Democrats essentially won a very technical election last night, fueled by several unique factors giving them the advantage in the House this election cycle. These factors were absent in the Senate races and will likely be absent in many of the 2020 House races as well as in the presidential race. There are potential warning signs for Republicans, but a lot of opportunities if they learn the right lessons.
Let’s delve into the key observations. I will try to elaborate on each point in the coming days:
1) Not bad historically for the GOP: It looks like Democrats will pick up roughly 32-34 House seats and flip control of the House with a 10-seat majority. But Republicans picked up three or four Senate seats. Historically, the number of House seats lost is in line with the sort of backlash the incumbent party incurs in a midterm, especially when they control all branches of government. The fact that they were able to win in the Senate and buck the trend is due to the polarized map working in their favor, but also shows that this was not a historic repudiation of Trump. Obama lost 63 House seats and 6 Senate seats in 2010. Republicans lost five governorships last night (Obama lost six), but some of that was due to bad candidate recruitment and overexposure in blue states. They lost seven legislative chambers, not nearly as many as Democrats did and not bad considering the high-water mark they were occupying headed into the election.
2) This was a realignment, not a wave, even though Republicans were on the short end of it in the House and the better end in the Senate. Republicans reached a high-water mark of power in a lot of House seats, governorships, and state legislatures following the 2010, 2014, and 2016 victories. What we saw last night was the natural blowback against the incumbent party, mixed with the completion of the realignment of suburban-rural districts to Republicans and suburban-urban districts to Democrats. Ultimately, the red areas got redder, the blue ones got bluer, and Republicans were on the short end of the battle for swing voters in a midterm. Thus, in the Senate, they won red states (but lost Nevada), but they could not hold enough House seats in suburban territory. There are warning signs for both parties in this dynamic. Republicans are losing in suburban Houston, Charleston, and even Oklahoma City. But Democrats are losing the last of the FDR coalition of blue-collar workers in the traditional Democrat rural areas.
3) Money matters: Unlike previous wave elections, such as 1994, 2006, and 2010, money was a dominant factor. Democrats had the unprecedented advantage of outspending Republicans, often two or three to one, not just in the toss-ups but in a number of relatively safe GOP districts. This is how they put so many districts in play. There’s no question that without the financial disadvantage, people like Dave Brat would have won re-election. Remember, this financial edge will disappear in 2020, when Democrats will have a presidential candidate sucking up all the oxygen and money, not to mention a very open and competitive presidential primary that will drain funds. The bottom line is that money matters a lot, which is ironic given the supposed concern of Democrats about money in politics. There is no way O’ Rourke would have done so well in Texas had he not spent as much money on the Senate seat as presidential candidates used to spend on national races until fairly recently.
4) The top of the ballot killed the GOP in critical states: For voters who hate Trump (and their hate is the primary factor driving their turnout), this election was essentially a presidential election. For all intents and purposes, Trump was on the ballot. We incurred all the liabilities of Trump’s realignment in that sense. But we left too much of his benefit on the table in many parts of the country. Where we had a unified message with good candidates who ran as conservatives and motivated the base, such as Ron DeSantis, we overcame the predicted blue wave. But in states like Pennsylvania, Virginia, New York, and Illinois, Republicans were comatose at the top of the ticket and Trump himself wasn’t on the ballot. Thus, while the blue turnout was in full force as if it were a presidential election, Trump voters (or suburban voters who think Democrats are too radical) were stuck with no options at the top of the ticket. Republicans lost 12 seats just in those four states alone. The wipeout in those states would not happen with Trump on the ballot, assuming his strength remains roughly where it is today. I would argue that had Trump been on the ballot, Republicans would likely have held the House.
By my count, Republicans lost 16 of the 25 Hillary districts they held, but they also lost roughly an equal number of Trump districts. In other words, Democrats relied on the one-sided liability of Trump off the ballot, the financial edge, and anomalies at the top of the ticket to help win in areas they should lose in 2020. Also, remember that Republicans can now target a dozen other incumbent House Democrats in Trump districts in 2020. With Trump actually on the ballot, Republicans will further benefit from the realignment of blue-collar whites against those incumbents.
5) Nothing fundamentally changed for months: The contours of this election were already set within a few months after the last election. Once Trump’s personality became a problem with certain suburban voters and Republicans failed to enact an agenda to inspire them back into the fold, they lost those voters. This was evident in the polling as early as the spring of 2017 and was reflected in the special elections as well as the November 2017 Virginia local elections. The only thing that changed in the GOP’s favor is that its base, which was asleep during the special elections, ultimately came out in force. Some of that was inevitable, and some of it was turbocharged by Kavanaugh. I don’t think Republicans did anything in the past few weeks to fundamentally help or hurt their standing. This liability was baked into the cake a while back.
Daniel Horowitz breaks down the election results and what they mean for 2020 in his podcast, "The Conservative Conscience!" Listen: