“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” Charles Dickens’ famous paradox from A Tale of Two Cities captures the range of emotions likely felt among a polarized electorate as the results of the 2018 midterm election arrived two months ago.
For months, polling data had shown Democrat candidates with a wind at their back. Fundraising numbers for Democrats were equally strong, their party’s base seemed motivated to turn out and Sunday morning news shows were replete with talk of a ‘blue wave’ that would serve as a sharp rebuke to President Trump and his first years in office.
In the early evening of November 6th, the first results hinted that talk of a blue wave may have been premature and polls may, as in 2016, have failed to discern the pulse of a silent majority. In Indiana’s senate race, the GOP challenger, businessman Mike Braun, defeated incumbent Democrat Sen. Joe Donnelly, by a nearly six-point margin in what had been seen to that point as a tight race.Rep. Andy Barr, the incumbent Republican from Kentucky’s 6th District, held that House seat despite facing a strong Democrat opponent, Amy McGrath, and millions of dollars in negative advertising. Early returns in Florida were no better for Democrats as they showed Governor Rick Scott holding close (and later leading) in his bid to oust the incumbent Democrat, Sen. Bill Nelson and Ron DeSantis leading his Democrat opponent, Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum, in the state’s race for governor. It should be noted that in the gubernatorial race, DeSantis trailed Gillum in 28 of the 29 public polls that were taken between August 28th and November 6th.
By 9 p.m. EST, however, the pendulum swung and it became clear that Democrats would return to power in the House of Representatives. The extent of their majority would take nearly three weeks to discern, but ballot counting has finally concluded and Democrats posted a net gain of 40 House seats.
In addition to winning a majority in the House of Representatives, Democrats picked up more than 300 seats in state legislatures across the country and they will be returning to the gubernatorial mansion in key central and Midwestern states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, Kansas and Illinois (three of those being states that President Trump won in 2016). These victories will become increasingly important for Democrats as the 2020 census is taken and states evaluate their respective congressional district maps.
Republicans were not without their own victories on the state level. In addition to holding the governor’s mansion in Florida, the GOP held both Iowa and Ohio as well. The majority of polls leading up to November 6th had shown the GOP candidate in Ohio, Mike DeWine, trailing Democrat Richard Cordray (former Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau) and the result was likely one of the evening’s high points for the GOP.
Ohio voters demonstrated a willingness to split their ticket by re-electing Democrat Sen. Sherrod Brown at the same time they were electing Mike DeWine as governor—a sign that candidate selection continues to matter. Given the outsized roles that Ohio and Florida play in the Electoral College calculus of presidential elections, GOP victories in those states remain significant data points.
Republicans increased their margin of control in the Senate by picking up Democrat-held seats in Florida, Indiana, North Dakota and Missouri. Democrats were able to mitigate some of those losses by defeating Republican Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada and picking up the open seat in Arizona being vacated by Jeff Flake. Adding two seats to their majority in the Senate will make it easier for Republicans to confirm President Trump’s judicial nominees as well as other presidential appointments requiring Senate confirmation.
Ultimately, as Charlie Cook noted in the Cook Political Report, the 2018 elections failed to tell us a great deal that we did not already know. “Every incumbent Republican senator in a state that [President] Trump carried in 2016 won reelection … and Republicans ousted Democratic incumbents in three of the five states where Trump won by 19 points or more.” Cook goes on to note that in House elections, “Republicans won 96% of the seats in districts that Trump either won by 7 points or more, but lost 96% of the seats in districts that Trump either won by less than 7 points or lost.”
Clare Malone at FiveThirtyEight also summed it up rather well with her quip: “the election was an accurate reflection of where the country stands: existentially muddled, politically divided and historically engaged with its politics.”
President Trump cited the GOP’s Senate gain as a victory for his agenda. While many conservatives take solace in the GOP’s retention of the Senate, some measure of reflection is warranted.
The relatively close result in both the Texas senate race, where Republican Ted Cruz defeated Rep. Beto O’Rourke by fewer than 3 ,age points and the Georgia governor’s race where Republican Brian Kemp defeated Democrat Stacey Abrams by fewer than 2 points, should give the GOP some pause as it begs the question of whether the party will need to divert finite resources in upcoming election years to states long seen as strongholds.
Moreover, Democrats posted strong results in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania—three states critical to President Trump’s 2016 victory. Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight observed that if you aggregate the votes cast in each of those states in 2018, Democrats won by 7 points, 8 points, and 10 points respectively. If President Trump loses two or three of those states in 2020, his path to re-election will become increasingly narrow.
Demographics may or may not be destiny when it comes to electoral success, but they are relevant to an examination of any cycle’s election results. The Cook Political Report’s review of 2018 exit poll data showed the GOP won male voters by 4 points (51-47)—but lost women voters by an astonishing 19-point margin (59-40). The GOP won voters aged 45 and older by a 1-point margin—but lost voters 44 years and younger by 25 points (61-36).
As financial firms often say in their disclaimers, past performance is not always indicative of future results—and, similarly, it is clear that the GOP cannot long endure with what Amy Walter has referred to as an “all base, all the time” election strategy. The Cook Political Report pointed out that while a GOP-base focused strategy was enough to draw 46% of the popular vote and an Electoral College majority in 2016 against Hillary Clinton, there is no indication that it will prove equally effective in 2020.
The GOP lost a significant number of House seats across suburban districts in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, New York, and even Oklahoma. As Nate Silver pointed out, “Throughout the stretch run of the 2018 midterm campaign, Trump and Republicans highlighted highly charged partisan issues, from the Central American migrant caravan to Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. And Republican voters did indeed turn out in very high numbers: GOP candidates for the House received more than 50 million votes, more than the roughly 45 million they got in 2010. But it wasn’t enough, or even close to enough…. Independent voters went for Democrats by a 12-point margin, and voters who voted for a third-party candidate in 2016 went to Democrats by 13 points.”
John Fund at National Review credited the GOP loss of approximately 40 House seats to suburban voters awarding the GOP only 49% of their votes. Nowhere was this result more pronounced than in Orange County, California—once deemed by Ronald Reagan to be the place where “all good Republicans went to their reward.” The GOP of 2018, however, finds itself with no reward there and, for the first time in decades, it holds none of seven House seats that represent the area’s roughly 3.2 million voters.
A successful election strategy for the GOP will require enhancing the party’s appeal to suburban voters while at the same time closing the gap among women voters to at least historical averages. Democrats continue to struggle with rural voters as evidenced by their results in states like Ohio.
The results of the 2018 midterm election now appear to align with what Dan McLaughlin at National Review called the “normal ways of American politics.”
McLaughlin argued that presidential parties typically lose a little over two dozen seats in the House in a first midterm; and while Republicans will lose more than that, their losses are significantly lower than the 63 seats that Democrats lost in 2010 or even the 54 seats that Democrats lost in 1994.
“Both sides,” McLaughlin wrote, “got enough taste of victory and defeat to leave them hungering for more in 2020.” We will now have to wait two years to see if the 2018 elections portend a Democrat resurgence—or a GOP retention.