Four ways the midterm results challenged conventional wisdom

James Hohmann with Joanie Greve | November 9, 2018

THE BIG IDEA: There’s a trivial debate about whether this week’s results constitute a “blue wave.

That’s semantics.

Here’s reality: Democrats picked up more House seats than they have in any midterm election since 1974, three months after Richard Nixon’s resignation, and a dozen races still remain uncalled by the Associated Press. That’s all the more remarkable considering that the economy is booming, unemployment is historically low and wages are growing.

The whippersnappers elected in the class of 1974 were called “Watergate babies.” They took on the old guard and changed how Congress works. Among the Democrats who served as freshmen together were George Miller, Henry Waxman, Norm Mineta, Paul Tsongas, Jim Blanchard and Abner Mikva. Several went on to the Senate, from Max Baucus and Tom Harkin to Chris Dodd and Paul Simon.

The class of 2018 has many members who might similarly transform the institution. Many didn’t talk much about the president on the campaign trail, and they might resist the label, but they can fairly be described as “Trump babies.” Unlike 44 years ago, most members of this new guard are women and racial minorities. You’ll be hearing for years, and in some cases decades, from incoming freshmen like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Abigail Spanberger, Deb Haaland, Veronica Escobar and Sylvia Garcia. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar are the first two Muslim women elected to Congress. Other fresh faces like Antonio Delgado, Lucy McBath, Colin Allred and Xochitl Torres Small can expect challenging reelection races but could become formidable figures if they find a way to survive.

Democrats were expected to win the House and struggle in the Senate. That surprised no one. But here are four things that happened on Tuesday which challenged the conventional wisdom expressed by many pundits and prognosticators:

Democrats were expected to win the House and struggle in the Senate. That surprised no one. But here are four things that happened on Tuesday which challenged the conventional wisdom expressed by many pundits and prognosticators:


1. Latinos turned out.

A deluge of splashy stories in the weeks before the election suggested that the sleeping giant of Latino voters would stay in its slumber through 2018. Democratic strategists worried this could cost them pickup opportunities in Nevada, California and Arizona.

But exit polling showed that 11 percent of the electorate nationally this year was Latino — the same percentage as African Americans. That was up from 8 percent in the 2006, 2010 and 2014 midterms.

Lisa Garcia Bedolla, a political scientist at University of California at Berkeley, estimates that there was a nearly 120 percent increase in absentee and early ballots cast by Latinos in 2018 compared with 2014, based on her analysis of data from the research firm Catalist. Of those, 76 percent came from “strong” Democrats: “In Texas, Latinos requested 365 percent more early and absentee ballots than in 2014,” Bedolla writes. “Florida saw a 129 percent increase. In contrast, in California — which this year had a handful of highly competitive congressional races but no competitive statewide races — early and absentee ballots requested by Latinos still were up almost 50 percent over 2014.”

“Dónde votar,” which translates to “where to vote,” was one of the most searched terms during Tuesday on Google.

Democrats wound up winning the competitive Senate and governor’s races in Nevada, thanks partly to heavy Latino early voting in Clark County, which is home to Las Vegas.

Republicans thought Rep. Jim Costa (D-Calif.) could be vulnerable in his majority-Latino district that includes Fresno because there’s historically low turnout from the community. Conservative media heavily promoted Elizabeth Heng, a young Cambodian American who attended Stanford. Costa wound up winning by nine points because Latinos showed up. In doing so, it looks like they might have also helped Democrats pick up two state Senate districts in semirural areas — which could give them back their supermajority in that chamber.

There will be at least 42 Latinos in Congress next year, a record. “Thirty-three of 44 Latino Democratic candidates and seven of 15 Latino Republican candidates won their races,” the AP tabulates. “About 64 percent of Latinos voted for Democratic congressional candidates and 33 percent voted for Republicans.”

To be sure, the Latino diaspora is not a monolith. Far from it. Florida Hispanics, such as Puerto Ricans and Cubans, tend to care less than their counterparts from Central and South America in the rest of the Sun Belt about immigration policy. Many second- and third- generation Hispanic immigrants support Republicans and don’t like undocumented immigrants who they feel are cutting in line to get citizenship. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Latino community is still nowhere near its full potential to sway elections. 


2. Some of the left’s biggest stars belly-flopped.

Liberal groups spent months hyping progressive candidates in tough races across the country, saying that their victories would prove Democrats can safely nominate an unapologetic liberal for president in 2020. But they lost almost across the board.

The two liberal candidates who won primary upsets over more moderate Democrats favored by the DCCC both lost on Tuesday. Kara Eastman lost by three points to Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) in Omaha, and Dana Balter lost by seven points to Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.) in a Syracuse district that Hillary Clinton had carried.

Katie Porter ran as an acolyte of her mentor and former law professor Elizabeth Warren. That allowed her to win a crowded primary in Orange County, but she's trailing by two points to Rep. Mimi Walters (R-Calif.) with provisional ballots still being counted. Another progressive favorite, Randy “Ironstache” Bryce, lost by 12 points in the open race to replace retiring House Speaker Paul Ryan.

Former NAACP president Ben Jealous got crushed in the Maryland governor’s race, losing to incumbent Republican Gov. Larry Hogan by 13 points — in a state Clinton won by 26 points two years ago.

Two groups from the Bernie Sanders wing of the party, Our Revolution and Justice Democrats, failed to flip a single House seat. The moderate New Democrat Coalition won in 23 of the 29 races where it picked a horse, per NBC’s Alex Seitz-Wald.

Trying to spin a disappointing election for themselves, liberal groups have taken to claiming credit for candidates they didn’t support, Dave Weigel notes. As he writes in his newsletter The Trailer, “New York's Antonio Delgado, for example, pushed past some challengers who warned that he was not a true ‘progressive,’ yet in a pre-Tuesday memo, the Working Families Party included Delgado in a list of eight ‘races the DCCC would never have considered viral.’ That wasn't true, as Democrats had always intended to contest Delgado's 19th District. What was true? The other seven candidates on the WFP's list lost, and the progressive-backed challenger there in the 2016 election had lost, too.”

This narrative could shift if Andrew Gillum in Florida or Stacey Abrams in Georgia somehow prevails in a recount or a runoff, but both trail their opponents at this point. 

Democrats made gains in several of the states that flipped from Barack Obama to Donald Trump. But they didn’t pick up as many House seats as they hoped in Pennsylvania, despite court-ordered redistricting that created a more favorable map. There was additional evidence that Michigan and Wisconsin will be hard fought again in the next presidential.

The returns from Ohio, though, were full of warning signs for Democrats. For a very long time, the Buckeye State has been the quintessential presidential swing state — both in deciding the winner and closely tracking with the national vote. But Trump won it by eight points in 2016, and Republicans outperformed expectations.

Democrats got their base voters out to the polls, but Richard Cordray still lost the governor’s race to Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine by four points. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) won reelection with a message of economic populism against an underfunded opponent by six points, which was less than most polls forecast.

ProPublica reporter Alec MacGillis, who has spent a lot of time writing about Ohio the past few years, noted in a Thursday Twitter thread that Democrats lost every other statewide race and failed to pick up a single House seat. In fact, Democrats lost a state Senate seat in the Mahoning Valley near Youngstown. He suggests that “there’s a transformation underway in Ohio that is going to put the state ever further out of reach.”

“To put it bluntly, that is going to make the state closer to IN and MO politically than MI, PA and WI,” he tweeted. “As the share of white non-college voters drops nationwide, it’s holding strong in Ohio. The state is 82 percent white and only 28 percent of Ohioans have completed some higher ed. That’s partly because of brain drain — college grads leaving the state. But it’s also because the state’s investment in education has fallen way off. In the past decade, it actually declined. The state also tilts old. Only [750,000] of those registered to vote are between 18-24 compared to the 3.2 million who are 55 and over.”

In 2012, Obama won almost 40 percent of the vote in Meigs County, which is in rural southeast Ohio. But Clinton got only 23 percent there in 2016. Cordray did better, but he still wound up with 29 percent.

“If the party is still going to give Ohio a shot, it’s going to mean reckoning in a serious way with the gathering crisis in rural America,” said MacGillis. “Regional inequality is creating big winners and losers even at the state level. It’s benefiting Democrats personally in the sense that they are increasingly concentrated in the winner cities. But it’s not helping them politically in a state like Ohio. Columbus (and Cleveland and Cincinnati) can only deliver so many votes. And being so clustered in Columbus also limits one’s perspective. It’s hard to understand how rough things are getting elsewhere, what people are up against. And they’re getting pretty rough.”

Even with an influx of money from groups that support strict new gun laws, the conventional wisdom has remained that gun owners would be most motivated to vote around the issue. There were lots of stories written after the February shooting in Parkland, Fla., that downplayed the potency of the issue for Democrats and highlighted the risks of running on it. But Tuesday brought fresh evidence that the politics of gun control are changing, at least incrementally.

In 1994, Gov. Jay Inslee (D) of Washington State lost his House seat because he voted for the assault weapons ban. This week, his state overwhelmingly passed a ballot initiative to toughen the state’s gun laws.

“Such groups as the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence and Everytown for Gun Safety went toe to toe against the national gun lobby, helping defeat such longtime favorites of the National Rifle Association as Reps. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) and Pete Sessions (R-Tex.),” an editorial in today’s paper notes. “In Kansas, NRA A-rated Kris Kobach (R) lost the governor’s race to Democrat Laura Kelly, an advocate of common-sense reforms. In Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, the winner was Lucy McBath (D), who spoke powerfully about the cost of gun violence after losing her son to it.

“There clearly were other factors at play in these races, but as recently as five years ago it would have been unthinkable for candidates in Texas, Kansas and Georgia to campaign on gun reform,” the editorial concludes. “Sadly, a change in political thinking arises from the lengthening roster of grieving communities: Newtown, Conn.; Aurora, Colo.; Sutherland Springs, Tex.; Las Vegas; Parkland, Fla.; Thousand Oaks. ‘It couldn’t happen here’ applies nowhere.”

This will be a live issue in the next Congress. As police officers processed the scene at a dance hall outside of Los Angeles, Nancy Pelosi pledged yesterday to fight for “bipartisan, common sense solutions” on guns in 2019. It’s almost impossible to imagine a Republican-controlled Senate passing any significant gun-control legislation, let alone Trump signing it as he heads into full-fledged reelection mode. But Pelosi can force a vote in her chamber and create a national debate.

A few hours after Republican Karen Handel conceded in the Atlanta suburbs, McBath promised to do all she can to pass tougher gun laws. “It is unfortunately not surprising that on the very same day I officially became a congresswoman-elect, other families in this country are receiving the same exact call that I did six years ago when I learned my son had been murdered,” she said in a statement. “I pray that Congress will support me in taking action to prevent these tragedies from affecting the lives of so many.”


Read the article on the Washington Post >