Election night 2018 didn’t provide a story of a dramatic blue wave, but it was still a big night for Democrats, who won the House of Representatives, marking the end of the Republican legislative agenda and the beginning of an era of accountability for President Trump.
Democrats feared early on that a handful of Senate races foretold a night of gloom. Amy McGrath lost in Kentucky, while Andrew Gillum underperformed his polls in Florida and Joe Donnelly lost a Senate race in Indiana. Republicans ultimately kept control of the Senate.
But things quickly turned around for Democrats in the main arena — the House — where, though they didn’t smash expectations or shock the world with their electoral performance, they did win a lot of races and took control of the chamber. Democrats also gained ground in governor races and state legislatures, albeit not to the degree that they had hoped.
The overall results suggest a nation that continues to be deeply divided along geographical lines, with rural areas and Southern exurbs tilting ever more strongly toward the Republican Party while cities and suburbs with highly educated populations lurch to the left.
But the 2018 version of divided America shows the Democrats with a clearly larger half. Republicans essentially matched Trump’s 46 percent of the vote, but House Democrats consolidated the other 54 percent behind them in a way that Hillary Clinton did not. And while Trump skated by on a narrow Electoral College win in 2016, the Democrats of 2018 held strong in the key Midwestern swing states.
Ramifications of this election will reverberate for years, fundamentally realigning power in Washington in critical ways.
Here’s who won and who lost.
In the end, Democrats didn’t do as well in the House as they’d been hoping to, and they did quite a bit worse in the Senate. But beyond the noise and the expectations game, the fundamental reality is they did what they needed to do — win a majority of House seats and end the Republican Party’s monopoly on power.
That started with an early win in a northern Virginia district that voted heavily for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Ralph Northam in 2017, continued with a couple of Miami-area races, and plowed ahead throughout the evening into the favored quarter suburbs of Minneapolis, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, and beyond. This is often glossed broadly as a “suburban” backlash to the GOP, but in a country where at this point, the vast majority of the population lives in suburban-style neighborhoods, this was actually something more specific — a backlash grounded in the section of every metro area where the college-educated professionals and the upscale shopping malls are.
Most of these GOP losses had been “expected” by forecasters before they came, so they didn’t necessarily provide Democrats with an emotional high. But they did provide them with concrete wins — votes in hand — that, paired with a few more pickups here and there in the Northeast and Midwest, were good enough to make a majority.
This risk of a massive backlash against Trump in suburbs with high numbers of college graduates has been apparent for years, but House Republicans largely avoided it in 2016 by distancing themselves from Trump and promising to be independent of him. They didn’t deliver on that promise, and they paid the price.
Back in 2002, then-Sen. Max Cleland lost his reelection to Saxby Chambliss and became a very rare example of an opposition party incumbent senator losing an election. This is so rare that it didn’t happen to anyone in 2004 or 2006 or 2008 or 2010 or 2012 or 2014 or 2016. But Tuesday night, at least three incumbent Democratic senators lost.
Party leaders will tell you, rightly, that this mostly reflects an almost comically unfavorable map and in no way undermines the sense that the overall result of the election was a strong popular rebuke of Trump.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that Trump’s personal focus during the closing months of the campaign was on defeating incumbent Democratic senators, and he pulled it off in an unprecedented way.
And while losing the House is the death knell for the Republican Party’s legislative agenda, Trump himself has rarely seemed to care that much about the GOP legislative agenda. Indeed, the death of the GOP legislative agenda could even be good news for Trump politically since much of that agenda was toxically unpopular. An expanded majority in the Senate, meanwhile, will let Trump do things he actually cares about, like replace Cabinet members and other executive branch officials who’ve displeased him, while continuing to keep the judicial confirmation conveyor belt that’s so important to his base moving.
Trump’s personal unpopularity is, of course, a problem for him going forward, and GOP losses in the House underscore that. But while it’s always tempting to assume that a president who suffers midterm blowback is doomed to future failure, the pattern of 1996 and 2012 when presidents bounce back from midterm defeat — and in many ways benefit from the contrast with congressional opposition — is actually the more common one historically.
Hillary Clinton was supposedly invincible in 2016 because not only did she hold a lead in the popular vote polling, there was a solid “wall” of blue states — Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota — that hadn’t voted for a Republican presidential candidate since Michael Dukakis was the Democratic nominee.
This time around, however, the tables flipped back again. Even as Democratic Party senators in the truly red states took a beating, Pennsylvania’s Bob Casey, Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin, and Michigan’s Debbie Stabenow won fairly easy victories. Clinton only narrowly eked out a win in Minnesota, but Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar both won landslide reelections. Over in the significantly redder Ohio, Sherrod Brown won reelection, and the governors’ mansions in Michigan and Wisconsin look poised to flip.
Obviously, none of this is a guarantee of Democratic victory in 2020 — really, it is not — but it is an important sign of Democratic resilience in an electorally critical region.
The country turned pop-country turned just pop star pivoted her image to a kind of bland, semi-political “girl power” stance about a year before the 2016 presidential campaign pitted the first female major party nominee against a gross misogynist and Taylor Swift sat it out. That earned her a chorus of criticism, though given her considerable audience on both sides of the partisan divide, it probably made sense for her in business terms.
That changed in 2018 when Swift rather unexpectedly Instagrammed an endorsement of former Gov. Phil Bredesen’s Senate campaign against Rep. Marsha Blackburn.
Swift pulled no punches in her endorsement, specifically advising her fans not to let bland semi-political girl power considerations lead them into voting for Blackburn, whose “voting record in Congress appalls and terrifies me.” She didn’t claim to agree with Bredesen about everything, but observed that that’s the nature of politics and said she’d be voting for him enthusiastically because “I cannot vote for someone who will not be willing to fight for dignity for ALL Americans, no matter their skin color, gender or who they love.”
Bredesen’s strong name recognition and the fact that he was broadly popular when he left office eight years ago gave him some solid early polling leads and created Democratic hopes of picking up an unlikely Senate seat in a deep-red district. But as Blackburn continued to get her name out there, the polling began to revert to baseline partisanship with a clear Republican lead. Swift’s endorsement came at a time when Democrats had increasingly given up hope here and served as a kind of symbolic shot in the arm, but it proved to be entirely in vain, as in the final analysis, Bredesen got absolutely swamped by Trump voters coming out in droves to back the GOP.
The New York Times’s loved-and-loathed needle was simply out of commission during the early, uncertain period of the evening. By the time their team got the bugs fixed and were ready to launch it, the final outcome of a House Democratic majority and an expanded GOP Senate majority was already pretty clear for anyone to see.
Meanwhile, the rival model from FiveThirtyEight that simply spit out numbers rather than a cool graphical presentation was seemingly useless. It massively overreacted to the GOP winning a couple of Lean Republican House seats in Florida, to the point that Nate Silver himself threw the model under the bus and said he was going to reprogram it.
In the end, Democrats took the House by a comfortable though not enormous margin, which is exactly what poll-based pre-election analysis had suggested they would do. And they did it almost entirely by winning races that polling suggested they would win. The live-updating models did very little besides add noise and confusion to our understanding of what was happening.
Democrats look set to have a solid but unspectacular House majority.
But they do so on the back of a really big majority in the popular vote, of what looks to be at least 8 percentage points. In practical terms, nobody’s going to care that the majority of seats is a bit small compared to the majority of votes. But had Democrats come up a bit shorter and won the popular vote by “only” 4 or 5 points, they’d be stuck in the minority, and the evening would have been a huge victory for the Republican Party.
The gerrymandered maps that Republicans drew after the 2010 census, which let them hold the House majority in 2012, continued to pay dividends. And Democrats’ odds of winning the House were greatly boosted by a Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision that led to the creation of fair maps in one critical state.
Likely Democratic success in winning governors’ mansions in Michigan, Wisconsin, Kansas, Maine, and New Mexico, combined with earlier victories in New Jersey and gains in the New York state Senate, mean that Democrats should have a larger hand in map drawing next time around and a chance to draw some less unfavorable maps, with important consequences for the road to come.