Overall, Republicans had a tough night Tuesday. When all is said and done, Democrats look to have gained around 35 seats in the House, seven governorships and over 330 state legislators.
Yet, as rough as it was, it could have been much worse for Republicans.
In Barack Obama’s first mid-term in 2010, Republicans picked up 63 House seats and 700 state legislative seats — numbers that were not out of the question for Democrats for a large portion of this cycle. In the Senate, Republicans actually expanded their majority — as it appears they will pick up three seats — whereas Democrats lost 6 seats in the 2010 midterms.
In many ways, it was a strange election. If you had told me in August that Democrats were going to win more than 30 House seats, I would have bet a large amount of money that the Senate would also be in play. I would have a difficult time accepting that Florida would elect Ron DeSantis governor and (as it now appears) Rick Scott as senator.
The notion that Ohio’s Senate race would fall into the mid-single digits, that Mike DeWine would win the Ohio governor’s race handily, or that Michigan’s Senate race would be decided by fewer than seven points all would have seemed ludicrous. Martha McSally keeping Arizona close (and possibly winning) would not seem possible.
Nevertheless, Democrats accomplished something that seemed impossible in early 2017: They took control of the House of Representatives; they picked up multiple governorships, including knocking off the governor they probably loathe most, Scott Walker; and they flipped some important state houses, including the New York state Senate, which gives them complete control of New York state government.
Some factors to consider:
1. The GOP got killed in the suburbs. We can place Republican losses into three broad buckets: “perennial swing seats” (Colorado’s 6th, Arizona’s 2nd), “sleeping/problematic candidates” (Oklahoma’s 5th, South Carolina’s 1st), and suburban districts. This last category is by far the broadest, and it accounts for around two-thirds of the Republicans’ losses. This is a significant long-term problem for the party if it continues.
2. This probably doesn’t count as a wave. If you look at the Index I referenced on Monday, our preliminary results suggest that things have moved about 23 points toward Democrats. That’s a substantial shift, but it falls short of even “semi-wave elections” such as 2014 (a shift of 26 points toward Republicans) and 2006 (a movement of 30 points toward Democrats). Obviously, as results trickle in this might shift further, but probably not by much.
3. Money. One of the ways to resolve the tension between what we saw in the House versus the Senate (and to a lesser extent, governorships) is that Democrats had a massive fundraising advantage in the lower chamber. This allowed them to catch a number of incumbent Republicans napping, and to spread the playing field out such that the GOP just had too many brush fires to put out.
Oklahoma’s 5th Congressional District, for example, flipped in part because Michael Bloomberg’s team spent $400,000 on the air in the final week of the election. To the extent we wish to deduce anything about 2020 from these midterms, we should bear in mind that the next election will probably be fought on a more even financial playing field.
4. The maps moved out from under Republicans. Many of these districts that swung against the GOP were suburban districts that included urban areas. The idea in some of them was to create districts where Republicans could feel safe about winning, but not too safe. As a result, when there was a suburban swing, the Republicans were spread too thin to survive. In an odd way, giving Democrats a hand in redistricting in 2020 could help Republicans out.
5. The red state/blue state divide is getting deeper. Part of the way to explain the Senate and governor race results is that, generally speaking, Republicans won red states and Democrats won blue states, with proper allowance for incumbency. This is yet another example of how polarized we are becoming.
6. This all takes place against the backdrop of a booming economy. Finally, it is important to note that Republicans should not have found themselves in this position amid a vibrant economy. It is quite unusual to have a result this bad in a time of peace and prosperity. Some of this is the suburban realignment, but some is driven by Donald Trump’s more extreme actions, which alienate suburban moderates.
On the other hand, if Trump can smooth out the rougher edges that turn suburbanites off, he could prove to be a formidable candidate in 2020. Most of his states from 2016 continued to support Republicans this cycle.
But, on the other hand, he hasn’t shown much interest in smoothing out those edges. And if the economy slides into recession, all bets are off.
Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority.