The combined results reconfirmed the deep lines of division etched in Trump’s narrow 2016 victory over Hillary Clinton. The evening amounted to a simultaneous repudiation and reaffirmation of Trump from two very different Americas, and underscored the fundamental demographic, cultural, and economic changes reshaping America and its politics.
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The results dramatized both the benefits and the costs of the electoral bargain Trump is imposing on his party. Behind his racially infused nationalism, the GOP is trading white-collar voters for blue-collar voters; suburban for rural; and younger for older. Those trends advantaged them in a Senate map centered mostly on white heartland states, and they also showed continued potency in Sun Belt battlegrounds such as North Carolina and Georgia, where overwhelming margins among working-class white voters allowed Republicans to overcome erosion in other categories.
In Senate races, Trump successfully mobilized his coalition to help Republicans oust Democratic incumbents in North Dakota, Indiana, and Missouri, all states that he carried in 2016. Montana remained too close to call on Wednesday morning, though many analysts believed Democrat Jon Tester had a clearer path to victory. Trump’s coattails in the Republican victories were apparent: Exit polls conducted in Indiana and Missouri showed Trump’s approval rating at 50 percent or above in each, with the GOP candidates winning 86 to 88 percent of the voters who approved of him.
But for the first time in Trump’s national political career, the electoral costs of his approach also came due. House Republicans were swept away in urban and suburban districts, from New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, and Virginia in the East, to Chicago, Minneapolis, Detroit, Des Moines, and Kansas City in the Midwest, to Denver, Tucson, Orange County, and possibly even Salt Lake City in the West. Republicans fell even in suburb-heavy southern districts around Houston, Dallas, Oklahoma City, Charleston, and possibly Atlanta that traditionally have leaned much more reliably red than similar areas in other regions.
All of these suburban seats were in places where voters are doing best in the buoyant economy, but widespread discomfort with Trump’s style and values ignited a huge backlash among college-educated white voters—primarily women, but also an unusually large number of men. The exit polls put Trump’s approval rating among college-educated white voters at only about 40 percent. Burdened by that verdict, Republican House members were swept away in fast-growing, economically dynamic metro areas.
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In the midwestern states that were key to Trump’s victory in 2016, the Democrats rebounded, while also facing reminders of the obstacles they may face in reclaiming those states from Trump in 2020. Democratic Senators in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania—all of whom were considered at risk after Trump carried their states two years ago—won comfortable victories. The party also reelected a governor in Pennsylvania, beat Scott Walker in Wisconsin, and took over for the outgoing GOP governor in Michigan. Still, Republicans comfortably held the Ohio governorship, and narrowly prevailed in Iowa.