Everything about the lead-up to the U.S. midterm elections was unprecedented – the blatant white nationalist rhetoric, the immense turn-out of voters, the huge amounts of money infused into both Democrats’ and Republicans’ campaign chests, and the president’s strident and fear-mongering speeches at dozens of rallies across the country. In addition, the shocking events of October, beginning with Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, the mail bomb scare, and the horrific mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, all lent unprecedented tensions and fears to the balloting in an increasingly polarized nation.
Now, in the clear light of day the morning after the election, we see that the results have not been as dramatic or transformative as many observers had predicted. Yes, the Democrats took back the House of Representatives for the first time since 2010 by a decisive margin, and women candidates, particularly progressive women of color, did quite well overall. But there was no “blue wave.” At the state level, gubernatorial elections present a mixed bag. Republican stalwart Scott Walker lost in Wisconsin, but Democrat Andrew Gillum lost in Florida, missing a chance to be the state’s first Black governor. As of this morning, Georgia is still in play, since the vote is too close to call, and the Democratic candidate, Stacey Abrams, has refused to concede. The likelihood of vote tampering and other electoral chicanery in Georgia’s balloting is high. Brian Kemp, the Republican contender, is Georgia’s current secretary of state, and as such has oversight over elections. Former Georgia Governor and U.S. President Jimmy Carter, an expert in election monitoring, weighed in during the final days of the campaign to say that Kemp should not be allowed to use his position to influence the elections. Today in The Atlantic, columnist Carol Anderson noted that, if the “Georgia governor’s race had taken place in another country, the U.S. State Department would have questioned its legitimacy.” Senatorial races in Arizona and Montana are also still too close to call, so it’s possible the Democrats could still pick up another seat, but this would not be enough to wrest the Senate from GOP control.
The Republicans are not in mourning today. Far from it. They have not only retained, but indeed have strengthened, their control of the Senate, with the defeat of two Democratic senators from the heartland, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Donnelly of Indiana. Early this morning, President Trump tweeted that the midterms were a great victory for him (it’s always all about him!), disregarding, or perhaps not realizing, that Democratic control of the House will entail investigations into his taxes and corrupt practices, as well as impediments to some of his more extreme goals. It’s possible he does not even understand how Congress works, though. After all, he believes that he can change the Constitution simply by signing an executive order to halt birth citizenship.
Nationwide, and at every level–federal, state, and municipal—Democrats wanted the midterm election results to be a dramatic rebuke to and repudiation of Donald Trump. The nightmarish aftermath of the 2016 presidential election still haunts Democrats from across the liberal spectrum, and conflicts and accusations still reverberate among supporters of Hilary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders. Aside from the election results in the House, however, the midterms have not been a rebuke to Trump, but more of a commentary on the fate of the Democratic party. A closer look at the winners in the House race reveal that their views, platforms, and electoral bases are much closer to those of Sanders than Clinton’s, most notably Alejandra Ocasio Cortez of New York and Randa Tlaib of Michigan, the latter being the first Muslim Palestinian woman to be elected to Congress. Sanders actively campaigned for Democratic candidates for the House and Senate, but Clinton was notably absent, undoubtedly reined in by the Democratic Party leadership.
The biggest disappointment for Democrats was the outcome of the Texas senatorial race. Beto O’Rourke, a young, charismatic, progressive, and energetic candidate narrowly lost to Republican Ted Cruz. O’Rourke mobilized a large and broad-based grassroots constituency in this key state, and even though he lost, the margin of defeat was disturbingly narrow for Republicans and indicates a potential seismic shift for Texas in the 2020 elections. O’Rourke, who looks like he could be a member of the Kennedy clan, is now viewed as a potential Democratic presidential nominee for 2020, and he would be very attractive to young people, Latinos, women, and labor unions. There is no leading contender for the top of the Democratic ticket in 2020, though, signaling disarray, discord, and fragmentation on the Left.
“Fragmentation” might be the best word to describe the U.S. midterm election results. The country is increasingly fragmented and polarized, not only ideologically, but also geographically and demographically as well. The southern states seem to yearn for a return to the Confederacy. Between the rise of violent white nationalism, anti-immigrant sentiments, and the politics of bitterness that casts poor and middle class whites as the ultimate victims of globalization in the United States, the South and Appalachia seem to live in a very different world – a Trump-inspired counter-reality – than most urban and suburban voters in the north, east, and west of the country. Fragmentation also takes a gendered form. Particularly in the era of #MeToo and in the aftermath of the Kavanaugh hearings and confirmation, women are taking the lead in the resistance to Trump and all that he stands for, as is evident in the many victories of women in yesterday’s elections from the local to the state to the national levels.
Having unequivocally embraced the description of “nationalist” last month, Trump is without doubt the most racist and demagogic president the United States has ever had. Fragmentation within the Republican party is evident. Traditional Republican leaders are increasingly anxious about Trump’s demonization of Mexicans and Central Americans, seen most dramatically in his ravings about the caravan of immigrants currently traveling to the U.S.-Mexican border. Any future for the Republican party will require more inclusive discourses and policies that welcome and appeal to rapidly growing non-white voting blocs in the United States, of which Latinos are a key constituency. Trump is doing his best to alienate and repel these voters, and moderate Republicans are justifiably alarmed.
Fragmentation in the Democratic Party has been out in the open since the summer of 2016, when partisans of Clinton and Sanders battled at the Democratic National Convention. Trump’s victory in 2016 was due, in part, to the many Democratic voters who stayed home, assuming that Hilary would win, but not wanting to lend their votes to her victory. Among the huge crowds who came out to vote across the country yesterday were many who regretted not voting in 2016. Now that the elections are over, with the Democrats firmly in control of the House of Representatives, the internal Democratic battle is just beginning. Will Nancy Pelosi return as House Speaker? Will the new cohort of progressive women of color be able to challenge politics as usual in the Wall Street backed Democratic party? Will the Democrats tussle over how far to pursue the possible impeachment of Trump? What are the chances for bipartisanship on the two key issues that most Americans cited as crucial: health care and the nation’s infrastructure?
Republicans who baldly announced a decade ago that their main goal was to throw obstacles in the way of anything former President Barack Obama proposed are still in the Senate, chief among them Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. He will read yesterday’s election results as a confirmation that race-baiting, demonizing Democrats, and giving Trump a wide berth to do as he pleases is a winning strategy.
After all of the sound and fury, all of the money spent, the hopes raised and dashed, and the new political careers launched yesterday, we still confront paralysis in Congress, now fragmented into a Republican Senate with the power to advise and consent, and a Democratic House facing a leadership crisis in its top ranks. If the midterm elections were any indication of where the United States is going, we can be sure that the 2020 presidential elections will be the most dramatic and expensive political race yet.