The 2018 Election: A Blue Wave With a Harsh Red Undertow

The 2018 Election: A Blue Wave With a Harsh Red Undertow

The 2018 Election: A Blue Wave With a Harsh Red Undertow

The midterms revealed a country still divided, but a string of noteworthy progressive victories provides a road map for a more perfect union.


The Democrats’ blue wave reclaimed the House of Representatives yesterday, moving toward flipping over 30 seats, they took seven gubernatorial races and counting, and made significant gains in down ballot races—winning over 260 state legislative seats with more to come. But the red undertow gave Republicans a larger majority in the Senate—with Republicans consolidating their hold on conservative, largely white and rural states. Transformative Democratic candidates—Gillum in Florida, O’Rourke in Texas—made stunning runs, only to fall short by the smallest of margins. (Stacey Abrams’s run for governor in Georgia remains a race too close to call as this is written.)

Trump’s manic, unhinged, dishonest, and scurrilous campaigning insured that he would be, as he put it, “on the ballot.” No doubt his blend of hate and fear helped build Republican turnout. His results were decidedly mixed. He surely aided Democratic takeover of the House, while helping Republican victories in the Senate. Hand-selected candidates, like the scabrous Kris Kobach in Kansas, lost, as did Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Teflon no longer.

The new Democratic House is expected to feature over 100 women. A new wave of progressive legislators—younger, more female, more diverse, more progressive—will energize the Democratic caucus. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY-14) and Abby Finkenauer (IA-1) are the youngest women ever elected to Congress. Ayanna Pressley (MA-7) and Jahana Hayes (CT-5) will be the first African American congresswomen from their states. Veronica Escobar (16th District) and Sylvia Garcia (29th District) will be the first Latina women in the Congress from Texas. Ilhan Omar (MN-5) and Rashida Tlaib (MI-13) will be the first Muslim women in the Congress, and Deb Haaland (NM-1) and Sharice Davids (KS-3) the first Native American women in the Congress.

Progress at the state and local level got less attention in early returns, but this is where the growing thrust of progressive energy is its strongest. Take Action Minnesota not only helped elect Ilhan Omar to the House and Keith Ellison as the state’s attorney general, it also helped Angela Conley become the first African American elected to the Board of Supervisors in Hennepin Country, a municipality with a budget of $2.4 billion. Door-to-door organizing by progressives helped break the GOP supermajority in North Carolina Senate and House. Democrats flipped the Colorado and Maine Senates, the New York Senate, and the New Hampshire Senate and House. Democrats, fueled by the energy of grassroots organizing, now are in full control in New York, Illinois, Colorado, Maine, and New Mexico. These “laboratories of democracy” can now begin to forward progressive alternatives on everything from money in politics to climate change.

Similarly, across the country, progressive ballot initiatives fared well. Voters in Arkansas and Missouri—Arkansas and Missouri!—passed increases in the minimum wage. Michigan passed Automatic Voter Registration, Maryland same-day voter registration. Michigan passed recreational marijuana. Oregon voters rejected a measure to restrict access to abortion. (Ominously, Alabama and West Virginia passed anti-abortion initiatives designed to frame a constitutional case for the Supreme Court.) Colorado voters endorsed a ceiling on the cost of payday-lender loans, pushed by the grassroots group Colorado People’s Action. The most dramatic victory came in Florida, where voters restored voting rights to ex-felons that had served their time, giving an estimated 1.4 million citizens the right to vote.

Turnout was dramatic. Exit polls, which surely will be revised, reported that 29 percent of the electorate were people of color, a new midterm record. Women constituted the majority of voters and voted overwhelmingly for Democrats. Over two-thirds of voters considered the economy excellent or good (up from little more than one-third two years ago), yet Republicans still fared poorly. Independents sided with Democrats dramatically (55-41 in the ABC exit poll); Trump won them in 2016 and Republicans in the 2014 midterms. The Democratic margin among young voters, 18-29, was almost double what it was for Clinton in 2016, and three times the margin for Democrats in 2014. Similarly, college-educated white women, who favored Republicans in 2014, voted overwhelmingly for Democrats (61-38 in the ABC exit poll).

Republicans are increasingly the party of rural, white, non-college-educated males, and aging and evangelical voters. Democrats made dramatic advances in the formerly Republican suburbs, and in the Midwest, while continuing to gain in the Southwest.

Among Democrats, the votes hadn’t even been cast before the Wall Street wing of the party was declaring victory, arguing that Democrats had won with moderates and veterans able to appeal in the suburbs, suggesting a rerun of the Clinton strategy in 2016. But the reality is that progressives made remarkable advances over the past two years. In the Senate and in the new Democratic majority in the House, progressives will drive the agenda, a defensive agenda—defending Obamacare, fending off attacks on abortion, defending Medicare and Social Security, defending failed US trade policies—offers no answers for the future. Progressive political groups—People’s Action, Indivisible, Our Revolution, Democrats for America, the Progressive Congressional Campaign Committee, the Congressional Progressive Caucus—dramatically increased their capacity, their sophistication, and their resources.

Divided control in Washington means little will get done, particularly with a president more interested in sowing division than in developing policy. Virtually anything Democrats pass out of the House will die in the Senate. The key for Democrats will be to use congressional hearings and reform legislation to frame a clear choice for Americans headed into 2020. That means less focus on Trump’s various corruptions (people know he’s a scoundrel; they just think he’s their scoundrel) and more on exposing the predators’ ball in Washington. Democrats need to shine a light on how entrenched interests and Big Money have used the Trump administration to rig the rules in ways that hurt working people: rolling back worker rights, trampling environmental protections, and fleecing students and consumers. And the moment requires using hearings and legislation to show that, in key areas—Medicare for all, tuition-free college, rebuilding America green, criminal-justice and immigration reform, anti-corruption legislation, and more—there is an alternative.

Trump dubbed himself the “magic man” the day after the election. “Con man” would be more accurate—and Americans are increasingly not falling for the sting. The 2018 election exposed once more how divided the country is—but it also showed the tide is running against Trump’s hateful brand of politics and the party that he continues to deform.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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