Midterm elections ended Tuesday night not with a blue wave, or a red wave, but with a little surge in one direction, some historic elections, and not much else. Midterm elections are often used as barometers for upcoming presidential elections, and Florida’s midterm results especially may serve as a possible outcome for the 2020 elections if strategies don’t change. For Republicans, the strategy was made clear: ally yourself with the president and embrace the identity of Trump Republicans. Big wins in Texas and Florida are proving that. But what of the Democratic party? Shifting strategies led to an unfruitful Senate bid, but the House showed different results. Where does the Democratic Party go from here?
First, we’re going to take a step back to our middle school civics classes. The Founding Fathers laid out a pretty clear idea of how the two houses of congress are meant to function. The Senate is composed of 100 members with two members from each state, meaning equal representation for every state. Senate members have six year term limits and go up for reelection on a rolling basis every two years. The purpose of this is for Senate members to spend more time in what is thought to be the more stable and neutral house of congress. The House of Representatives is composed of 435 members, providing representation equal to the populations of each state. Members of the House have two year terms and are up for reelection every election cycle. In effect, the House is the popular vote to the Senate’s electoral college. The House can tell the temperature of on-the-ground reactionary decisions, often seating more politically polarizing candidates, and the Senate functions with longer term political momentum, often courting more moderate politicians.
For the past two years, the Republican Party has controlled both houses of Congress. With the momentum of a Republican president and now 5/4 split Supreme Court (favoring conservatives), the US government has been pretty one-sided. It’s worth considering that the Republican party is, if the popular vote from the 2016 election is to be believed, a minority party in the US. However, this “era of minority rule” in the US government is now somewhat over after a Democratic seizure of the House Tuesday night. But what strategies are working for the parties?
Many journalists suggest a polarization of both parties as a leading factor in electoral shifts since 2016. Jonathan Chait with NYMag says “the Republican Party has moved rapidly rightward, while the center of public opinion has not.” A similar pattern has emerged within the Democratic Party. In 2016, Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist, emerged as one of the foremost candidates for the Democratic Party. In the case of the 2018 midterm, Andrew Gillum, Florida’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate who received endorsements from Sanders earlier in the election cycle, ran a campaign on grass-roots rhetoric, with Medicare for all being a key piece of his platform. Gillum lost his gubernatorial race to Ron DeSantis, a self-avowed “Trump Republican” and staunch supporter of the President since the 2016 election. During the 2018 election cycle, DeSantis co-opted President Trump’s language of “building the wall” in a political ad. DeSantis has also very vocally opposed the Mueller Investigation into the President’s 2016 campaign and its relationship to the Russian government. Gillum was criticized by many throughout his campaign, often being called a “socialist.” On top of denunciations and a brief controversy over misconstrued, but maybe racist, comments, viral marketing repeatedly claimed that Gillum planned to raise taxes. Gillum did intend to raise corporate taxes, but actively disputed the specifics of the claims.
Since we saw Gillum’s campaign went further left and DeSantis’ went further right, is there a takeaway? This pattern went beyond Florida races; states across the country saw progressive Democratic candidates take a shot at Senate and Gubernatorial campaigns and ultimately lose to their Trump supported opponents. Trump personally campaigned with candidates in upwards of 30 rallies in states from Texas to Wisconsin. Some races were successful, like Ted Cruz’s in Texas, but Scott Walker’s race in Wisconsin was not as successful. Midterm elections usually don’t play out in the favor of the sitting President but the narrow victory of the Democrats seizing the House was just that—narrow. In the case of the Florida Senate race, the results were similarly narrow.
Bill Nelson, a center-left Democrat who has served in the Senate since 2000, was defeated by Rick Scott, the two-term Florida governor and ally to President Trump. Scott secured victory, but he wasn’t a particularly popular governor; earlier this year he held a solid 55% approval rating, which made him the 22nd most popular governor in the country. His campaign for Senate focused on unseating a “career politician” and an “empty suit.” While the race was largely predicted as a tie, Nelson was unseated by Scott. While President Trump tweet earlier in the race that Tallahassee was one of “the worst and most corrupt cities,” he praised Rick Scott’s work as governor.
The trend of the 2018 midterms has sent a shock to the system of the Democratic Party. Of course, many Democrats didn’t expect the 2018 midterms to be an easy sweep, but the expectation of a looming “Blue Wave” thanks to a historically unpopular President proved to be somewhat unsubstantiated. Although Republicans retain control of the Senate, the Democrats retook the House, and did so through a number of historic races. Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian-American from Michigan, and Ilhan Omar, a Somali-American from Minnesota, became the first two Muslim women in Congress. Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland, from Kansas and New Mexico respectively, became the first two Native American women—and Davids the first LGBT person for Kansas— to sit in Congress. In Massachusetts, Ayanna Pressley became the first black congresswoman to represent her state.
Even Florida, as Conservative as it largely swung, saw some progressive support, as the contentious Amendment 4 which returned voting rights to felons passed Tuesday night. Voters may support progressive causes, but progressive candidates are struggling against their conservative opponents. This could lead to a shift to the center in 2020, moderating a party that has shifted further left to match the Republican Party’s push right. The 2018 midterms, much like the 2016 election, might have greater implications for two-party system’s longevity, but this is unlikely to come to a head until after the 2020 election. But to fully understand this new shift in government control, we have to go back to Civics class.
In a long past conversation (that almost certainly didn’t happen) between George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, the two discussed whether or not a two-party congress was necessary. While preparing his coffee, Jefferson poured his cup, but also poured a little bit of coffee into the saucer holding his cup. Washington, confused by this asked him why he would pour coffee into his saucer, and not just his cup. Jefferson told Washington that his “throat was not made of brass.” The metaphor here suggests that were the US government to only put their coffee (legislation) into their cup (the House), it would be too hot and untempered. The saucer (the Senate, in this metaphor) helps to temper and cool it. The House shifts more and is more susceptible to public opinion. Senators, with their longer terms and their further detachment from their electorates are meant to have a tempering effect on the House. The US government at its core is not built for the easy passage of legislation.
With Democrats now in control of the House, the US enters a period of divided government. However, following gubernatorial and Senate race losses last night, the Democratic Party will have to reexamine whether their strategy for 2020 will rely on progressive candidates, or more moderate candidates. Regardless, the untempered House now has the power to veto legislation passed by the Republican Senate, as well as investigate and move to impeach the President. Tempered or not, the next two years and the 2020 election are sure to be contentious.