By: Steven Shepard
The suburbs were brutal for Republicans.
Driven by massive voter turnout, the 2018 midterm election was both a blue wave and a red wave. It just depended on which map you were looking at.
Democrats blazed a suburban trail to wrest control of the House from Republicans, easily winning the popular vote in a national rebuke of President Donald Trump that is likely to yield a gain of more than 30 seats.
And yet, the party lost ground in the Senate, giving Trump and GOP leader Mitch McConnell more breathing room for the next two years — and possibly even longer. Democrats also fell short in some of the most sought-after gubernatorial races, including the biggest prize of the night in Florida.
Turnout was off the charts for a midterm election: In the last midterm, in 2014, fewer than 79 million voters cast ballots for the House of Representatives. As of early Wednesday morning, 97 million votes had been counted solely for Democratic and Republican candidates, according to The New York Times, with millions more left to be tallied.
But just because the waves ran in opposite directions on the two maps doesn’t mean they weren’t driven by the same undertow. Democrats continued to draw increasing support from white college-educated voters that were once the core of the GOP. On the national House map, Democrats won white voters with a college degree by about 8 percentage points, according to the exit poll conducted for the National Election Pool — including white, college-educated women by roughly 20 points.
Republicans, however, continued to surge among the non-college-educated white voters that have powered the party in the Trump era. White voters without a college degree went for GOP candidates by nearly 25 points. (Democrats also won more than three nonwhite voters for every one that voted Republican.
In some races, that was a trade Republicans were willing to make. Andrew Gillum and Bill Nelson — the Democrats running for Florida governor and Senate, respectively — won Florida’s urban and suburban counties, including around Jacksonville, which was once GOP territory. But both were swamped by strong Republican margins and turnout in rural and inland counties that drove former GOP Rep. Ron DeSantis’ victory in the governor’s race and Gov. Rick Scott’s lead in the current vote count.
Here are seven takeaways from Tuesday’s Trump-powered midterms:
1. Suburban Republicans were swept away.
Democrats won suburbs from the Eastern Seaboard all the way to Nevada. But they didn’t just pick off the low-hanging fruit — the GOP members long seen to be vulnerable — they expanded into more challenging terrain near Dallas, Houston, Oklahoma City and Richmond.
Republicans like Barbara Comstock in Northern Virginia, Mike Coffman in suburban Denver, Kevin Yoder outside Kansas City and Erik Paulsen in the Twin Cities were easy pickings for Democrats. But few Democrats were as confident they could oust Reps. Steve Russell in Oklahoma, or Karen Handel in suburban Atlanta.
Democrats won both toss-up races in Virginia, beating Reps. Scott Taylor in the Tidewater area and Dave Brat around Richmond. They knocked off both suburban Texas members: John Culberson in Houston and Pete Sessions in Dallas. Incumbent Carlos Curbelo crashed and burned in South Florida. So did Randy Hultgren in outer Chicagoland.
Republicans kept only a handful of suburban seats, with Brian Fitzpatrick narrowly hanging on in Bucks County, Pa., and Troy Balderson winning a re-run of this year’s special election near Columbus, Ohio.
But, for the most part, it was a suburban bloodbath.
2. How big is the wave? Wait for California.
For almost two years, California was seen as the key to Democrats’ quest for the House majority. Turns out, they didn’t need it.
The party will likely have flipped roughly 30 House seats — it needed 23 to win control — without posting any gains in California at all. But Democrats seem likely to add to that total once California counts all its votes.
How many more seats will Democrats win? It could be awhile before we know for sure. Voters in California could postmark their ballots as late as Tuesday, and it will take weeks for all those votes to be tallied.
As of Wednesday morning, Democratic candidates are only leading in three of the seven targeted California races. But late ballots in California tend to trend Democratic, so more could pull ahead in the coming days.
There’s one specific Californian that will be watching the returns with intense interest: House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. Given the large number of Democratic candidates who won Tuesday night that have said they won’t support Pelosi to be the next speaker, she could use all the votes she can get — especially from California, where she’s more popular than she is nationally.
3. Democrats may have lost the Senate until 2022.
If GOP leads in Arizona and Florida hold, Republicans will hold 54 Senate seats. That’s three more seats than the GOP holds now, and it may be enough to insulate the party against Democratic attacks in the next election.
The 2018 map was awful for Democrats — 10 incumbents running in states Trump carried in 2016, including five by double-digit margins — and while the 2020 map is better, there are few slam dunks for the party.
First, Democrats will struggle to hold Alabama Sen. Doug Jones’ seat. Jones, who won a special election last year against an extremely flawed GOP candidate, will have to choose whether to seek a full term in a state Trump carried with 62 percent of the vote in 2016.
If Democrats lose the Alabama seat, they’ll need to pick up five seats to flip the chamber (six if they don’t win the presidency). It’s hard to find that many solid opportunities on the 2020 map. The only Republicans up for reelection in states Hillary Clinton won in 2016 are Sens. Cory Gardner of Colorado and Susan Collins of Maine. Democrats could also target Sens. David Perdue (R-Ga.), Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) — but those are more difficult.
That’s why — even if Democrats weren’t going to win the Senate on Tuesday — it was so important for the party to limit its losses. Some races are still uncalled, but it appears Democrats failed to keep the Senate within arm’s reach two years from now.
4. Republicans held some big governorships.
Democrats flipped seven governorships on Tuesday: Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico and Wisconsin. The Wisconsin victory, ousting longtime nemesis Scott Walker, might have been the most satisfying for Democrats.
But there are a handful of close-but-no-cigar races where Republicans emerged ahead that will sting. At the top of the list: DeSantis’ 1-point victory over Gillum, who appeared to energize Florida Democrats and had a modest lead in most public polls. Democrats haven’t won a governor’s race in Florida since 1994.
The closely watched race in Georgia hasn’t been called, and while Brian Kemp is ahead, Democrats hope his vote share falls under 50 percent, forcing a December 4 runoff with Democrat Stacey Abrams. But even if Kemp fails to secure a majority, he’d be the favorite in a head-to-head race with Abrams.
Republicans also held on in a couple of smaller states with outsized national implications — Iowa and New Hampshire — where a number of Democrats will soon be flocking to kick off their 2020 presidential campaigns.
5. Democrats patched the Blue Wall, but it’s still vulnerable.
Two years after Trump crashed through the Midwestern Blue Wall, Democrats made gains in a number of states that the now-president turned red. In Pennsylvania, the incumbent Democratic governor and senator were reelected easily, and Democrats won half of the state’s 18 House seats, up from only five after the previous election.
In Michigan, Democrats won the governor’s race, the incumbent senator was reelected and the party picked up a House seat (and a second seat is leaning their way, though it’s too close to call as of Wednesday morning). In Iowa, Dems picked up two House seats, though they lost the governor’s race. In Wisconsin, Walker went down, and Sen. Tammy Baldwin won reelection.
But none of this means these states will reject Trump in two years. In 2010, Republicans won governorships in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin and Iowa — and senators in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin and Illinois. Then-President Barack Obama still won them all in 2012.
Moreover, while Democrats made gains in some states, Ohio and its 18 electoral votes still look challenging for the party. Incumbent Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown defeated a poorly-funded Rep. Jim Renacci by a little more than 5 points on Tuesday, and Republicans held the governorship when former Sen. Mike DeWine defeated Democrat Richard Cordray.
6. Women won in record numbers.
A record number of women will serve in the next Congress.
The previous record of women serving in the House and Senate at one time — 107 in the current Congress — was shattered Tuesday night. Some races are uncalled, but it’s likely that more than 100 women will be serving in the House alone for the first time.
Most of the growth in women members comes from Democrats. Eighteen of the 29 seats Democrats picked up on Tuesday night were won by women, and more are likely to declared victors in the coming days.
One telling example: All 20 members of Pennsylvania’s current congressional delegation are men. But the state elected four women to Congress on Tuesday.
Women also drove Democratic successes in other races. Trump is fond of saying, wrongly, that he carried the female vote in 2016, but the result was even more decisive this time around. Women tilted Democratic by nearly 20 points, and white women were split evenly between the parties, according to exit polls.
7. Beto didn’t win, but other Texas Democrats did.
Sen. Ted Cruz defeated Rep. Beto O’Rourke on Tuesday by less than a 3-point margin — a closer race than many expected, and closer than some thought was even possible.
No, O’Rourke’s army of dedicated voters inspired by his candidacy didn’t overcome Texas’ partisan lean. And, yes, he may have left some voters on the table by running hard to the left.
But there are reasons not to be too dismissive of his campaign.
First, turnout spiked. As of Wednesday morning, 8.3 million votes had been tallied in the race. That’s only slightly fewer than the just under 9 million votes in the 2016 presidential race, and close to double the 4.6 million in the last Senate race in 2014.
That sharp increase may have helped other Democrats. Lizzie Fletcher beat Culberson in Houston, and Colin Allred unseated Sessions in Dallas. GOP Rep. Will Hurd leads his Democratic opponent in another battleground district by fewer than 700 votes.
There were also a number of Republican close shaves — seats that stayed red, but were much closer than expected. Seven-term Rep. Michael McCaul, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, won by just four points, down from a 19-point win in 2016. Rep. Kenny Marchant, also seeking an eighth term, won by just three points, down from 17 points. Rep. John Carter, who won by 22 points in 2016, only edged Democrat MJ Hegar — whose candidacy is best-known for viral campaign ads that highlighted her service as an Air Force combat pilot — by only three points.