Republican performance in the 2018 midterms is subject to debate and interpretation. Jonathan Last at The Weekly Standard argues that the elected Republican caucus is more Trumpy than before. Some moderate and establishment Republicans lost. The party was obviously bleeding upwardly mobile suburbs. Steve King, the Iowan immigration hawk, won. Jim Antle of The American Conservative argues that the results were mostly bad for Trumpism within the GOP. The party’s other Russia dove, Dana Rohrabacher, lost. Anti-amnesty Lou Barletta did too, in Pennsylvania. Outside of Ohio, the Republican party suffered 2018 setbacks across the Rust Belt.
But one thing is definitely true: Progressives lost.
All the big races that excited passion in the national press and from progressive fundraisers ended in the L column. Despite Democrats’ taking over judicial positions throughout Texas, left-leaning hero Beto O’Rourke lost to Ted Cruz, a senator whose presence on the political stage taught the press corps how to correctly spell and use the word “oleaginous.” O’Rourke managed to do this while raising unheard-of gobs of money nationally. Progressives are arguing that moderate Democrats such as Joe Donnelly and Claire McCaskkill fared no better, but they had nothing like O’Rourke’s resources, or his good fortune in his opponent. And moderate Jon Tester did squeak to victory in Montana.
Governor’s races were also bad for the Left. In the Florida governor’s race, Democrat Andrew Gillum linked his opponent, Ron DeSantis, to racists and white supremacists. Progressives gleefully shared these “dunks” on Twitter. Gillum lost narrowly, as conservative voters passed constitutional amendments making it harder for legislators to raise taxes. Former president Obama poured time and energy into Georgia for Stacey Abrams. She lost, hoping for a runoff, while progressives charged her Republican opponent Brian Kemp with vote suppression. Ben Jealous lost in Maryland, and so did David Garcia in Arizona.
The House was worse. Yes, Dems elected kid-socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But that victory had been assured once the Ds’ primary was over. She ran practically unopposed in a safe district. But lots of the young progressive stars couldn’t pull it off: Kara Eastman in Nebraska, Katie Porter in California, Scott Wallace in Pennsylvania, and Dana Balter in New York all went down.
Now, some of the governor’s and House races were in uphill districts, where establishment Democrats were more willing to allow for experimentation on the progressive edge. But especially in the House, the results seemed to falsify the theory of many progressives (one I happened to share) that there were some new voters to excite and motivate with an unapologetic left-wing message of social and economic justice. Many of these House candidates were pushing the economics-first campaigns that progressives wanted to see, Medicare for All being the featured policy.
Meanwhile, Democrats achieved substantial gains in Rust Belt states and in some of the semi-rural districts of the Northeast, where their pragmatism and rejection of “partisanship” seemed to work. Instead of radical reform, mainstream Democrat emphasized their determination to protect the most popular features of Obamacare.
If there is a tentative lesson, it may be that winnable voters don’t particularly like the Republican congressional agenda of corporate tax cuts. But that’s not a signal that they’re ready for ambitious social-democratic reform either.