To understand what happened on Tuesday, you have to begin by acknowledging that the fight for control of the Senate was a home game for President Donald Trump—and he won it, as expected. The real battlegrounds were the House of Representatives and the gubernatorial contests in states the president won in 2016, including Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.
With unemployment at a near-record low and with a gerrymandered map, Republicans should have, at a minimum, kept the House or expanded their majority, much as Democrats did under President Bill Clinton in 1998. Instead, Trump was clotheslined in the places that, in electoral terms, mattered most. The results proved that even though his divisiveness may pump up the Republican base, Democrats can fight back and win.
Gratifying as that may be, Democrats shouldn’t misinterpret the results. The voters who wrote off Democrats two years ago haven’t retroactively endorsed the party’s 2016 agenda. Their votes in 2018 were driven by their antipathy for Trump. That’s an important distinction because it suggests they won’t automatically stick with the Democratic Party in 2020. So how can Democrats turn this onetime rejection of Trump into a long-term realignment?
Here’s the political reality. In 2016, Democrats suffered because too many Americans viewed us as the urban-enclave party. I’m a big-city mayor—these are my people. But I’m experienced enough to know that the fate of Democratic candidates in 2020’s nationwide and statewide contests depends on their ability to win the hearts and minds of the new “Metropolitan Majority,” a bloc encompassing both the progressives who came out for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and the swing voters who live in the suburban and exurban communities that recently turned from red to blue.
Republicans understand that. Their strategy over the next two years will be to drive wedges between the urban and suburban voters. Trump will be relentless in using his Twitter feed to paint Democrats as what Stephen Miller called “cosmopolitans”—urban liberals culturally at odds with the nation’s swing voters. No street brawler has ever won an alley fight by responding to every sucker punch. In the same vein, Democrats will need to be as disciplined in their responses as Trump is strategic in each of his provocations.
Democrats’ first step should be to go back and listen to the candidates who won in the places that swung from red to blue, like the areas surrounding cities such as Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, Houston, and Chicago. How did the new Democratic governors of states Trump won manage to turn the tide? They are best poised to point the way forward.
Take education as a prime example. Suburban and urban voters are united in their concern that their kids’ schools are getting shortchanged and that college students aren’t able to graduate without mountains of debt. That’s a big reason that, in Illinois, Democrats claimed the governor’s mansion, two new congressional seats, and numerous additional state legislative seats two years after making a massive new investment in schools and universities. Democrats need to stand with the teachers, among others, demanding adequate funding for education in states such as West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Colorado. They need to model programs on the successes that Tennessee, Oregon, Rhode Island, New York, and, yes, Chicago have had providing free tuition to community colleges and universities.
Second, on health care, it’s time for Democrats to move their focus from expanding coverage to controlling costs. The Affordable Care Act has done a world of good reducing the legions of American living without insurance and protecting those with preexisting conditions. But even as Trump tries to undermine the ACA, the more than 150 million Americans who rely on private health insurance are struggling with a different set of problems altogether: skyrocketing premiums, fees, and prescription-drug prices. We need to get tough on the pharmaceutical and insurance industries profiting from those hikes and help average Americans manage those costs.
Third, Democrats need to do a better job of connecting infrastructure investments to each individual citizen’s quality of life. When Chicago became the first city to impose a fee on Uber and Lyft, we pledged to use the new revenue to reduce every subway rider’s commute by five minutes—and it worked. The same principle will apply across the country. Every voter whose 15-minute commute takes a half hour each morning will support new investments—but not if we fail to explain how that money will translate into more time with their children and a better quality of life.
Finally, Democrats need to learn from history. In the 1974 and 2006 midterms, the stench of corruption helped boost Democratic candidates around the country, in the first case because of Watergate, and in the second, when I chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, because we built a campaign around an early web ad titled “The House That (Tom) Delay Built.” But the Republicans we faced back then were tame compared with the swamp creatures the Trump administration dragged into Washington. No president has ever lost this many appointees to charges of corruption so quickly. Voters will want Democrats to clean up that mess.
Here’s the crucial takeaway. Over the next two years, Republicans will try to cleave the suburbs from the Democrats’ urban base, pulling swing voters into a coalition with rural conservatives. To build the new “Metropolitan Majority,” Democrats will have to do the opposite, building ties between voters in cities and those in the suburbs that surround them. The election two years from now will hinge on which party is more successful. If Republicans prevail, we’re likely to face a second term of President Trump. If Democrats succeed, we may remember Tuesday as the moment the Democratic Party began building a durable coalition.
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