What Democrats Can Learn from the Midterms


Gage Skidmore VIA FLICKR

Bob Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, must have been utterly whelmed by midterm election results.


On Nov. 6, Democrats retook control of the House of Representatives. They had a net loss of seats in the Senate and had a mix of hits and misses in gubernatorial races. But where does the party go from here, and is the Democratic Party still on the right track to take back the White House in 2020? The two-word answer to these crucial questions: It’s complicated.

The first takeaway when analyzing midterm election results is what was expected: The country is bitterly polarized. Geographical fault lines established during the 2016 presidential election were more or less upheld in 2018. The states Donald Trump won in 2016 stayed right-leaning for the most part, with the exception of swing and traditionally blue House districts as well as some some well-liked and well-recognized Democratic incumbents in the Senate or state executive races.

In Ohio, a swing state that Trump won by a greater margin than most presidential candidates of both parties in the past, Democratic senator Sherrod Brown was re-elected, but Republican candidate Mike DeWine was elected governor. While Brown was up against a generally weak and under-funded Republican opponent, DeWine ran against a strong Democratic candidate with many endorsements from high-profile national Democrats.

On the contrary, many suburban areas that have a strong distaste for Trump swung left this year, which was the key ingredient to Democratic gains in House races. These districts include Virginia’s 7th district and New Jersey’s 11th.

While the geographic fault lines were stark and cut deep, the territory on which many of the midterms’ most difficult races were fought was often unpredictable. Arizona elected a Democratic senator, Kyrsten Sinema, despite having voted for Trump by a 3.6-point margin in the 2016 election. With its growing Hispanic population, which tends to vote Democratic, Arizona is expected to be a bona fide swing state for the 2020 presidential election.

Florida, however — another notoriously purple state) — turned out to be a disappointment for Democrats. The state’s much-publicized gubernatorial election was between Andrew Gillum, a young and dynamic black progressive, and Ron DeSantis, a former House Freedom Caucus member and Trump devotee. The expensive and often heated race also relied on plenty of out-of-state help on both sides, with former President Barack Obama and Senator Bernie Sanders campaigning for Gillum and Trump campaigning for DeSantis. Currently, the race is being recounted, but it is likely that DeSantis will win. The same is true for Rick Scott in Florida’s Senate race.

The volatility of these unpredictable states is sometimes difficult to dissect. Arizona voted for a Democratic senator despite not having voted for a Democrat in a presidential election in recent history, but Florida Democrats likely have lost both marquee races despite Obama having carried the state — by a relatively comfortable margin for swing-state standards — in both 2008 and 2012.

The Democrats’ internal divide between more centrist, establishment-style candidates and progressive insurgents was not healed this year. Moderate candidates won and lost all over the country. Progressive candidates fared similarly. Given this unpredictability, it is now possible to consider that a candidate’s personal appeal and resonance with voters may be more important to some than his or her stance on the issues in 2018 and beyond.

Beto O’Rourke may have lost Texas’s high-profile Senate race, but his margin of loss  less than a standard polling margin of error — was a drastic improvement from Texas Democrats’ 2012 loss to Ted Cruz by 16 points. O’Rourke received glowing media coverage throughout the country and became something of a rock star to many American liberals. While he didn’t quite make it across the finish line, his campaign galvanized and inspired many voters and has possibly helped pave the way to Texas becoming a swing state one day. He may even run for president in 2020.

Ultimately, the midterm elections went fairly well for Democrats, especially considering the amount of gerrymandering imposed by Republican-majority state legislatures as well as the difficult Senate and governor race maps. But the midterm elections still show that this country is angry and divided, and our politics embody it. This polarization contributes to the volatility in our political system, and political operatives in both parties will need to be ready for anything.