I was puzzled as I watched the returns roll in from Tuesday’s midterm elections. For weeks, the polls had pointed to a solid Democratic win in the House, continued Republican control of the Senate, and a tough slog for rising Democratic stars in Texas, Georgia, and Florida. That’s exactly how it played out. And yet the pundit class was acting as though Hillary Clinton had just lost again.
“This is not a blue wave. This is not a wave knocking out all sorts of Republican incumbents,” said CNN’s Jake Tapper. NBC News’ Chuck Todd agreed: “It is not a blue wave.” Added New York Times columnist Paul Krugman: “Clearly Republicans are doing better than expected after a closing argument based entirely on fear and lies. This is going to be grim.” (Quotes compiled by Alex Shephard of The New Republic and Ryan Saavedra of The Daily Wire.)
Why such gloom over being right all along? I’d attribute it to irrational exuberance followed by the dope slap of cold, harsh reality. Even though the data predicted the outcome pretty accurately, I think a lot of commentators — rightly horrified by the deeply unpopular president’s lies, racist outbursts, and attacks on the media — believed in their heart of hearts that a hidden surge of new Democratic voters would sweep the countryside.
It didn’t happen. Nor should anyone have expected it. And by this morning, commentators appeared to have regained their equilibrium. “Republicans will pitch this as a split decision, because they gain seats in the Senate,” wrote Aaron Blake of The Washington Post. “It’s not; the Senate map was highly favorable to them, meaning that maintaining control of it was expected. Democrats just took over a chamber of Congress, and that’s a big thing for them, period.” Michael Brendan Dougherty put it this way at the conservative (but mostly anti-Trump) National Review:
“No one should kid themselves. Republicans may have been more resilient in the Senate and in governor’s mansions than people expected, but it’s a big night for Democrats. Early exit polls show that polarization along the lines of sex is real, and a real problem for Republicans. Republicans have turned off women.”
It would have been an even bigger night for Democrats were it not for structural disadvantages that artificially boost the Republican vote. As Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne pointed out, Democrats won the popular vote in House contests Tuesday by about 9.2 percent — more than Republicans won in their big midterm victories of 1994 (7.1 percent), 2010 (7.2 percent), and 2014 (5.7 percent). The votes are still being counted, but if that 9.2 percent margin could be applied nationally, then Democrats would control the House by a margin of 237 to 201. The actual margin will fall well short of that.
House seats aren’t assigned on the basis of a national vote, of course. But partisan gerrymandering that favors Republicans, coupled by a Democratic electorate that is increasingly concentrated in overwhelmingly blue urban areas, means that Democratic victories invariably fall short of the party’s actual vote total. And that’s not even counting the enormous built-in problems they face in presidential and Senate elections, which I wrote about recently.
Three other quick observations about Tuesday’s returns:
1. Democrats prevailed in the House despite what is often described as the strongest economy in years, something that generally favors the party in power. Perhaps the economy wasn’t as much of an issue as it might have been because Trump is so unpopular. Or maybe it’s because the topline economic numbers mask the continued erosion of wages and widening income inequality. Most likely: both.
2. The most significant win for Democrats may have taken place in Florida, where voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure to restore voting rights to 1.2 million ex-felons. Samantha J. Gross reported in the Miami Herald that Florida was only one of three states that permanently banned felons from voting. Given the vast racial disparities in the criminal-justice system, the change should provide a large boost for the Democratic vote in 2020.
3. Two Democratic African-American gubernatorial candidates, Stacey Abrams of Georgia and Andrew Gillum of Florida, appear to have fallen just short of victory. (Abrams, also victimized by voter-suppression efforts, had not yet conceded as of this morning, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.) Both candidates were the subject of over-the-top racist attacks. The Washington Post reported, “Robo-calls in Georgia featured a voice impersonating Oprah Winfrey and calling Abrams ‘a poor man’s Aunt Jemima.’ In Florida, robo-calls mimicked Gillum as jungle sounds and chimpanzee noises were heard in the background.” Nauseating — but also effective with the white racists Republicans needed in order to win.
The most important takeaway from the midterms is that the Trump presidency has been significantly diminished, and that investigations into possible wrongdoing on his part and that of his administration have gotten a new jolt of life. As David A. Graham wrote at The Atlantic, “While it will be all but impossible for Democrats to actually turn any of their priorities into law, House control provides them a position to conduct strict oversight of the Trump administration and to further bog down an already sclerotic presidency.”
The punditocracy’s initial reaction was wrong, but that’s hardly a surprise. If you’re a progressive, a Democrat, or just an appalled critic of the president, imagine what today would be like if Republicans had hung on to the House. Tuesday’s results were good for accountability — and, thus, for the country.
WGBH News contributor Dan Kennedy is the author of “The Return of the Moguls: How Jeff Bezos and John Henry Are Remaking Newspapers for the Twenty-First Century.”