Opinion | Midterms Recap: The Good, the Bad and the Beto
Democrats have cause to rejoice and regret.
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I told my editors that I’d deliver a column about the midterm election results by 11 p.m. Tuesday. Then I said midnight. Then 12:30 a.m. I finally pressed send shortly before 1 a.m.
It wasn’t me being slow. It was America. As the results came in, not only were many of the races tight, but many of the signals they sent were mixed and confusing. Democrats were on a trajectory to pick up dozens of House seats and win control of the chamber — which they did, by a margin that remains unclear at this writing. But they were also on a path to slip further into the Senate minority — which happened as well. They lost key Senate races (Joe Donnelly in Indiana, for example, and Phil Bredesen in Tennessee) by big margins. They won some major governor’s races (Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan and Tony Evers in Wisconsin, to name two) but lost other important ones (Andrew Gillum in Florida, for example, and Richard Cordray in Ohio).
So precisely what kind of referendum on President Trump did this amount to? And how exactly should the country’s mood be described?
I took my best stab, hastily, in the previously mentioned column. It’s here. It was updated with some specifics after its initial publication in the wee hours, but it otherwise remains as it was.
So here I’ll expand on it with the benefit of more information and a few additional hours of reflection.
Is the Democratic House Victory Half Full or Half Empty?
For Democrats desperate to send Trump a stern message, the results were a tug-of-war between optimism and pessimism, contentment and disappointment.
As you figure out how you feel and where you fall, here are some numbers, details and dynamics to mull:
“On average, the party in power has lost 24 House seats in the midterm elections in the postwar era,” wrote Christopher Buskirk in this Op-Ed in The Times just a few days ago. The Brookings Institution, apparently using a different time frame, put the number at 30. Trump’s Republicans are projected to lose somewhere in the vicinity of 30 to 35 seats once the counting is done.
In 2010, two years into Barack Obama’s presidency, Democrats lost 63. Obviously, Republicans under Trump didn’t do nearly that badly.
The average loss of seats in a midterm election by a party whose president has an approval rating under 50 percent — like Trump’s — is 37, according to this analysis by Gallup. So Republicans under Trump seem to have done ever so slightly better than the historical norm for a president of his unpopularity.
But Trump’s approval rating shouldn’t be under 50 percent. He’s presiding over what is, by most traditional measures, a humming economy, one that Americans feel positive about. So Democrats’ pickup of seats in the House suggests plenty of displeasure among voters with Trump the man.
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America the Divided
Perhaps the main takeaway from Tuesday’s results is just how big a split exists between the more and less densely populated areas of the country. That’s much of the explanation for the Democratic Party’s gains in the House versus the Republican Party’s success in the Senate, which was owed to largely rural states. Democrats continue to own cities, and the midterms show that they are exerting more and more dominance over suburbs and over the college-educated Americans, especially women, there.
But what a mess this could make on Capitol Hill, which is plenty messy already. The looming disarray was especially well captured in Mike Allen’s Axios AM newsletter this morning, the lead item of which was titled, “Two Americas: amplified, tearing apart.”
Allen noted that the “Democratic strategy of targeting women, minorities and the young was vindicated with the new House majority. We saw record liberal turnout in many suburbs.” Meanwhile, he added, “The Republican strategy of targeting men, whites and rural voters was vindicated with the larger Senate majority. We saw record conservative turnout in Trump country. The net result: Two parties with two wildly different bases and philosophies are pulling farther and farther apart — and are certain to double down on divisiveness heading into 2020.”
He said he received an email from a Republican lobbyist with this message: “Poisonous gridlock. Hemlock?”
Speaking of Emails
I got one from my friend Bob Kerrey, the former senator and former Nebraska governor, who is one of the most thoughtful Democrats I know. It had some terrific points, which he permitted me to share:
“It could have been worse. My (free) advice to congressional Democrats (they define what the party stands for more than the governors) is to:
“Ask the Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin delegation to set the House agenda . . . What do we need to do to win the electoral college votes of these four states? If Dems get this right, they will celebrate a very satisfying victory over Trump in 2020. They do not need to impeach him; they need to defeat him!
“Look for proposals that are difficult for the G.O.P. For example, propose to take the cap off income that is taxed for Social Security and use the money to cut the payroll tax for everyone else. Health care must be another but let Stabenow, Casey, Brown and Baldwin write the bill. (Note from me: Kerrey is referring to Democratic senators from, respectively, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin — all crucial battleground states in a presidential election.)
“Push the immigration compromise front and center. Let Americans know that Trump is lying on this. We want a secure border. ‘Build the wall’ will not work.
“Be much stronger on national security.
“Push our women into the spotlight to highlight the differences between what female G.O.P. members of Congress want and what female Democrats want.
“Help Americans understand how conservative judges will shift power from individuals to corporations.
“And a question: Will Fox News and their President talk about the ‘caravan crisis’ any more? I seriously doubt it. The leftists in Honduras who set the caravan in motion cost us Senate seats in Missouri, Indiana, Arizona, Nevada and perhaps Texas. Trump-Hannity lied about this to bring out the fear vote BUT it was a very effective lie.”
A Gay Day in America
The overarching question of whether Democrats would seize control of at least one chamber of Congress eclipsed many other story lines during this election season, including the likelihood that Representative Jared Polis, a Colorado Democrat, would become the first politician to be elected a governor in America as an openly gay person. That likelihood became a reality on Tuesday, and it’s a significant mile marker on the long road toward equality for — and full acceptance of — L.G.B.T. people.
I’ve worded his distinction carefully, stressing “openly” and the fact that he campaigned that way. The obvious contrast is Jim McGreevey, the former New Jersey governor, who was pressured into acknowledging his homosexuality during his first and only term — and who resigned in the process.
“Gay” is key, too. Oregon just awarded another term as governor to Kate Brown, a Democrat; she’s married to a man but has long identified as bisexual, from well before she won a special election for governor three years ago. So America will now have two openly L.G.B.T. governors.
Polis’s sexual orientation remained on the sidelines of his race in Colorado, though he makes no secret of it. (He frequently appears in public with his husband; they have two children.) The Republicans working against him didn’t make a big issue of it. That bolsters my conviction that outside the most conservative states, a politician’s sexual orientation is almost a non-issue for voters.
To that end, several openly L.G.B.T. candidates will be among the newcomers to the House when the next Congress is sworn in. Sharice Davids in Kansas and Angie Craig in Minnesota, both lesbian and both Democrats, defeated Republican incumbents. And in New Hampshire, Chris Pappas, a gay Democrat, won a House race for an open seat.
All of the L.G.B.T. progress that I just mentioned — and virtually all of the L.G.B.T. progress in American politics, period — has happened on the Democratic side. I still wish for the day when the Republican Party as a whole gets to where many Republicans are individually and privately and treats L.G.B.T. Americans with the respect we deserve. We march forward regardless. And we took a big step on Tuesday.
What Happens to a Beto Deferred?
Perhaps no Democratic candidate in 2018 attracted as much national attention — and became as much an object of political romance — as Representative Beto O’Rourke, the Texas Democrat who tried to unseat Senator Ted Cruz, the Republican incumbent. For his legions of fans, his loss on Tuesday stung.
Such was his appeal that many Democrats and political prognosticators suggested that he should, regardless of victory or defeat in his Senate race, run for the party’s presidential nomination in 2020. When I caught up with him in Fort Worth two and a half weeks ago, I asked him point blank if that were a possibility.
“No,” he told me, with the recorder on my iPhone running. “That is a firm no.” He mentioned his three young kids, his wife, how much time he had spent away from them while campaigning in 2018 — Texas is a gruelingly large state — and the toll it had taken on the family. He said that he and his wife had decided that there was “no way that we could do this to ourselves and especially to my kids again.”
But we haven’t heard the last from O’Rourke. He’s now a full-fledged celebrity with many millions of admirers and real political clout. Fellow Democrats will want his blessing. They’ll want his input.
But what, now, does he want?
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Frank Bruni has been with The Times since 1995 and held a variety of jobs — including White House reporter, Rome bureau chief and chief restaurant critic — before becoming a columnist in 2011. He is the author of three best-selling books. @FrankBruni • Facebook