We awake this morning to a different world. Polling made it clear that the 2018 election could have gone in three possible directions. Option A: total annihilation of the Republican Party. Option B: a wave large enough to overwhelm the House gerrymander and return Democrats to power in state houses across the Midwest. Option C: a fizzled wave that maintained the status quo.
Yesterday, the country chose Option B.
By the numbers, this was a massive wave election. Democrats won the overall popular vote by upwards of 12 million. We are days away from knowing final percentages but it looks like Democrats will end up with something around a 9% margin—pretty much in line with what polls predicted. These are landslide numbers in American elections. The fact that a result like this yielded a likely net loss of three senate seats and a gain of “only” about 30 (give or take) House seats speaks more to the steep terrain that awaited the wave when it met the shore, which you can read about here. The House has been gerrymandered so effectively that Republicans believed they would retain their majority at least until the maps were redrawn for 2022. I recall a conversation I had last year with a senior House Republican staffer about what could threaten the majority. Nothing, he said, except possibly Donald Trump. The Senate map was so steep for Democrats that they lost ground despite winning two-thirds of the seats in play.
The deep divisions evident in 2016 endure. In rural areas especially in the South, voters supported Republican candidates at rates comparable to their outsized support for Donald Trump two years ago. Responding to fears stoked by the president in the waning days of the campaign, they turned out in numbers large enough to unseat Democratic senators in North Dakota, Missouri, Indiana and most likely Florida, and they derailed Beto O’Rourke, Andrew Gillum and Stacey Abrams, who bet their candidacies on the changing demography of the South. These voters saved the Republican Party from annihilation and frustrated the hopes of progressives for a complete repudiation of the past two years. The country is clearly not ready to do that.
And yet . . .
Despite the long odds, despite all the obstacles, America went to the polls yesterday and fired a House majority that refused to perform its constitutional responsibility to put a check on the president. For the past two years, we have seen Donald Trump take a hammer to everyone and everything that threatens him—the courts, the press, the bureaucracy, the electoral process, the truth. The one institution he didn’t have to attack was Congress because they were always by his side. No more. We will now see how the Madisonian system of checks and balances is supposed to work. We have pulled the country back from the brink.
I have written that subpoena power will change the world. For two years, Adam Schiff has been the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. And for two years Adam Schiff has been giving television interviews about how his committee has failed to conduct a thorough investigation of the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. He has told anyone who would listen that his committee was covering for the White House instead of investigating it. All Adam Schiff could do was talk. He could take no actions because the minority in the House is powerless. But in January, Adam Schiff will become chair of the House Intelligence Committee. He will have the power to set the agenda, hold public hearings, compel witnesses to testify under oath, and drive a counter-narrative to what comes out of the White House. So will every other House committee chair. There will be a ton of things to investigate and Democrats know they have to pick their battles or risk a backlash from some of the more independent-minded voters who supported them yesterday. But there will finally be scrutiny. Donald Trump is not used to scrutiny. I rather suspect he will dislike it.
Yesterday’s results were a watershed. Despite our continued divisions, we have past the high water mark for Trumpism. Two years ago, Donald Trump was elected on the strength of paper-thin margins in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. Yesterday, those states elected three governors and three senators. All are Democrats. Two years ago, Hillary Clinton lost Texas, Arizona and Georgia by several points. Yesterday, Democratic candidates in all three states came within a hair of victory, with Arizona at this hour still undecided. In four years, all three candidates win. In ten years, they win comfortably. In suburban areas across the country, voters rejected Republicans who stood by Trump. These are the contours of a slow motion realignment in which Republicans cling to a diminishing share of the electorate. There are strong hints of the future in yesterday’s results. They showed us where the country is heading. It will take time to get there, but yesterday marked a big moment in the passage. The unchecked, wild west phase of the Trump era is over and we now move to a harrowing period of confrontation and accountability.