Trying to project lessons from a midterm election for the next general election is risky business for many reasons. Yet no one may be more interested in trying to tease lessons out of 2018 than the Democrats seeking the presidency in 2020. For them, the results must range somewhere between confounding and disappointing.
Like any party out of the White House, today’s Democrats are groping for an identity. In particular, they are searching for the type of candidate who can beat the Republican––presumably President Trump––in a national contest.
The prospective candidates appear to be trying to fit themselves into various templates to please certain factions of their base, or fit certain theories about how to win in the Electoral College. A number of Democrats running statewide campaigns in 2018 tested these various approaches, but the results are hardly encouraging.
One Democratic faction is interested in a campaign involving identity politics––or, to put it less pejoratively, representational politics. They are shopping for the next Barack Obama, a candidate who inspires minorities and younger voters to flock to the polls.
Is Identity Politics the Key?
Presidential wannabes like senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker (or former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick) probably watched gubernatorial candidates like Florida’s Andrew Gillum and Georgia’s Stacey Abrams with great interest. Gillum and Abrams both ran on solidly progressive platforms, and neither was afraid to make race and racism issues in their campaigns.
Both Gillum and Abrams fell short of victory, in part because the Republican candidates fared better with Latino voters in their respective states than the conventional wisdom would suggest. This is a continuing problem with how Democrats view elections.
The identity politics faction may convince themselves Gillum and Abrams came close and that Harris, Booker, or Patrick would be better candidates (presidential candidates do not lack ego). But Florida is usually close because it’s Florida––a diverse state of retirees, alligators, and Florida men (I kid, but only a little). The grey incumbency of Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson in Florida outperformed Gillum. The failure of the emerging Democratic majority to emerge once again may give other Democrats second thoughts about jumping on the identity bandwagon early in 2020.
Gillum and Abrams also ran campaigns viewed as an appeal to the “Resist” faction of the Democratic Party, regardless of race. Their losses suggest that the “Fight Club” approach of prospective candidates like stunt lawyer Michael Avenatti also has its limits.
Conversely, the failure of Beto O’Rourke in Texas demonstrates the limits of a lighter, inspirational tone. It was easy to goof on Beto and his most cultish followers, but he had qualities that allowed him to support impeaching the president while winning Republican votes in congressional districts across the Lone Star State, not just those seats lost in the suburbs of Dallas and Houston.
Nevertheless, O’Rourke was far enough left that he could not persuade Texans to oust the less charismatic Ted Cruz. As Francis Ford Coppola had the fictionalized George S. Patton instruct us in proto-Trumpian fashion, “Americans love a winner, and will not tolerate a loser.” There are second acts in politics, but it generally takes a few years (just ask Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan).
Warren’s Subtle Blunder
Sen. Elizabeth Warren won reelection this week, but the midterms were unkind to her larger ambition. Before the election, she walked right into a Trump-laid trap regarding her bogus claims of Native American heritage. After the election, she must be looking at Richard Cordray, the Democratic candidate for governor in bellwether Ohio.
Cordray was the first director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Warren’s signature legislative achievement. Warren warmly campaigned for Cordray: “Let’s face it, Rich is not flashy. He’s a nerd. Just like me. He’s quiet, he’s unassuming, he’s humble, but deep down there is a fighter and not just any kind of fighter. Rich is the kind of fighter I love. He is a fearless fighter. My kind of man.”
Late polling had Cordray ahead by a few points, but he lost by more than 4 percent. It was a bad night for nerds who want to be president. Democrat Sherrod Brown won his contest for the Senate in Ohio, claiming his campaign “celebrat[ing] the worker” was “the blueprint for America in 2020.” That may say much about Brown’s intent. It also may raise the eyebrows of everyone from Joe Biden to Bernie Sanders.
Yet Brown’s six-point win wound up far below the double-digit margins pollsters had found in September and early October. That deflation raises questions about whether old school, blue-collar progressive populism would have staying power against a figure like Trump, let alone have sufficient appeal to unite the Democratic Party’s internal divides.
In sum, the marquee statewide races of 2018 offer no clear map for Democrats as they seek the White House in 2020. That lack of clarity, along with Democrats’ success in the suburbs, will cause some to float trial balloons for dark horse candidates like Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and outgoing Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. The pool of Democratic candidates––already as crowded as the cover of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”––is likely to get even larger, not smaller.