Lessons Of 2018: Trumpism Won, Progressivism Lost

Lessons Of 2018: Trumpism Won, Progressivism Lost

The Resistance who had actively convinced themselves of the wave’s existence, were hampered by the economy, by Kavanaugh, and by a challenging map.
Ben Domenech
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Democrats are getting the party they want, and it can’t win in purple and red states. Republicans are getting the party they didn’t want, and it can. And that made all the difference last night, in an election that turned out to be profoundly disappointing for progressives. How disappointing? Josh Kraushaar and “Abolish ICE” progressive Sean McElwee had drawn up a list pre-election of the key races as he saw them for the evening – Republicans won all nine of them. 

The Blue Wave that had been so highly anticipated last night never materialized. A wave election, however you define it, does more than elect 30-35 House members and flip at this juncture just one Senate seat. A wave election is a combo punch of wins all over the place, including in places that push the margins of where you thought a party could win. We saw a true wave election in 2010 for Republicans. There was no such repudiation offered by Resistance Democrats in 2018. 

Yes, Democrats took the House, as anticipated – the combination of retirements and the backlash of suburban voters overwhelmed a GOP where many of its members had become lackadaisical in their approach to doing the work required to win elections. But when your most significant statewide victories for Democrats are defeating Scott Walker and Dean Heller, it’s a far cry from how things looked pre-Kavanaugh. 

So today we wake up to a Republican Party that is decidedly more Trumpian, having seen the elimination of its most moderate and Trump-critical members, and the support of those who embraced Trump emphatically on the campaign trail and in policy preferences.  The only candidate to win statewide who could be fairly described as a Trump critic is Mitt Romney, and even he will arrive in Washington to play the balancing game in a period of investigations and confirmations.  And on both scores, it’s full speed ahead, with subpoena power for the House and an emboldened majority in the Senate.

Last night, Van Jones spoke for many progressives in his sorrow: “This is heartbreaking,” he said.  And for many of the Resistance who had actively convinced themselves of the wave’s existence, it really is. Even as recently as six months ago Democrats looked capable of winning the Senate – holding Missouri, Indiana, Florida, and Montana, winning in Arizona, Tennessee, and Nevada, and on a true wave night, taking out the much loathed Ted Cruz in Texas. A Republican Senate that could get to +54 seemed impossible. Now, if results in Montana and Arizona hold, that’s exactly what they’d have.

Kraushaar maintains that taken together, these results indicate a desire for balance, not resistance – and a rejection of candidates who ran too far to the left.

The results have profound lessons for Democrats as party leaders mull over what type of candidate is best-positioned to defeat Trump in the 2020 presidential election. Progressives looked to candidates focused on turning out new, liberal voters—at the possible expense of suburban swing voters—to recreate the electorate in their states. Stacey Abrams, Beto O’Rourke, and Andrew Gillum weren’t just inspirational candidates looking to make history; they also offered a test of whether the best way to challenge Trumpism is with unapologetic progressivism. All three lost, and Gillum’s defeat came despite ample polling showing him ahead.

House Democrats took a different approach in their attempt to win back control of the lower chamber—and to check the president. They recruited military veterans and national security experts without partisan backgrounds. They understood that to win suburban areas where Republicans once dominated, they needed to reassure swing voters that they didn’t support single-payer health insurance, open borders, and a wild-eyed foreign policy. It’s why so many of the Democratic victors were running as apolitical outsiders.

By contrast, look at the few districts where House Democrats fell short of expectations. Despite Democratic domination in the Philadelphia suburbs, Pennsylvania Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick was one of the few Clinton-district Republicans to prevail. He was running against Scott Wallace, a wealthy self-funder with tenuous ties to the district who held out-of-the-mainstream views on law enforcement and foreign policy. Despite running in a swing suburban district, Nebraska Rep. Don Bacon scored a victory over progressive activist Kara Eastman, who brought in some of the most liberal members of Congress to campaign for her. Even California Rep. Mimi Walters, who looked like an underdog, maintained a narrow lead over Democrat Katie Porter, an Elizabeth Warren protege who supports a single-payer health care system.

Progressives deserve to get the blame internally within the Democratic coalition for nominating figures deemed too far left to win in states like Florida, Georgia, Texas, Ohio and even Maryland – just as the Tea Party did for botching several nominations in winnable seats. This in turn will just prompt more calls from journalists like NBC’s Ken Dilanian to abolish the Senate.  (It’s fun to play pretend.)  In reality, they should be questioning why the level of Hispanic vote in Florida and Georgia simply did not materialize for candidates who spent the last month talking about the president’s race-baiting when it came to immigration and the border.

But there’s one more category that will almost certainly be the recipients of more blame for this election outcome, building on the blame in that now infamous post-Kavanaugh New York Times oped: white women. White women solidly delivered for Republicans in statewide elections: they elected Ted Cruz, Rick Scott, Ron DeSantis, Mike DeWine, and in all likelihood Brian Kemp. They also succeeded as candidates – Marsha Blackburn in Tennessee to be their first female Senator, Kristi Noem the first female governor in South Dakota, and the first female governor in Iowa in Kim Reynolds. None of these women will be highlighted by the glowing media directed at Democratic candidates. They will be depicted as traitors to their fellow women. And, in all likelihood, that will make their pro-Republican views harden even further by the time 2020 rolls around.

This election featured the metropolitan backlash we expected, and it delivered the House to Democrats and eradicated the suburban moderates from the GOP. It just wasn’t enough to form a wave, hampered by the economy, by Kavanaugh, and by a challenging map. It furthered President Trump’s goals of the kind of coalition he wants. After two years of often uncomfortable relationships with Paul Ryan and Congress, he now has a foil in Nancy Pelosi and the House Democrats. We shall see what use he makes of them.

Ben Domenech is the publisher of The Federalist. Sign up for a free trial of his daily newsletter, The Transom.
Photo Rob Kall
Photo Rob Kall

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