Activists in both major political parties touted the 2018 midterm elections as a referendum on the distinctive and disruptive presidency of Donald J. Trump. If so, the verdict was a split decision. A much-discussed Democratic Party “blue wave” materialized Tuesday, but only washing over one side of the U.S. Capitol. It engulfed Republicans in the House of Representatives even as the GOP strengthened its hold on the Senate.
The voters’ verdict means that when the 116th Congress convenes in January of 2019 Democrats will control the House speaker’s gavel, the legislative schedule, and every committee in the chamber – panels led by chairmen who’ve vowed to investigate topics ranging from President Trump’s income taxes to his relationship with Vladimir Putin.
At the same time, it means that on the Senate side, Republicans will still be able to support the president’s foreign policy initiatives and rubber stamp his judicial appointments. The conclusion of the midterm season also means that the cavalcade of Democratic senators contemplating 2020 presidential runs – at least the ones up for re-election Tuesday night – won’t have to hide their ambitions much longer.
The first out of the starting gate was Sen. Elizabeth Warren who simultaneously thanked her Massachusetts constituents for her decisive second-term win Tuesday while signaling that higher office might be in her sights.
Yet for Democrats, the night belonged to House candidates, especially female office-seekers who themselves provided the margin the party needed. At dawn Tuesday, Republican incumbents occupied 23 House districts carried by Hillary Clinton. Most of them were suburban districts, many of them affluent -- the kind of places where the Trump economy had increased voters’ job prospects, paychecks, and stock portfolios. Yet Democratic congressional candidates swept through most of them anyway, with a net gain of 26 seats, thus restoring their party to the majority for the first time since Barack Obama’s first midterm debacle in 2010.
Although that election ushered Nancy Pelosi out of the House speakership, the 78-year-old San Francisco lawmaker remained in Congress, and repelled challenges to her authority, remaining as party leader. As such, she insisted that in 2018 Democrats emphasize the issues, notably health care and gun control. In both public and in private, she urged her colleagues to ignore the blandishments of the party’s “resistance” wing, which adopted a stance of implacable opposition to the president. This group talked a lot about the ongoing investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller – and impeachment.
The wisdom of Pelosi’s strategy was vindicated Tuesday. As the election returns rolled in, she signaled her intention to stay the course in response to queries about impeaching the president. “It depends on what happens in the Mueller investigation,” she said. “But that is not unifying and I get criticized in my own party for not being in support of it – but I'm not.”
Pelosi added that simply trying to neutralize Trump is not the message she thinks voters were sending to Washington. “We will strive for bipartisanship,” she said. “… [We] will work for solutions that bring us together.”
In a Tuesday appearance on Fox News, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders seemed to welcome this rhetorical overture. “We have a president who’s willing to work across the aisle to get things done,” Sanders said. “If the Democrats take the House, they shouldn’t waste time investigating. They should focus on what the people have put them there to do. There are a lot of things the president would love to work with them on and hopefully they’ll come to the table and do that and not continue to be the party of resist and obstruct.”
Earlier in the evening, however, the president’s spokeswoman was more candid when asked whether the president would call Pelosi. Sanders answered by saying she wasn’t sure the Democrats would actually retain her as their leader in the next Congress.
One thing seems certain on Capitol Hill, though, and that is that the new Senate majority leader in the 116th Congress come January will be the same as the old Senate majority leader: Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. That’s because the Democrats’ ability to flip House districts that went for Hillary Clinton was mirrored by a Republican knack for winning Senate races in Republican “red” states won by Trump in 2016, but still occupied -- at least until last night -- by holdover incumbent Democrats.
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham referred to these seats as “Trump states” Tuesday night. “Without him,” Graham added, “we wouldn’t have had the night we had.”
The first incumbent Democratic senator to go down was moderate Joe Donnelly of Indiana. Then came Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, and Florida Sen. Bill Nelson – in an exceedingly close loss to Florida Gov. Rick Scott. Three of the four led in their races at some point. All of them voted, perhaps fatefully, against the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Montana’s Jon Tester might also be a casualty: With 82 percent of precincts tallied by Wednesday morning, he trails Matt Rosendale by just over 2,600 votes. A sixth Democrat, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, narrowly survived Tuesday’s blood-letting. He was the only Senate Democrat to support Kavanaugh, and it seems clear that the decision to buck his party’s leadership in that fight saved his seat.
In the state capitals, 36 governorships were up for grabs. Most of them were in Republican hands for the simple reason that until Tuesday night, the GOP held the overwhelming number of statehouses – 33. No longer. Democrats picked up six governorships, including Wisconsin, where Tony Evers narrowly edged Scott Walker. Defeating the incumbent Republican, who survived a recall in 2012, had been an obsession for Midwestern Democrats.
Nonetheless, Democrats were somewhat disappointed in their gubernatorial showing. They lost three races in red states: Ohio, Georgia, and Florida. All of them were close, Florida especially so, but party strategists were left wondering if they’d blown it: In all three of those states, the Democratic nominee -- Richard Cordray, Stacy Abrams and Andrew Gillum, respectively -- was extremely liberal. Would more moderate nominees have helped? Or was it their progressive passion that made it so close?
These were the questions also being asked by Texas Democrats -- and many Democrats from outside the Lone Star State -- who had poured money and hope into the upstart Senate candidacy of Rep. Beto O’Rourke in hopes of knocking off Sen. Ted Cruz. A 46-year-old former El Paso city councilman and backbencher in Texas’ congressional delegation, O’Rourke was unknown outside of the state -- and little known anywhere but El Paso -- until this year when he won the Democratic primary. Initially, many Democrats assumed he was Hispanic, which isn’t true. “Beto” is short for Roberto, but it’s just a boyhood nickname.
“Robert Francis O’Rourke is running as ‘Beto,’ and Rafael Cruz is running as ‘Ted,’” Karl Rove noted puckishly to Politico. “Only in Texas could we have the Anglo pretending to be Latino, and the Latino pretending to be Anglo.”
O’Rourke caught lightening in a bottle, though, as least for a while. The money flooded in, $70 million worth, and the campaign coverage of the baseball cap-wearing former punk rocker was adoring, with Robert Kennedy being the favorite comparison. LeBron James wore a “Beto” cap in public, as did Beyoncé. He seemed, at first, the perfect foil for Ted Cruz, whose personality is an acquired taste and whom even Texas Republicans find polarizing.
But Cruz gradually reeled him in. It wasn’t the non-Latino factor, really, or even the little missteps that first-time statewide candidates make. He repeatedly identified his mother as a Republican, for instance, which was revealed to be untrue. He did this apparently to try and connect with GOP voters, which is a sound strategy in a state where Republicans outnumber Democrats. A more effective way to do so -- and this failure is what fatally wounded his campaign -- would have been to stake out more moderate positions on the issues. Instead, O’Rourke ruminated aloud about abolishing ICE, defended football players who didn’t stand for the national anthem, and proclaimed his belief in Medicare for all. In the end, it was too much. O’Rourke gave Cruz a scare, but ended up losing by 2.6 percentage points.
As Tuesday night turned into Wednesday morning, Democrats hoped to partially offset their four lost Senate seats and big Texas disappointment by looking further west, to Arizona and Nevada. In the latter, they got their wish, with Jacky Rosen unseating Dean Heller. In Arizona, Republican Martha McSally, the first combat pilot in the U.S. Air Force, was narrowly leading Rep. Kyrsten Sinema in one of six Senate races featuring two female major party nominees. The contest is officially too close to call, and state election officials said the processing of “late early ballots,” which include those dropped off at polling places on Election Day, will begin Wednesday.
If Donald Trump was a galvanizing force on both sides this year, as the exit polls revealed, it wasn’t the only factor, especially in gubernatorial races. Although they are solidly blue in federal elections, four Northeastern states chose Republican governors Tuesday: Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Maryland. Political observers who assert that the era of ticket-splitters is dead should take a trip to Vermont where on Tuesday voters re-elected Republican Gov. Phil Scott by 15 points, even as Sen. Bernie Sanders was winning in a landslide on the same ballot.
Although the anomaly in Vermont’s election returns may be reassuring to good-government types and political moderates, the moral of the story on Tuesday was hardly that the status quo reasserted itself. Quite the opposite; diversity was the name of the game this year, as new barriers were broken, generally by Democrats. Rep. Jared Polis of Colorado was elected the nation’s first married gay governor; the first two Muslim women were elected the House, as were the first two female Native Americans: Debra Haaland of New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District, and Sharice Davids of Kansas. Davids is also a lesbian.
A final success story in the 2018 midterms were the professional prognosticators, who helped atone for some of the wild errors made in the waning days of the wild rumpus that was the 2016 presidential campaign.
University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato’s Crystal Ball had the Democrats picking up 34 House seats, with Republicans netting one seat in the Senate. “The 2018 midterm has long been a study in contradictory signs,” wrote Sabato and Crystal Ball managing editor Kyle Kondik. “There is, for Republicans, the benefit of running at a time of relative peace and prosperity. Unpopular wars and economic recessions have spelled doom for the president’s party in many past midterm elections. But then there is also the weak approval rating of President Trump, who, thanks to his deliberately polarizing style, has kept the GOP base in line but strongly alienated Democrats and, perhaps more importantly, independent, swing voters.”
Assessing 75 competitive House races, the Cook Political Report predicted that Democratic gains of 30 to 40 seats was the most likely. At Inside Elections, Nathan L. Gonzales said the “most likely outcome” was Democratic gains of 25 to 35 seats, with even larger pickups possible. Neither organization predicted much movement in the Senate.
Although RealClearPolitics doesn’t make specific predictions, the RCP map based on polling averages had 43 Senate seats shaded blue as either being safely Democratic or leaning that way, with 49 in GOP red. Eight states (Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, West Virginia, and Tennessee) were rated as toss-ups. In the House, the RCP average suggested a pickup for the Democrats of 26 seats.
As the wee hours approached, Beto O’Rourke dropped an exhilarated “F-bomb” on his supporters as he conceded the race. In acknowledging the recent past, O’Rourke hinted at a bracing future, one perhaps enhanced by the millions of dollars in his campaign war chest. Under the law, that money is regulated pretty well. O’Rourke could, for example, underwrite a future bid of his own for national office, something he hinted at as he bid his supporters farewell.
“We will see you out there,” O‘Rourke said, “down the road.”
And so does 2020 begin.