Newsletter: How’d the Dems do?

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Credit: Austin Schmid

This is the opening comment from my weekly newsletter, which you can read in full here and subscribe to here.

What did we learn from the midterms?

There’s a big debate going on about the true scope and meaning of Tuesday’s elections. Specifically, over whether the Democrats did well as they “should have” given Trump’s historically abysmal ratings, and what it says about whether the Democratic Party needs to tack to the left or stay closer to the center for 2020.

In a sentence I’d summarize the results like this: the Democratic Party, which is growing more diverse and moving to the left, did fairly well, but the results offer no clear prescription for the future.

The Democrats did best in the House. They picked up more seats than in any other midterm election since 1974. In that case, the surge was driven by Richard Nixon’s resignation just three months prior. In this case, exit polling data suggests it’s Trump and the GOP’s attacks on healthcare that drove well-educated suburbanites to flip from red to blue. The results were especially striking given the health of the economy and a very low unemployment rate.

Thanks to the Democrats, a record number of women will be serving in Congress. Two will be the first Native American women elected. Another two will be the first Muslim women elected to Congress. One of them arrived in the US as a refugee. A self-avowed democratic socialist Latina who talks of creating a new kind of progressive voting bloc in the House is primed to become a political superstar. There are lively things going on in the House Democratic caucus.

In the Senate, the Democrats did … okay. Given how tough the map was for them — they were defending three times as many seats as Republicans — things didn’t go terribly. But there were hopes that Democrats — especially Beto O’Rourke — would outperform their polls based on the Trump effect, and that didn’t happen. Instead, Republicans have maintained their majority, and depending on how a few more races conclude, will likely extend their majority. Perhaps most strikingly, three incumbent Democratic senators lost on Tuesday, marking the first time an opposition party incumbent senator has lost an election since 2002.

The margin of Republicans’ victory in the Senate doesn’t necessarily matter much for the next two years, given the Democrats’ control of the House, but it could matter a hell of a lot for 2020. Vox’s Dylan Matthews estimates that given how tricky the 2020 map is Democrats could very well remain a minority in the Senate until 2022.

The Dems picked up seven governorships — the best pickup either party has pulled off since 1994. That matters a lot for Democratic policy in those states and congressional redistricting. But it’s worth noting that they lost in the presidential battleground states of Florida, Iowa and Ohio. As for state legislatures, Dems did good not great.

In terms of what the races tell us about the right kind of candidates to run for Congress and the presidency in 2020, I’m with Eric Levitz: there’s evidence that both deeply progressive and centrist candidates can perform well in swing states. And the ouster of a number of centrist Democratic senators in red states suggests that being a moderate isn’t a surefire bet against the right.

As for the losses of Gillum, O’Rourke and Abrams in the South, I’m hesitant to call them failures (especially Abrams, since Georgia has shamelessly assaulted the democratic process in recent years) — they broke new ground in hostile territory, and it would be foolish to write off their attempts as an exhaustion of the kind of political styles they represented. I will say, though, that I have a hunch that Trump may have been able to mobilize a non-trivial number of Republicans against them in the final weeks before the race through his aggressive interventions at rallies and on social media. I remain convinced that Trump has killer instincts as a culture war campaigner.

The rest of the newsletter, with reading recommendations and more, is here.

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