The Democratic victory lastTuesday was significant not because of its size-there were only a few key races in a handful of states-but because of its scope. Democrats and progressive causes won in the Northeast, where voters in Maine approved medicaid expansion over the wishes of the Trumpist governor and in New Jersey where Democrat Phil Murphy won the race for governor by 12 points. They won in the South where Ralph Northam beat Ed Gillespie by nine points in the race for governor of Virginia. The Democrats also won in the west where a special election flipped the Washington State Senate Democratic, giving the Democrats solid control of the three west coast states.
The Democrats won with insider moderate types like Murphy and Northam, but other Democratic winners included Danica Roem who was elected to the Virginia legislature, making her the first trans person elected to any state legislature in the country. In Helena, Montana Wilmot Collins, who came to the US as a refugee from Liberia was elected mayor. In Topeka, Kansas Michelle de la Isla, also a Democrat, became that city’s first Latina mayor. In New York City, outspoken progressive Bill de Blasio became the first mayor to be reelected without any meaningful primary or general election opposition since Ed Koch in 1985.
The breadth of the Democratic win suggests a few things about what we might expect in the next few years. First, it is clear that the trope that the Democrats have isolated themselves in big cities and a few college towns is a right wing talking point. What we saw on Tuesday in a partisan divide where the hardcore Trump base, like those that stuck with Ed Gillespie in Virginia, are the ones who have become isolated. The white, straight, Christian and largely rural voters who remain the strongest, and perhaps only, remaining supporters of Donald Trump are not only a numerical minority, but are increasingly isolated from the rest of the country. A Republican Party that loses in Virginia, New Jersey and Maine, gets drubbed worse than usual in New York City and cannot hold key areas such as the suburbs of Washington DC or Seattle, is one that has a base that is shrinking and an appeal, and president, that does not resonate outside of that base.
Second, the presence of Donald Trump in the White House is toxic for Republicans in many areas of the country. In New Jersey, Virginia, Washington, Montana and elsewhere the extreme unpopularity of the current President contributed to Democratic victories. This is particularly notable because since the election, the punditry has earnestly lectured us about how Democrats cannot simply be the party that opposes Trump. This is undoubtedly the right thing to say if you are trying to be booked on CNN or place an opinion piece in a major newspaper, but for a Democratic consultant to advise their client not to run against Trump would be political malpractice in most parts of the country. As long as Trump is in the White House, the Democrats have a powerful message. Fleshing that out with policies and programs would be helpful, but is secondary to keeping the focus on the President.
Democrats and others who are concerned about the Trump presidency are right in seeing last Tuesday’s election as a hopeful sign, but should be aware of the dangers the future might hold. The assumption that the Trump presidency and the damage it has wrought can be erased, or at least countered, by a few elections cycles that go the Democrats’ way is an idea based on assumptions from pre-2016 America and can no longer be treated as givens. For example, the possibility that a President, who as a candidate refused to say he would accept the outcome of the election if he lost, will refuse to leave office after a political defeat and instead will spin out a story to his angry and out of touch base about illegal voting and the like, remains very real.
As the Mueller investigation and efforts to hold the Trump-Kushner clan accountable to the law continue to move forward, the stakes will become very high for Trump and his family. The people in the White House know that if they lose in 2020, lives of quiet retirement, golf, board memberships and professional opportunities are not likely. It is much more possible that the rest of their lives will be consumed with legal troubles, financial penalties and possibly jail time. This is not because of political retribution but because rule of law requires consequences for widespread criminal activity. Accordingly, Trump and the people around him will do anything to remain in power, and if the last year or so tells us anything, will continue to be given cover by the Republicans in Congress.
Tuesday’s Democratic victory only makes that fear greater in the White House. There is no reason to think that an administration that has set about undermining democracy since before it took office is going to change as they become more embattled. Given this, Democrats should be buoyed by the good outcome last week, but understand the lengths to which the White House might go to avoid recognizing an election defeat in 2020.
Photo: cc/Gage Skidmore