Democrats “fix the damn road” to the White House: takeaways from the midterms

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Illustration courtesy of Margot Heron
Reading Time: 6 minutes

With all precincts reported, the 2018 midterm elections ended with Democrats gaining control of the House of Representatives, flipping 27 seats, while Republicans made gains in the Senate, picking up two seats (several seats in both chambers have yet to be called). Overall, the night was chalked up as a win by the Democrats, who — despite losses in several high-profile races — also flipped important governorships, most notably in the Midwest.

The most compelling question of the night was whether Trump would be able to weather “the blue wave.” Trump-friendly candidates pulled off wins against progressive anti-Trump challengers: Trump loyalist Ron DeSantis defeated Andrew Gillum in the Florida governor’s contest, Ted Cruz defeated rising Democratic star Beto O’Rourke to retain his Senate seat and Andy Barr defeated Amy McGrath in Kentucky, although polling showed them tied the night before the election.

These highly publicized races became highly publicized defeats that kept the Democratic wave from crashing with the force many on the left had hoped for. On a night meant to rebuke Trump, the President displayed his ability to propel hardline conservatives to victory over progressive Democrats. This fact should not be lost on the Democratic Party — which is going through an internal power struggle as progressive candidates seek to push the party establishment further to the left. Pro-Trump conservative victories should encourage Democrats to consider the strategies they deployed in the Midwest, where they flipped the governorships in Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan.

While victories from progressives such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will likely receive greater attention, campaigns like Gretchen Whitmer’s in Michigan provide a better roadmap to the White House in 2020. Whitmer’s history of bipartisanship coupled with her campaign motto, “fix the damn road,” and an agenda focused on improving education and water infrastructure was compelling enough to win in a state that Trump took in 2016.

Across the country, several major takeaways can be drawn from the election results. Republicans seem to have been rewarded for embracing Trump, which may give the President an even greater degree of freedom within the GOP. For a candidate that once bragged he could commit murder without losing support, it looks like many on the right have reason to believe that may be true. On the left, major gains in governorships and the end of Trump’s one-party rule in Washington give some optimism about the future.

Looking to the not-too-distant future to 2020, Democrats have yet to answer the major questions over the party’s identity. The success of Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary bred a wave of young progressives — highlighted by O’Rourke and Ocasio-Cortez — who enjoyed variable levels of success on election night. A slew of progressive victories could have cemented the party’s ideological shift left, but dominant performances by Democratic mainstays like Dianne Feinstein against progressive challenger Kevin de Leon do not clarify which path is truly the best.

The following three races provide more insight into the future of the Democratic party.

California Senate, Feinstein (D)* vs. de Leon (D)

The California Senate race Nov. 6 provided a live look into the battle raging between the Democratic old guard and a recent crop of challengers looking to push the party further to the left. The establishment won, as incumbent Senator Dianne Feinstein defeated challenger and president pro tempore of the California Senate Kevin de Leon by a healthy margin, 53.8 percent to 46.2 percent.

Both Feinstein and de Leon are vocal critics of President Trump, even if de Leon has painted himself as more radical and passionate — from calling for the President’s impeachment to eviscerating the current Democratic establishment for its handling of recent political crises. However, passion does not necessarily translate into effectiveness. Feinstein is a ranking member of the judiciary committee and also sits on the appropriations, rules and intelligence committees; her connections and experience would make her a more effective anti-Trump advocate, at this moment, than de Leon.

What is disquieting, however, is the ease by which Feinstein dispatched de Leon. The California Democratic Party’s overwhelming endorsement of de Leon seemingly held no sway in determining the party’s future in California. Feinstein, seeking her sixth term in the Senate, drowned out support for de Leon with money. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, just before election day, Feinstein had raised $16.5 million for her campaign, and de Leon a mere $1.6 million. Feinstein also enjoyed the support of a smorgasbord of influential and moneyed politicians — from Barack Obama and Joe Biden, to Senator Kamala Harris and Governor Jerry Brown. Kevin de Leon, on the other hand, enjoyed endorsements mostly from younger political and media entities — the UCLA Daily Bruin, the California College Democrats, Representative Jimmy Gomez and Representative Ro Khanna, among others.

What emerges mirrors the 2016 primary race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. That race, too, quickly became defined by narratives of young versus old, moneyed versus unmoneyed, grassroots versus elite (whether or not such narratives were true was a separate issue). Clinton’s victory, and the ensuing frustration among younger voters, led to a large contingent of protest votes that some say sealed Trump’s victory.

Younger voters channeled that frustration into younger, more diverse, anti-Establishment candidates this midterm cycle. Many of the most radical candidates — with the notable exception of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — lost. With their political frustrations left unsatisfied, will young voters be willing to embrace a moderate Democratic candidate (as the party will almost certainly nominate) in 2020? If California is any indication, they will not.

VA 2nd Congressional District, Taylor (R)* vs. Luria (D)

Former Navy commander and Democratic challenger Elaine Luria defeated former Navy SEAL and Republican incumbent Rick Taylor by a narrow margin of 2.2 percent in Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District, which contains two of the nation’s largest military installations and a population of nearly 20 percent military veterans.

The result contradicts the district’s three percent swing for Trump in 2016, and contrasts with the GOP’s historical monopoly on the veteran vote and veteran candidates. The Democrats last ran a large cohort of veterans in 2006, but only six of those 49 “Fighting Dems” won their races. This year, the Democrats relied on a similar strategy with more success; 22 of the Democrats’ 62 veteran candidates won their races, with a few races still outstanding.

The flipping of heavily military districts like the Virginia 2nd suggests a military community increasingly disheartened by the Trump administration’s rhetoric on defense and military power. Trump has made enemies with prominent veterans like the late John McCain, as well as with Gold Star Families, and has come under fire for his comments on the Purple Heart, Vietnam War deferments and prisoners of war. Recently, Trump asserted he would have the military construct migrant detention camps along the southern border; the Pentagon immediately rejected the order.

We should not be too quick to put the military vote squarely in the blue column, however. Democrats may have seen a significant surge in veteran candidates compared to previous years, but the majority of their veteran candidates lost. Not to mention, 110 of this cycle’s 173 veteran candidates ran as Republicans, many of which either held or usurped seats in the races. Former Marine Duncan Hunter (CA-50), for example, buried his opponent Ammar Campa-Najjar with a brazenly anti-Muslim campaign confirming the worst of stereotypes connecting military servicemembers with bigotry. Additionally, most heavily military voter districts — including the Texas 31st (Fort Hood) and the North Carolina 8th (Fort Bragg) — remain GOP strongholds. It is unlikely the military vote will ever constitute a strong Democratic base. For Democrats, the trick will be continuing to gain military voters after Trump leaves office.

Though there will actually be fewer veterans in the upcoming 116th Congress than in the current 115th, the chamber’s contingent of veterans will diverge demographically from the past; most will have served post-9/11, and the contingent will skew younger and more female. This should, hopefully, lead to a Congressional body more conscientious and critical of Trump’s invocation of military force. Democrats, now in charge of the House, have already called for hearings concerning Trump’s comments on military force at the southern border.

Texas Senate, Cruz (R)* vs. O’Rourke (D)

In what was perhaps this cycle’s most talked about race, Trump-supporter, Republican incumbent and possible Zodiac Killer Ted Cruz defeated Democratic challenger, ex-punk rocker and Whataburger fanatic Beto O’Rourke. The result did not come as a surprise — no Democrat has won statewide in Texas for nearly a quarter of a century — but it did come as a disappointment given the hype and the $69 million national fundraising effort invested in O’Rourke’s campaign.

While Cruz’s victory might seem to indicate Texas is still deep red, Texas is actually turning more purple by the minute. Texas’ demographic growth, specifically in blue, urban areas, is exploding faster than any other state. A large wave of young expat millennials, attracted by investment opportunities and the expansion of tech companies, account for nearly 50 percent of this demographic growth; unsurprisingly, these expats lean left.

The other marked shift is in Texas’ Latinx population. Historically, Texas Latinx have leaned right. (However, only wealthier Texas Latinx, largely due to voter suppression laws, tend to turn out). The old GOP was largely successful in tailoring its message in Texas to focus on fiscal and religious conservatism while avoiding controversial issues such as immigration. Trump has flipped the script. Texas Latinx Republicans — once supportive of the GOP for its low-taxes, small-government, God-first platform — are questioning their support for this new GOP party. Latinx voted for O’Rourke by a ratio of two to one. Contrast this with the 44 percent of Latinx that voted for Governor Greg Abbott in 2014 and the 49 percent of Latinx that voted for George W. Bush for governor in 1998, and the shift becomes clear.

The Democrats might have lost the battle in Texas, but they’re winning the war. O’Rourke’s networks, connections and mobilization infrastructure at the very least will be a valuable asset when it comes time to mobilize Texan support for the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate. Although O’Rourke has indicated no interest in a 2020 presidential run … well, politicians have been known to change their minds.

Matt Reagan is an undeclared sophomore. He can be reached at mreagan@oxy.edu. Zach Goodwin is a sophomore Diplomacy and World Affairs major. He can be reached at zgoodwin@oxy.edu.