Midterms 2018: Par for the Course for the Democrats

November 14, 2018

With the vast majority of the results in from the 2018 United States midterm elections, the Democratic Party has taken control of the House of Representatives with a modest but comfortable overall majority whilst the Republicans have extended their advantage in the Senate. The results were largely as expected for both parties and provided comfort on both sides. Indeed, Democrats are pleased with their gain in the House and the Republicans are hailing a historic result in the Senate, although the results there largely came about by virtue of a very favourable map for the Republicans. In January, for the second time in her career, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D) will become speaker of the House and divided government will return to Washington D.C. How much of a problem this will be for President Trump remains to be seen, but once the Democrats lost control of the House in 2010, it was basically curtains for President Barak Obama’s domestic agenda so it will be very interested to see how the situation plays out. 

In the race for the House, the Democrats performed exactly as was indicated by the polls, gaining seats across the United States. With nine districts yet to be decided, the Democrats hold 225 seats whilst the Republican total stand at 197. Once the final districts come in, it is likely that the Democrat total will be around 230 whilst the Republican total will be just over 200 at around 205. This represents a gain of around 36 seats for the Democrats, at the upper end of most projections. The result is certainly similar to the 2006 ‘wave’, when the Democrats gained a majority in the final years of President George W. Bush’s second term in the White House. Indeed, the Democratic lead in the national popular vote is likely to be something to the order of seven points, one of the largest margins in the post-1945 era. By that metric, this election was certainly a ‘blue wave’. 

Many of the Democratic gains came about in urban districts that were carried Hillary Clinton in 2016. Of these 25 districts, the Democrats won 17 seats to the GOP’s eight, although several races in California are still outstanding so this figure could well change. Texas’ 32nd district gives a good indicator of how well the Democratic Party did in these districts. In the five elections since 2004, the Republican candidate, Pete Sessions, has won the district with at least 54.3 percent of the vote. In 2016, the Democrats negated to field a candidate but the district was carried by Hillary Clinton by three percentage points. In 2018, the Democratic challenger, Collin Allred, came from nowhere to win the district with 52.2 percent of the vote; Sessions finished well behind on 45.9 percent and this represents an eyewatering swing of 35.5 percentage points from the Republicans to the Democrats. Of course, this figure is inflated due to the fact that there was no Democrat on the ballot, but the point is clear, the Democrats did very well in the GOP-Clinton districts. 

This alone, would not have been enough for the Democrats to secure control of the House but, gains elsewhere provided the pathway to a majority. In Pennsylvania, where redistricting has taken place, the party picked up four seats, and lost one; whilst in Iowa, the third and fourth districts joined the second district in the Democratic column. In Florida, two districts, both carried by Mrs Clinton, turned blue and the party picked up three districts in New Jersey, with a fourth still possible. Perhaps the biggest upset of the night in terms of Democratic gains was in Oklahoma’s fifth district. The district has not voted for a Democrat since Richard Nixon was elected president but this time, Kendra Horn (D) stormed to victory with 50.7 percent of the vote. Although the Democrats made gains across the board, the majority were concentrated in suburban districts with the party falling back slightly in rural districts. 

Alongside the House, the Democratic Party performed well in the governors’ races, although possibly not quite as well as they expected. The party successfully defended all of the governorships that they were defending and picked up Nevada, New Mexico, Kansas, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois and Maine from the Republicans. These pickups are certainly encouraging for the party, especially as Wisconsin and Michigan both voted for President Trump over Mrs Clinton in 2016. The two disappointments for the Democrats came in Ohio and Florida, both of which were expected to be close races but it appeared the Democrats had a slight edge. The Republicans lost seven Governors mansions, but picked up Alaska from independent, Bill Walker, who polled just two percent of the vote after withdrawing from the race in October. 

Two governors’ races remain undecided, Georgia and Florida. In Georgia, the election was surrounded with controversy as the Republican candidate, Brian Kemp, retained his office as Secretary of State. This led to claims of a conflict of interest as Kemp has overseen an election in which he was a candidate. During the campaign period, former President, Jimmy Carter (D) called upon Kemp to resign his post as Secretary of State but he refused. Kemp won the election by a margin of 1.5-points over his Democratic opponent, Stacey Abrams. Given the controversy, Abrams has refused to concede, although Kemp has declared victory and resigned as Secretary of State. Abrams has filed a lawsuit asking for the certification of the result to be delayed and at several votes that were declared invalid to be counted. In Florida, Ron De Santis’s margin of victory, 0.4 of a percentage-point is low enough to trigger an automatic machine recount and the Secretary of State has ordered this to proceed. The trailing Democrat, Andrew Gillum had initially conceded the race but replaced his concession with ‘an unapologetic call to count every vote’. Whilst recounts very rarely tip the results, they have been known to cause controversy, especially at the 2000 Presidential Election which led to the result of the election being delayed for five weeks. 

The results in the Senate, provided some comfort for President Trump, who hailed a ‘historic’ night for Senate Republicans. The Republicans unseated incumbent Democrats in North Dakota, Missouri and Indiana. These losses for the Democrats were certainly painful but, they were not wholly unexpected. Of the three states, only Indiana has been competitive at presidential level at recent times, with President Obama carrying it in 2008 but Mitt Romney (R) taking it back in 2012 and President Trump extending his margin in 2016. All three of these states have been trending Republican in recent years, with the Democratic wins in 2012 very much bucking the trend. To compensate for these losses the Democrats picked up Nevada and Arizona. Nevada has slowly been trending Democratic in recent elections, with President Obama carrying the state twice and Mrs Clinton carrying it in 2016. Indeed, President Trump is the first Republican since 1908 to win the White House without carrying Nevada. Mrs Clinton narrowly missed out on Arizona in 2016, and a Democrat has not won the state at either Senate or Presidential level since President Bill Clinton carried it at the 1996 presidential election. On the night, Arizona was considered too close to call but in has now been called for the Democratic candidate, Kyrsten Sinema. 

In the states that formed Hillary Clinton’s fabled ‘blue firewall’ in 2016, the Democrats showed a renewed sign of strength, holding Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania with increased shares of the vote in all four apart from Michigan. In Texas, Ted Cruz (R) held onto his seat but Beto O'Rourke (D) came closer than any Texan Democrat has done in many years to winning the race. This has propelled Mr O’Rourke into the limelight, with speculation mounting as to whether he will end up on the Democratic ticket in 2020. Having Mr O’Rourke at the top of the ticket certainly helped many Texan Democrats further down the ballot, especially in congressional races. In Florida, the Republicans looked to have edged out incumbent, Bill Nelson (D), by the razor thin margin of just 0.2 of a point but this race has now gone to an automatic recount as per state law.

åIn conclusion, these results are very much par for the course for the Democrats. An impressive performance in the House, a good performance in the Governors races and as expected in the Senate. Despite failing to pick up the governorships in Florida and Ohio, the Democrats are showing signs of a post-2016 recovery in the Midwest, regaining the governorships in Wisconsin, Michigan and holding Pennsylvania as well as holding the Senate races in all of them. They also performed well in the Ohio Senate race, a state carried by President Trump in 2016 with a double-digit margin. The Republicans performed well in the Senate, picking up states that they really should’ve held in the first place but the rebuilding of the ‘blue wall’ in the Midwest should certainly be a concern, as these states hold enough votes in the Electoral College to tip President Trump out of office in 2020. The two recounts in Florida will be interesting, if the Democratic Party manages to pull off a win in the Senate race, they will only be down a single seat in the chamber, making their path to a majority in 2020 plausible. If the Republicans hold Florida, the Senate is probably still out of reach for the Democrats unless they take several very red states. Overall, midterm elections do not give a comprehensive picture of what will happen in 2020. President Obama lost over 60 seats in the House in 2010 but was still comfortably re-elected in 2012. Despite the narrative and President Trump’s tweets, the results were good news for the Democrats and show clear progress with the party performing well in key electoral college states.

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