Democrats had a lot to celebrate Tuesday. First and foremost, they recaptured the House and beat a number of established players in Trump Country, from the 11th New York Congress District to the 5th Congress of Oklahoma. They won a number of important gubernatorial competitions, especially in Midwestern states like Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin, and even deep red Kansas. And they continued the crucial process of rebuilding the party at local level, gaining control over various legislative chambers of the state.
Democrats did not win everything they hoped or expected; for example, they lost the gubernatorial elections in Florida, Ohio and Iowa. But you can not win them all, especially in a time of remarkable prosperity. And even the darkest spot on the Democrats' record in 2018, the loss of several Senate seats, can be excused on the grounds of an extremely difficult map.
But they must not accept that excuse. The map was indeed terrible for the Democrats this year, so they were overwhelmingly defended, and largely in Trump country. But that's just another way of saying that the party has a tough climb to take the Senate all over again.
Consider: Democrats are the opposition party to a very unpopular congress and president, and they won the national plebiscite for the House with at least 7 points. Prosperity could protect the popular Republican established players, thus limiting their chances of winning, but at the very least Democratic incumbent operators should do much better than not – what they did, overwhelmingly in the House. But in the senate, democratic established players are lost in Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota and may lose Florida and Montana. Democrats failed in a competitive open seat match in Tennessee and can still lose Arizona. And they lost in Texas to the most unpleasant man in the Senate. They have only overcome in Nevada.
Compare that record with 2006, when Democratic incumbent operators won overgrown margins in Nebraska and North Dakota, and lost no democratic established players. Or in 2008, when Democratic incumbent operators in Louisiana and Arkansas won, both declare that Barack Obama lost – and was lost by a larger relative margin than John Kerry. No democratic incumbent operators lost that year either.
Of course, the Democrats defended a large number of blue and purple areas successfully this year. And by 2020 the map will not put Democrats in such a difficult position. But while the 2020-card will certainly put the GOP in the defense, with 21 seats for the Democrats & # 39; 12 (assuming the GOP wins the Mississippi outfall), look where those seats are:
Republicans: Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia, Wyoming.
Democrats: Alabama, Delaware, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Virginia.
There is only one republican voice from the blue state – Susan Collins in Maine – and Arizona will have a special election which, like this year, will be an occasion for both parties. But the Democrats also assume that they are likely to lose Alabama, almost regardless of what Doug Jones's record appears to be. They have the ability to play offensively, but they will mostly play in purple-to-red territory: places like Colorado, Iowa and North Carolina. And the incumbent operators do not look very vulnerable at the moment.
The elections of 2022 look promising at first glance. Again, there are 21 Republicans and 12 Democrats, plus the one that wins the special Arizona elections in 2020:
Republicans: Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, Wisconsin.
Democrats: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, Oregon, Vermont, Washington.
The Democrats should certainly be excited to take offense – and they have a wider field of purple states on which they can attack: Florida, Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin. But notice that even in this much more favorable card, there are zero blue state republicans – none equal to Heidi Heitkamp, Claire McCaskill, Jon Tester, or Joe Donnelly who could target the Republicans this year. The Democrats have a lot of territory to fight, but just like in 2016, the territory where both parties can win.
That is the fundamental asymmetry. It is not that there are no small blue states – Vermont, Delaware, Hawaii and Rhode Island are all pretty small. It is that there are so many more real red states than real blue, including a lot of medium-sized colors: Indiana and Tennessee and Missouri and Oklahoma and Louisiana and South Carolina and so on.
Where does this asymmetry come from? The deep division in our politics is partly regional. But it is increasingly not only between North and South, or between the coasts and inland, but between urban and rural areas. Democratic victories in the Trump country were predominantly in urban and dense suburbs this year, and they did better in districts that went before Romney and then Clinton than in districts that went before Obama and then Trump. And democratic victories in state legislators also reflected our deep divisions. While the Democrats have turned six legislative chambers and won unified control of 14 states (compared to eight primaries), this relatively modest shift in historical terms even increased the polarization: after the elections, Republicans still controlled 30 parliaments, less than 31, and only one state – Minnesota – has a legislature where each room is controlled by another party, the first time this has happened since 1914.
This is the so-called "Big Sort" with which America has divided itself into ideological tribes defined by demography and geography. Urban and suburban educated areas increasingly vote for the Democrats, along with poorer rural and urban areas that are predominantly non-white; in the meantime, more rural and more white-collar workers are overwhelmingly agreeing with Republicans. This distribution, like any deep division based on identity, is a problem for democracy, because the election makes less a referendum about the performance of the incumbent party or person, and more a contest to see which tribe its members are more effective in the muscle can work. polls. But it is a particular problem for the Democratic Party, given the nature of the Senate, which has strong predominance in rural areas.
The Democrats can build up a senate majority by dominating in purple states – and they can do that exactly in 2020 or 2022, if the economic and political conditions are right. But precisely because they are purple, they are vulnerable to rapid setbacks when the electorate turns against the incumbent party. If, on the other hand, Republicans can dominate the long list of red states, they can build a majority by splitting only the purple states. That is why the Republican strategy of maximizing negative partisanship is capable of winning (although it is certainly not guaranteed), while there is no equivalent mechanism for Democrats.
In order to level the playing field, the Democrats must attack the Big Sort and build a real nationwide constituency and a real Red-State wing. That does not necessarily mean copying republicans. There is sufficient evidence that large parts of the Democratic agenda are popular in the reddest neighborhoods. The expansion of Medicaid has expired in Nebraska this year. A super tolerance of Floridians voted to restore the right to vote of criminals. And multiple times that the ticket is split, from Iowa to Ohio to Kansas, we show that it is not just about mobilizing committed members of the base – that voters are still convinced.
But they still have to be convinced. Even if it means a caucus that is more cacophonous, I would bet the Democrats would happily accept it and call it sweet music. But they have not quite discovered the melody that will play in areas where the harmful sound of Trump is greeted with cheers.