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Now that the dust has officially settled, the future for the Republicans is now much clearer. Here’s what yesterday means for tomorrow.
This much we know. The Democrats have won the House of Representatives and the Republicans made gains and retained control of the Senate. What does this mean?
The first thing to appreciate is that this is a healthy and welcome outcome for the US political landscape. A little partisan pressure has been released because the government is now divided in this way. Had the Democrats lost both the House and the Senate, a large proportion of the country would right now be understandably apoplectic and beside themselves with grief. As it is, the “good guys” can breathe easy in the knowledge that the “bad guys” won’t always win.
From the Republicans’ perspective, it was a great night too. Of course they would have been delighted to retain control of both houses, but the fact they snatched a handful of prized Senate seats and beat back key gubernatorial challenges is solace indeed. In an odd way, tonight’s midterm result represents the best possible electoral outcome. Both parties should feel like they won something of value, and both can look to the 2020 presidential election as an equal opportunity. As hackneyed as the saying might be, tonight’s midterms were a “win win”.
What exactly happened? It appears the public polling on the House was accurate while the Senate polling underestimated the impact of Trump’s repeated visits to key Senate states. In the run up to the midterms, political analysts noted that many of the House seats favoured Democrats because they covered congressional districts in suburban areas close to large metropolitan cities. The demographics of these seats have been getting progressively more educated, wealthier, and often more diverse; all factors that tend to advantage Democrats. Gubernatorial and Senate elections, on the other hand, are run state-wide. This meant Trump’s “irregular voters” residing in rural and outer-suburban areas were essential to GOP victories. To put it reductively: the Democrats won the House because demographics have been shifting in their favour, and Republicans won because Trump fired up his base and blew political wind into flagging Senatorial and gubernatorial campaigns.
Things to watch out for
Based on the midterm results there are three things to watch:
- Texas is a purple state close to turning blue;
- GOP gains augur well for Trump’s re-election; and
- the Democratic primary season will be a battle royale.
Is Texas a purple state?
One of the closest and most anticipated Senate races was between Republican Ted Cruz and Democratic Beto O’Rourke. The final tally was 51% to Cruz and 48% O’Rourke. Considering a Democrat has not won a Senate seat in Texas since 1988, Beto’s close call was momentous. Cruz ran on a pro-God, pro-gun and pro-wall platform, while O’Rourke campaigned as a Medicare-for-all, open-borders progressive. It is possible that one of the decisive factors in Cruz’s marginal victory was his evangelicalism, and the fact that around 30% of Texas Latinos are deeply religious and couldn’t bring themselves to vote for a “pro-choice” Democratic candidate. Based on Beto’s performance in this election it won’t be too long before Texas is considered an electoral “purple state”, i.e.; a state that could go either blue or red on Election Day. Shortly thereafter it will go blue. In fact, sooner or later every border state will turn blue. Indeed, that’s why Trump and many Republicans want to “build the wall”. Demographic change from majority white to majority non-white, from majority third and fourth to majority first and second (let alone recent immigrant) generations, make it determinately impossible for Republicans to hold onto Texas under the current partisan identity politics paradigm.
Trump has a chance in 2020
While the Democrats rightly ride high on their House victory, they ought to consider that Republican gains in the Senate augur well for Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign. The presidential election is fought state to state under the Electoral College (not according to a national popular vote). Therefore, Republican victories in both the Florida gubernatorial and Senate races indicate that when Trump campaigns in the sunshine state he brings out enough “pan-handle” voters (traditionally Republicans) to offset the strong Democratic showings in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. It is well known that a Republican won’t become president without Florida. The other encouraging piece of news for Trump is that the GOP also won the gubernatorial race in Ohio (another must-win state for Republican to secure the White House). The midterm results certainly don’t indicate that a Trump victory in 2020 is a lay down misère, however, had the Democrats won the Florida and Texas Senate seats and secured governorships in Florida and Ohio, the prospect of two Trump terms would appear slim. The Democrats did well in the pitched battles of congressional districts, while the Republicans did well in the state-wide elections. Districts get you the House, States get you Air Force One.
How do the Democrats pick their 2020 nominee?
A fascinating aspect of these midterms was the bifurcation of the Democratic candidate. Half the Democratic candidates ran as progressives, the other half ran as centrists. Half were akin to Bernie Sanders: single-payer healthcare, free college tuition, raising corporate taxes, and the “abolition” of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The other half was similar to Nancy Pelosi: sympathetic to corporate interests and Silicon Valley while deeply invested in identity politics. This divergence in Democratic candidate begs the question: who should run in 2020?
Democratic leadership remains overwhelmingly “corporate” while the insurgent elements of the party are progressive. Progressive candidates did well in states that Trump surprised pundits by winning against Hillary Clinton: Florida, Georgia, Wisconsin and Texas (although Texas was no surprise win for Trump). Corporate Democrats, however, continue to do well in the “uncontested” Democratic states. The midterm results suggest that in toss-up seats (highly contested, purple) a progressive, Sandersesque candidate who prioritises meaningful economical and social reforms is preferable, while in the safe seats the Democrats can run their corporate big money fundraisers. But what do the Democrats do in 2020 when they need to pick a candidate for all 50 states? For 2016 the Democrats picked a dynastic, corporate incrementalist. Hillary Clinton was able to raise an astonishing amount of money but in the end failed to pay her high-wealth coastal elite and Hollywood investment a dividend. Last time, the nominee was “anointed” by the DNC (Democratic National Committee) twelve months before the primaries even began. After Barack Obama handed Clinton the baton, Hillary became the presumptive nominee, and any contenders (e.g.; Joe Biden) were discouraged from mounting a primary challenge against her. Frustratingly, Sanders refused to follow orders, causing quite the fuss. Bernie was such a nuisance the DNC had to pre-emptively allocate Hillary all the super-delegates and poison the media apparatus against the man from Vermont. The primary season was rigged in her favour.
In 2020, there is zero chance the Democrats can pull that stunt again. There is unlikely to be a nominee “anointment”. Realistically, the only way the Democratic presidential candidate will emerge is through the rigours of the primary selection process. It is quite possible that, in the same way, Trump and his nationalist-populist platform executed a hostile take-over of the Republican Party during the 2015-2016 primary season, a progressive insurgent will blossom during the 2019-2020 Democratic primaries. No matter what, as two opposing factions war it out for the soul of the party, the Democratic nominating process will be must-watch programming.
In the end, the 2018 midterms were a blessing. Both parties walk away feeling they had a win and have a fair crack at the Oval Office in 2020. Although there was no Blue Wave, the Democrats nonetheless have a deserved seat at the Congressional table. It appears that, contrary to popular opinion about old white men, the ones that debated together in Philadelphia in 1787 designed something pretty remarkable, robust and durable. Americans worried that a Hitleresque nightmare ascended to the White House in 2016 should find their fears assuaged by the knowledge that the constitutional process delivered a congressional check against totalitarian tendencies (imagined or otherwise).