The Trailer: It did, in fact, come down to turnout
In this edition: Where things stand, what we learned about turnout, lessons for the right and the left, where polls were wrong, and who had a bad night.
I’m not tired, you’re tired, and this is The Trailer.
Here’s the clip-and-save version of where we’re at.
House of Representatives: net 27 for Democrats so far, with the party favored to pad that based on what’s out in 16 districts.
Senate: net 3 for Republicans so far, with the party expecting to win in Florida.
Governors: net 7 for Democrats, the biggest one-election gain for a party since 1994; Republicans have won the race for governor in Alaska, previously held by independent Bill Walker.
State legislatures: net 5 for Democrats, led by their takeover in New Hampshire. The party broke three Republican legislative super-majorities: Michigan’s Senate, Pennsylvania’s House, and both chambers in North Carolina.
After years of talking to candidates and voters across the country, David Weigel offers insight on Tuesday’s election results. Which party can claim the biggest wins? What does this moment mean for our country’s urban-rural divide? Was last night a referendum on President Trump? And will we see a new era of bipartisanship?
With millions of ballots left to count in California, we know this election set a modern turnout record; we just have to wait a few weeks for the total. What we can say outright is that one of the Democrats’ post-2016 theories, that high turnout was de facto good for their party, got a little more complicated.
Exhibit A was Florida’s race for governor, which for weeks seemed to be on the cusp of a Democratic upset. From 2014 to 2018, turnout in the state exploded, from 5,951,561 votes to at least 8,148,645 votes. As intended, Democrats rocketed past their old margins in urban and suburban counties; in Duval County (Jacksonville), they won for the first time in any race for governor in this century, nearly doubling their vote from 2014.
It wasn’t enough, because rural Republicans surged, too. In the Panhandle, which has now broken two Democratic candidates for president (Al Gore and Hillary Clinton) and three candidates for governor, turnout and Republican margins blew past expectations by tens of thousands of votes. In 2014, Republicans carried Sumter County, home to the Villages retirement homes, by 21,763 votes; they carried it by at least 29,962 votes yesterday.
It’s still true that in 2014, the lowest-turnout midterm election since World War II, Democrats practically gave away winnable House and Senate races. Yesterday, they racked up totals that would have been enough to win in that year. In Maryland, Ben Jealous won at least 910,890 votes — more than Gov. Larry Hogan won in 2014. But Hogan dramatically added to his vote, too. In Ohio, Richard Cordray won at least 2,005,627 votes, more than Republican Gov. John Kasich won in 2014 to secure one of the biggest landslides in state history. He lost, because Mike DeWine found hundreds of thousands of conservative voters who hadn’t turned out in 2014, either.
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The enduring Trump coalition. The upshot of those turnout numbers, as Democrats are grimly admitting to themselves today, is that most of the voters who joined the Trump train in 2016 remain not just committed to the president, but active in elections. In no state did we see the falloff in Republican enthusiasm that we did during some special elections in 2017 and 2018; in several states, even as they lost ground, Republicans mitigated those losses by picking up state legislative seats.
There’s an impulse to link that to the news of the past few weeks, but a simpler explanation is that, in a time of economic prosperity, the Republican Party infrastructure strengthened, infused with new money, and built a strong turnout operation of the sort Democrats had failed to build during Barack Obama’s presidency.
The courts, the courts, the courts. The main reason that the conservative base cohered in 2016 was the opportunity to prevent Hillary Clinton from picking judicial nominees. That was the rallying issue in Senate races, too, even before the Kavanaugh hearings. It cut both ways — Sen. Bob Menendez pulled ahead in his race after Republican Bob Hugin said that he would have voted for Kavanaugh — and demonstrated just how much the stakes of judicial nominations now animate both parties. It mattered in Florida, too, where Republican Ron DeSantis reminded voters that the next governor could reshape the state courts, with wide-ranging implications.
Post-scandal politics. We were getting signs all year that the old standards of politics, the ones that ended careers after embarrassing scandals or indictments, were bending. They seemed to break last night. Both indicted members of Congress won reelection; Rep. Greg Gianforte won a full term; Steve Watkins, a candidate his party had hoped would lose the primary, tumbled into Election Day under questions about whether he’d inflated his résumé. He won his race in Kansas. The trend toward shamelessness helped Democrats, too, as seen in the Menendez race.
Medicaid, marijuana, minimum wages and millions of new voters for 2020. Democrats nearly ran the table on ballot initiatives, in ways that are going to pay off for years.
To recap: They expanded Medicaid in Idaho, Nebraska and Utah. They legalized marijuana in Michigan; they legalized medical marijuana in Missouri. They created independent redistricting commissions in Colorado, Michigan, and Missouri. They raised the minimum wage in Missouri. They passed automatic voter registration in Michigan and Nevada.
And, most resonantly, they changed Florida’s constitution, allowing at least 1.4 million nonviolent felons to regain their voting rights. A sentiment you heard a lot of from Democrats on Tuesday was that if that standard had been in effect this year, tens or hundreds of thousands of black voters could have cast ballots and flipped the statewide races.
Breaking the lock on redistricting. When former attorney general Eric Holder founded the National Democratic Redistricting Committee in 2017, it had one goal: flip at least one branch of state government in the places Republicans had gerrymandered the last round of maps. They succeeded in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and they helped save a Democratic majority in North Carolina’s state supreme court, which likely will ensure that the state’s map is redrawn next year.
A breakthough for state attorneys general. As of this morning, Democrats appeared to have flipped the chief law enforcement job from red to blue in three big states: Colorado, Michigan and Wisconsin. They held on after strong Republican AG campaigns in Connecticut and Minnesota, and, pending some final ballots, they may have taken over the office in Nevada. If those numbers hold, Democrats will control a majority of state AG offices, giving them room to mount legal challenges to the Trump administration.
Rebuilding the bench. The 2010 and 2014 elections wiped out hundreds of ambitious Democrats in state legislatures and statewide offices, defeats that affected who could run for higher office. In blue and purple states, Democrats broke that pattern in 2018. In Delaware, Connecticut, Colorado, Minnesota and New Mexico, they appeared to win every statewide office; in Iowa, a rough place for the party in statewide races, they elected a young new auditor. With some races not called, the party appears to have won more than 300 state legislative seats and added six governing “trifectas,” giving them total control over state government.
One reason that Democrats are feeling worse than they thought they would, considering their takeover of the House, is they ran behind the final polls — public and private — in a number of crucial states. They entered the night thinking they would win Senate races in one of three states: Missouri, Indiana and Tennessee; they won none of them. They expected to win the major statewide races in Florida, and while they’re behind in both by less than a point, the result defied their data. (More about that below.)
The biggest polling failures of the year, as of now:
Florida. Andrew Gillum entered Election Day in the strongest position of any Democratic gubernatorial nominee since the 1990s: a 3.6 percent average lead. He entered Wednesday down by 0.7 points. The apparent problem? Pollsters and reporters both saw Republicans running weaker than usual in the Panhandle and other areas affected by red tide, and, well, they didn’t.
Indiana. This is a famously impossible state to poll, thanks to state laws governing automated phone calls, but literally zero public polls suggested the race had gotten away from Sen. Joe Donnelly (D). He lost by nearly 10 points.
Iowa. The Des Moines Register’s poll, almost never wrong, saw Gov. Kim Reynolds entering election day at 44 percent, after Democrats romped in early voting. Undecided voters broke strongly for her, even as they sent two of the state’s three Republican members of Congress packing.
Kansas. Final polls here put Kris Kobach consistently ahead in a race that independent candidate Greg Orman seemed set to play spoiler in. That didn’t happen; Orman underperformed his final polls, while undecided voters broke for Democrat Laura Kelly, who had racked up an impressive collection of endorsements from Republicans horrified at the prospect of Kobach as governor.
Nevada. Yet again, in a high turnout election, pollsters underestimated the Democratic operation here; Republicans Sen. Dean Heller and Attorney General Adam Laxalt entered election day in ties in their respective races and lost by single digits.
Ohio. Democrat Richard Cordray led in every poll since September, and Republicans began the night thinking they’d lost to him. Pollsters underrated a latent Republican vote in rural areas among voters who were, in the past, less inclined to vote in midterms.
Texas. Yes, seriously, Texas, the most overpolled state of the cycle. In the end, pollsters actually missed how close Rep. Beto O’Rourke was getting to an upset; down the ballot, pollsters overrated Republican odds in suburban House seats.
Who had a bad night? Okay, where to start?
Paul Ryan and the Congressional Leadership Fund. The semi-official super PAC for House Republicans started this cycle with one obvious mission: Hold the House majority. Ryan announced his retirement this summer with a promise to go all out to help his party hold that majority without him. Both Ryan and the CLF hit their marks, then exceeded them, raising more than $150 million to beat Democrats. Their two-pronged strategy was to organize ground games in swing races, starting a year out from the election, and to define Democrats with early, negative ads.
They failed. In 17 of the 40 districts where the CLF set up field offices, Republicans either lost or were on track to lose. The record was worse in districts where they tried to define candidates early. In general, Democrats who stumbled into actual scandals (Ohio’s Aftab Pureval, Wisconsin’s Randy Bryce) had trouble; Democrats pummeled with false ads about their Medicare stance did not. In a few cases, Democrats argued that the CLF’s slashing attacks were backfiring, as when they attacked Virginia’s Abigail Spanberger for briefly teaching English at a Muslim school or New York’s Antonio Delgado for recording a rap album. The results suggest the Democrats were right.
Did the money pouring into these races mitigate a few losses? Undoubtedly, and the CLF can always take credit for destroying Bryce. But Ryan, long held up as his party’s ideas man, ended his career by helping raise money for negative ads that had little to do with ideas.
The “professional left.” Speaking of Bryce, the first viral video star of the 2018 cycle went down hard, losing his bid to replace Ryan in Congress by around 40,000 votes. That was a particularly hard defeat for the Working Families Party, which recruited Bryce to run. But the WFP and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which grew their profile in the wake of the 2016 election, had a rough night in general.
“We won already; we forced the most powerful man in Congress out of power,” said Marina Dimitrijevic of the Wisconsin Working Families Party. “And the organizing we did helped beat Scott Walker.”
The governing theory of those groups was (and is) that Democrats lose when they fail to present a compelling, populist vision for voters. The PCCC’s top recruit of the cycle was Kara Eastman, a Medicare-for-all advocate who beat a former Democratic congressman to become her party’s nominee in Nebraska’s 2nd District. She lost. Progressives rallied behind Dana Balter after the DCCC worked to recruit a more centrist-seeming challenger in New York’s 24th District. Balter lost.
Of the 14 Democrats the WFP put its weight behind, 10 lost. One (New Jersey’s Andy Kim) was in a tight race, and two (New York’s Antonio Delgado and New Jersey’s Mikie Sherrill) had not run as Bernie Sanders-style liberals. The final candidate, Connecticut’s Jahana Hayes, demonstrated the state of professional “progressive” groups; she won a primary to represent a safe blue seat. Liberals can get inspiring liberal candidates through primaries; they have little proof that they can use them to change the electorate.
Immigration hawks. While President Trump closed out the midterms by warning about the migrant caravan, Republicans who had helped build the party’s current, hawkish position on immigration were going down to defeat.
Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.), who became a national figure by cracking down on undocumented immigrants as the mayor of Hazelton, was on the losing end of one of the night’s biggest routs. Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach lost his bid for governor, in one of very few races that saw Republicans run behind their final polls. Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.), whose career began when he (helped by conservative media) hammered then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor over immigration, lost after the month of the “caravan.”
… 20 days until the Mississippi Senate runoff
… “weeks” until Arizona finishes counting ballots
… “weeks” until California finishes counting ballots