The temptation to cast the US midterm elections as a split decision is proving irresistible to most – but it’s dead wrong.
Sure, the Republican Party gained ground in the Senate while losing decisively in the House of Representatives, but comparing these results is a case of apples and oranges.
For one thing, the Senate map was the most unfavourable either party had to face in 60 years and only the most diehard optimist – including me, for about five minutes, a few months’ back – gave the Democrats much of a chance of flipping it.
The vast preponderance of states up for election in 2018 were deep in Trump country – a mixture of the old south, like Tennessee and Missouri, and sparsely populated rural states like Montana, North Dakota and West Virginia. Confronting a map as structurally advantageous to conservatives as this, Democrats might have suffered much worse than they did.
Indeed, the party held on to Senate seats across the rust belt, often with stonking margins, just two years after Trump forged his idiosyncratic path to the White House through the region. Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown, an unapologetic progressive, won by 20 points, and Tammy Baldwin dashed Republican hopes of a close race in Wisconsin in a double digit drubbing. Likewise, Democrats more than held their own in Pennsylvania and Michigan – both critical states in Trump’s victory, not to mention reelection plans.
In a narrow sense, it could be argued Trump successfully built a firewall in his heartland to prevent any possibility of losing both chambers. By making his closing argument on drummed up immigration fears, not the booming economy, and playing a full deck of race cards, he no doubt helped his party in the old confederate states and Appalachia.
But by doing so, he turned off suburban voters in House districts across the country, resulting in a nine percent advantage nationally for the Democrats. To put that in context, that represents the best outcome for the party since 2008 – a presidential year marred by a cratering economy and a deeply unpopular war that voters blamed squarely on Republicans. (Before anyone quibbles that Trump managed to win office despite losing the popular vote the first time, not even the most creatively contorted Electoral College maths imaginable can turn a nine point deficit into a victory).
If Republicans fall for their own “split decision” talking points, and fail to heed the myriad warning signs thrown up by their walloping in the House, they will sleepwalk into an electoral buzzsaw once 2020 rolls around. The GOP appears to have lost women voters by a staggering 20 points. And while Hispanic, African American and millennial antipathy to Trump didn’t translate into hoped-for victories in Florida,Texas and Georgia, it is nevertheless real, intense – and growing. The well of white racial resentment from which Trump draws so gleefully is not bottomless, and it doesn’t come without costs.
Democrats will feel justifiably despondent about the narrow defeats handed to high profile candidates Andrew Gillum in Florida, Stacy Abrams in Georgia and Beto O’Rourke in Texas, but they shouldn’t grieve too long. This is, by and large, a profound repudiation of Trump and Trumpism at a time of surging economic growth and record low unemployment.
With the levers of oversight in their hands for the first time in eight years, House Democrats can largely stall Trump’s agenda in its tracks, and hold the President and his inner circle to account in ways they have been able to avoid to date.
Trump will, of course, insist the Senate results are a personal triumph while disavowing any responsibility for historic losses in the House. He will even boast how a Democratic majority offers a handy foil in pursuit of re-election; even losing is winning in his fevered imaginings. To that extent, smart Democrats will hope the GOP buys the “split decision” fallacy, averting their eyes from the reality that their party, absent a course correction hard to imagine from this President, will face in 2020 an electorate that looks – and votes – a lot more like northern Virginia than North Dakota.