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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

No, the Midterms Weren’t a “Split Decision”

As late votes began drifting in and post-midterm spin reached its apex, I took a long look and pushed back a bit at New York on a couple of common interpretations we were hearing:

You’d think that on November 8, 2016, the political world would have learned that early election night impressions can be misleading. But rushes to judgement were common on and immediately after Election Day 2018. Some of them were simply prefab Republican spin reinforced by a selective view of the early returns….

Another factor: There were a lot of uncalled races on election night. That occurred partly because many contests were close, but also because of two crosscutting phenomena that combined to slow the count in many places: Democratic-supported proliferation of last-minute voting opportunities, and Republican-supported restrictions that added to the number of unresolved “provisional” ballots. In the former category, California stood out as a megastate that recently decided to allow mail ballots postmarked by Election Day to be counted later, which meant that over a third of the votes were uncounted on election night.

Nevertheless, the day after the midterms, spin efforts by Republicans intensified, led by the spinner-in-chief:

“President Trump on Wednesday said that Republicans ‘defied history’ in the 2018 midterm elections by maintaining control of the Senate and winning a ‘slew’ of governor’s races — despite losing their majority in the House of Representatives.

“’It was a big day yesterday,’ a somber-sounding Trump said in the East Room of the White House. ‘The Republican Party defied history to expand our Senate majority while significantly beating expectations in the House.’

“’It was very close to a complete victory,’ he declared.”

It helped GOP spinners that their candidates led in the election night returns in a host of unresolved contests, including the Arizona and Florida Senate races and a bunch of House races in New York, New Jersey, Georgia, and, most of all, California.

But nearly two weeks after the fact, we can now make a more balanced assessment of the midterms. The fact that late-counted ballots tended to trend Democratic almost everywhere (even if it wasn’t enough to change the outcome in several key races) made the final map bluer than it looked on election night.

In the Senate, Republicans picked up two net seats by winning Democratic-held seats in Florida, Indiana, Missouri, and North Dakota, while losing seats they held in Arizona and Nevada. The fate of a final Republican-held seat will be determined in a November 27 runoff in Mississippi where appointed Republican senator Cindy Hyde-Smith will face Democrat Mike Espy. But Democrats won 22 of the 34 Senate races decided so far. And while California complicates the Senate popular-vote picture (because its top-two primary system produced a two-Democrat general election for the Senate), by any measure more people voted for Democrats than Republicansin Senate races. FiveThirtyEight calculates that 27 of 33 Democratic candidates (excluding Mississippi and two-Democrats California) over-performed the partisan lean of their states. So it’s a bit strange to treat the Senate shift as a GOP “mandate” on par with what happened in the House.

Speaking of the House, post–Election Day results for the lower chamber have been solidly blue, as Roll Call notes:

“Nine of the last 10 House races that have been called by The Associated Press have flipped to the Democrats after Gil Cisneros defeated Republican Young Kim in California’s 39th District, currently held by retiring GOP Rep. Ed Royce.”

Cisneros’s win completed a Democratic sweep of five California House toss-up races (plus another open Republican seat they were favored to win), including four in the ancient Republican stronghold of Orange County. There’s even a chance that late mail and provisional ballots could tip yet another GOP seat, David Valadao’s in the Central Valley, into the Donkey column.

Democrats have gained at least 37 net House seats, 14 more than they needed to gain control of the chamber; of the four races still unresolved, they lead in one district (New York’s 22nd) and trail in three (Georgia’s Seventh, New York’s 27th, and Utah’s Fourth). A 38-seat shift would represent the fourth largest in midterms in the last half-century (Democrats won 48 seats in 1974, while Republicans won 52 seats in 1994 and 63 in 2010), and seven more than Democrats won the last time they flipped control of the House, in 2006. When it’s all said and done Democrats will probably have won the national House popular vote by a bit more than 7 points; Republicans won it by just under one percent in 2016, and by a little under 6 percent in 2014.

Democrats also climbed out of a very deep hole they had dug for themselves in state elections. They picked up seven net governorships out of 36 on the ballot, giving them 23, even though they lost close, winnable races in Florida, Georgia, Iowa, and Ohio. They also won control of seven state legislative chambers, and made some progress toward busting up Republican “trifecta” control of state governments (they’ll have another chance in 2020):

“Entering the 2018 midterm election, Republicans had a +14 state trifecta lead: of 34 states with trifectas, 26 were Republican and eight were Democratic. But after the votes were counted, Democrats increased their trifecta total with a net gain of six, and Republicans declined to 23 trifectas (a net loss of three). States with divided government (i.e., no trifecta for either major party) declined to 13.”

Far under the radar screen, Democrats flipped four state attorney general offices, and two secretaries of State.

All in all, it’s impossible to call this midterm anything other than a solid Democratic win, once you contextualize what happened in the Senate and don’t get too hung up on expectations or should-woulda-coulda contests. Facing a highly polarized electorate and structural GOP advantages in both the House (gerrymandering and more efficient GOP voter distribution) and the Senate (the aforementioned crazy landscape), Democrats did well across the board, and without the usual midterm qualifier of low turnout (2018 produced the highest midterm turnout since 1914). There is a decidedly less one-sided atmosphere in Washington and in many states, and Democrats are well positioned for an even more fateful election two years from now.

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