2018: Normalcy’s Revenge

Flags fly at at the Washington Monument, August 26, 2009. (Larry Downing/REUTERS)
Both sides won, both sides lost, cities got bluer, rural areas got redder.

There’s a lot to digest from the 2018 midterm elections, which offered many surprises, many expected outcomes that defied predictions of surprises, and plenty of heartbreak and frustration on all sides. It wasn’t quite the much-vaunted blue wave, it wasn’t close to the fantasized red wave, and it wasn’t a Red Wedding for Republican incumbents. But it was far from a safe night for a lot of political veterans. And the gravitational force of President Trump exerted itself everywhere, pulling to earth many candidates who found themselves on the wrong end of their constituents’ views of Trump.

Here are my takeaways from the results so far, pending detailed numbers.


Who had a bad night?

Red-State Senate Democrats: The Brett Kavanaugh vote proved a litmus test. Veteran senators Claire McCaskill of Missouri and, unexpectedly, Bill Nelson of Florida both went down to defeat after opposing Trump’s two Supreme Court picks, and Jon Tester of Montana almost failed as well. (At this writing, Montana is still being counted, but Tester appears to have survived by a hair of his flat-top.) Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, both of whom voted for Neil Gorsuch but bailed on Kavanaugh, were also defeated, while only one Republican to vote for Kavanaugh (Dean Heller of Nevada) lost. The one Democrat who supported Kavanaugh (Joe Manchin of West Virginia) survived a surprisingly close finish (like Tester, he won less than 50 percent of the vote). Democrat Phil Bredesen in Tennessee was also unable to overcome the partisan tilt of his state despite his personal popularity and support for Kavanaugh. Republicans may be ideologically and culturally divided over many things, but judges have now taken the place of tax cuts or a unifying foreign enemy as the one thing that holds the whole coalition together. With a majority of 53 or 54 senators and without control of the House, Republicans will probably make judges the party’s major focus over the next two years.

Reluctant-Trump Republicans in Congress: House Republicans in swing districts who sought some distance from the president — whether open Trump skeptics or stylistically un-Trumpish Republicans — took a lot of losses, including Carlos Curbelo, Barbara Comstock, Mia Love, Karen Handel, and Pete Sessions. The same fate befell some GOP House recruits trying to hold similar districts, such as Dino Rossi and Jay Webber, as well as the one Republican senator from a Hillary state, Dean Heller. Those House districts are typically moderate, many of them upscale, suburban, and educated, and a number were carried by Mitt Romney in 2012 but Hillary Clinton in 2016. Their swing voters chose Democrats who could take an adversarial, investigative approach to Trump and his administration without being beholden at all to Trump, his supporters, or his party’s caucus. Republican partisans seeking loyalty were lukewarm about many of these reluctant-Trumper candidates, who found themselves without a natural constituency.

Trumpier-Than-Trump Republicans: At the opposite end of the spectrum, Kris Kobach got crushed in Kansas, Corey Stewart got massacred in Virginia, Chris McDaniel finished a distant third in Mississippi as voters stuck with Republican incumbent Cindy Hyde-Smith, Tim Donnelly lost to incumbent Paul Cook in California’s eighth district, and even longtime congressman Steve King barely survived in Iowa. Dana Rohrabacher, who had practically rebranded himself as the congressman from Russia, appears to have lost as well. Together with Roy Moore’s loss in Alabama last fall, it would seem that voters want Trump to remain the craziest Republican in the room, staying out in front of his party, with its loyal support, but restrained by the need to do business with them. Republicans who positioned themselves more as Trump followers than edge-lords, such as Ron DeSantis, avoided the same fate.

Bold, Young, and Charismatic Progressives: Andrew Gillum lost the Florida governor’s race, though he had led in nearly every poll. Beto O’Rourke, despite the best showing by a statewide Democrat in Texas in many years, lost a high-turnout race in which he raised colossal sums of money and gained oceans of glowing press. Leslie Cockburn lost in Virginia’s fifth House district. Stacey Abrams, at this writing, seems to have lost the Georgia governor’s race, and Krysten Sinema, a onetime hard-edged progressive who tried to reinvent herself as a moderate Democrat, currently trails in the Arizona Senate race. National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar and left-wing activist Sean McElwee had made a wager on nine races with staunch progressive candidates during the election, and all nine lost (including Gillum, Abrams, O’Rourke, and Cockburn). Not every progressive champion went down to defeat — Jared Polis won the Colorado governor’s race, and Gavin Newsom won the governorship in California — but looking at where Democrats made inroads in Republican-held territory, we see that the voters leaned toward more mild-mannered Democrats focused on checking and investigating Trump; they stayed away from far-left Democrats looking to follow their own wild hairs.

Midwestern Republicans: The political theory of Trumpism as a majority electoral coalition is that Republicans ability to gain strength in the Midwest allows them to write off nearly all of New England (even New Hampshire) and the West Coast and also lose the demographic battle to salvage Virginia, Colorado, and Nevada. Outside of Florida and one of Maine’s two House districts, the states that Trump flipped in 2016 were all Midwestern: Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Iowa. Republicans collectively had won nine of ten governor’s races and five of ten Senate races in those states between 2009 and 2016, and they elected a governor and senator in Illinois, dominating Indiana and narrowing the Democrats’ margins in Minnesota.

While Florida stayed red and Maine went all blue in 2018, the Midwest (once Obama’s “blue wall”) turned almost uniformly blue again. Republicans lost the governorships in Wisconsin, Illinois (behind incumbent Bruce Rauner), and Michigan, and also lost the Senate races in Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota (which held two of them), Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, several by large margins. There were also significant House-seat losses across the region. Only the Ohio and Iowa governor’s races and one House pickup in Minnesota’s Iron Range remained bright spots. That said, unlike the progressive flops, the Republican side had few exciting recruits who lost, but one (John James in the Michigan Senate race) has a better argument than O’Rourke or Gillum that he should get a second shot down the road, given the generally bad environment for Republicans in his region.

Trump’s enduring strength in Florida and Ohio should give Democrats pause about 2020, but between the Democratic resurgence in the Midwest and the likely loss of House seats and electoral votes across the region in the 2020 Census, Republicans should think twice about making it their geographic keystone.

SALT Republicans: Regardless of where they stood on Trump or Trumpism, Republicans lost a number of House seats in high-tax blue states where the tax bill’s cap on the state and local tax (SALT) deduction remained unpopular. Republicans at this writing have lost three House seats (net) under Pennsylvania’s new map, and lost three in New Jersey, three in New York, three in Virginia, and two in Illinois. It was the worst of nights for Republicans in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Illinois (where the Republican governor was routed). Democrats held on to the governor’s mansion and won a veto-proof legislative majority in economically distressed Connecticut and took over the New York State Senate while winning the last Republican-held House seat in New York City (Staten Island’s Dan Donovan).

Those were the losers.


Who had a good night?

Incumbent Governors: Outside of Rauner in Illinois and Walker in Wisconsin (who alone among Republican governors was seeking a third term), Republicans won eleven out of the 13 races where they were running incumbents for governor, including three races (in Iowa, Alabama, and South Carolina) where lieutenant governors who had taken over the job got elected in their own right for the first time. All five Democratic governors up for reelection succeeded as well.

Reluctant-Trump Republican Governors: In contrast to how reluctant-Trumpers fared in Congress, blue-state Republican governors who have split from the party in Washington, sometimes dramatically, fared well with voters: Charlie Baker in Massachusetts, Larry Hogan in Maryland, Phil Scott in Vermont, and Chris Sununu in New Hampshire all won reelection. They won’t be directly involved in fights over Trump but will stay free to lead their states on a more centrist path.

Statewide Republican Women: It was a mixed bag for Republican women in the House (including the losses of Comstock, Love, Handel, Claudia Tenney in New York, and Katie Arrington in South Carolina, who has persevered through a life-threatening car accident), but with some bright spots as well, such as Young Kim in California, the first Korean-American woman elected to Congress. At the statewide level, however, a lot of hard-fought races went to Republican women. In the Senate, Marsha Blackburn won in Tennessee, Martha McSally leads in Arizona, and Cindy Hyde-Smith is in the driver’s seat headed to the November 27 runoff in Mississippi. Deb Fischer was also easily reelected senator in Nebraska; Karin Housley in Minnesota and Leah Vukmir in Wisconsin fell far short. In the governor’s races, Kristi Noem in South Dakota, Kim Reynolds in Iowa, and Kay Ivey in Alabama all won, confounding pollsters who showed Noem and Reynolds in hot water.

The Swamp: Bob Menendez was reelected in New Jersey despite the mile-wide trail of corruption that had led to his indictment, and two House Republicans currently under indictment (Chris Collins and Duncan Hunter) were reelected. Andrew Cuomo was awarded a third term despite multiple indictments and convictions among his aides and donors. The Illinois Democratic party was given full control of its state again. Three Democrats with domestic-violence issues — Keith Ellison in the Minnesota attorney-general race and Senators Sherrod Brown and Tom Carper — were victorious.

The Presidential Contenders: 2020 contenders Bernie Sanders, Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, and Elizabeth Warren all cracked 60 percent of the vote in easy reelections, and possible contender Beto O’Rourke managed to get the press to start spinning his defeat as a stepping stone to bigger things. 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney also cleared 60 percent in Utah, becoming the first American since Sam Houston to be governor of one state and then senator from another. 2016 Republican runner-up Ted Cruz won a satisfying victory over O’Rourke, remaining undefeated in Texas two and a half years after beating Trump by 17 points in the Texas primary and six years after beating heavily favored David Dewhurst in a Senate primary. Faring less well were Scott Walker and two-time Libertarian-party nominee Gary Johnson, who faded to a distant third in the New Mexico Senate race.

The Retreads: 2018 proved redemptive for Ned Lamont in the Connecticut governor’s race and Mike DeWine in the Ohio governor’s race, both overcoming past statewide losses. Bredesen, Dino Rossi, and Allen Fung (who lost his second consecutive race for governor of Rhode Island) couldn’t say the same, and neither could Richard Cordray, who failed to avenge his 2010 loss to DeWine for Ohio attorney general, or Mark Begich, who lost another statewide race in Alaska.


On the whole, despite our unusual president, the supercharged atmosphere of political acrimony, and the sky-high turnout they drove, the story of 2018 was that in many ways we returned to the normal ways of American politics. Presidential parties typically lose a little over two dozen seats in the House in a first midterm; Republicans will lose a bit more than that, but nothing on the order of the Democratic wipeouts of 2010 (63 seats) or 1994 (54 seats), undoubtedly owing in good part to a booming economy and the absence of an obvious foreign crisis. Republicans lost a bunch of governorships, but mostly ones they had held for two terms in states that were not naturally deep-red. Senators and representatives out of step with their constituents lost; so did candidates who were garishly abnormal or ideologically overambitious, and members of Congress who weren’t on board with their party’s leader. Rural red areas got redder, and urban blue areas got bluer. Democrats won more than they lost, and Republicans won or held more than many expected. Both sides got just enough taste of victory and defeat to leave them hungering for more in 2020.


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