Adithya Sanjay: Did Donald Trump just win the midterms?

Monday, November 12, 2018 - 5:49pm

And here we are. All of the excitement going into the 2018 midterm elections reached its climax last Tuesday, with the 49-percent voter participation rate the highest in 50 years contributing to what was nationally touted as the first major referendum on the 2016 election of President Donald Trump. Of personal pride was the wide effort to get people out to vote at the University of Michigan, which I saw personally, having to wait in line over half an hour at Pierpont Commons before I could finally receive a ballot.

But was this “historic” election really as upending as people claimed it would be? Did the Democrats really surf an overpowering blue wave and take over Capitol Hill by storm? Or did the Republicans pull off Trump’s prophesized “RED WAVE!”? The media really seems to agree with the former, with CNN’s Heather Cox Richardson claiming that “a blue wave happened Tuesday, and (that) it was a big one.” Real Clear Politics’s Sean Trende said of the midterms that “overall, Republicans had a tough night.”

Honestly, I didn’t see it. Of course, the Democrats took back the House, with an expected gain of 35 seats, thereby finally ending eight years of Republican control. But when you compare it to the Republican gains of 2014, when they won “nearly every contested Senate race” as well as in 2010, when they flipped over 60 House seats and six Senate seats, the result on Tuesday seemed to be more representative of Smurf tears battering a red wall than of a blue surge flooding Washington, D.C.

Obviously, the Democrats were hindered by Republican gerrymandering, and that suppressed some of the potential gains. To illustrate, in 2014, the Republicans won 52 percent of the popular vote and claimed 57 percent of House seats, while this year, the Democrats are expected to win about 52 percent of House seats despite also winning 51.4 percent of the popular vote. Also, the Democrats were favored to win the House. There was nothing unpredictable about that. What was, however, were the shocking gains by the Republicans in the Senate. In past “wave” elections of 1994, 2010 and 2014, the GOP did not lose any of their incumbent Senate seats. Neither did the Democrats in 2006 or 2008. The fact that the Republicans were capable of padding their Senate majority is indicative of a general political culture that has not fully rejected Donald Trump and his Republican Party. Worth mentioning, though, is that all competitive incumbent seats that the Democrats lost (save for North Dakota) this election were under Republican control in 2006 and 2008.

Again, I don’t want to take anything away from the Democrats. They ran some very tight races and upended Republican candidates in areas that have been traditionally red. Case in point was the defeat of incumbent U.S. Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-Va., by Democratic challenger Jennifer Wexton in Virginia's 10th district, a district that hasn’t gone blue since 1980. Not only that, but they were able to make substantial gains in suburban districts, some of which voted — albeit quite surprisingly — overwhelmingly Democratic. But, now, as we look toward 2020, the Democrats desperately need to change their strategy if they want to beat Trump.

The midterm elections were fueled by a few major trends that will have a direct effect on the makeup of Congress for the next two years. Most notably was the so-called “Kavanaugh effect.” Those who expressed opposition towards Brett Kavanaugh and were in competitive races were ousted from office. For example, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., and Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., were replaced by Republican candidates in red states, although Bill Nelson is heading for a recount. Perhaps most telling was the re-election of Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., who voted in favor of Kavanaugh. Considering that West Virginia went to Trump in 2016 by more than 40 points, this is particularly impressive.

This was one contributing factor that showed a real trend toward the political success of moderate Democrats on Tuesday. These center-leaning candidates flipped the majority of the 28 competitive House races that the party needed to win in order to secure a majority. Progressive candidates, while enjoying perhaps “upset-level” success in the primaries, only won in the districts that were already leaning quite a ways to the left. For example, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a self-described Democratic Socialist, won in New York's 14th district, which hadn’t gone red since 1993, by over 60 points. Progressive candidate Andrew Gillum, however, ended up losing in the statewide Florida election to Republican Ron DeSantis, though the race is currently headed to a state-mandated recount.

On the other hand, the Republicans experienced an opposite effect. In the primaries, many of Trump’s critics led unsuccessful campaigns, leading to an incoming Republican caucus that is more aligned with Trump and his policies than ever before. In the Republican primaries, in most races, the candidates with Trump’s endorsement ended up victorious. This was especially the case in Kansas as Kris Kobach beat incumbent Gov. Jeff Colyer, a candidate who was originally favored to retain his seat. Though Kobach was not successful in the general election, others such as Mike Braun and Ron DeSantis have emerged victorious after aligning themselves with the president. Though there weren’t many moderates who survived the primary elections in competitive areas, the few cases, such as that of incumbent U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo in Florida’s 26th district, ended up on the wrong end of the ballots in the aftermath of Tuesday’s elections.

Trump undeniably had a major effect on the results in his own party, winning Senate or gubernatorial races in six out of the eight states he campaigned in during the week leading up to the elections. If anything, Trump seems to be looking forward to a split Congress with potential Speaker Nancy Pelosi presiding over the newly Democratic House. With the Democrats preparing for “an onslaught of hearings, subpoenas and investigations into nearly every corner of the Trump administration,” Trump himself seems quite unfazed, claiming “he could have ended (the Mueller investigations) anytime he wanted” at Wednesday’s post-election press conference. Unless the Democratic Party pursues unifying initiatives, it is very likely that continuous investigation and probes (not to mention, resultant media attention) will energize Trump’s base and maybe even bring more independents over to the Republican side. One could look to history for an example, such as the disappointing Republican midterm election results in 1998 when said party was placing then-President Bill Clinton under continuous threat of impeachment.

As of now, I think Trump has managed to put himself in the driver’s seat. He has positioned himself well with a Senate most likely to stay within Republican hands through 2024 and a House that intends to play party politics. And until the Democrats look towards bipartisanship and capitalize on their suburban moderate gains, I think Donald Trump might have actually been the real winner of the 2018 midterm elections.

Adithya Sanjay can be reached at asanjay@umich.edu.

More like this