The split-decision verdict that Americans rendered on a wild, unpredictable Election Night—Democrats sweeping the suburbs to win back the House, Republicans expanding their Senate majority and holding pivotal battleground governorships—is a clear sign that voters want a check on President Trump but don’t necessarily trust Democrats with full governing responsibility.
The decision by nearly all red-state Democratic senators to oppose Justice Brett Kavanaugh helped transform close contests into GOP blowouts. The nomination of true-blue progressives to swing-state governor’s races in Florida, Ohio, and Georgia prevented Democrats from winning enough swing voters to take charge. And a handful of vulnerable House Republicans clung to victory because they were facing Democratic challengers who ran well to the left of their district’s constituents.
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, 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, Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska scored a victory over progressive activist Kara Eastman, who brought in some of the most liberal members to campaign for her. Even Rep. Mimi Walters of California, who looked like an underdog, maintained a narrow lead over Democrat Katie Porter, an Elizabeth Warren protégé who supports a single-payer health care system.
But even as voters showed a pragmatic streak, the results of this election enhance the polarization on Capitol Hill. Democrats ousted most of the Republicans representing swing districts, if they didn’t already retire before this year’s election. Red-state Senate Democrats are becoming extinct, with stalwarts like Missouri’s Claire McCaskill and Florida’s Bill Nelson falling to defeat. And even with a House Democratic caucus that will bring in a diverse set of voices, most of the party’s incoming committee chairs will be liberal lions unlikely to change their ideological perspectives.
Trump and an empowered Democratic House majority are headed for a high-stakes showdown over the next year, with each side hoping to use the other as a foil heading into the 2020 presidential elections. Democrats will try to uncover Trump’s scandals, while Trump will eagerly paint Nancy Pelosi (if she returns as House speaker) as an obstructionist. At stake: the hearts and minds of millions of mainstream voters trying to decide the least-worst option for the future.