Only two hours after election results started trickling in, CNN correspondent Jake Tapper brought the gavel down. “This is not a blue wave,” he declared. “This is not a wave knocking out all sorts of Republican incumbents.”
Tapper said this shortly after a winner was projected in Kentucky’s 6th Congressional District. Democrats had hoped that former fighter pilot Amy McGrath would take down incumbent Andy Barr, who voted to repeal Obamacare last year. In 2016, Barr won the district by more than 22 points. On Tuesday, he held onto his seat by just three points.
But yes, it was a disappointing result, one of several in the night. Democrats expected to win the governor’s office in Florida, where black progressive rising star Andrew Gillum was leading in the polls—and whose popularity was expected to buoy struggling Senate incumbent Bill Nelson. Both Gillum and Nelson lost. Democrats had hoped to win the governor’s race in Georgia, where Stacey Abrams was running a surprisingly competitive race to become the country’s first black woman governor. But as in Florida, a racist campaign by her Republican opponent took its toll. Republicans are poised to win there as well.
Watching this unfold early in the evening, CNN commentator Van Jones could only shake his head. “This is heartbreaking. It’s heartbreaking,” he said. “The hope has been that the antibodies would kick in. That this infestation of hatred and division would draw a response from the American people in both parties to say ‘No, no more.’”
It’s true that, when judged against the Democrats’ best-case scenario—winning big in Florida, scoring an upset in Georgia, and holding the line in the Senate—Tuesday was disappointing. Republicans, surely, are relieved. They lost the House of Representatives, but they made gains in the Senate and held onto governor’s mansions in Florida and Ohio, two key 2020 swing states. The midterms were not a magic bullet, an event that sent an unequivocal rebuke to President Donald Trump. But they were by definition a blue wave, a massive popular vote against the president.
Most polling suggested that Democrats would win around 30 seats in the House, giving them a majority of around 15 seats. Most polling, similarly, saw them losing ground in the Senate, where they faced one of the toughest reelection maps in recent history. Democratic senators underperformed, with Indiana incumbent Joe Donnelly and Tennessee challenger Phil Bredesen losing badly. But in the House, although they didn’t pick up longshot districts like McGrath’s, they at least met expectations. When the dust has settled, they may very well have exceeded those expectations.
Given how few opportunities there have been over the past two years to send strong messages to the White House, it’s understandable how Tuesday’s results could look like a disappointment. Trump and Republicans will certainly declare a kind of victory, particularly in the Senate.
For Trump, who stumped for many of Tuesday’s GOP Senate winners, this may seem like a particularly important moment, one that proves that he is an unparalleled campaigner. For Democrats, there was hope in candidates like Florida’s Andrew Gillum, Georgia’s Stacey Abrams, and Texas’ Beto O’Rourke—partly because they are young, rising stars in the party, but also because their unexpected popularity represented the kind of progressive tsunami that many Democrats hoped for. If the party could turn Georgia and Texas blue, after all, then Trump was all but done for.
But as the midterms have shown, eradicating the disease of Trumpism will take more than just an energized Democratic base. Trump’s brand of ethno-nationalist conservatism has taken over the GOP, over the last six months in particular. Republican gubernatorial candidates in Florida and Georgia ran two of the most explicitly racist campaigns in recent memory, and won, likely validating the strategy in their minds. Expect future Republican candidates to lean even further into voter suppression and white grievance.
But even if Democrats didn’t win some of the biggest (and unlikeliest) races, they ended up where many predicted: a little worse off in the Senate, and much better off in the House and the states, where they have been eviscerated in recent years. The party made important inroads in the Midwest and South; Kris Kobach lost his gubernatorial campaign in Kansas, while Texas and Georgia are seemingly in play for 2020. And although Gillum and O’Rourke lost, their competitive races likely boosted statewide turnout and contributed to the unseating of key House Republicans like Carlos Curbelo, in Florida, and Pete Sessions, in Texas.
The media might focus on the Democrats’ high-profile losses, even though most were either underdogs (like O’Rourke) or incumbents in states that Trump won two years ago. But the real indicator is the Democrats’ popular vote total, which is projected to significantly outpace the Republicans’. Given that this was a midterm election, and that the Senate map was extremely unfavorable to Democrats (who had to defend 26 of the 35 seats up for election), those numbers will likely increase in 2020. With more of the country up for grabs, Republicans may be forced to expend resources in unexpected places. Abrams and O’Rourke, in particular, showed Democrats how to run in those places.
The midterms were a reminder that the fight against Trump will not be easy, especially given the many structural advantages for Republicans, including the Electoral College, voter suppression, and gerrymandering. But Tuesday’s results were also a reminder that the fundamentals are on Democrats’ side. A majority of American voters (still) favors the Democrats over Trump and his party, and have now granted them the power to lead investigations into the administration and block Republican legislation. As Van Jones said later in the evening, after CNN called the House for Democrats, “My heart has been restored. It is the end of one-party rule in the United States, thank god, and the beginning of a new Democratic Party.”