How the Democrats won back the House

Rep. Ben Ray Lujan gets campaign pointers from minority leader Nancy Pelosi.
Rep. Ben Ray Lujan gets campaign pointers from minority leader Nancy Pelosi.
Image: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
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Democrats appear to have won back a majority in the House of Representatives that will give them a powerful check on Donald Trump’s presidency.

By Tuesday evening, election forecasters were calling the congressional elections a victory. Despite the high approval ratings voters give to the economy, the Democrats flipped 15 seats, with dozens left to call, a result that betrays a deep unease with Trump in the middle-class suburbs that were once Republican strongholds.

Though president’s party typically loses seats in the first mid-term election of a presidency, the Democrats were forecast to win the popular vote by eight percentage points, a bigger victory than Republicans saw in 2010 or 2014. Exit polls suggested self-described independent voters backed Democrats for the first time since 2008.

Reports of unusually high voter turnout compared to previous midterm elections came from across the country. Early vote data suggested that high participation by young people and people who typically do not vote bolstered the electoral rolls.

Americans could send as many as 100 women to the House of Representatives, breaking the current record of 84. Women seeking justice for sexual assault and harassment have dominated the US news, and the lengthy record of allegations of sexual assault against Trump and his frequent defense of sexual offenders has turned off women of all political stripes.

Now, the Speaker of the House—second-in-line to the presidency—is likely to be a woman, Nancy Pelosi, though some new members have said they will seek a younger leader.

With a majority in the House, the Democrats will be positioned to stand athwart the Republican legislating agenda and force Trump to negotiate over future spending bills and any new laws. The Democrats will also have powerful tools to investigate the actions of the president and his appointees, including subpoena power to demand interviews and documents—even Trump’s long-hidden tax returns.

Democrats’ strategy

Democrats channeled anger into organizing and a message that stressed the need for action on health care costs, by far the number one issue among voters.

More than one-third of voters reported that their vote was a rebuke of the White House, but Democrats also took a different tack to their 2016 campaign, when they were deficient on the ground and didn’t offer a clear answer to Trump’s ambiguous brand of national greatness politics.

In 2018, candidates didn’t get drawn into debating the array of sideshows conjured by the White House in the final days of the campaign—like sending the military to the border to face off with refugees or a half-baked proposal to end birthright citizenship—to bait the media and rile up Trump voters.

According to Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group, 58% of the television ads aired by Democrats in the last month of this election concerned health care, up only slightly from 54% throughout the election cycle.

House Republicans, meanwhile, were stuck campaigning on an unpopular tax bill that gives its direct benefits to the wealthiest, even as the president insisted on talking about immigration controversies at the expense of a strong economy. Still, the president’s understanding of how to invigorate the Republican base with fears of a foreign menace likely contributed to tight Democratic losses in conservative areas.

The rise of Bernie Sanders and his brand of democratic socialist politics during the 2016 presidential election energized progressives, and the Democratic Socialists of America, who organized for left-wing Democrats. The Vermont senator’s Medicare for All model for a single-payer health system didn’t exactly unite the party, but the controversy showed Democrats debating solutions to the health care problem.

Even Obamacare, the Obama administration’s kludgy attempt to guarantee access to health care through the private insurance system, is now popular among a majority of voters.

Voters mobilizing voters

The opposition also benefitted from old-fashioned organizing techniques spread on digital platforms, with the efforts of groups like Indivisible and Swing Left giving people frustrated by Trump find a productive outlet. “I got tired of throwing things at the television,” one Democratic campaign volunteer in an Orange County swing district told me. Disgust is a powerful motivator for action.

The flood of political participation also drove two of the most important factors in any political race: A generation of high quality candidates, and the money to elect them. Internet-enabled fundraising, particularly through the online tool ActBlue, allowed fledgling campaigns to quickly gain the resources necessary to make a contest against entrenched incumbents.

Political operatives agree that the funds and the candidates allowed Democrats to expand the electoral map, spreading Republican resources across the country and making it difficult for their SuperPAC, the Congressional Leadership Foundation, to overwhelm individual candidates with outside spending.

Female candidates played a major role in this effort:  In Texas, Lizzie Fletcher is challenging Republican incumbent John Culberson in the suburbs of Houston. In Kentucky, Amy McGrath, a marine aviator, is took on Republican incumbent Andy Barr, losing by less than 10,000 votes in a conservative district. In Kansas, Sharice Davids, an attorney and an MMA fighter, defeated Republican incumbent Kevin Yoder.

Suburbia the great decider

Democratic gains came in wealthier suburban districts, often those that turned against Trump in 2016, in states ranging from Virginia, New Jersey, New York and California. One of the first races called for a Democrat—and early sign of the results to come—was the victory of Jennifer Wexton over Rep. Barbara Comstock in the northern Virginia suburbs.

There was a clear wave of anti-Trump disgust rippling through America’s wealthy bedroom communities. Outside Denver, Democrat Jason Crow successfully challenged a Republican incumbent in a district that was once home to ultra-conservative Tom Tancredo. Mikie Sherrill, a former Navy aviator, flipped a New Jersey district where middle-class voters fretted about tax rates and previously backed Republicans. In a suburban Chicago district that hasn’t elected a Democrat since 1973, Sean Casten ejected Republican House leader Pete Roskam.

The new members, whose districts are more conservative than those of most Democrats, will change the tenor of the party caucus. With a majority and the responsibility of power also comes deeper intra-party drama, and the strategists behind this win are likely to clash with more progressive members demanding sweeping opposition to president Trump. Meanwhile, they’ll face a Republican minority stripped of moderate members and eager for a fight.

American politics isn’t about to get boring just yet.