Attendees at the Democratic Party election night watch party at the Sheraton Times Square in New York. (Karsten Moran/The New York Times)
Democrats harnessed voter fury toward President Donald Trump to win control of the House and capture pivotal governorships Tuesday night as liberals and moderates banded together to deliver a forceful rebuke of Trump, even as Republicans added to their Senate majority by claiming a handful of conservative-leaning states.
Propelled by an unusually high turnout that illustrated the intensity of the backlash against Trump, Democrats claimed at least 25 House seats on the strength of their support in suburban and metropolitan districts that were once bulwarks of Republican power but where voters have recoiled from the president’s demagoguery on race.
From the suburbs of Richmond to the subdivisions of Chicago and even Oklahoma City, an array of diverse candidates — many of them women, first-time contenders or both — stormed to victory and ended the Republicans’ eight-year grip on the House majority.
But in an indication that the political and cultural divisions that lifted Trump two years ago may only be deepening, the Democratic gains did not extend to the Senate, where many of the most competitive races were in heavily rural states. Republicans built on their one-seat majority in the chamber by winning Democratic seats in Indiana, North Dakota and Missouri while turning back Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s spirited challenge of Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas.
And in the South, two progressive African-American candidates for governor who captured the imagination of liberals across the country fell to defeat at the hands of Trump acolytes — a sign that steady demographic change across the region was proceeding too gradually to lift Democrats to victory. Secretary of State Brian Kemp of Georgia soundly defeated Stacey Abrams, who was seeking to become the first black woman to lead a state, while former Rep. Ron DeSantis narrowly defeated Andrew Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee, in the largest presidential battleground, Florida.
At an election-night celebration in Washington, Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic minority leader in the House who may soon return to the office of House speaker, signaled how central the theme of checking Trump and cleaning up government was to the party’s success.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) stands next to her grandson as she speaks at a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee midterm election watch party at the Hyatt Regency in Washington, Nov. 6, 2018. (Sarah Silbiger/The New York Times)
“When Democrats win — and we will win tonight — we will have a Congress that is open, transparent and accountable to the American people,” she proclaimed. “Are you ready for a great Democratic victory?”
But at a meeting of Democratic donors and strategists earlier Tuesday, she signaled there were lines she would not cross next year. Attempting to impeach Trump, she said, was not on the agenda.
Even so, the Democrats’ House takeover represented a clarion call that a majority of the country wants to see a check on Trump for the next two years of his term. With the opposition now wielding subpoena power and special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation still looming, the president is facing a drastically more hostile political environment in the leadup to his campaign for re-election.
Their loss of the House also served unmistakable notice on Republicans that the rules of political gravity still exist in the Trump era. What was effectively a referendum on Trump’s incendiary conduct and hard-right nationalism may make some of the party’s lawmakers uneasy about linking themselves to a president who ended the campaign showering audiences with a blizzard of mistruths, conspiracy theories and invective about immigrants.
And it revealed that many of the right-of-center voters who backed Trump in 2016, as a barely palatable alternative to Hillary Clinton, were unwilling to give him enduring political loyalty.
The president was uncharacteristically muted Tuesday night, offering only a terse statement on Twitter. “Tremendous success tonight,” he wrote. “Thank you to all!”
For Democrats, their House triumph was particularly redemptive — not only because of how crestfallen they were in the wake of Clinton’s defeat but due to how they found success this year.
Stan Sinberg wears anti-Donald Trump buttons at the Democratic Party election night watch party at the Sheraton Times Square in New York, Nov. 6, 2018. (Karsten Moran/The New York Times)
The president unwittingly galvanized a new generation of activism, inspiring hundreds of thousands angered, and a little disoriented, by his unexpected triumph to make their first foray into politics as volunteers and candidates. He also helped ensure that Democratic officeholders would more closely reflect the coalition of their party, and that a woman may take over the House, should Pelosi secure the voters to reclaim the speakership.
It was the party’s grassroots, however, that seeded Democratic candidates with unprecedented amounts of small-dollar contributions and dwarfed traditional party fundraising efforts. The so-called liberal resistance was undergirded by women and people of color and many of them won Tuesday, including Mikie Sherrill in New Jersey, Lauren Underwood in Illinois and Abigail Spanberger in Virginia.
In next year’s session of Congress, there will be 100 women in the House for the first time in history.
The Democrats’ extensive gains in the House, and their capture of several powerful governorships, in many cases represented a vindication of the party’s more moderate wing. The candidates who delivered the House majority largely hailed from the political center, running on clean-government themes and promises of incremental improvement to the health care system rather than transformational social change.
To this end, the Democratic gains Tuesday came in many of the country’s most affluent suburbs, communities Clinton carried, but they also surprised Republicans in some more conservative metropolitan areas. Kendra Horn, for example, pulled off perhaps the upset of the night by defeating Rep. Steve Russell in central Oklahoma.
“Oklahoma City has grown increasingly diverse and today’s Republican Party has little to say to people of color,” said the city’s mayor, David F. Holt, noting that Russell sought to broaden his appeal but “was running against the national message of his party.”
Tremendous success tonight. Thank you to all!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 7, 2018
Indeed, the coalition of voters that mobilized against Trump was broad, diverse and somewhat ungainly, taking in young people and minorities who reject his culture-war politics; women appalled by what they see as his misogyny; seniors alarmed by Republican health care policies; and upscale suburban whites who support gun control and environmental regulation as surely as they favor tax cuts. It will now fall to Democrats to forge these disparate communities alienated by the president into a durable electoral base for the 2020 presidential race at a time when their core voters are increasingly tilting left.
Yet the theory — embraced by hopeful liberals in states like Texas and Florida — that charismatic and unapologetically progressive leaders might transmute Republican bastions into purple political battlegrounds, proved largely fruitless. Though there were signs that demographic change was loosening Republicans’ grip on the Sun Belt, those changes did not arrive quickly enough for candidates like Gillum and O’Rourke. And the Democratic collapse in rural areas that began to plague their candidates under Obama worsened Tuesday across much of the political map.
Polling indicated that far more voters than is typical used their midterm vote to render a verdict on the president, and Trump embraced the campaign as a judgment on him: the signs above the stage at his finally rally in Missouri on Monday night read, “Promises Made, Promises Kept,” and made no mention of the candidate he was ostensibly there to support.
People watch midterm election results come in at a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee watch party in Washington, Nov. 6, 2018.(Sarah Silbiger/The New York Times)
But by maintaining the intense support of his red-state conservative base, Trump strengthened his party’s hold on the Senate and extended Republican dominance of several swing states crucial to his re-election, including Florida and Ohio where the GOP retained the governorships.
Despite how inescapable the president was, Democrats carefully framed the election on policy issues such as health care to win over voters who were more uneasy with than hostile to the provocateur in the White House. There were far more campaign advertisements on the left about congressional Republicans endangering access to health insurance for those with pre-existing conditions than there were about a president who many liberals fear is a menace to American democracy.
While drawing less notice than the fight for control of Congress, Democrats enjoyed mixed success in something of a revival in the region that elevated Trump to the presidency by winning governor’s races in Michigan and Illinois. Beyond the symbolic importance of regaining a foothold in the Midwest, their statehouse gains will also offer them a measure of control over the next round of redistricting.
Drawing as much notice among progressives hungry for a new generation of leaders was the Senate race in Texas, where O’Rourke, a 46-year-old El Paso congressman, eschewed polling and political strategists to run as an unapologetic progressive in a conservative state undergoing a demographic shift. O’Rourke ran closer than expected against Cruz thanks to a historic midterm turnout, and the Democrat’s unconventional success prompted calls for him to seek the presidency long before the polls closed Tuesday night.
In the states Trump made a priority — Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Missouri — he came away with several marquee victories for Senate and governor. But in parts of the country with many college-educated white voters, some of whom supported Trump in 2016, his style of leadership and his singular focus on immigration in the last weeks of the campaign contributed to Republican House losses.
Among the major races of the night, Sens. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, three moderate Democrats in increasingly conservative states, were decisively defeated thanks to Republican strength in small towns and rural areas. In Tennessee, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a conservative Republican, dominated former Gov. Phil Bredesen in the middle and western parts of the state that were once Democratic strongholds.
The two parties each won important governorships. In Michigan, a historic Democratic stronghold that the president carried narrowly in 2016, voters chose Gretchen Whitmer, a former Democratic leader in the state Senate. Illinois voters elected J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat and Hyatt hotel heir, over the embattled governor, Bruce Rauner.
The night began with a result in Kentucky that suggested a night of mixed results. Republicans staved off an early setback in a conservative-leaning House district in central Kentucky, as Rep. Andy Barr repelled a fierce challenge from Amy McGrath, a former fighter pilot running as a Democrat. Barr’s survival offered some faint hope to Republicans that they might hang on to a small majority in the House, though they still faced a punishing test in scores of more moderate, suburban districts.
Many voters were waiting to see if the country would place a check on Trump and Republican power in Washington, and if antagonism toward the president would fuel a wave of Republican losses. But just as Trump shocked many Americans with his victory in the Electoral College in 2016, the possibility that he might receive a political boost Tuesday with Republican wins in the Senate — if not a mandate for the next two years — was a bracing thought for Democrats, and an energizing one for Republicans.
In Chapmanville, West Virginia, a hardware store worker, Chance Bradley, said he was voting Republican because Trump had made him “feel like an American again.” But Carl Blevins, a retired coal miner, voted Democratic and said he did not understand how anybody could support Trump — or, for that matter, the Republican candidate for Senate there, Patrick Morrisey.
“I think they put something in the water,” Blevins said.
The political leanings of battlegrounds like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa were also a huge of focus of interest Tuesday. Those states voted for Trump in 2016, and Republicans were fighting to extend their hold on them, while Democrats were aiming to pick off governor’s offices in several and demonstrate strength before the 2020 presidential election.
Trump had appeared sensitive in recent days to the possibility that losing the House might be seen as a repudiation of his presidency, even telling reporters that he has been more focused on the Senate than on the scores of contested congressional districts where he is unpopular. And Trump insisted that he would not take the election results as a reflection on his performance.
“I don’t view this as for myself,” Trump said Sunday, adding that he believed he had made a “big difference” in a handful of Senate elections.
Early exit polls of voters, released by CNN on Tuesday night, showed a mixed assessment of Trump as well as of Democratic leaders, and a generally gloomy mood in the country after months of tumultuous campaigning marked by racial tensions and spurts of violence.
Overall, 39 percent of voters said they went to the polls to express their opposition to the president, while 26 percent said they wanted to show support for him. Thirty-three percent said Trump was not a factor in their vote.
After weeks of anxiety about possible voter suppression, snags were reported in some states.
In Georgia, some voters had to wait 90 minutes or more to vote — partly because of technical problems and partly because of unusually high turnout. Some voters had to cast paper ballots because the machines were broken. Long lines persisted well after the machines were fixed, and at least one precinct in Gwinnett County, northeast of Atlanta, was seeking to extend its hours because a poll manager failed to offer paper ballots while the machines were down.
In several states, voters also said they had received text messages directing them to incorrect polling places.