The Biggest Story of the Midterms Is One the Democrats Aren’t Telling

Things are looking up for progressives at the state level—but until recently, the national party wasn’t spreading the word.

Barack Obama at a campaign rally for Wisconsin Democratic candidates (the gubernatorial candidate Tony Evers, the lieutenant-governor candidate Mandela Barnes, and the state treasurer candidate Sarah Godlewski) on October 26
Barack Obama at a campaign rally for Wisconsin Democratic candidates (the gubernatorial candidate Tony Evers, the lieutenant-governor candidate Mandela Barnes, and the state-treasurer candidate Sarah Godlewski) on October 26 (Sara Stathas / Reuters)

Here’s the real news of the 2018 midterm elections. One week out, Democrats appear poised to win big on two of the three big playing fields. They were never going to retake the Senate, if only because of the mix of seats up for election this year—10 of those held by Democrats are in states Donald Trump carried in 2016. But in the House of Representatives and in state houses around the country, Democrats are on the verge of scoring huge victories. Given the underlying economic reality, that’s entirely unexpected.

It’s a story the Democratic National Committee has, until recently, utterly failed to tell. Until recently, the DNC was focused almost exclusively on the battle for Congress. I’m glad it has finally taken notice of the fact that 36 states are holding gubernatorial contests this year and that Democrats are likely to flip many of the most important state houses from red to blue. But from a strategic standpoint, it’s been very late to the game—although it’s better to be late than sorry.

Nowhere is it written that the president’s party is guaranteed to lose big in a midterm election. In fact, when the economy is good, the party controlling the White House has a huge advantage. Democrats picked up five congressional seats in 1998, when President Bill Clinton was in office and the middle class was thriving. Good policy drives good politics.

But we know the flip side as well. When the American people think the economy’s headed in the wrong direction, they’re liable to punish the president’s allies across the country. That’s what happened in 1982, 1994, and 2006. And that’s why it’s so remarkable that Republicans are struggling one week out from this year’s midterm.

If a political pundit arrived on the scene today not knowing anything about the past two years in politics, she’d likely look at the economic indicators and presume that the GOP was flying high. But President Trump’s divisive social agenda and pugnacious personality are so unpopular that he’s dragging his entire party down with him. Republicans are hemorrhaging mea culpa voters who regret having voted for Trump in the first place. And that will cost the GOP not just in House races, but also in state houses across the country.

What’s a wave election? It’s a force within the electorate that proves more powerful than the structural impediments it overwhelms. The barriers to Democratic success are formidable, including voter suppression, gerrymandering, and a 3.7 percent unemployment rate. But Democrats are seeing their support swell high enough that it’s likely to overtop those barriers, not because of the economy but in spite of it.

No Democrat needs to be reminded why statewide elections in places like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin matter in presidential campaigns. But until now, the DNC has seemed intent on letting everyone ignore the GOP’s biggest vulnerability, namely the fact that those three states—not to mention swing states like Florida, Ohio, Iowa, and Minnesota—are electing governors next week. If Democrats end up flipping state houses in places Trump won in 2016, they will have proved themselves capable of winning in the places coastal elites derisively refer to as “flyover America.” You can’t overstate how big a deal that will be.

It’s not that power in Congress isn’t important—it is. But over the long haul, the gubernatorial contests are likely to have a much bigger impact for three reasons. First, swing-state Democratic governors will have road-tested the messages best equipped to sway voters in the most important swing states. Nothing could be more valuable for our 2020 nominee.

Second, across most of the country, state officials will soon be tasked with redrawing the nation’s congressional districts. A decade ago, Republican governors helped the GOP gerrymander itself a decade’s worth of political advantage in Washington. If Democrats do well this year and again in 2020, they’ll be poised to flip that advantage back on the GOP through 2030.

Finally, in close presidential elections, a state’s political apparatus can have an outsize impact. Who knows how the 2016 campaign would have turned out if Democratic governors had controlled Michigan and Wisconsin, places where Hillary Clinton lost by three-tenths and seven-tenths of a point, respectively? Our country might be in a very different place today.

Republican operatives and elected officials are quietly working to suppress (mostly minority) voters in battleground states. And the GOP base is unusually energized, meaning that any blue wave will almost certainly be countered on the margins by a red undertow. Many of these races will come down to the wire.

But none of that should obscure the bigger picture. We’re on the verge of watching the American people repudiate a sitting president despite a nominally strong economy. That’s exceedingly rare. Democrats are proving they can win swing voters, and are well on their way to establishing one of the strongest benches they’ve had in decades. Things are looking up for progressives. If Democrats manage to win two of the nation’s three battlegrounds next week, they’ll have had a huge night. Once the results are in, don’t let anybody convince you otherwise.