Election night offers both parties bragging rights.
Democrats seized control of the House and cut into Republican-held governorships on Tuesday, while Republican victories in the Senate appeared likely to stanch a broader Democratic wave.
Initial results late Tuesday suggested a midterm repudiation of President Donald Trump and the conservative, anti-immigration agenda he ushered into Washington two years ago, likely accelerating the Democratic Party’s reach into America’s critical suburbs on the cusp of the 2020 presidential campaign.
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But the election, marked by startlingly high early turnout and long lines on Election Day, laid bare the limitations of the Democratic Party’s reach, as well.
In Indiana, Republican Mike Braun unseated Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly. Republican Marsha Blackburn defeated Democrat Phil Bredesen to keep a Tennessee Senate seat in Republican hands. And in Texas, Sen. Ted Cruz beat back a nationally-watched challenge from Rep. Beto O’Rourke.
Still, in the House, Democrats had picked up 12 seats even before polls closed on the West Coast, with the likelihood of additional gains throughout the night.
Though the president’s party has historically suffered midterm election losses — as Obama-era Democrats did in 2010 — the results on Tuesday are likely to reshape the political landscape for years, with attention already turning to the 2020 presidential campaign. The election exposed a faltering by Republicans in the suburbs, with losses in suburban House districts in Florida, Denver and Virginia.
Democrats were favored by most pollsters and political observers of both parties to retake the House and cut into Republicans’ advantage in the nation’s governorships, while Republicans were expected to hold the Senate.
In Florida, Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum were trailing Republicans in races that remained too close to call.
While buoyed by their prospects in the House, the results in the Senate deflated Democrats who had hoped – if not expected – even broader gains.
“This is heartbreaking,” the liberal activist Van Jones said on CNN.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “I think James Carville said it best when he said anybody that was anticipating a blue wave tonight’s not going to get it. Maybe you get a ripple but I certainty don’t think that there’s a blue wave.”
Still, Democrats were expected to win governors races in at least two of six states that Trump flipped Republican in 2016, and they were running competitive races in the other four, including in Florida and Wisconsin.
If Republicans cede ground in the Midwest or Southeast, the election will serve as a marker of the GOP’s fragility outside of the most rural, conservative states — and of its decline in America’s traditionally Republican suburbs. If Republicans rally, however, and carry governorships and congressional races in those regions, they will expose the limitations of the Democratic Party’s reach outside major urban centers.
If Democrats retake the House, Trump will lose the governing majority he’s enjoyed the first two years of his presidency. The result, in all likelihood, will be more gridlock and partisan acrimony. Democrats are expected to spearhead investigations into the president’s ties with Russia, and they’ll have to decide whether to heed calls from liberal activists to try to impeach him.
But Democrats wary of alienating moderate voters might find common ground with Trump on issues ranging from drug pricing to criminal justice reform.
“Can we get along?” Trump said on “Fox & Friends” recently. “Maybe.”
The 2020 campaign is sure to color Trump’s relationship with Congress as soon as the night’s results are digested. Top-tier Democrats who were waiting to be sure that Democrats retake the House — a positive sign for their prospects in the next presidential election — are expected to rush into outright campaigning if Democrats gain a majority.
A large field of potential contenders, including former Vice President Joe Biden and Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), were heavily involved in the midterms, marshaling resources and staff for Democratic politicians in an effort to curry favor.
Trump held out hope that Republicans would maintain control of the House in recent days, even as his unpopularity in key suburban districts appeared to drag Republican candidates down.
Mercilessly yoking Republicans to the president’s strident anti-immigration rhetoric and to his effort to undo Obama-era health care guarantees, Democrats had already prompted a wave of GOP lawmakers to retire rather than face reelection.
Yet with Republicans expected to maintain control of the Senate — or perhaps add to their majority — the broader schism within the American electorate grew more pronounced as the midterms drew to a close. Republicans were poised to shed support in traditionally conservative suburbs, catering more narrowly to rural and white, working-class voters in rural states. Meanwhile, Democrats’ struggles in Tennessee, Texas and North Dakota Senate races laid bare the limitations of the Democratic Party’s geographic reach.
For as much as the election served as a referendum on Trump, the identity of the Democratic Party hung in the balance, too. If Andrew Gillum and Stacey Abrams win governorships in Florida and Georgia — or if leftist Democrats win House districts that Trump carried in 2016 — the election promised to hasten the rise of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.
But the Democrats’ growing coalition of younger, non-white voters was being tested by a cast of more establishment Democrats, as well, including in a series of Midwest gubernatorial races and Senate contests in Indiana, Tennessee and Arizona. In Indiana, Donnelly aired television ads criticizing the “radical left” for its positions on health care and immigration. And in Wisconsin, which Trump carried two years ago, Democrats are relying not on a liberal firebrand to unseat Republican Gov. Scott Walker, but on Tony Evers, a sober, 67-year-old state education superintendent.
By Election Day, the early vote in three states — Texas, Nevada and Arizona — had surpassed the total turnout in the last midterm election, as the historic nature of the election settled in. Nationwide, 36 million voters had cast early ballots, a staggering increase over 2014.
During an election-eve rally in Cleveland on Monday, Trump took credit for the surging interest in the elections, saying they “used to be like boring” but are now “the hottest thing.”
Trump had campaigned furiously for Senate Republicans in the final days of the election. But while Republican lawmakers sought to turn the president’s — and midterm voters’ — attention to less divisive, positive economic indicators, Trump only amplified his anti-immigration rhetoric, believing it would turn out base voters.
Ignoring pleas from fellow Republicans to change course, Trump said in the run-up to the midterms that “sometimes it’s not as exciting to talk about the economy … because we have a lot of other things to talk about.”
But by Election Day, his closing argument for the midterms had been muted. NBC, Fox and Facebook decided on the eve of the election to pull an immigration-related ad widely panned as racist.
The fallout came hours later, with voters reporting they were casting their ballots about Trump, according to television networks’ early exit polls. Majorities of voters reported positive feelings about the economy but did not list it as an issue of primary significance. And the country, they said, was headed in the wrong direction.