For the Democratic Party, tomorrow’s election is a reckoning it has not experienced in a long time. The stakes of the race for the future of the party are immense. No matter the outcome, it will have profound effects on the American left for years to come.
As the election season nears its end, things look pretty good for the party of Jefferson and Jackson. The dream of taking back the Senate, always a distant one, remains remote, but the chances of taking the House seem very high. While many Democrats are giddy at the possibility of gaining back a powerful branch of the federal government, there is also, with good reason, much cause for them to be nervous.
Current polling puts the odds of a Democratic House takeover at about 5 in 6. This means the GOP has just under a 20 percent chance to win. If this sounds familiar, it should. As election day dawned in 2016, The New York Times had Donald Trump’s chances of victory at just about 20 percent.
The similarities don’t end there. The path to that slim chance of victory required Trump to basically run the table on a small set of competitive states, a task nearly everyone thought was impossible. So too does the Republican House face a narrow band of tight races that they must essentially sweep to stay in power. Again, this seems very unlikely, but the sense of déjà vu is eerie and palpable.
There are essentially three possible outcomes of tomorrow’s election for the House, each with profound implications for the future of the Democratic Party and the shape and substance of the 2020 presidential election. Let’s look at each of these results in their turn, and how they would affect politics afterward.
The Big Blue Wave
The Democrats need 23 seats to flip the House. Anything much over a 30-seat swing will start to look like a wave, and leave them with a healthy double-digit majority. The most important thing such a result would do is validate the “resistance strategy.” That kind of margin would lead many if not most Democrats to say that donning the pink hats and giving Trump and his supporters no quarter was a successful strategy to continue.
With such a large majority, Democratic leadership would essentially be able to stop anything Trump tried to do, as well as launch myriad investigations into anything and everything, hampering the White House. It would also be far more likely that they attempt to impeach the president, and demand for that will be high from the progressives. They would be technically able to whip the votes to win and create a trial in the Senate.
The winners in this case would be from the activist wing. Far-left newcomers such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Beto O’Rourke, and Andrew Gillum (even if they lose) would move closer to the center of power in the party. Possible presidential candidates like Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Bernie Sanders would also see their stocks rise.
They Squeak It Out
If the Democrats pick up is anything between 23-30, things will look drastically different. With a small majority, leadership will need representatives from districts that supported Trump to vote against him. In the previous scenario, some of these vulnerable congressmen could be let off the hook. This makes something like impeachment far less likely and potential compromise between the House and Trump on some issues far more likely.
In terms of the overall tone and tenor of the party, this would be something of a push. The resistance wing would not be in as strong a position to claim total victory and the moderate faction would have a strong claim to being the keystone of Democratic electoral chances. In this case, the struggle between these two wings of the party would not be resolved, but fought out over the next two years.
In terms of 2020 this result could be good for establishment candidates who, though not radicals, nonetheless are vigorous in their attacks on Trump and open to some broad, sweeping progressive policies. This could describe someone like an Andrew Cuomo or a Joe Biden.
The Nightmare Scenario
Finally, there is that 15-20 percent chance that the Democrats blow it and the GOP holds the House and all the levers of federal power. Should this happen, it will be a come to Jesus moment for Democrats, in which they will have to ask themselves if they have a set of ideas and policies that can win nationally, not just on the coasts, and the answer will be no.
This would be a total rebuke of resistance politics. While the resistance won’t go down without a fight, the party as a whole would have to move to the center (as usual for out parties) over the progressive wing’s objection. It’s unlikely this would lead to greater cooperation with Trump — after all, he wouldn’t need it — but some new strategy of opposing him would be needed.
An outsider, former Republican candidate like Michael Bloomberg, or even someone like John Kasich switching parties becomes a greater possibility in this kind of scenario. Perhaps it would even make possible a total outsider free of the baggage of a dysfunctional Democratic Party.
Whether on Wednesday morning the Democrats are charging left towards the progressive future, pining for policies in the center, or still stuck somewhere in between, they will face a GOP that isn’t likely to look much different. It seems far-fetched to fancy that in the face of defeat Trump would accept he made mistakes and pivot as Bill Clinton did in 1994. At least for now, as goes Trump, so goes the Republican Party,.
This is not to say that tomorrow’s election isn’t important to Republicans. It is. In two years they have racked up momentous victories, and with two more in total power they could score even more. Should they lose, the torrent of House investigations into the White House will make a hurricane look like a sun-shower.
What is not at stake for the GOP is the soul of the party. That won’t change. For Democrats it likely will, quickly and dramatically. The Democratic Party of Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid died in November 2016. For two years, has it been grieved. Tomorrow the American people will vote to choose its successor.