Politics Chat: Who won the midterms?

By Aristophanes, Hermes and Dolos


Editor’s Note: The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity, grammar and style.


Aristophanes (Ari): The United States midterm elections were held Tuesday, and the results ended up being… perhaps not that surprising.

Democrats wrested the House of Representatives from Republican control, while Republicans managed to hold their Senate majority, which may even increase by one or two seats once finals results are tabulated in Arizona, Florida and Mississippi. Democrats also won big in several gubernatorial elections, though maybe in fewer than they would have liked.

I want to ask each of you: What were your general takeaways from the midterm results?

Hermes: The blue wave came as promised, putting the president on the defensive for the next two years.

Dolos: The blue wave is real, and it may still be trickling in. Even though high-profile Democratic Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke lost in Texas, Democrats on the whole are in position to gain nearly 40 House seats. With votes still being tallied in Arizona and Florida, things could end up looking bluer than we initially thought.

Although, perhaps unsurprisingly, incumbent Democratic Sens. Heidi Heitkamp and Claire McCaskill both lost, in North Dakota and Missouri, respectively, further expanding America’s urban/rural divide.

Ari: I agree with both of you that the results constitute a blue wave. Going by the popular vote margin for House candidates, this midterm is pretty similar to what we saw in 2006 with the Democrats and in 2010 and 2014 with the Republicans.

The Senate results, though worse for Democrats than the House results, are mostly due to the territory up for election this year in that chamber. Only one-third of senators are on the ballot each federal election, and this year there were many more Democratic senators up for election in Republican-leaning states than vice-versa.

Hermes: I agree. I see 2020 and maybe 2022 going well for the Democrats.

Ari: Democrats did well in the Midwest, generally, and very, very well in suburban areas. The Democrats’ weakness in rural areas, though, seems to just be getting worse. Like Dolos said, there’s a sharp urban/rural divide that continues to grow.

Dolos: The Midwest was certainly encouraging for Democrats, especially given the post-2016 Trump country narrative. Democrat Tony Evers won the Wisconsin governorship from Scott Walker, and Democrats also won governorships in Michigan and *checks notes* Kansas.

Ari: Dolos, you make a good point about the Midwest. Many of those traditionally Democratic states (e.g., Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania) swung to Trump for the 2016 election, but now seem to be reverting back to their blue roots. What do you think that means for the 2020 election? Is the Midwest souring on Trump, or just down-ballot Republicans? Will Trump do worse in the Midwest in 2020 than he did in 2016?

Dolos: I think so. He’s less popular now than he was in 2016, although that could always change. More Democratic governorships could also help expand voting rights and fight against things like voter ID laws, which generally helps Democrats. And frankly, it seems difficult for Trump to improve on his 2016 showing. The wildcard, of course, is what the Democratic House will achieve in terms of investigations and oversight — not to mention what we learn from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.

Hermes: I also think it’s worth considering Democrats will likely nominate someone far more likable this time around.

Dolos: People sure seem to like Beto…

Hermes: As much as I want a President Beto, it’s probably too soon for him.

Ari: Dolos, I think you’re right about the wildcard for 2020 being the newly Democratic House. Proper oversight of the Trump administration could unearth some not-so-flattering aspects of the president’s affairs, which could hurt him in running for re-election.

However, if Democrats are too aggressive in, say, prematurely (in the eyes of the public) impeaching Trump, we could see a backlash, similar to what happened when the Republican-controlled House impeached Bill Clinton in the late ’90s.

And yes, the Mueller investigation is a potentially huge game-changer for 2020. It should be wrapped up by Election Day, or even much earlier, presumably.

Dolos: It’ll be interesting to see if Nancy Pelosi returns to speakership. She has a reputation for maintaining a disciplined caucus, which I think would serve Democrats well in the next two years. I think the perception of overreach is an easy trap to fall into, as you alluded to.

Ari: Hermes, I also want to circle back on what you said regarding Democrats nominating a more likable candidate than Hillary in 2020. I also think that’s likely — although not a guarantee. Say Elizabeth Warren is the Democratic nominee. I could see her vilified by conservative media in much the same way Clinton was. How much of the dislike is baked-in, and how much is manufactured?

Hermes: Elizabeth Warren isn’t as much of the Washington-insider type when compared to Clinton, who lived in the White House for eight years.

Ari: But she’s also more liberal? Right?

Hermes: Yes, I would say so. Also, she may be less likable after taking the “Pocahontas” bait from Trump.

Dolos: That’s an interesting question. Dislike of Hillary seemed to be a combination of genuine Hillary dislike + sexism + dislike of Democrats. If it’s Warren, the last two will probably be just as strong.

Hermes: I agree with that. I imagine die-hard Trump supporters will still probably hate Hillary more. Is Warren releasing her DNA test results really going to catch fire the same way Hillary’s email scandal did? I doubt it.

Dolos: I have a feeling we’ll get “Lock ____ Up” chants no matter who the Democratic nominee is. But take Beto, for example. He won independents in Texas by 3 points. If someone could do that nationally, they’d almost certainly win in 2020.

Ari: Something I’ve heard mentioned on Twitter, as well, is that House Democrats simply being able to prevent Republicans from passing unpopular legislation is a political win for Trump. The 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, and the multiple attempts at repealing the Affordable Care Act, polled very poorly among the general pubic. We saw Trump’s approval rating dip to its lowest as these bills were being discussed in Congress. A House in Democratic hands, however, not only keeps conservatives from passing unpopular legislation, it also gives Trump a foil. That could really boost his popularity.

Hermes: Like I’ve said for a while, it’s easier to be a victim than a leader. And Trump sure loves to play the victim.

Dolos: That’s a good point. Trump is certainly in his element when he has a fight to pick. When it’s a foregone conclusion that his legislation won’t pass, he can hammer home the obstructionist point.

Ari: And that means political coverage will be much less substance-based for the next two years, because, well, no one will be passing much legislation, unless it’s bipartisan.

That’s good for Trump.

Dolos: I can’t wait for the return of Infrastructure Week™.

Hermes: More like Infrastructure Era.

It hasn’t been about the issues for a while. But a lot of that is not the media’s fault.

Ari: But the failed attempts at ACA repeal and passing of tax cuts were all huge stories of the past two years. We won’t see as much of that going forward, although perhaps we may see a bipartisan infrastructure package, as you two alluded to?

If I were giving Trump political advice, I would tell him to go all-in for infrastructure, no matter what the senior leaders of the Republican Party might say. Democrats seem like they would collaborate with Trump on an infrastructure package, and it would probably be a popular achievement in the eyes of the general public.

Dolos: This is going to be a crucial question for Pelosi going forward. she called for bipartisanship in a recent address. Is that the savvy political move?

Hermes: Yes, it is. If Democrats work with the GOP, their critics will have less to criticize.

Ari: My answer is “no.” Bipartisanship for Democrats is probably not the savvy political move (although, I’m already thinking of an argument for why it actually might be). That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t seek bipartisanship, however.

Hermes: Democrats should give Republicans one chance. If they turn it down, then Democrats can go on the offense. That’s my opinion, anyway.

I also see the point in what Aristophanes is saying. Republicans may cry obstruction either way.

Dolos: Compare that to Mitch McConnell’s declaration that the GOP’s goal was to make Obama a one-term president. What if Pelosi said something that explicit?

Ari: Oh, now that’s a good question. I’m not sure, actually.

Such a statement would appeal to part of the Democratic Party, for sure. I’m just not sure how large and influential that “part” is.

Dolos: I can see the New York Times opinion column attacking her already.

Hermes: The real question (to me) is: What do young people want? They ultimately make or break things.

Ari: Do they, though?

Hermes: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Dolos: Maybe more than they used to? Youth turnout was up in 2018!

Hermes: Yes, that is my point.

Ari: I would agree with “more than they used to.” But is the youth vote more integral to Democratic electoral strategy than, say, the female vote? Or the minority vote? I don’t think it is.

Dolos: Young female minority turnout will be key!

Ari: That being said, I wonder how important the youth vote was for Beto’s Senate candidacy. I want numbers on that!

Dolos: And in two years, those plucky 16-year-olds will be voting.

Hermes: I mean, there’s plenty of routes Democrats can go.

Ari: I think the, say, 25–35 year-old vote is pretty key for Democrats. The “elder” millennials, as you say. The 18–25 vote? I just don’t think that constituency votes enough to be that important.

Hermes: That’s fair.

Dolos: The amount of Beto for Texas signs I saw in Brooklyn was very encouraging.

Ari: Beto is very popular nationally, for sure.

Now that he’s lost, what do you two think Beto should do next?

Dolos: Make slime!

Hermes: Uh, what.

Ari: Same.

Dolos:

 Beto1

Hermes: lol

Dolos:

Hermes:

Buzz Killington

Ari: Um, OK. But for real.

Hermes: I think it’s too soon to decide. He needs to see who declares and whatnot.

Dolos: There are a lot of ways Beto could go on the spectrum between making slime full-time and running for president. I think he’d make a compelling vice presidential candidate or cabinet member for a Democratic president. He could also run for Senate again soon: John Cornyn’s seat is up in 2020.

Ari: I think VP or another Senate candidacy would make the most use of Beto’s political celebrity. An unelected cabinet position is not a place to waste such a popular person, in my opinion. That’s where you throw your uninspiring but very capable party wonks and policy experts.

Dolos: See: Clinton, Hillary

Ari: Exactly.

Dolos: Warren/O’Rourke would be a very compelling pair — and might just make Sean Hannity’s head explode.

Hermes: I love it.

Ari: OK, another question for you all: Why do you think Heitkamp, McCaskill and (potentially, though the race is now going to a recount) Nelson lost their respective Senate races? Is there a lesson Democrats can take from those losses?

Dolos: Alliterative names are a losing proposition!

Hermes: Yeah, just ask Mitch McConnell.

Dolos: Missouri and North Dakota both tell me that rural America is getting redder. It might be a while before we see another Democratic senator in either of those states. In Florida, I don’t have a clue.

Ari: That’s similar to where I’m at on those races.

North Dakota: simply too red. Democrats are luck they even had a Senate seat to defend there in the first place.

Missouri: McCaskill was a poor fit for the state, and she faced a very, very good opponent in Josh Hawley, whom I wrote about when he first declared his candidacy. I think this is overlooked in the analysis of this race. Democrat Jason Kander almost beat Roy Blunt in Missouri’s 2016 Senate race for a very similar reason — Blunt was a poor fit for Missouri, and Kander ran a very strong campaign. In a basically neutral year, Kander came closer to beating the Republican than McCaskill, an incumbent in a very blue year, came to defeating her challenger. Why? Because candidate quality matters!

Hermes: Also, don’t forget McCaskill’s 2012 race. She only won then because her opponent self-destructed.

Dolos: Have a name that’s a synonym for honesty!

Ari: Also a possibility: sexism. Academic literature suggests voters sometimes see female Democrats as being automatically more liberal than male Democrats. That really hurts then you’re a female Democrat trying to portray yourself as a centrist/moderate in a deep-red state.

Hermes: #SusanCollins

Ari: That bias, if it also holds for Republican candidates, might help in Susan Collins’ case.

Dolos: That’s interesting. I buy that explanation.

Ari: And Florida: Yeah, I have no clue on this one. Maybe Rick Scott did so well against Nelson because he has more name recognition? Or maybe because Florida, as much as we pretend otherwise, isn’t really a purple state, but a more red-leaning one? I’m not sure.

But does that explain the DeSantis/Gillum gubernatorial race?

Hermes: Also, voter suppression.

And the gubernatorial race and Senate race are on the same ballot.

Ari: Yeah, fair point. But Gillum definitely had the name recognition, yet Nelson ran slightly ahead of him.

Hermes: He’s black.

Ari: So it could be a combination of racism and name recognition working at cross purposes to create the weird result I mentioned above. Florida is just a tough state to analyze.

Oh, also Nelson’s incumbency could’ve been a factor. Although Rick Scott, as governor, would have had some incumbent-like effects, as well.

Dolos: The narrative going into Election Day is that Gillum would run ahead of Nelson, so I was surprised to see the opposite happen. Then again, a Republican I know voted for Nelson but couldn’t bring himself to vote for Gillum. Maybe race is one reason why.

Hermes: Also, the investigation into his office.

Ari: Looking to the future, what do you think the Democrats should do regarding Senate races? There’s a huge rural bias in the Senate, because every state, regardless of population, gets two senators. But that same bias is not quite as strong in the House, which Democrats won mostly by playing to the suburbs. How do Democrats win both the House and Senate in the future? Are we headed into an era of Democrats continually winning a majority in the House and Republicans always in control of the Senate?

Dolos: Democrats should go all in on Texas.

Ari: Dolos, I think that’s interesting! One problem is that Texas, being such a large state, is very expensive to run in. A serious statewide campaign there consumes a much larger amount of a national party’s resources than, say, a campaign in Nevada. And when it comes to Senate races, a seat in Texas isn’t worth any more than a seat in a smaller state.

Is the Texas route really the most efficient way for Democrats to claw themselves back to a Senate majority?

Hermes: Flipping Maine would be much easier. It might also be easier to flip seats in Iowa, Kentucky and North Carolina. Maybe even Kansas.

Ari: At the same time, going all in for Texas would pay huge House dividends down-ballot, as well as significant Electoral College dividends up-ballot…

Dolos: Here’s what I’m thinking. Texas has enough urban areas and Hispanic voters that the state turning blue is feasible. And the electoral advantage it carries, especially when coupled with California and New York, would be devastating for the GOP.

Ari: Dolos, you’re selling me on this strategy, actually. Democrats should target Texas and the Midwest.

Dolos: Also, if Democrats want to be really radical about remaking the Senate map, they should grant statehood to D.C. and/or Puerto Rico next time they take power.

Ari: But the D.C./Puerto Rico thinking is almost a Catch-22. You have to win the Senate first to grant statehood to those places.

Also, I wonder if there would be a huge backlash from a straight partisan vote granting statehood to D.C. and/or Puerto Rico. I legitimately do not know.

Hermes: Does Puerto Rico even want to be a state?

Ari: It’s complicated. From Vox:

In June 2017, after the pro-statehood party swept into power, Puerto Ricans on the island voted to join the United States as the 51st state. It was the fifth time the island has held a referendum on whether to join the republic. The vast majority voted in favor of statehood: 97 percent — the largest number yet.

The problem is that fewer than a quarter of registered voters turned out to the polls. That was mostly the result of a boycott from the anti-statehood political groups, who were upset with the wording of the referendum.

Dolos: Former Obama staffer Dan Pfeiffer has been arguing for D.C. and Puerto Rico statehood on Twitter.

Ari: D.C. statehood could potentially require a constitutional amendment according to some scholars, needing a super-majority from both chambers of Congress plus three-fourths of the states to ratify it. Although there is a lot of disagreement about whether an amendment would really be necessary, I think.

Also, the elephant in the room question: Would it be wrong for Democrats to grant statehood to Puerto Rico and D.C. for the purpose of creating more safe-Democratic Senate seats? Is that unacceptable constitutional hardball?

Hermes: Republicans would do similar if they could.

Ari: You don’t know that! And that’s a dangerous mentality to have.

Hermes: I mean…

Dolos: Yes and no. There are legitimate reasons that D.C. and Puerto Rico deserve statehood. D.C. is more populous than several states.

Ari: If the worry is D.C. residents not having proper representation in Congress, why not simply cede the D.C. area, minus the Capital Mall, back to Maryland?

Dolos: Puerto Rico has been saddled with debt and doesn’t have a voice in Congress. These are taxpayers!

Ari: Yes. Puerto Rico statehood, in my opinion, is much less problematic than D.C. statehood, morally, legally and politically speaking. I would support Puerto Rico statehood (if Puerto Ricans themselves support it), but I’m undecided on D.C. statehood.

Dolos: Either way, it’s an out-of-the box approach to the Senate, to say the least.

Ari: Have you heard the other proposal that some Democrats have suggested? Some want to neuter the powers of the Senate, the same way the United Kingdom neutered the House of Lords in the early 20th century, making it a largely ceremonial body. All legislative power is now effectively contained within the House of Commons, Parliament’s lower chamber.

Is the Senate an anachronism from an age where populations didn’t vary so drastically from state to state? California has nearly 40 million residents, while Wyoming has fewer than 580,000. Should they really have the same number of senators?

The Senate has already changed from its original function, in that we now directly elect senators instead of deferring that power to state legislatures.

Hermes: Not gonna happen. The Electoral College is more anachronistic, and no one is going to change it.

Ari: There’s a multi-state compact to effectively eliminate the Electoral College. They are 63.7 percent of the way there, by electoral vote count, according to Wikipedia.

Hermes: But most states are still not on board.

Ari: That could change over the next few decades. It’s not that unlikely — at least not as unlikely as it might have once seemed to establish direct election of U.S. senators. Especially if, say, the Republican coalition of older white, Evangelical voters diminishes, giving way to Democratic control of the number of states necessary for an Electoral College majority.

Dolos: Imagine if Trump were to win another Electoral College/popular vote split.

Hermes: According to the Wikipedia article:

The compact is designed to ensure that the candidate who wins the most popular votes is elected president, and it would come into effect only when it would guarantee that outcome.

What does that mean?

Ari: If states containing a majority of electoral votes agree to the compact, then and only then does it go into effect. Once it is in effect, all states agreed to the compact must assign their Electoral College votes to the presidential candidate who wins the national popular vote, ensuring the candidate also wins in the Electoral College.

I think it’s a novel idea — basically, an end-run around the Constitution making it so the national vote winner always becomes president.

Hermes: OK, got it. I don’t see why we wouldn’t do that.

Dolos: Burn it all down.

Ari: A new constitutional convention??

I have one final question before we wrap things up: Who will be president following Inauguration Day 2021, and who will control Congress?

Dolos: *breathes nervously*

Elizabeth Warren. Democrats gain in both chambers, but Republicans keep the Senate majority.

Hermes: Cory Booker. Both chambers in Democratic hands.

Ari: Mike Pence. Democrats have the House, but Republicans have the Senate. ■



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