The Blue Wave Breaks

The Briefing, Vol. VI, Issue 46

This week:

  • Democrats take the House
  • Republicans gain in the Senate, win key governor’s races
  • How to judge the outcome

“If Donald Trump and the Republicans lose on Tuesday, and if they lose badly, it’s not going to be because of the Left … .Donald Trump is going to lose because a lot of people who have voted Republican in every election since 1984 are going to say, ‘Enough! This is not me. This is not America.'”

— David Frum, November 2, 2018

In a high-profile debate with Steve Bannon in Toronto, prominent never-Trumper David Frum predicted the above on November 2. He was proven quite wrong last Tuesday.

In fact, what he predicted was the one thing that didn’t happen much at all on November 6, 2018 — probably even less than it did in November 2016.

Yes, Democrats won the 2018 midterms. Independents went Democratic, by a ten point margin. Suburbanites went more Democratic than usual, tying between the parties with 49 percent each. In other words, Republicans’ House majority was not immune to taking the usual lumps in the first midterm election under a Republican president. Republicans ceded ground in the middle, as in past midterms they have lost.

But contra Frum’s prediction, every indication is that even the most Trump-skeptic Republican voters still voted Republican. What’s more, they turned out in unexpectedly large numbers. Across the map, Republican voters kept up with Democratic increases in turnout, or even exceeded them, with a few noteworthy exceptions.

Republicans suffered losses, but they also held their ground or even made gains in all parts of the country. In states as diverse as Iowa, Florida, Maryland, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Ohio, just to name a few, they won big races.

And in fact, it stands to reason. If you’re really a conservative, then even if you’re the kind of conservative who didn’t vote for Trump, that doesn’t mean that you’re just going to turn around and vote for your local Democrats who oppose everything you’ve always believed in.

Unless your convictions were doubtful to begin with, you just don’t vote that way. And it doesn’t appear that many Republicans did, as 94 percent nationwide voted for GOP House candidates — a statistically insignificant number voted for Democrats.

What’s more, after watching the events of this election, one can hardly argue that Trump’s personal intervention hurt his party as much as it helped its candidates over the finish line, especially in the big statewide Senate races.

A normal election:

Instead of the stunning, bipartisan repudiation that Frum predicted, and which so many leftists craved, President Trump’s Republican Party suffered precisely the sort of loss you’d normally expect in a president’s first midterm. It differed only in that turnout was astonishingly high across the board.

It wasn’t a particularly bad loss, and in many states — including some important presidential states like Iowa, Florida and Ohio — Republican partisans turned out in numbers that the party can be very happy with. In others — Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania — things didn’t go so well.

Amid extremely high turnout — the highest in over a century of midterms, according to early estimates — Republicans lost the House. But in many of the key states where they fought to win, they held their own. And Republicans even gained seats in the U.S. Senate.

The GOP fared poorly with independents and in suburbia, just as they did in President George W. Bush’s midterm loss of 2006. But this loss wasn’t nearly as bad as that one. it was a clear but limited loss in which Republicans can find many silver linings.

Missed opportunities:

You only get to beat up on the other party’s president in the midterm so often. Republicans did it in 2010 and 2014. Democrats did it in 2006. Democrats had a hurricane-force wind and and all historical trends at their backs. Their voter base was energized to historic levels. They faced off against a president who is especially hated by their left-wing base but also viewed askance by many independent voters and (at least until the Kavanaugh debacle) viewed skeptically by some Republicans.

There were some mitigating factors. The economy was good, and this had to cushion the blow a bit for Republicans. But a good economy usually doesn’t save a president’s party from taking its midterm lumps. Reagan’s Republican Party in 1986 lost eight Senate seats, and lost the national House vote by ten points as Democrats neared a House majority of 260.

The Kavanaugh debacle may have been even more decisive in helping engage GOP voters.

The result was a mixed one. Despite the surge in enthusiasm generated by fear of Trump, Democrats failed to capitalize in most other areas besides House races while they had the chance. And that matters, because they won’t necessarily have such a chance again soon.

Democrats have mostly tried to convince themselves that they succeeded. There’s certainly an argument for their view that there was a wave. But there’s quite a bit to distinguish this year’s election from true wave years like 2006 and 2008. Or, for that matter, from Republicans’ huge successes in the Obama midterms of 2010 and 2014.

In all four of those years, the dominant party killed it, winning races at all levels and in all kinds of geographic situations. The map bled Red or Blue.

In 2006, for example, Democrats won their majority with House seats in urban, suburban, and rural areas alike. They picked up Senate seats in Red States and Blue states. They took over or held on to governorships in places as diverse as Tennessee, Arkansas, Iowa, Ohio, Massachusetts and Maryland. Republicans were cut down to historic lows, so that they became even more irrelevant after election 2008. It became reasonable to ask (and people did ask) whether the GOP could ever win anywhere again.

The Democrats’ 2018 victory certainly was not that kind of victory.

U.S. House:

First, let’s have a look at the best part for Democrats. With a few races left to be resolved, Republicans lost the U.S. House and will probably lose a net 35 to 37 seats once it’s all over. Note that this is a bigger House gain for Democrats than their 2006 blowout.

But the failure to win in many of the contested districts will leave Nancy Pelosi (yes, she will be speaker) with a much smaller majority than she enjoyed after President Obama’s historic victory. This time, she’ll likely have between 232 and 237 seats, versus 257.

All over America, Republicans lost a particular kind of district: the suburban kind. Exit polling shows that the two parties tied for the suburbs overall, which is an underperformance for the GOP compared to recent and historic elections.

Again and again, the suburbs have proven to be Trump’s Achilles’ heel. But don’t jump too quickly to blame him. Republican losses in the suburbs aren’t unique to the Trump era. Republicans actually did worse in suburbs in 2006 and 2008, losing them outright in the House vote.

The party eventually found a way back from that, and there’s every reason to think they’ll do it again.

Some of the newly Democratic seats had been headed in Democrats’ direction for some time, and probably won’t turn Red again unless they’re drawn very differently in the future. But Republicans will have a serious shot at taking back many other seats — especially the ones they lost in Florida, southern Virginia, Oklahoma, South Carolina, New Mexico, upstate New York and Iowa — in the coming presidential cycle. The path back to a Republican House majority is not an easy one, but it’s easier than you might think, especially if Trump is still walking tall in two years’ time. With Speaker-in-waiting Pelosi already announcing her intentions to work on gun control legislation, these vulnerable new members will be forced to take votes they might not be too happy about.

In the meantime, however, Democratic control of the House is not to be sneezed at. It will have serious consequences for Trump. Democrats can be expected to investigate and subpoena and oversee every aspect of his administration for the first time since his election. It could become crippling.

That’ the Left’s big victory. Will they impeach? Will they overreach? It’s anyone’s guess how this all turns out.

U.S. Senate:

As good as their performance in some suburban House districts was, Democrats actually lost seats in the U.S. Senate. Here, Trump personally played a large role — more on that below.

Exactly how many seats the GOP majority will consist of is yet to be determined. Unless they somehow blow the Nov. 27 runoff in Mississippi, Republicans have gained at least one seat. The results in Florida and Arizona remain outstanding as of this writing.

But the opposition party’s failure to add seats, or at least to hold their numbers while running against a president as extraordinary as Trump, could be quite damaging to them in the long run. A 53- or 54-seat GOP Senate leaves no easy path to full Democratic control of Washington any time soon. In 2020, Republicans will be likely to gain one Senate seat easily (Doug Jones of Alabama) but face the possible loss of two seats in states that Hillary Clinton won (Susan Collins of Maine and Cory Gardner of Colorado). The larger the GOP majority before that election starts, the more durable Trump’s accomplishments will be — even if he fails to win re-election in 2020.

And for argument’s sake, if there is a Democratic president when the 2022 midterm rolls around, then it will be very hard for Democrats to take over the Senate at that point.

One final note: The election is not over yet. Republicans must still win the November 27 runoff election in Mississippi to add their 52nd seat, no matter what happens with Florida (potentially the 53rd seat) and Arizona (the 54th). More on that next week.

State Level:

Democrats flipped seven state legislative chambers from the Republicans, and now control 37 out of the 99 chambers nationwide. Republicans flipped just one from the Democrats (in Alaska), leaving them in control of the remaining 62 (including Nebraska, whose legislature is nominally non-partisan).

Democratic gains in legislatures, combined with their gain of governorships in Maine, New Mexico, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Nevada, and Kansas, leave them with complete control of 14 state governments — up from their historically low 8 after 2016. Republican losses, combined with the GOP pickup in Alaska, leave them in total control of 23 states, down from 26. Thirteen states now have mixed party control.

So, how does that stack up? Again, for Democrats, it doesn’t hold a candle to 2006, when Republican gubernatorial candidates were getting killed and leaving blue blotches all over the map.

With the exception of the Kansas governorship — a race that Republican Kris Kobach lost because he seemed to think he could win without a campaign — Democratic wins on the state level were limited to the sort of places Democrats usually win in good Democratic years.

Every loss hurts for the GOP, but no sane person thought that Republicans in Wisconsin, New Mexico, Michigan, Illinois or Maine would just go on winning forever. And the GOP essentially forfeited Pennsylvania this year, even though it could have conceivably mounted serious statewide campaigns for governor and Senate.

Things like this happen in midterms — the president’s party suffers losses. It’s nothing to panic over.

But Democrats are now mistaking these wins for evidence that Trump can’t win those places in 2020. That’s a big mistake. If Republicans had thought that way in 2010, they would have wrongly concluded that President Obama was a goner in 2012. Republicans had had a much better election in 2010 than Democrats just had in 2018, and Obama was far from being a goner.

Some sitting Republican governors in Blue States also held on in this year’s tough environment — not only in swingy Iowa (which could prove important for 2020), but also in liberal bastions like Maryland, Massachusetts, and Vermont.

Biggest Prizes:

And perhaps most importantly, Republicans won the biggest and most consequential gubernatorial prizes — Florida, Ohio, and Georgia. The Florida outcome alone means that Ron DeSantis will replace three of the four liberal justices remaining on the state Supreme Court (remember them from the 2000 recount?), for a 6-1 conservative majority that will last through 2036 or possibly longer.

The Ohio win was especially impressive. People questioned his unorthodox campaign strategy of appearing on Fox News as often as possible, but Attorney General Mike DeWine, R, handily defeated Elizabeth Warren protege Richard Cordray amid high turnout and against all polling. DeWine cleaned up in the Trumpiest parts of the state, the lower-income Ohio River counties. His win demonstrates that the Buckeye State’s apparent trend toward Deep Red in the 2016 election was no fluke. Ohio could well be the next Missouri, a former swing state that now leans much stronger GOP than it did as recently as 2000.

The Georgia win came against the expectations of most establishment Republicans, who viewed Kemp as completely unelectable. He has a lot of work ahead of him building up his state party, though. Georgia is one state where Democrats are working very hard to become competitive again, even at the presidential level. Kemp’s presence on the ballot may have made Democrats’ job a bit easier — Kemp got only 37 percent with the state’s growing Hispanic population, whereas 47 percent voted Republican in 2010 — that’s worth about a half-point, no small matter in a race where he only just avoided a runoff. But another lesson for the Democrats in Georgia might be that they do better with black candidates.

And yes, that loss for governor in Wisconsin hurts, if only because it was so close. But Republicans held their legislative majority there, which means that Gov. Scott Walker’s critical reforms to public sector unionism will live on. Nationally, Republicans retained their overall majority of state legislators and of legislative chambers. This is in sharp contrast to 2006, when their bench was cleared.

Democrats gained uncontested power in Maine, Colorado, Illinois, Nevada, New York, Connecticut, and New Mexico. That brings them back up to total control of 14 states — an improvement from their historic low before this election, but nothing to write home about. That’s the same number of states Republicans controlled after Barack Obama blew them out in 2008.

The turnout game:

Democrats went into this election cycle knowing that their jazzed-up base offered them an opportunity to boost turnout to levels unheard-of in midterms. They succeeded. But what they failed to anticipate were the successful efforts by Republicans in many key states to do exactly the same thing.

The 2018 election is one for the record books in terms of percent turnout. But a look at some of the key states helps add some context to the way massive increases in Republican midterm turnout might have taken Democrats by surprise.

1) In Florida, for example, Rick Scott narrowly won re-election as governor in 2014 with 2.86 million votes. Democrats, probably motivated by antipathy toward Trump and the prospect of electing a charismatic black governor, turned out an astounding 4.04 million voters for Andrew Gillum — nearly as many as the 4.16 million who voted for Barack Obama in 2012.

What they didn’t count on was Republicans turning out 4.08 million for Ron DeSantis — more than voted for John McCain in 2008 and nearly as many as voted for Mitt Romney in 2012. Both parties expanded the universe of midterm voters, but Republicans did it a bit better, thanks in part to a late intervention from the White House.

2) Ohio: If you’d told Richard Cordray, D, that he would get more than 2 million votes in a close race, he would have assumed he was going to win as governor of Ohio. After all, John Kasich didn’t even get that many votes in 2014 when he was on his way to winning re-election by 31 points.

But Cordray’s vote total turned out to be woefully inadequate. Mike DeWine turned out almost 2.2 million voters and won enormous margins everywhere outside the major cities. Ohio’s Republican Party, which had its rough moments in the 2000s, remains one of the nation’s strongest.

3) In Tennessee, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R, cruised to an easy victory in 2014 with 850,000 votes. That wouldn’t have even been enough to win this time, as Democrat Phil Bredesen turned out 982,000. But Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn one-upped him with 1.22 million votes, winning what had been billed as a close race by 12 points.

4) North Dakota: The last time Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., won with 160,000 votes, it was a presidential year. In this midterm, she hit 143,000, more than enough to win any statewide race in 2014, but lost by 11 points as Rep. Kevin Kramer, R, who got 178,000 votes.

There are other examples of this. There are also counterexamples. Scott Walker failed to turn out voters in the Milwaukee suburbs even as well as he had in 2014. His total vote only rose by about 40,000, and he was defeated. In Michigan, Democrat Gretchen Whitmer boosted her party’s turnout over 2014 by nearly 800,000 votes, coming just a few thousand short of Hillary Clinton’s presidential total. Republicans were simply overwhelmed.

The Trump effect:

One big question we asked before the election: Would President Trump be able to help his party? Most presidents try to do this in their midterms and fail. This was certainly the case with Barack Obama, whose rallies and tours failed to help Democratic candidates in 2009 (in Virginia and New Jersey), in 2010, and in 2014 (in Maryland and Maine). Trump, however, was not constrained by this historic limitation on presidents.

Trump held rallies in Indiana, Missouri, Tennessee, Texas, Ohio, Georgia, and Florida that doubtless helped put the GOP Senate candidates there over the top. He also made a stop in Kentucky to help save Rep. Andy Barr, R-Ky., who had also been the beneficiary of a great deal of spending by Paul Ryan’s SuperPAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund .

Trump’s time spent in Montana and Arizona probably also helped bring the Senate races in those two states closer than they would have been otherwise.

One thing Trump has definitely done: He has interested more Americans in voting and politics than ever before. As noted above, this election appears to have had the highest turnout of any midterm since women were given the right to vote. The U.S. is still a closely divided country, although its political alliances are constantly changing.

Next week:

We’ll look more closely at how each demographic group voted in relation to the average voter. And at the demographic that Republicans should be extremely worried about (young voters).

Also: How the last uncalled races are going.

Also: Republicans need to win the runoff in Mississippi.