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The Midterms Point Us Toward a More Democratic Future: Four Lessons From the Elections

David Kahle walks into Sibley Town Hall on Election Day Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018 in Sibley County, Minn. Kahle, a farmer and township clerk, voted, but also baked cookies for all the voters and election officials. (Leila Navidi/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS)

November 9, 2018

By Will Marshall

Although not quite the stinging rebuke that Democrats and Never-Trump Republicans were hoping for, the midterm elections show that President Trump’s strategy of maximum polarization has reached the point of diminishing political returns.

Trump predictably claimed victory, but in the real world Democrats won the popular vote again, by more than seven percentage points, captured the House of Representatives and added seven more governors, including one in the GOP bastion of Kansas. What’s more, the party generally prevailed not by swerving left, but by appealing to moderate and even conservative suburbanites, especially across the Midwest, who are repelled by Trump’s dark mastery of tribal politics.

These gains in the pragmatic center bode well for Democrats’ 2020 prospects. Midterm elections are rarely reliable predictors of what will happen in the next presidential election. But by revealing rising antipathy to Trump among college-educated white women and men, and confirming the wisdom of Democrats’ “big tent” strategy, the outcome shows the party the way to evict Trump from the White House.

As they contemplate next steps, here are four key conclusions about the 2018 midterm Democrats should keep in mind.

First, don’t be misled by the self-exculpatory tweetstorm coming from the White House: Trump was the biggest loser Tuesday night.

The President’s line, of course, is that his heroic intervention into the campaign saved the Senate for the Republicans by energizing his blue-collar base. Did Trump’s scaremongering about immigrant caravans and Nuremberg-style rallies in red states boost turnout among non-college whites? Probably so. But his nativism and corrosive appeals to racial resentment have turned off college-educated white voters in suburbs, who normally vote or lean Republican.

By injecting cultural populism into the midterm campaign – whipping up anti-immigrant hysteria and male outrage over the Kavanaugh hearings, and calling Democrats socialists – Trump may have contributed to GOP Senate gains in states like Indiana, Missouri and Florida. On the other hand, he distracted voters’ attention from what might have been the Republicans’ most compelling argument for staying the course: The strongest U.S. economy since the 1990s. Trump, however, doesn’t do positive; he’s happiest on the attack.

Will Republicans start edging away from the President now that it’s clear he is alienating voters they need to sustain their majority status in national and state politics? Maybe so, but you’ll never go broke betting on GOP pusillanimity.

The second takeaway: White college graduates are waving goodbye to Republicans.

According to exit polls, college grads made up nearly a third of the midterm electorate, and 53% of them voted for Democrats. White college women really can’t stand Trump; they voted Democratic by 59%-39%. And Republicans only eked out a narrow victory among white men (51%-47%). That leaves the party ever more dependent on blue-collar whites, who voted two-for-one for Republicans.

A Trump-dominated GOP organized around white identity politics can ill afford to lose any white voters. By trading intensity of support for breadth of support, Trump leads Republicans into a cul-de-sac. A virtually all-white party is losing white suburbanites even as Trump’s calculated bigotry and misogyny makes it hard for Republicans to replace those voters by reaching out to women, minorities and young voters.

Third, Democrats are expanding the map.

By the morning after Election Day, Democrats had already knocked out at least eight GOP incumbents in the Midwest, which is the swing region between red and blue America. Most of these gains came in close-in suburbs, but some — such as Abigal Spanberger’s defeat of David Brat in Virginia’s sprawling 7th District, extended deeper into exurbia and rural areas. Democrats also captured governorships in Michigan and Wisconsin, picked up seats in red states like Texas, and mounted robust challenges even in crimson southern states.

The party’s growing competitiveness owes much to its success in recruiting a talented corps of candidates who were pragmatic in outlook and good cultural fits for their politically mainstream districts. Twenty-five of the 30 candidates who flipped GOP seats were endorsed by the House’s moderate New Democrat Coalition. Many were newcomers to politics, including a large number of veterans and entrepreneurs. At least 96 women were elected to the House Tuesday, many of them also veterans.

In contrast, the party’s militantly progressive wing didn’t have a great night Tuesday. Progressive-left favorites like Kara Eastman in Nebraska and Katie Porter in California lost House seats, while Andrew Gillum, Stacey Abrams and Richard Cordray fell short in their bids for governor in Florida, Georgia and Ohio. Beto O’Rourke ran an inspiring race in Texas against Ted Cruz, but pitched his message too narrowly to progressive activists and failed to sway enough swing voters.

Nonetheless, the House results show that Democrats are expanding beyond their urban and coastal redoubts, both geographically and demographically, and are on their way to becoming a truly national party again.

Fourth, the midterm offered hopeful signs of the resilience of American democracy.

Donald Trump has been a deeply disruptive President — and not in a good way. Despite winning just 46% of the vote in 2016, he’s attacked the cross-partisan policies and institutions that have made America great since the end of World War II: open trade, a vigorous free press, the post-industrial economy shaped by U.S. technological prowess, strong alliances to defend the liberal democracies, and global cooperation on global problems like pandemics, help for refugees and climate protection.

Having squeaked out a win in the Electoral College, Trump has no popular mandate for trying to drag America back to the days of closed borders and xenophobia, isolationism and high tariffs, mass production factories and a monochrome ethno-cultural identity. And by waging a relentless assault on basic norms of honesty, decency, tolerance and reasoned debate, he’s raised doubts here and around the world about the fundamental soundness of American democracy.

The midterm elections gave U.S. voters their first chance to react to Trump’s aberrant conduct in the nation’s highest office over the past two years. Democrats’ strong showing offers reassurance that our democracy’s antibodies are working to suppress the virus of demagoguery and extremism Trump has injected into U.S. politics.

Will Marshall is the president and founder of PPI.

This piece was originally published on New York Daily News.

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