The 2018 elections began the demolition of the Trump coalition.
There remains much work to do. The results in some states were disappointing, and President Donald Trump’s grip on the Republican Party was strengthened. But a large majority of Americans rejected the president’s divisive, ethno-nationalist politics. Democrats shook his hold on voters in the old industrial heartland. And women won in unprecedented numbers.
The anti-Trump movement’s single most important objective was to break unified Republican control of Washington. The opposition achieved this by taking over the House. With votes still to be counted, the Democrats are likely to gain more than 30 seats, and possibly into the mid to high 30s.
As important for the long term, the popular vote share for Democratic candidates was overwhelming – when all of slow-counting California’s votes are tallied, the Democrats’ margin will likely surpass the GOP’s in their 1994, 2010 and 2014 waves. While only a third of the Senate was up, all House seats were on the ballot. So the House vote is the best indicator of disaffection with Trump.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
Most striking was Democratic success in the historically blue-collar states and counties that flipped to Trump in 2016 and led to his victory.
Democrats held Senate seats in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, all key for him two years ago. They picked up governorships in Wisconsin and Michigan and held on to Pennsylvania’s by a landslide. Democrats gained at least seven governorships from the Republicans, rebuilding from the disastrous midterm outcomes during President Obama’s terms.
Especially significant was the defeat of Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker by state schools superintendent Tony Evers. Walker, an avatar of the conservative movement, had survived a recall and seemed to have nine political lives. His loss was part of Tuesday’s larger message: Many Democrats up and down the ballot, Evers among them, prevailed as pragmatic problem solvers opposing the GOP’s ideologues – a formula described by former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack as involving candidates “moderate in tone but progressive in thinking.”
Evers won back counties in southwestern Wisconsin that had strayed Republican, and this was a theme across the Midwest.
In Ohio, Mahoning County, home of blue-collar Youngstown, registered one of the larger anti-Democratic swings in the country in 2016: Obama had secured 63 percent of its votes in 2012; Hillary Clinton got under 50 percent. But this year, Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown won 60 percent in the county, very close to his showing in 2012. Even in defeat, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Richard Cordray secured 55 percent of Mahoning County’s vote.
The same Democratic math applied in Erie County, Pennsylvania, where Obama won 58 percent and Clinton only 47 percent. On Tuesday, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf earned 60 percent of the county’s vote, while Sen. Bob Casey won 58 percent.
Shifts of this sort reflected a Democratic campaign relentlessly focused on health care, education, infrastructure and other economic concerns. In particular, the 2018 election will mark the triumph of Obamacare. A losing cause four and six years ago, the Affordable Care Act now defines the minimum standard for what Americans expect from their government when it comes to guaranteeing health coverage.
There were certainly Democratic disappointments – in particular, the narrow defeat in Florida of Andrew Gillum, an African-American who preached racial unity, by Rep. Ron DeSantis, who has openly associated with far-right extremists.
At his post-election news conference on Wednesday, Trump unsurprisingly bragged about Republican gains in the Senate and ascribed the victories to his own campaigning. But the clear pickups, coming in the core conservative states of North Dakota, Indiana and Missouri, also defined the limits of Trump’s strategy. Even as Trumpism was receding in swing areas and among moderate and suburban voters -- well-educated women, above all -- his party was being more and more defined in his image.
Trump made clear that he will have it no other way. A president whose extremism led to the defeat of scores of more moderate Republicans stood before reporters and spitefully trashed vanquished GOP candidates who had wisely chosen to distance themselves from him.
Rather than take responsibility for outcomes his hardline campaigning helped bring about, Trump effectively said these Republicans lost because of their refusal to bow to him. Such a tone will continue to alienate the sorts of voters who entrusted the House to the Democrats.
Democracy is a long game. It requires commitment and patience. Tuesday did not turn our politics upside down. But it began the journey that will turn our country right side up.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.