An Existential Day for Democrats

On the winning side of the midterms is redemption. On the other is the wrenching fear that maybe they were never right.

photomaster / Shutterstock / The Atlantic

“There are more of us,” said Democratic Congressman Mark Pocan of Wisconsin. “We are America, and they are not.”

Tuesday’s midterm elections will show whether he’s right.

For two years, Democrats have been chasing explanations for how Donald Trump won—the Russians, that last-minute letter from Jim Comey, Hillary Clinton’s inept campaign, economic pain and backlash across the country that was deeper than any of the political pros could wrap their heads around. More than any seat in the House or Senate or state legislature, Tuesday is about whether any or all of those explanations make sense, and whether Democrats are deluding themselves.

On one side of the results is redemption, or at least the beginning of it. On the other is the wrenching fear that maybe the Democrats were never right, maybe the country doesn’t believe in any of the things they assumed it had to.

“If we do not win, with Trump and all of his insanity, and all of the horrible hatred and fear he’s sown,” said former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, “if we don’t win this year, boy, it will be such a psychological blow.

“But,” McAuliffe quickly added, “I’m not worried.”

That’s about as confident as Democrats get, what with control of the House and maybe the Senate, and 20 or so competitive races for governor, on the line—and with pollsters still unable to figure out who counts as a likely voter in ways that could create reliable predictions.

Especially after the shell shock of 2016. Their spirit animal is an addled mouse.

Voter turnout seems to be surging, based on the numbers of the people who turned out early. Voter energy certainly is. Will Ferrell and Oprah Winfrey are knocking on doors. Most editorial boards are backing Democrats. Moderate Republicans and the old-guard GOP intelligentsia have spent the past few months announcing that they feel obligated at this moment to abandon their party.

In a measure of what this year has boiled down to, all the major statewide battlegrounds are in states Trump won in 2016. For the past two weeks, the president himself hasn’t appeared in any state where he didn’t win electoral votes. The midterms were not about expanding his appeal, but about trying to solidify it for a Republican Party remade in his image, and about a Democratic Party aiming to win back areas or expand into new ones made possible by the backlash against him.

Take Pocan’s state. He’s one of the most liberal Democrats in the House, the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and he was talking to a cheering crowd last week at a rally on campus at the University of Wisconsin in super-liberal Madison, 1,000 people—mostly college students—who came to the top floor of a cafeteria building at 9:30 on a Tuesday morning.

But it’s also a state that has been the home of the past decade of Republican revolution. Scott Walker was elected governor in 2010 on a promise of radically reshaping state spending and Wisconsin’s approach to unions, then dispatched a 2012 recall vote and a 2014 reelection challenge, to the disbelief of Democrats who still haven’t fully come to grips with how he won in the first place. Walker paved the way for Trump’s shocker win in the state in 2016, with what looked like a new coalition of voters in a new electoral map and a new national Republican reality. Plus, that same night, Senator Ron Johnson, who was dismissed by local and national Democrats as an aberration when he also won in the giant 2010 wave, walked away from his rematch against progressive hero Russ Feingold by four times the margin Trump got over Hillary Clinton.

Is Wisconsin a state that reelects Walker or flips to Democrat Tony Evers’s pitch for calm stability and a return to active government spending? What about in Ohio, or Minnesota or Michigan, the states that Donald Trump had been hoping to reshape American politics around? Or in Arizona, Nevada, and Georgia, the states that Democrats have for years been hoping to lock in as theirs? What about in Texas and Florida, where Beto O’Rourke and Andrew Gillum became the symbols for Democratic hopes nationwide? Can either actually win?

Most Democrats stuck with a tortoise approach to talking up protecting health care and an “America is better than this” argument to run against Trump’s hyperactive nativist hyping of white fright, defended and embraced by Republican candidates across the country.

“Are we people who step up for our neighbors, or are we not? … The Iowa I grew up in, the country I grew up in, we step up for each other every single time,” said Abby Finkenauer at a rally last week in Cedar Rapids.

A 29-year old woman who’s seen as the most likely to take what has been a solidly Republican seat in northeast Iowa, Finkenauer campaigned as a bridge to the future by recapturing the spirit of the past.

“Hope, my friends, is on the line, and on the ballot here in 2018,” she said. “What else is on that ballot? Common sense and decency in public service.”

Trump’s response to that and the rest of the Democratic campaigns has been to dig in on warning of an immigrant invasion, moving farther and farther from describing reality by the day.

“A Democrat victory on Election Day would be a bright, flashing invitation to traffickers, smugglers, drug dealers, and gang members all over the world. Republicans believe our country should be a sanctuary for law-abiding Americans—not criminal aliens,” Trump said last Wednesday in Florida, shortly after tweeting a video of a Spanish-speaking cop-killer immigrant laughing about his crimes.

Trump only got more intense. By Sunday night, he was urging “Bikers for Trump,” the military, and ICE to get into an armed showdown with Antifa.

Long gone are the Republican leaders insisting at the beginning of the year that they’d win by running on last year’s tax bill. Trump’s invented promise two weeks ago that there was an additional 10 percent tax cut coming before the election, meanwhile, was forgotten about at the White House almost as soon as the words left his mouth.

A year ago, on a much smaller scale, the Republican and the Democrat running for governor of Virginia spent the final days in much the same way. Most predictions were that the race would be tight, and though the Democrat might win, it would be by only a point or two.

In the end, he won by nine.

Democratic wins in 2018 would restock the party’s bench with candidates who’ve become causes and phenomena locally and nationally. They’ve already run the most diverse collection of candidates ever across the country, while the Republican Party has remained mostly white, and mostly male. The Democrats have run candidates who are far to the left and have attracted major attention because of it. But if the party has big wins—and certainly if it has enough wins to take the majority in the House—it will be because of candidates like Richard Ojeda in West Virginia and Colin Allred in Texas, not because of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-year-old political newcomer who defeated Representative Joseph Crowley in the Bronx. For all the agenda setting she may seem set to do, Ocasio-Cortez will be filling a seat that’s been safely in Democratic hands for decades.

And big wins now could lock in a new political reality for years. Democratic wins, or even major inroads in Georgia, Texas, and Arizona, could spell a reshaping of the electoral map that would make it impossible for a Republican to be elected president, especially if the Democrats get back Wisconsin and the rest of the Midwest. Democrats elected to the statehouses and governorships now will be in charge when the new round of redistricting comes around after the 2020 census. Ballot questions in Michigan, Utah, Colorado, and Missouri could ban gerrymandering as well. And one in Florida that would restore voting rights to up to 1.4 million convicted felons would likely move the state from a Republican-tilting swing state to one that’s reliably blue. Young voters and non-college-educated women turned on to politics and against Trump could be the engine for Democratic wins for a generation.

The results won’t be a crystal ball for the next presidential election, but they will certainly set the tone, at least for the early stages of the primary that will quickly start moving as soon as the sun comes up on Wednesday. Trump’s campaign and the Democratic response to it already have.

“What on earth are the closing days of 2020 going to look like?” tweeted David Plouffe, Barack Obama’s old campaign manager and one of the people who had predicted Trump would go down to a historically large loss in 2016, responding to everything that Trump tossed out to rile up his base in the past week. “Will test us in profound ways.”