Coming on the heels of the most surprising presidential election outcome in our lifetimes, this 2018 midterm election went largely as expected: a split decision.
What had appeared likely to be elections in two different Americas—one in red, conservative, Republican states for the U.S. Senate, the other for everything else—was exactly that. The House, governorships, and state legislatures, wherever there was considerable purple and blue overshadowing the red, behaved more like a regular midterm-election referendum on the incumbent president, with one notable exception. The red America was disproportionately small-town and rural; the blue featured a lot of suburbs. As our friends at NBC’s First Read pointed out, in the state-level exit polls, in the states where President Trump’s approval ratings were 50 percent or higher the GOP did a lot better than those where he was under that; the greater the difference from 50, the better or worse it was for his party.
In the Senate, ever since Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court fight, the odds were high that Republicans would gain seats and they did, knocking off three Democratic incumbents—Joe Donnelly in Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, and Claire McCaskill in Missouri—while losing Dean Heller in Nevada. While Democratic Sen. Jon Tester held on in Montana, the Senate races in Arizona and Florida have not been officially called at this writing, though Florida GOP Gov. Rick Scott seems to have an irreversible lead over Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson. The Arizona open-seat contest between two House members, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema and Republican Martha McSally, remained very close. A Mississippi seat is headed to a Nov. 27 runoff between appointed Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith and Mike Espy, a former Democratic congressman and Agriculture secretary; their contest was very close, but tea-party Republican state Sen. Chris McDaniel drew 11.9 percent, and Hyde-Smith certainly has the edge in the runoff. Not an upset in the bunch. (Perhaps the biggest surprise was Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California winning with only 54.7 percent.)
In the highly unlikely event that Democrats sweep the remaining three seats, there would be no net change—pretty much the best-case scenario for Democrats post-Kavanaugh. If Republicans prevail in all of them, they would end up in a three-seat net gain, a very good performance for the GOP. It is entirely true that this would be an extraordinary accomplishment for a party in a midterm election saddled with a president with low job-approval numbers, but having the most favorable Senate map that either party has had in modern history certainly helped enormously and prevented an outcome more like what happened in the contests for other offices.
For Democrats, the best news was obviously recapturing a House majority after an eight-year hiatus. With quite a few contests still outstanding, it looks like Democrats are on track to score a net gain of approximately 35 or 36 seats; it could obviously move up or down as remaining vote is counted, particularly in the West Coast races. The only huge upset of the evening was in Oklahoma’s 5th Congressional District, where two-term Republican Rep. Steve Russell was upset by Democratic attorney Kendra Horn in a district where Mitt Romney beat President Obama by 18 points in 2012 and Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 13 points. This district combined a lot of suburbs, a university- and state Capitol-affected population, and it was 41 percent minority or mixed-race.
The interesting thing about the evening’s House races was that early on, Democrats appeared to be underperforming, on track to win a majority but just so, and then their fortunes picked up as more results poured in.
In governor races, Democrats picked off seven GOP seats. Democrats are declared winners in open governorships in Connecticut, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, and New Mexico, as well as having unseated Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. The closely watched contest in Georgia may go to a Dec. 4 runoff between GOP Secretary of State Brian Kemp and Democratic state House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams if Kemp does not clear the 50 percent threshold required to win outright.
While Democrats can boast picking up five state legislative chambers from Republicans, their overall gains were on the low end of what might have been expected. National Conference of State Legislatures elections guru Tim Storey reports that Democrats picked up the Colorado and Maine Senates, the Minnesota House, and both chambers in New Hampshire, along with moving the Connecticut Senate from tied to Democrat-controlled and gaining solid control of the New York Senate—which they technically already had but it was effectively ruled by a coalition with Republicans. The reverse happened in the Alaskan House, where Republicans had technically controlled but it was run by a rump group of GOP members who teamed up with Democrats. Storey points out that while the average midterm chamber switch since 1900 is 12, it appears that Democrats grabbed just six. Only one state has a divided legislature: Minnesota, where the House is Democratic, the Senate Republican. The NCSL shows that Republicans still control 61 chambers, Democrats 37, while Nebraska is unicameral and nonpartisan. In terms of legislative control, with one party holding both the House and Senate, Republicans will have 30 states, while Democrats gained four, going to 18 states. Storey reports that in terms of total state control—a gubernatorial, state House, and Senate trifecta—Democrats went from eight to 14, Republicans dropped from 25 to 21, and there is one unsettled.
So what did this all mean? After the Kavanaugh fight, this column referred to it as a “color enhancement event,” making the red voters redder and the blues bluer. That definitely happened; the purple swing voters turned more blue than red, but it wasn’t quite as cataclysmic as it could have been. The SCOTUS fight may have rescued a bunch of Republican offices that were surprisingly close to the edge, even in some fairly Republican districts, preventing a complete GOP bloodbath.
Trump’s emphasis on the wall, the caravan, and Kavanaugh unquestionably helped Republicans in the Senate while only marginally helping in other places. It will be days or more likely weeks before we have a good idea what happened in terms of turnout, but it would appear that the long-standing Democratic intensity advantage was largely offset by a late-arriving increase in GOP enthusiasm. Overall effective turnout went up, minimizing what would have been a huge Democratic advantage.
The traditional exit poll, conducted by the news media consortium of ABC, CBS, CNN and NBC, showed that while men voted for Republicans for the House by 4 points, 51 to 47 percent, and women backed Democrats by 19 points, 59 to 40 percent, 54 percent of the vote cast for Republicans came from men, and 58 percent of Democratic votes were from women. Whites backed Republicans 54 to 44 percent, representing 86 percent of the GOP vote and just 59 percent of the Democratic vote. Nonwhites broke for Democrats 76 to 22 percent.
We will be sifting through the data for weeks, particularly as more becomes available (and as those of us who had only one hour of sleep Tuesday night get the cobwebs out of our brains), allowing a more complete and sophisticated analysis.