Good Saturday Morning! We’re finally past the midterm election, and you know what that means! That’s right; we’ve officially entered the 2020 Presidential Primaries. I only say this mildly in jest — Democrats will start holding their debates for the Presidential field less than a year from now. The 2020 camp will start winnowing down in the summer of 2019. All of that means the jockeying in places like Iowa and New Hampshire began yesterday.
But before the 2020 field grows any more, I want to focus on the 2018 midterms, pick through the aftermath, and see what we can learn from it. I also include a special section on the Tennessee races since I both live here and have a strong readership in the state. Links to follow.
Where you can find me this week
Make sure to sign up for the Conservative Institute’s daily newsletter. You can also go to their Facebook page. You can join Ricochet here. And I do recommend their ever-growing network of podcasts, which you can find on all popular podcast platforms. They have a show for every topic you can imagine, and the list continues to grow.
After the horrific mass shooting of Jews in Pennsylvania, I go through some of the increasing signs we’ve seen of antisemitism in America.
A pre-election post, walking through why this isn’t the most important election of your lifetime.
I was going back over my predictions and looking at what I got right and wrong. I got the Senate right and the House wrong — primarily because I was betting on conventional wisdom being wrong. Recall, that conventional wisdom was the GOP gaining seats and Democrats gaining House seats. The crux of my argument was as follows:
Conventional wisdom says GOP Senate and Democratic House. That’s the safe bet. It’s also likely wrong. Even though the Senate races are in mostly Trump country, I don’t see how one party wins one chamber while losing seats in the other. Polls and voters tend to move together. Republicans didn’t win the Senate in 2010, but they made significant inroads. If Democrats take the House, they’ll make inroads into the Senate. On the flipside, if the GOP has a good night in the Senate, it portends poorly in the House for Democrats.
It turns out we had a rare election — the first election since 1960 where one party gained seats in the House, but the opposite party gained seats in the Senate. In 1960, John F. Kennedy was elected President over Vice President Richard Nixon in a razor-thin race. JFK’s Democrats lost about 20 House seats to Republicans in the process, but Democrats expanded their margins in the Senate.
Since 1914, when the direct election of Senators began, typically the party winning seats in the House also makes inroads in the Senate. This history should make some sense if you think about it, if one chamber reflects a shift in the public mood, that should also get reflected in the Senate. It turns out that can be wrong, and we now have two instances: 1960 and 2018.
Part of that has to do with the Senate map facing Democrats — it was incredibly unfriendly. The 2020 Senate map was widely considered a brutal map for Democrats, because of the 33 seats (plus special elections) up for election, 26 were held by Democrats, meaning they were on the defensive across the map. And of the battleground states, almost all of them were in deeply red states.
Republicans made Democrats pay and expanded their margins — and depending on what happens in Florida and Arizona, that margin could grow.
Blue wave or no?
The million dollar question: was this a blue wave?
We’re still waiting on results from close House races across the country, and for California to finish their byzantine counting process. But it looks like Democrats will have around a 35-ish seat advantage in the House. Defining a wave isn’t an exact science, you can see the Cook Political Report discuss it here, but in general terms, you’re taught in political science that a 40+ seat switch is a wave. That’s primarily because 20-40 seat losses in the House is historically typical for the governing party.
Democrats effectively fell on the higher end of the historical average. What ultimately tilts this away from being a real wave, however, is that Democrats weren’t able to use the momentum they had to show energy in other areas. There wasn’t a broad shift of voters to one party from another. Conventional wisdom simply held. Put another way; Democrats didn’t outperform historical norms. They got a B+ on the project.
At first blush, I’d call the 2018 elections more of hardening and retrenchment of 2016 trendlines. Republicans strengthened their position in rural areas while losing more ground in suburbia; Democratic cities got bluer, and they peeled off suburban voters.
FiveThirtyEight put together a great piece examining the suburbs, where they classified two types of districts: Sparse and Dense Suburbs, as delivering a combined 75% of Democrats gains.
Democrats won the House by capturing districts all over the country, but their gains were greatest in districts that are predominantly suburban or at least have some suburban characteristics. This meant major gains in seats where voters’ presidential choice flipped from Republican in 2012 to Democratic in 2016, but also in seats where the GOP won in both presidential cycles. In the end, the suburbs — of varying political stripes — combined to put Democrats over the top, and it’ll be interesting to watch how this growing urban-suburban coalition governs.
In short, these are your college education people who have primarily voted conservatively and delivered Republicans massive gains over the years. But Trump is pushing them into Democrats arms. And as Sean Trende points out, if you start to see a trend where Southern states begin trending towards Democrats (see Texas and Georgia — more on them in a moment), it’ll be because the suburbs of the South start voting like suburbs in the North (for my Tennessee friends — note the difference between Bill Lee and Marsha Blackburn. Lee won the suburbs easily. Blackburn underperformed in the suburbs and urban areas).
It was a bad election for Republicans — just not as bad as it could have been, as Sean Trende noted in his takeaways piece:
Overall, Republicans had a tough night Tuesday. When all is said and done, Democrats look to have gained around 35 seats in the House, seven governorships and over 330 state legislators. Yet as rough as it was, it could have been much worse for Republicans. In Barack Obama’s first mid-term in 2010, Republicans picked up 63 House seats and 700 state legislative seats — numbers that were not out of the question for Democrats for a large portion of this cycle. In the Senate, Republicans actually expanded their majority — as it appears they will pick up 3 seats — whereas Democrats lost 6 seats in the 2010 midterms.
If we’re brutally honest here: the 2012 RNC autopsy report still looms large over the GOP. They MUST figure out how to either win back coalitions in the suburbs or start peeling off Democratic voters in the cities. Rural areas and rust belt voters have created new electoral pathways for Republicans, but that’s not going to last forever.
A realigned map
I’m going to pose some questions here to get you thinking. Remember, even though this wasn’t a blue wave year, it was an environment unquestionably favorable to Democrats. With that in mind:
- Are we sure Ohio and Florida are still swing states? Consider: In Ohio, the GOP swept nearly every primary race. The state is trending hard towards Republicans in a time when other states in the midwest snapped back to Democrats, if only briefly. In Florida, the GOP looks poised to hold the principal state offices, while sweeping most of the state races. If Democrats can’t win Florida in a blue year, this state is more red than purple.
- Are we sure Texas and Georgia aren’t purple states now? Texas I think is still a red state, for the most part, Ted Cruz is just a far weaker candidate than we give him credit. It might be wise for someone to consider tapping him for the AG role or something else, to allow the Texas GOP to replace him with someone better. I never thought I’d say that. As for Georgia, the suburb factor is a real thing, and the GOP got killed there. Kemp is likely to win, but this isn’t a reliable red state anymore.
- Trump has major 2020 problems in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. All three states shifted back towards Democrats. These three states will constitute your true 2020 battlegrounds. Trump has to find a hold here to make headway. Florida will still get considered a swing state in 2020 — but Democrats have to realize they face an uphill battle.
- Virginia and North Carolina look more and more like blue states. The suburbs play a significant role here.
Keep an eye on these things moving forward. The 2020 map will resemble 2016, but it wouldn’t shock me if Ohio is just treated as a red state now. Trump won it handily, and Sherrod Brown increasingly looks like Joe Manchin type.
As for the future, these trendlines away from Republicans could be anti-Trump bumps in the road. Or they could foretell a larger electoral problem down the road (I tend to think trouble — Kristen Soltis Anderson has a great book on the issue).
Questions for the new Congress
Similar to the last section, I’m going to pose some questions and scenarios I see playing out.
- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi? The presumption from everyone seems to suggest Pelosi will ascend to the speaker’s spot come January. However, a preliminary whip count by FiveThirtyEight indicates she doesn’t have the votes right now to win the Speaker’s gavel. If Democrats are smart, they ditch Pelosi. She’s the best bogeyman the right has, and a perfect foil for Trump in 2020. I suspect she’ll reign the party in with an iron fist to regain power. But this will be the first round of intrigue going into January.
- Impeachment? The hard left wants to bring impeachment proceedings against Trump for a long list of reasons. If it’s been a significant scandal in the past two years, they want to impeach over it. Pelosi and Schumer want nothing to do with impeachment. They’re both of the generations that saw Republicans impeach Clinton and have it backfire and propel Clinton to greater heights. There’s going to be incredible pressure on Democrats to investigate and impeach. How the establishment navigates, that issue will be fascinating.
- When does the Mueller report drop? National media was all abuzz this week with sources telling them Mueller had started writing the final report. I doubt these reports because I suspect Mueller has most of the report already written. The long debate has been over whether or not Trump testifies. If Mueller is convinced he won’t get that, then finishing the report is the last step. I suspect we’ll get the report before the new Congress sits, especially since Jeff Sessions is out and it’s unclear if his successor lasts. The level of uncertainty suggests Mueller would be wise to have most of that report finished sooner rather than later. And when he releases it, the pressure on the new Democratic House will be immense. The report will also color the 2020 primaries.
- Cabinet replacements? Jeff Sessions already needs replacing. Rumors are swirling about other cabinet officials getting replaced. Trump has pretty wide latitude with an expanded Senate majority. I’d look for Rod Rosenstein to get replaced.
- How many federal judges can Mitch McConnell shove through the Senate in the next two years? I suspect he’ll make the last two years look like child’s play.
If Democrats wanted to win and stick it to Republicans, they’d make Trump their own President and shove through things Trump wants, like infrastructure spending and moderate health care law. I don’t believe this will happen because the hard left wants nothing to do with helping Trump in any way. So you’re likely just looking at two years of investigations and not much legislating. We’ll probably see the threat of a government shutdown or two. But I wouldn’t bet on much change.
Tennessee midterm races
As promised here’s a longer write-up on the races in Tennessee. Feel free to skip if state politics don’t interest you.
My long-term theory on the Tennessee Senate race was that Marsha Blackburn was a weak candidate who would need a strong gubernatorial candidate to help pull her across the line. Tennessee is red enough for her to win on her own, but a strong gubernatorial candidate could cancel out her weakness.
Case in point: Bill Lee easily defeated Karl Dean by 21 points, if you round up Lee won 60% of the statewide vote. Marsha Blackburn defeated Phil Bredesen by 10.85 points, a drop of 10-11 points from Lee. Blackburn won a little over 108,000 fewer votes than Lee did statewide.
J. Miles Coleman created a map of the state that shows Bredesen did worse in rural counties than Obama in 2008. All Bredesen’s gains were in, wait for it: suburbs. Lee had no problems in these areas. Blackburn ran effectively as a proto-Trump in the state, and it hurt her. Her messaging never really connected in-state.
What ultimately cost Bredesen dearly was the Kavanaugh hearings. Blackburn’s campaign didn’t show life until Bredesen had to deal with a nationalized election that energized the base to vote for her. Kavanaugh also probably decreased the amount of ballot splitting. The 108,000 fewer votes are almost assuredly ballot splitters, people voting for Lee and Bredesen.
Again, Tennessee is still red enough to pull someone like Blackburn across the finish line to give her a substantial victory. But her weakness shows when the numbers prove she couldn’t pull Lee-like numbers.
On the flip side, Tennessee Democrats have to be completely demoralized. 2018 was the best shot they’ve had at winning a Senate seat since 2006 when Bredesen was governor. And they lost spectacularly. The state GOP swept just about everything, large and small.
Tennessee Democrats have no bench. Phil Bredesen, Karl Dean, and Megan Barry are all gone. Jim Cooper and Steve Cohen are incapable of winning anywhere outside their small House districts. Nashville Mayor David Briley has the charisma of a wet mop, and super-tweeters like Jeff Yarbro would lose by 20 points to Marsha Blackburn. You can’t point to any up-and-coming stars for Tennessee Democrats — not one.
It’s no exaggeration to say that barring some massive scandal from state Republicans that Democrats are a decade from relevance in state politics. Rebuilding takes time. And just like it took a decade from 2006 for Democrats to matter again, it’s going to take another decade for them to reach relevance; especially if state Republicans continue to rack up legislative victories.
Links of the week
Donald Trump Played Central Role in Hush Payoffs to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal: Federal prosecutors have gathered evidence of president’s participation in transactions that violated campaign-finance laws
Satire piece of the week
WASHINGTON, D.C.—Jim Acosta was late again for President Trump’s press conference today after he stared at himself lovingly in the mirror for a full three hours.
A breathless Acosta ran into the press conference a few minutes after it started, sheepishly whispering to his colleagues that he lost track of time during his morning stare-at-Jim-Acosta ritual.
“I usually get up early enough to stare at myself for a couple hours at least, but I was running behind,” he told reporters later. “Then I just kept looking into my eyes and thinking about how brave and powerful and smart I am, and I just lost track of… man, I really am courageous aren’t I? Wait, what was I talking about again?”
Thanks for reading!