Analysis

The Midterms That Keep Getting Better for the Democrats

Despite winning back the House, many Democrats felt a sense of disappointment over the results. In the five days since Election Day, however, the party's standing has improved - including in the Senate

A campaign volunteer for Democratic candidate Harley Rouda cheering the election returns during an Election Day party in California, November 6, 2018. Rouda's victory over longtime Sen. Dana Rohrabacher was confirmed on Saturday.
AFP

WASHINGTON - As the first midterm results came in on Tuesday night, many leading political pundits in the United States described the outcome as a “mixed bag”: Some good results for the Democratic Party, but not the “blue wave” they had hoped for.

James Carville, a leading Democratic political strategist, said on MSNBC during the early part of Election Night coverage: “This is not going to be the wave election that people like me would have hoped for.”

Ever since, though, as more and more votes have been counted and more tight races are being decided, the political narrative has shifted. In the last five days, there has not been a single day without good news for the Democrats. Their majority in the House of Representatives has grown from a very thin one to a more comfortable one, and their position in the Senate has also improved.

Dave Wasserman, House editor of the Cook Political Report, summed up the latest developments by tweeting Saturday that as Tuesday’s results come into focus, “The story developing is significantly more favorable to Dems than the narrative that emerged on Election Night.”

Matthew Dowd, a political analyst for ABC News who worked on George W. Bush’s election campaigns, noted that Democrats are likely to end up picking more House seats than they did in the 2006 midterms, “when the incumbent president had a much worse economy. That seems like a bit of a wave election to me.”

In the House of Representatives, the first results seemed to indicate that the Democrats would have a very thin majority – one that would allow President Donald Trump to try to create splits among the party’s own legislators. The official result on Wednesday morning, when many close races still hadn’t been decided and when millions of votes in Western states still hadn’t been counted, was that the Democrats had picked up “only” 28 seats in the House. That was less than their 31-seat gain in 2006, the last “blue wave” election.

Yet in recent days close races all across the country – from New Jersey to New Mexico – have been called in favor of the Democrats. In addition, as votes are being counted in California, the Democrats appear to be on track to win in a number of Republican-held seats in Orange County, which has traditionally been a GOP stronghold.

Analysts now believe that after all the votes across the country are counted, Democrats will pick up close to 40 seats in the House – a significantly better result than they achieved in 2006. In fact, such a result would represent the best midterms for the Democrats since the 1974 election that followed the Watergate scandal and President Richard Nixon’s resignation, when they won 49 seats.

One of the late-breaking victories for the Democrats came in Georgia: The southern state’s 6th Congressional District was once the home of Newt Gingrich, former Republican Speaker of the House and one of the most polarizing figures in American politics in recent decades. Last year, the district held a special election that drew national attention and ended in a comfortable victory for Republican nominee Karen Handel.

From January, though, the district will be represented by a Democrat for the first time in decades. Lucy McBath, a gun-control activist who lost her own son to gun violence, narrowly defeated Handel on Tuesday, thus “flipping” a seat the Democrats failed to win just last year.

Democratic candidate Lucy McBath on the campaign trail in Georgia's 6th Congressional District, October 25, 2018.
\ LIZ HAMPTON/ REUTERS

One race that is yet to be decided, but is leaning toward another Democratic “flip,” is the race for Maine’s 2nd Congressional District. This is a district where most voters favored Trump in the 2016 presidential election, by a margin of 10 percentage points. Yet as of Sunday morning, it seems the district’s incumbent Republican congressman, Bruce Poliquin, will narrowly lose to his Democratic challenger Jared Golden, a Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This is one of the few districts that uses the “ranked-choice voting” system, in which the electorate choose the candidate they prefer, and then choose a “second” option in case no candidate wins at least 50 percent of the vote. Golden and Poliquin both received approximately 46 percent of the vote, while a number of independent candidates received a combined 8 percent of the vote. Exit polls suggest Golden will receive more “second choice” votes than Poliquin, providing Democrats with another victory in a part of the country where Trump triumphed two years ago.

Meanwhile, the Democrats have also received some encouraging news in recent days on the Senate front. While there is no doubt that the Senate will remain Republican, the number of seats each party has still makes a big difference. In 2017, when Trump tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the opposition of only three Republican senators was enough to block him. (The Democrats had 48 seats in the chamber, meaning that three Republicans joining them in any specific vote created a majority in the Democrats’ favor.)

On Tuesday night, as the GOP easily recaptured seats in Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota, it seemed like the Democrats could sink into a very deep hole in the Senate with 55 or even 56 Republican seats a real possibility. In such a scenario, there would be almost no hope for the Democrats to get enough Republicans to cross sides for any vote.

Yet with every passing day, the situation has shifted slowly toward the Democrats. Late on Election Might, it became clear that Democrat of West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin had survived – despite his state giving Trump his largest victory in 2016. A few hours later, it was officially announced that the Democrats had “flipped” a Senate seat in Nevada, where Jacky Rosen defeated incumbent Sen. Dean Heller.

Jacky Rosen, center, celebrating at a Democratic Election Night party after winning a Nevada Senate seat, November 7, 2018.
John Locher,AP

Two days later, the Democrats received good news from Montana: Incumbent Sen. Jon Tester kept his seat, despite a concentrated effort by Trump to help his Republican opponent Matt Rosendale. Trump visited Montana a number of times to campaign against Tester. He was furious at the senator for blocking his nominee for leading the Department of Veterans Affairs. Yet Tester didn’t just survive – he also managed to win more than 50 percent of the vote for the first time in his statewide political career. (His previous victories were made possible with a plurality of the vote thanks to third-party candidates.)

As of Sunday morning, the Democrats also look well positioned to flip another Senate seat, this time in Arizona. In the battle to replace retiring Sen. Jeff Flake, the Democratic candidate Kyrsten Sinema has a slight lead over Republican candidate Martha McSally. There are still hundreds of thousands of votes left to count, but most of them are from urban and suburban areas that historically are more favorable to the Democrats.

Nate Cohn, the leading polling analyst for the New York Times, tweeted Saturday: “Sinema now up 1.5 points. Very hard to imagine a McSally comeback at this point.”Nate Silver of the FiveThirtyEight website has also described the current state of the race as “leaning Democrat.”

If Sinema indeed wins, she will become the first Democratic senator from Arizona in over two decades. She will also cut the Republican majority in the Senate to 53-47. In such a scenario, Democrats would need to convince four Republicans to join them in order to pass legislation or block nominations by Trump – not an easy feat, but one they believe could be achieved under the right circumstances.

Last but not least, the Democrats are still hopeful the recount currently underway in Florida could further improve their situation. When Florida’s first results came in on Election Night, many Democrats felt like they were experiencing déjà vu from 2016. Back then, Trump’s strength in Florida was the first portent of his shock victory.

But not only did the national results turn out differently this time, so did the results in Florida itself. The margins are much closer than in 2016, leading to the recount announced Saturday. The Democrats’ chances of winning both the Senate and Governor races are still low, however.

Another race in Florida heading toward a recount is the one for the state’s commissioner of agriculture, a role that oversees many of the state’s gun policies. Democrats put an emphasis on this race following the massacre at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland last February. Right now, Democratic nominee Nikki Fried has a slight lead. She has promised to shut down loopholes and strictly enforce existing gun laws in the state. If she emerges victorious from the recount, Florida Democrats will have reason to be satisfied, even if they end up losing the other two close races.

All over the United States, the Democrats have also won close to 400 state legislative seats, in addition to “flipping” seven governorships and not losing a single one. Going into Election Day, there were 33 Republican and 16 Democratic governors (Alaska had an independent governor). Now, though, the balance will be 27 Republicans to 23 Democrats.

Political analyst Amy Walter noted that “Election narratives get set on Election Night and are very difficult to change, even when the numbers do.” There is no doubt, though, that the picture today is much better for the Democrats than it was on Tuesday night.