ready for ambitious social-democratic reform either.” That’s why Democrats shouldn’t kid themselves, said Bret Stephens in The New York Times. The 30-plus seat swing that gave Democrats control of the House is nothing compared with Republicans’ 63-seat landslide during the Obama backlash of 2010. Yet even that pounding “did nothing to help Mitt Romney’s chances two years later.” Unless Democrats tack to the center, Trump is “the odds-on favorite to win in 2020.”
That’s a strange conclusion to reach, said Zack Beauchamp in Vox.com. Overall, Democrats won more votes than Republicans did in the GOP wave elections of 2010 and 1994. The unapologetically progressive Gillum, O’Rourke, and Abrams also fared far better in red states than moderate Senate Democrats who lost their seats, such as Missouri’s Claire McCaskill, Indiana’s Joe Donnelly, and North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp. Meanwhile, in Ohio, outspoken pro-labor Sen. Sherrod Brown easily cruised to re-election. “If progressivism were such an albatross, Brown would have lost in a state that looks more and more Republican by the year.”
Still, Trump “has legitimate bragging rights,” said Rich Lowry in Politico.com. House losses could have been worse, and in the Senate, Republicans actually picked up at least one seat. Trump gets the credit for keeping his base energized and engaged. Many vulnerable House Republicans who distanced themselves from the president lost, while many candidates he stumped for won. The Republican ranks in Congress may have thinned, but they’ll be a lot Trumpier. And to the president, that’s a victory. Republicans should “resist the happy talk,” said John Podhoretz in CommentaryMagazine.com. Don’t forget that in 2016 a mere 80,000 votes across three Rust Belt states made Trump president. Democrats had a strong showing in all of them this year, picking up governorships in Wisconsin and Michigan as well as numerous Pennsylvania House seats. And while Republicans appear to have prevailed in statewide races in Florida, it was by a far smaller margin than Trump’s 2016 victory. If he wants to be re-elected, Trump “cannot afford to lose a single voter,” but he’s done nothing to expand his base.
“I understand the desire to tidy up the sprawl of democracy,” said Ana Marie Cox in The Washington Post, but “grand narratives” can only explain so much. “There were more than 6,000 state legislative seats up for election this year, plus thousands of sheriffs and school board members, judges and county commissioners.” All of these elections took place in precincts with their own unique mix of social and economic realities. Some of the candidates who lost, like Abrams and O’Rourke, succeeded in mobilizing millions of voters in the highest-turnout midterm election in a generation. Expect many of those voters to return to polling places in 2020. “The enduring story of the midterms isn’t about who won or lost, it’s about who participated.” ■