Nov. 7, 2018—Democrats’ dreams of divided government were dashed last night when Republicans narrowly held on to the majority of the House, and even managed to pick up a seat in the U.S. Senate. And the Democrats weren’t happy about it.
“We won the popular vote again,” said a source close to DCCC Chairman Ben Ray Luján. “Republicans have cheated the [Republican-drawn congressional] lines for eight years. This is not what the founders intended. If this was 2006, we’d have a 60-seat majority.”
The shock was well-founded. As recently as September, analysts were giving Republicans just a 20-percent chance of holding onto the House. Still, despite impressive wins over Republicans Kevin Yoder (KS-3) Leonard Lance (NJ-7), Claudia Tenney (NY-22), Pete Roskam (IL-6), and Dana Rohrbacher (R-Moscow), the Democratic wave fell short of expectations.
Even before it became official, President Trump took to Twitter to dance in the end zones.
“When I decided to give rallies in October, Republicans were losing BIG league. Now, we delivered a huge victory,” he tweeted just after midnight in Washington, D.C. “I can't wait for the fake news to say Russia stopped Nancy from being SPEAKER> [sic].”
“Sorry losers and haters,” he continued, “FAKE NEWS has been talking about the blue wave. They don't know what's going on. NYT and CNN tried to tell us lightweight BETO would beat Cruz. Didn't happen. Wrong in 2016 and wrong in 2018. Sad!”
After a long night, when Democrat Gil Cisneros finally conceded defeat to Republican Young Kim in California, it became clear that Democrats would fall short. In the end, Democrats needed 23 seats to take the House, but picked up just 20.
Democrats also failed to close the deal in competitive districts like Florida’s 27th (put in play by the retirement of Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen), California’s 39th District (competitive with the retirement of Rep. Ed Royce), and Virginia’s 10th District (a suburb of Washington, D.C.), where incumbent and huge underdog Barbara Comstock appears to have weathered the storm and narrowly won re-election.
“We were sort of on the fence about whether to even vote this time,” said June Hildebrand, 43, an office manager and Comstock voter who lives in Sterling, Virginia. “But, at the end of the day, I know that Barbara doesn’t like Trump any more than I do.”
In other areas of the country—where the president campaigned hard in the last several weeks—voters reacted differently.
“You’re darn right I voted for Kevin,” said Devil’s Lake, North Dakota resident Dave Conrad, 54, explaining why he cast his ballot for Republican Kevin Cramer for U.S. Senate. “Democrats are out to impeach [Trump], and as much as Heidi [Heitkamp] has been good to us, this is a culture war.”
For their part, though, Democrats sounded frustrated and apoplectic. “The last two Republican presidents were illegitimate; they didn’t win the popular vote,” James Carville, former Bill Clinton strategist, averred to MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki, in the wee hours of Wednesday morning. “The Republicans stole a Supreme Court lifetime appointment, Merrick Garland, and now you got this wave—it was more of a tsunami—but it still can’t overcome the gerrymandering they got in there. It’s time to get rid of the Electoral College, get rid of every rinky-dink state having two senators, and get rid of this Congressional gerrymandering.”
Although Democrats were quick to blame gerrymandering, the Democratic base proved more divided than expected. According to exit polls, certain demographics (including millennials who favor democratic socialist politics) stayed home.
If there are lessons to learn from this, one big one seems to be that redistricting matters. According to one report, Democrats would have had to win the popular vote by 11 points in order to win the House of Representatives. Additionally, fears about Democrats being handed subpoena power, and the chances they would use this power to impeach President Trump, seem to have motivated a Republican base that otherwise might not have turned up at the polls.
It’s also important to be reminded about predictions. When we hear that Republicans have a one-in-five chance of holding the House, we tend to dismiss it as a foregone conclusion. But those odds are not as predictive as they sound.
Lastly, based on the proliferation of negative campaign ads that went up in recent weeks, Republicans were able to effectively tie enough Democratic challengers to “San Francisco liberal Nancy Pelosi.”
It is expected that Pelosi’s days in leadership are numbered. According to sources, Rep. James Clyburn is already making preliminary phone calls to Democratic conference members, in order to discuss “a new era and a transition to a younger generation to focus squarely to make sure Donald Trump does not win re-election.”
It’s unclear who will hold which leadership positions or who will emerge as leader (Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer is in the mix), but it is clear that this will be a placeholder position—that the torch is being passed to a new generation of progressive Democrats—several of whom (despite the fact that Democrats failed to win back the House)—were elected on Tuesday night.
Meanwhile, Republicans have to worry about governing. Winning might be better than losing, but it is not without its challenges. “The Freedom Caucus has just become the most powerful group in America,” said one source close to Republican leadership. “Even if we end up with a Speaker McCarthy, the conservative bloc now has a veto on every spending decision,” the source continued.
McCarthy, an ally of President Trump, is expected to meet with Freedom Caucus leaders Mark Meadows and Jim Jordan to discuss a list of reforms to the conference. You can bet that Rep. Steve Scalise, House majority whip, will be closely watching the negotiations, ready to step in should negotiations falter.
But while Republicans are jockeying for leadership of the House caucus, the most important maneuvering taking place might involve the invisible primary to determine the Democrats’ 2020 presidential nominee.
Already, Michael Avenatti, the attorney who represented porn star Stormy Daniels, has announced a press conference for Thursday. The expectation is he might announce an exploratory committee. “The Democratic establishment has proven once again they are incapable of manning up and fighting Trump,” he tweeted Tuesday night. “I’ll be making a big announcement soon."