Yesterday’s midterms were many things: a referendum on Trump; a “rebellion” in the suburbs; a revolt by an angry Democratic base; and part of a historical trend that sees the opposition party make significant gains in the midterms following the presidential election. None of them were great for the GOP.
The Democrats are currently forecast to win the House popular vote by 6.9 percentage points. That’s a bigger margin than the GOP won in Obama’s 2010 “shellacking,” which saw Republicans dominate state houses, governor’s mansions, and congress for years. Democrats took at least 26 seats in the House and gained seven governorships, while losing two seats in the senate in largely rural, Trump-voting states.
The fact that, even with this margin, the shift wasn’t greater — besides the Senate losses, Democrats flipped only six state legislative chambers, less than the average of twelve since 1900, and way behind the twenty-four flipped by the GOP eight years ago — is a testament to the anti-democratic electoral system crafted by the founders and exacerbated by GOP gerrymandering.
Still, there is good news. For many, the takeover of the House by Democrats — many of them, it has to be said, centrists, and an alarming number who are ex-military and even CIA — is exciting because of the prospect of an avalanche of subpoenas hitting the Trump administration, which observers hope will bring the president’s various alleged misdeeds to light. While Trump’s opposition no doubt puts far too much stock into this scenario, the end of unrestrained one-party rule in congress is a welcome development no matter what.
Even some of the major losses have positive takeaways. The fact that Beto O’Rourke lost to Ted Cruz in a squeaker — the closest statewide result in Texas in decades — is itself an indication of the GOP’s ebbing strength, particularly since O’Rourke didn’t run as a typical red-state conservative Democrat. But alongside that loss, Democrats also flipped twelve statehouse seats and two congressional seats, while narrowing the gap in numerous other races, as Christopher Hooks pointed out.
Stacey Abrams appears to have lost her bid to be the country’s first female black governor (as of the time of writing, she has not conceded). But she came within a mere 1.9 percent of her Republican opponent in a race that was not only plagued by ungodly long lines and voting machine breakdowns, but was defined by some of the most brazen efforts at voter suppression this side of the Jim Crow era.
Ditto in Florida, where Andrew Gillum, the African-American mayor of Tallahassee who ran on an unabashed progressive platform and got a nod from Bernie Sanders, lost by a mere 0.7 points. Besides coming up against a remarkably racist campaign, Gillum’s bid was also hurt by similar voting problems.
Voters were beset by voting machine glitches and long lines, sometimes as long as four hours, problems that tend to particularly suppress the vote of the working class, who can’t afford (literally) to sit around all day in a bingo hall. One polling place was locked down for 40 minutes after a man with a gun turned up. Other polling places were shunted inside gated communities whose guards refused entry to some voters. Given such shenanigans, it’s shocking the result was as close as it was.
The result next time will likely be even closer, because of another victory that took place in Florida: the emphatic passage of Amendment 4, that saw 64 percent of the state’s voters give more than 1 million felons their voting rights back. This is not only an important moral victory, but a practical one that will severely hobble Republicans fortunes in the state. It’s also yet another sign of the accelerating political shift to the left on “law and order” issues among the wider electorate. And it wasn’t the only referendum victory: Florida voters also banned offshore oil drilling (though they did also make a supermajority mandatory for raising taxes).
Yesterday was a good night for ballot initiatives all over, with anti-gerrymandering initiatives passing in Michigan, Utah, Missouri, and Colorado. Three red states (Idaho, Nebraska, Utah) expanded Medicaid last night, throwing a vital lifeline to their poverty-stricken residents, while potentially bolstering future efforts to pass Medicare For All. Three states also legalized marijuana, with Michigan going as far as to legalize it recreationally (Utah and Missouri only made it legal for medicinal purposes).
Nevada abolished sales taxes on menstrual products and set standards for the amount of renewable energy electricity providers need to draw on. Colorado ended slavery in prisons and defeated a dangerous, cleverly worded constitutional amendment meant to protect fossil fuel companies from regulation. Massachusetts upheld a law barring discrimination by gender identity. San Francisco passed a corporate tax to aid the homeless, Austin passed a significant affordable housing measure, and several Chicago wards lifted a ban on rent control, a major DSA initiative. Missouri and Arkansas both raised their minimum wages. Michigan and Nevada made voting much easier and Nashville created a citizen-led panel for police oversight. This is by no means a comprehensive list.
To be sure, there were also setbacks. Measures to kill an electric power monopoly, limit oil and gas drilling, and put in place a carbon tax in Nevada, Colorado and Washington, respectively, fell to tens of millions of dollars worth of opposition from big business. Californians voted against expanding rent control. Arkansas and North Carolina made voter ID mandatory. Alabama and West Virginia weakened reproductive rights (Oregon defeated its measure, however).
Nonetheless, the victories achieved through the popular vote — including Medicaid expansion and minimum wage increases in several red states — are significant, and provide a further boost to calls for a more populist direction from the Democrats.
Speaking of populist Democrats, the socialist Left scored a number of important victories last night. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez unsurprisingly became the second socialist in recent times to enter Congress, while Julia Salazar became the first to serve in New York’s state Senate, helping to hand New York Democrats control of the legislature for the first time in a decade, and just the third time in fifty years. DSA-backed Marc Elrich became Montgomery county executive, a position intimately involved with local city planning issues, beating the developer-backed Nancy Floreen who dropped her Democratic label to run as a third party “spoiler” against him.
There were a host of other socialist victories. DSA member and teacher Amy Perruso is headed to Hawaii’s state legislature. Mike Sylvester, another DSA member, thumped his Republican opponent to win re-election in Maine’s state house. Franklin Bynum was elected Harris County’s first socialist judge in Houston. Gabriel Acevero became the first openly gay man of Afro-Latin descent to sit in Maryland’s General Assembly. Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib will join Ocasio-Cortez to create an embryonic socialist bloc in the House, and along with progressive insurgent and Somali refugee Ilhan Omar, is one of the two first Muslim women elected to Congress. DSA members also won state house seats in Montana, Washington, and Pennsylvania, where two DSA members and a DSA-endorsed candidate were elected.
DSA-endorsed candidates have won in a number of other places, while a host of DSA members have won positions in more local bodies. Establishment control of the Democratic party remains firm, but the success of these candidates is nonetheless a positive omen.
Another positive omen are the defeats of several right-wing gubernatorial candidates, even if their replacements are uninspiring. Union-busters Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Bruce Rauner in Illinois, both of whom also embarked on crippling austerity programs while in office, were kicked out of their respective governor’s mansions last night, in Rauner’s case to be replaced by another billionaire, this one Democrat-aligned. Kris Kobach, the mini-Trump of Kansas, was also defeated.
These midterms were certainly a mixed bag for the broad Left. But they give no comfort to the catastrophizing fatalism of pundits like Peter Beinart, who wrote that Trump is winning and that it’s his opponents who are fighting an uphill battle. The Democrats’ victory margin, along with the passage of various progressive ballot measures even in red states, make that untenable, particularly when placed in the context of widespread voting problems and extraordinary efforts to suppress votes.
Nor is there much evidence to support the conclusion that the results “represented a vindication of the party’s more moderate wing,” and the triumph of “mainstream” Democrats. While many centrists were swept into power, they did so heavily on the back of small-dollar donations and mobilization by the party’s grass roots. Conservative Democrat Claire McCaskill lost in the same state that voted to raise the minimum wage. Unabashed progressive Kara Eastman lost in Nebraska (albeit with a margin not far removed from her conservative predecessor’s loss), but so did conservative Democrat Joe Donnelly in Indiana. Meanwhile, Sherrod Brown handily won re-election in Trump-supporting Ohio on the back of a history of progressive populism, only his latest of many victories in the state, and several red states passed decidedly populist ballot measures. Clearly, even in Trumpland, there is appetite for left-wing economic policies.
These midterms did, however, give a sneak preview of what we can expect in 2020 from Republicans, who will emerge from this not only hewing closer to Trump, but will likely resort to even even more extreme anti-democratic measures to secure the next election. What we’ve seen so far — gerrymandering, packing courts with hard right partisans, large-scale voter purges — are just a taste of what Republicans will aim for in the next two years, particularly if they feel control of federal government slipping from their grasp. Nancy Pelosi has said she plans to expand voting rights with control of the House; but every Democrat, liberal, and socialist countrywide should be mobilizing to ensure a repeat of yesterday’s shenanigans can’t happen again, while also pushing for broadly popular policies like Medicare For All and a Green New Deal. Progress won’t be found in a non-existent “bipartisan marketplace of ideas,” as Pelosi seems to think; at a bare minimum, it will require empowering working class voters to vote out of power what is now without dispute the world’s most radical right-wing major party.
The GOP has held on in these elections thanks to a near-infinite flow of corporate money and a generation of anti-democratic tactics. Even then, they were soundly defeated, thanks largely to ordinary people who mobilized in outrage to register voters, donate money, pick up signatures for ballot measures, fight against suppression efforts, and get people to polling places, as well as Democrats who realized people cared less about Russia than their medical bills. In advance of 2020 , it’s time to double down.