BRIGHTON, Mich. ― Doug Vanderwarker, a software consultant, said he usually votes Republican. But he was voting Democratic this time because he didn’t think Donald Trump “should be the face of our country.”
Over the course of two hours outside a polling place in Brighton, a small Michigan city roughly equidistant between Detroit and Lansing, I heard many more statements similar to that ― like when Mike Blood, managing director at a software company, said he wanted “a bulwark against the current administration,” and when Crystal Straughan, a hairdresser, said, “I don’t think the president is a good example for my child.”
All of these people said they’d voted for Republicans at points in the past, as did Mary Ann Budd, a horticulturalist. But on Tuesday, she said, “I voted Democratic all the way through and I haven’t done that in years. I’m independent, leaning conservative. There needs to be more balance.”
It was a lot different from what I’d heard two years ago outside another Michigan polling place ― in Macomb County, the heavily white, middle-class Detroit suburb where the most energized voters were the ones who hated Hillary Clinton. The angry mood was a hint of things to come that night.
I’d picked Brighton for this year’s stakeout in the hopes it would be similarly revealing. The city sits in Michigan’s 8th Congressional District, which Trump carried by 7 percentage points and Mike Bishop, the Republican incumbent, won by even more in 2016. But this time Bishop was running against Democrat Elissa Slotkin, a former CIA officer who had served in Iraq. Her big issue was Bishop’s vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act and its highly popular protections for people with pre-existing conditions.
The argument over health care ― along with a devastating television ad ― may have made the difference. Slotkin won, with the Wednesday morning tally showing her vote share at 50.8 percent to Bishop’s 46.8 percent, for a margin of roughly 13,000 votes.
Slotkin’s victory was part of a bigger trend, one that was arguably Tuesday’s most important result: Democrats winning back the House of Representatives. As of Wednesday morning, Democrats seemed poised to claim about 230 seats overall, giving them a 25-seat majority, give or take ― more than enough to stop Republican legislation and, no less important, to start Democratic investigations.
The push to repeal Obamacare by legislation will stop, at least for now. The Trump administration’s management of government, not to mention Trump’s personal and financial conduct, will finally get some congressional scrutiny.
Democrats made other major gains ― like the election of America’s first openly gay governor in Colorado and the passage of ballot initiatives in three deeply conservative states that will allow 300,000 low-income working adults to get Medicaid. Two years ago, in the wake of Trump’s election, shell-shocked Democrats probably would have cherished such victories.
But the mood among Democrats and their supporters was pretty mixed as Tuesday slipped into Wednesday.
How The System Is Still Rigged Against Democrats
Partly the disappointment was a function of losses by a handful of candidates, like Beto O’Rourke, the Texas congressman running for the Senate, in whom Democrats across the country had invested so much emotionally.
Partly it was how the night played out: The first big news came from Florida, where progressives watched one of their heroes, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, lose his bid to become governor ― even as they saw one of their villains, outgoing governor Rick Scott, move ahead in the vote for U.S. senator. (A recount is now likely in the Senate race.)
But the setbacks went beyond that.
Control of the U.S. Senate had also been in play this election and, although the polls had suggested for a while that Republicans were likely to retain their majority, many Democrats grasped at encouraging signs ― like shocking early turnout numbers in Texas or a late-breaking media investigation of the Republican Senate candidate in Missouri. In the end, the polls were right and the upset didn’t happen.
Republicans will actually emerge from the election with a larger majority in the Senate than they had before, ensuring no media narrative about a “blue wave.” But it would have been that kind of wave if votes actually translated more directly to results. Democrats won the national popular vote by more than 7 percentage points, according to the latest data.
This is the new normal in America, the political minority wielding power that looks more like a majority’s.
It’s no secret why Democrats nevertheless emerged with fewer Senate seats. The Constitution gives disproportionate power to small states in the upper chamber, which in the current political alignment means conservative-leaning states have extra representation. This is an ongoing problem that will undermine Democrats in the next election just as surely as it did this one.
A similar problem plagues the House, where the incoming Democratic majority is probably smaller than it might have been because of partisan gerrymandering. And the newly elected Democrats who won in Republican-leaning districts like Michigan’s 8th are sure to face difficult challenges winning re-election in two years. As gerrymandering expert Dave Daley told HuffPost recently, “If it requires a generational wave to give Democrats [the House], that’s a sign of just how powerful gerrymandering is, not a sign that it can be conquered.”
In 2020, Democrats will have to confront another familiar obstacle: the Electoral College, which also gives smaller states extra power. It’s why Democrats have won the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections, with the lone loss a relatively small one, but in three of the six elections a Republican went to the White House anyway.
This is the new normal in America, the political minority wielding power that looks more like a majority’s, and the problem seems likely to get worse as Republicans find more and more ways to protect themselves politically.
Some of the most arresting images from Tuesday showed the long lines in Georgia, where Brian Kemp, the Republican secretary of state who was also the party’s nominee for governor, told a private gathering that Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams’ voter mobilization “continues to concern us, especially if everybody uses and exercises their right to vote.” (Kemp was ahead on Wednesday morning, though Georgia was still counting ballots.)
That kind of thing was happening all over in the country. In North Dakota, the location of another key contested Senate race, Republicans had implemented a voter identification law that made it more difficult for Native Americans, also thought to lean Democratic, to cast ballots.
Those barriers to voting, like some of the more egregious attempts at partisan gerrymandering, are constitutionally suspect. But Democrats cannot count on federal courts to save them because Republicans are successfully packing the courts with sympathetic judges ― including the U.S. Supreme Court, in no small part because they refused to fill a vacant seat while Barack Obama was still president.
Republicans have at least one other big advantage going for them and that is the media: They can depend on a slavishly partisan set of publications and networks upon which their followers will rely exclusively ― an ecosystem that has no real analogue on the political left.
In 2018, that meant Republicans could make up stories about invasions from an immigrant caravan or claim falsely to support protections for people with pre-existing conditions. The strategy didn’t work everywhere, as Mike Bishop can attest, but it probably helped secure at least some of those Senate races.
What Democrats Can Do And What They Can’t Do
The midterms were a stress test for the U.S. system of government ― an experiment in whether a party could pursue a highly unpopular agenda and get away with it. The results were mixed at best. Republicans lost their House majority, yes, but they could have lost bigger, and somehow their Senate majority did grow.
Ultimately, some less-heralded victories at the state level may prove more consequential in terms of future elections. In Florida, voters approved a constitutional amendment to automatically re-enfranchise felons who had served their time, with exceptions for convicted murderers and sex offenders. That should give the vote to more than a million Floridians, many of whom committed only minor crimes many years before.
And in Michigan, two key political reforms passed at the ballot box. One sets up a bipartisan commission to draw lines for state legislative and congressional districts, in the hopes of ending gerrymandering once and for all. The other enacts a series of reforms, including same-day registration, that will make it easier to vote.
Both reforms had strong support from the people I met in Brighton, even those who were voting for Republicans. Fairness seems to have at least some bipartisan appeal.
But the Michigan and Florida measures remain more the exception than the rule. Gerrymandering will persist in other parts of the country, as will voter suppression, and even moderate changes to the Senate (like adding the District of Columbia as a full-voting state) are not possible right now.
All of that means Democrats have to keep doing what they did over the past two years ― nominating strong candidates, organizing supporters and turning out the vote. A lot of those Senate races were close and demographic trends at least should favor the party over time.
The Democrats are making political progress and achieved a lot on Tuesday, more than disappointed partisans probably realize. But they will need to make even more gains, against the same old daunting odds, if they want to control the federal government again.