Yesterday’s elections were expected to be more important than midterms usually are in America, and in their own way they turned out to be. While the hotly anticipated Blue Wave of Democratic dreams failed to materialize, last night brought plenty of bad news for Donald J. Trump. The midterms repudiated the extremes of both parties while opening the door to two years of political torture for the President.
This was a classic mixed verdict. As anticipated by most savvy election-watchers, Democrats took the House of Representatives, wresting it back after eight years of Republican control, while the GOP maintained their hold on the Senate, even adding to their seat total a bit. Neither case can be fairly depicted as a blowout.
First, the House. Here, Democrats have reason to celebrate. Their net gain of 34 seats flipped, 11 more than was needed to take back Congress’s junior chamber, is a political triumph. It’s not a political game-changer comparable to their midterm debacles in 1994 and 2010, but it looks quite a bit like the 2006 midterms, when Team Blue flipped 31 seats to deliver a stern rebuke to George W. Bush, whose presidency was ailing over that White House’s failed war of choice in Iraq.
As for the Senate, the Republican hold on the senior chamber, while adding three seats to establish a solid majority, is impressive. But it’s also no surprise given the geographic distribution of the one-third of Senate seats open this year. Despite lavish Democratic spending and get-out-the-vote efforts, three of their senators went down to defeat: North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp, Indiana’s Joe Donnelly and Missouri’s Claire McCaskill – all moderates increasingly out of place as their party has tacked left in response to Trump.
The President pulled out the stops to keep the Senate – privately, White House aides knew for some time that the House was a lost cause – and he has reason to gloat here, as he already is. However, his tweet hailing ‘tremendous success tonight’ rings hollow, as so many Trumpian boasts do. Although the Republican contingent in the new Congress will be Trumpier than ever, having shed several members who were critical of the President, yesterday’s results cannot be viewed as anything other than a repudiation of Trump’s fiery brand of politics, populist and personal.
It’s evident that Trump’s incessant base-pandering on hot-button issues such as immigration and nationalism continues to appeal to working class whites, but their attractions for moderate suburban voters, never great, have dwindled. Trump not only nationalized the midterms, he made them an explicit referendum on himself. His ardent fans are enough to ‘own the libs’ in safely Red parts of the country, but they are not enough to create a nationwide coalition. There are lessons here for 2020 which the White House will heed if it wants to stay in power for four more years.
The rebuke to Trumpism that’s evident in yesterday’s outcome has birthed ebullience in Democratic quarters, where morale has tumbled and anger soared over the two years since Trump’s surprise defeat of Hillary Clinton. Midterm payback tastes sweet for Democrats, while yesterday’s election of record numbers of women, and women of color, to Congress resonates with their overall message of greater diversity and inclusion.
However, yesterday should also serve as a cautionary tale for Democrats about not overindulging their own left-wing. Impassioned ‘Resistance’ rhetoric is better suited to social media than the hard work of winning elections. The incoming House includes many Democrats who are well suited to their districts, among them an impressive number of veterans of the post-9/11 wars. Selecting qualified candidates who match their districts remains the same recipe for political success it has always been.
Florida, expected by liberals to be their ace in the hole, turned out the opposite yesterday. Andrew Gillum, the Tallahassee mayor turned liberal darling, failed to win the governorship, an outcome which nobody on the Left even imagined possible. Losing to the ardently Trumpist Ron DeSantis adds pain, but the election was lost when Gillum refused to address serious allegations of corruption in office, which are under investigation by the FBI, brushing off their mere mention as racism.
Democrats were so excited by the victory of Florida’s first African-American governor, a politician who was unafraid to embrace all the left-wing bromides du jour, that they failed to notice Gillum was a deeply flawed candidate who ran a lackluster campaign. Months of media fawning over Gillum coupled with vast largesse supplied by Tom Steyer and George Soros, the Democratic billionaire benefactors, did not deliver victory. Democratic hopes that Gillum-mania would push Senator Bill Nelson to a fourth term fizzled, and Nelson lost to two-term Republican Governor Rick Scott.
There are lessons here for Democrats looking forward to 2020, above all the need to match candidates to electorates while eschewing trendy radicalism. However, Democrats can take comfort from the midterms and what they mean for President Trump. Control of the all-important House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence now passes to them, and its incoming head, Rep. Adam Schiff, has made clear that investigating the White House’s ties to Moscow will be at the top of the HPSCI’s to-do list.
As I explained a few days ago, ‘Chairman Schiff would be nothing short of a new year’s nightmare for the White House,’ and that’s what’s facing Team Trump right now. A stickler for Justice Department rules, Robert Mueller effectively stood down his Special Counsel investigation in early September, as far as the public was concerned, so as not to interfere with the midterms. This morning, however, Team Mueller gets back in the saddle, investigating the President’s secret links to the Kremlin, and it’s likely that more indictments of Trump personnel, perhaps even Trump family members, will be unsealed soon.
The one-two punch of Mueller’s indictments and Schiff’s subpoenas will keep the besieged White House off-balance and absorbed for months, at least. Trump’s legislative agenda, never strong, is now moribund, while there’s unlikely to be much energy left in the Oval Office once Democratic-led House investigations of the President get underway. As they will, soon.