US midterms post-mortem: A divided congress for a divided America

The US midterm elections last night saw the biggest turnout for a midterm in at least half a century because voter enthusiasm was high. But it was high because the United States is very polarized right now about the job performance of President Trump, with exit polls showing two-thirds of the electorate saying they cast ballots with the President in mind.

The increase in turnout for Democrats was greater than it was for Republicans. And that saw the Democrats recapture the House of Representatives as expected. But, in the Senate, not only did Democrats fall short, they lost seats (contrary to my prediction, by the way).

There are a few high-profile races still open like the Governor's race in Georgia. But themes have emerged already. And there is a lot to unpack here. So let me break down the major themes I saw from the election and explain what I think it means going forward.

If I had to pick one theme, I would say its that Trump's gut was right. He had the choice of playing up the economy to turn voters out. He didn't. Instead he focused on the issues of immigration and Kavanaugh, doing so in the most divisive way possible. And, in the end, that tactic yielded the best result, with the Republicans losing governorships and the House of Representatives but holding the Senate.

1 - Voter turnout was higher among left-leaning groups

If you look at voter counts, this was a huge election. Nate Cohn of the New York Times says that their turnout estimate is for 114 million votes cast in the House races. That is well beyond even their highest expectations, shattering the turnout of 83 million in 2014. As a comparison 136.7 million votes were cast for President in 2016.

But, if you drill down, you can see left-leaning groups increased their turnout the most. For example, As of 415AM EST, 32,707,427 total votes had been cast for Republican candidates in Senate races, while 42,255,191 votes went for  Democrats. That's a split of 43.6% to 56.4%. Coincidentally, that fits well with exit polling showing dissatisfaction with Trump.

From what I have seen from USA Today, 39.3 million Americans voted for a Republican Senate candidate in 2016, while 45.2 million Americans cast a vote for a Democrat. That's a split of 46.5% to 53.4%.

Yet, in each case, the Republicans took the Senate. And despite more votes for Democrats in 2018, Republicans have actually increased their Senate representation.

Also, I have been looking at youth votes. Young people tend to skew toward the Democrats. And one of the best youth vote tallies I have seen show a massive increase in turnout in key districts. Preliminary CNN exit polls showed 18-29 year-olds supporting a Democrat in the House in greater numbers than in 2014. In the last midterm election, 54% of 18-29-year-olds voted for a House Democrat while 68% said they voted for a Democrat in 2018. This perhaps helped alter some key races in the House. But, again, this did not matter as far as the Senate goes.

2 - Democrats chalked up huge wins in blue states, lost most competitive races in red states

The electoral map is what matters of course. And here is where Trump's strategy played out well. Here's how.

Trump and the Republicans ran a campaign based on fear at the end of October. And this is despite the extremist violence we saw at that time, including the worst attack on Jews in the history of the US. And exit polls showed about 3 of every 4 voters saying that extremist violence was an important factor in their vote for the House in 2018.

You would think that would favor Democrats. But, Democrats often complain about gerrymandering and the representation of 2 Senators per state as holding them back. For example, Cramer beat Heitkamp in North Dakota with 178,478 counted for him so far. Gillibrand beat Farley in New York, with 3,785,220 to her favor so far. That's 20 times more votes for a Democrat in New York than a Republican in North Dakota. But, in the Senate - and for votes for Supreme Court justices - they are equals. Despite gerrymandering though, the Democrats were able to take the House of Representatives. But, when it comes to the Senate, despite more 'blue' votes, the Democrats lost seats.

The reason: Dems ran up huge vote tallies for the Senate in states like New York where Gillibrand won by more than 1.8 million votes but lost elections in places like North Dakota, Indiana, and Missouri. So, for Democrats to have taken the Senate, as I suggested on Monday they would, they would have needed to hold places like Missouri, where incumbent Claire McCaskill lost, and North Dakota, where Heidi Heitkamp lost. But they didn't do that. The Trump strategy worked.

3 - Kavanaugh mattered a lot for both sides but it counted more for Republicans

And I would say that this has a lot to do with the nomination fight over Brett Kavanaugh.  CNN reports that "Almost half of voters opposed Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation to the Supreme Court, according to preliminary data from CNN's national exit polls. A little over 40% supported his appointment. " But what mattered is that voters turned out in red states because of Kavanaugh and defeated the Democratic incumbents who voted for him.

That was Trump's plan, by the way. And it worked. When you look at the "Big Five" vulnerable Senate Democrats: Donnelly, Heitkamp, McCaskill, Nelson and Manchin, the four that voted against Kavanaugh all lost. Joe Manchin was the one that did vote for Kavanaugh, And he won.

4 - The Republicans mostly won the Midwest

If you look at the Midwest, the Democrats were able to wrest some control back. For example, Democrats went 7 for 8 in Senate and governor races in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin —all states Trump won in 2016. But, in the Senate, the key elections were the defeats of Democratic incumbents Claire McCaskill in Missouri and Joe Donnelly in Indiana.

In terms of governorships, Republicans won Iowa and Ohio. But incumbent Republicans were defeated in Illinois and Wisconsin.  Again, Senate races in the upper Midwest all went to Democratic incumbents. Otherwise, the Midwest is a veritable sea of red, with the major exception being Iowa, where three Democrats won to a sole Republican, Steve King.

Red Midwest.png

Source: CNN

5 - The most progressive candidates in red or purple states almost all lost

Here's another theme I think particularly stands out. If you look at progressive candidates, they did well in 'blue' states where Democratic control was comfortable. But in red states, and at the state level, they didn't win.

The four biggest examples of this are in Florida, Georgia, Arizona and Maryland, where Gillum, Abrams, Garcia and Jealous, respectively, were not able to win. Abrams might be able to get a run-off, as she has not yet conceded the race. But even in Maryland, a very blue state, Ben Jealous lost to the incumbent Republican governor Larry Hogan. In Texas, progressive Beto O'Rourke, lost a Senate race narrowly to Ted Cruz. At the House level, let's include Randy Bryce in Wisconsin, Amy McGrath in Kentucky, Dana Baltar in upstate NY and M.J. Hegar in Texas as too left for 'red' districts.

Race is certainly a factor here, as Gillum, Abrams and Jealous were all black candidates running at the state level. Moreover, high profile blacks lost toss-up races regardless of party. We saw Trump-distancing Republican Mia Love losing in a Utah house race and Trump-supported John James losing in a Michigan Senate race. Call it the Wilder or the Bradley Effect. And remember, the instances of voter suppression in Georgia were particularly loathsome. Here's one 92-year old who was disenfranchised, for example.

But, I believe these races also turned on politics, with conservative-leaning voters sending a message that they are uncomfortable with Bernie Sanders-style progressives. For example, I went for a 55-mile bike ride to the more rural sections of Montgomery County, Maryland near Poolesville on Sunday. And I saw just one sign out there for Marc Elrich, a very progressive Democrat who beat out more moderate candidates in the primaries for county executive. And that sign had been vandalized, with "TRUMP" scrawled in spray-paint across it on both sides in red. Earlier that day, in the downcounty areas like Takoma Park and Bethesda, I saw tons of signs for Elrich, displayed proudly and unvandalized.

The message for Democrats is clear: nominate progressive candidates in swing districts at your peril. I'm not sure the same can't be said about the electability of so-called RINOs (Republicans in name only).

6 - Democrats made the greatest inroads by turning the suburbs purple

I gave you one example on Monday that resonated with me about Dave Brat. I said he was too abrasive for Virginia. And, indeed he was, because he lost. And the reason he lost is because of the suburbs, particularly because of college-educated women.

As the New York Times put it:

Democratic gains in the House came in densely populated, educated and diverse enclaves around the country, around major liberal cities like New York and Philadelphia and also red-state population centers like Houston and Oklahoma City. The Republican Party’s traditional base in these districts collapsed, with college-educated white voters joining with growing minority communities to repudiate President Trump and his party.

For Brat, I would add Richmond.

I would also point out that pro-Russian Republican Dana Rohrabacher lost in Orange County. And I wouldn't chalk this loss up to hi views on Russia. Instead, I think he was swept away as the Orange County suburbs have turned increasingly purple and blue, favoring Democrats.

7 - Takeaways

  • The end of the Republican legislative agenda: The whole cutting taxes for the rich thing is over. With Democrats in control of the House, it simply won't happen. For Trump, this may be a blessing in disguise though, because he was never fully enamoured with that agenda. And that's particularly important because it means he won't need to deal with legislation on cutting Medicare and Social Security as he thinks about running again in 2020. Also note that the Republicans' agenda item of repealing Obamacare was a big loser as an issue at the ballot box, perhaps the main legislative issue that cost them the house.

  • Democrats have subpoena power: Expect a flurry of subpoenas to it the Trump White House come January. People like Devin Nunez can no longer control the agenda of the Mueller investigation. And Maxine Waters might even get the Chair of the House Financial Services Committee.

  • Trump can continue to rack up judicial appointments: The Senate is what matters for judicial nominations and executive branch appointments. And Trump is going to have an even easier time now. The chances of a Kavanaugh-style debacle are greatly reduced. That means more right-wing judges. And it also means the executive branch will have free reign to deregulate as it sees fit, with only House subpoenas stymieing them.

  • America wants a divided rule: I would argue the outcome shows that people want a check on Trump. And while a lot of this is because exit polls show people dislike Trump, at a base level, the divided outcome is because Americans think it's the best way to keep the checks and balances of the system robust.

  • Watch Florida, Kansas and Iowa in 2020: The vote for Amendment 4 to give most felons who have served their full time the right to vote in Florida passed. We're talking about over 1 million people. 9% of the potential voting population in Florida has a felony record. That is going to make a big difference in future votes in Florida. It may swing Florida into the Democrats column too, making the midwest states the swing states in future Presidential races. Speaking of the midwest, in Kansas, Trump-style Republican Kris Kobach lost to Laura Kelly and Republican incumbent Kevin Yoder was ousted by Native American Democrat Sharice Davids. To me, it speaks to the power of the suburbs. And the flip of three of four house seats in Iowa to the Democrats says that Iowa is also in play.

I am going to leave it there for now. My sense, here, is that a divided Congress means we are in a ride it out period economically. There are no more big fiscal plays coming on that front until after 2020. Going forward, the economy, is, therefore mostly about momentum and the Fed.