Brett Kavanaugh has now been sworn in to the Supreme Court, ending a lengthy and contentious nomination process. Now, the focus turns to a battle that voters will determine: the 2018 midterms. The day for which Democrats have longed, and many Republicans dreaded, since President Donald Trump’s election is now only three weeks away and the stakes are massive for both sides.
For the Democratic Party, the past two years have brought stunning electoral triumphs, including Doug Jones's and Conor Lamb's special election victories, as well as repeated legislative defeats, such as the Republican Party passing tax reform and the confirmation of two staunchly conservative associate justices to the Supreme Court.
Democrats, myself included, have long maintained that the majority of the country opposes Trump and Republican rule. We point to Trump’s 2.8 million vote deficit in the popular vote, his negative approval ratings and the public’s dismal view of his character. This belief has become the central pillar of Democratic opposition to Trump’s agenda. Should Democrats fail to make substantial gains in the midterms, this mantra will be dispelled, and gone with it will be the Democrats’ already limited ability to resist Trump’s agenda. Fair or not, this midterm cycle will be interpreted as a referendum on Trump’s mandate to rule. Put simply, Democrats cannot afford to lose.
Despite expectations of a blue wave, Democrats cannot merely rely on the historical trend of the opposition gaining seats during the midterms. Both parties gerrymandered the Congressional maps during the 2010 redistricting process, but due to the GOP’s dominance of state legislatures, Republicans were able to gerrymander roughly four times as many districts as Democrats meaning Democrats will have to win many seats that have tilted right in recent years in order to retake the House of Representatives.
In the Senate, the Democrats face an extremely challenging electoral map. Democrats are defending 26 seats, compared to only nine for Republicans, severely limiting opportunities for gains. These structural disadvantages require Democrats to pursue a focused and deliberate strategy to retake the House and, at the very least, minimize losses in the Senate.
First, Democrats must suspend the intra-party civil war between the center-left mainstream and the more liberal populist wing. This conflict has raged rather bitterly for the past two years, from the election of a new Democratic National Committee in 2017 to primary battles throughout the past summer. Now that the primaries are over, Democrats must rally behind the party nominees. In 2016, a tenth of Bernie Sanders’s supporters ended up voting for Trump in the general election, which quite likely cost Hillary Clinton the election. Put bluntly, this cannot happen again. In competitive districts where mainstream Democrats defeated left-wing populists in the primaries, such as Kansas’s third district and California’s 25th, progressives must swallow their pride and support the party’s nominee in November (the same goes for centrists in districts where progressive challengers beat establishment-backed candidates, such as New York’s 14th district).
From an issue perspective, Democrats would do well to keep the focus on Trump, immigration and health care, and away from the economy. Republicans’ failed attempt to repeal The Affordable Care Act, the separation of immigration families and the termination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy are among the GOP’s most unpopular initiatives; all are salient issues that will mobilize voters.
Though it may seem counterintuitive to deemphasize the economic issues, a recent Gallup poll found only 12 percent of the electorate believes the economy is the nation’s most important issue — the lowest level in decades. Furthermore, while the majority of gains from the GOP’s remastered tax code have gone to the wealthy, the economy is still very strong overall — and is perhaps the GOP’s best hope to preserve their Congressional majorities.
Interestingly, despite a strong plurality opposing the Senate’s decision to confirm Kavanaugh, the controversial vote does not necessarily help Democrats. In North Dakota, Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp tumbled in the polls after announcing her opposition to Kavanaugh, shifting the race from a toss-up to a Republican lean.
Lastly, Democrats must appeal to independents. While the Republican base has coalesced around Trump and is even showing signs of enthusiasm for the upcoming elections, a majority of independents have remained decidedly opposed to Trump and his conservative agenda. Still, independents can be a fickle demographic and polls show a substantial portion are still undecided on which party to support this November. Left-wing enthusiasm is not enough given the structural disadvantages Democrats face, but if Democrats can capitalize on independents’ dissatisfaction and appeal to the center, they will have an excellent chance of winning back at least partial control of Congress.
For two years now, Democratic leaders and the left-leaning portion of the public have pledged an electoral firestorm in response to Trump and congressional Republicans’ policies and initiatives. The homestretch of the 2018 midterms are here, and while the task ahead will not be easy, it’s time to deliver.
Noah Harrison can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.