What The Midterm ‘Blue Splash’ Means For American Democracy
Soon after election night began, Democrats nervously watching election results started to have disconcerting recollections of 2016. Panic ensued.
In Florida, Andrew Gillum and Senator Bill Nelson, the Democratic candidates for Governor and U.S. Senate, respectively, began falling behind as more election precincts reported in their results.
Trump-enthusiast Ron DeSantis was declared the winner of the state’s gubernatorial election and Republican Rick Scott held a modest lead over Senator Nelson. In the end, both Democrats lost by fewer than 56,000 votes.
In Virginia’s 5th district, which includes the city of Charlottesville, Republican Denver Riggleman defeated the Democratic nominee Leslie Cockburn by fewer than 21,000 votes. Abigail Spanberger, a top Democratic prospect in Virginia, narrowly defeated Republican Congressman Dave Brat, by fewer than 5,000 votes.
But the “blue wave” eventually arrived, albeit with an uneven distribution of force.
While the Democrats sustained disappointing losses in Senate races in Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota, they held a sizable lead in the popular vote and did about as well as anyone expected in the House, capturing the majority in that chamber.
The election, therefore, served as an important reminder that President Trump’s victory in 2016 may not have augured a dark shift for the United States into illiberalism and reactionary populism.
In fact, Trump’s rise spoke to a much greater degree about the Republican Party’s values than it did about Americans’, a majority of whom rejected Trump’s political program in 2016 and 2018.
However, it also solidified a divide between the country’s rural, urban and suburban communities.
The Republicans expanded their Senate majority last night, which will enable Trump to continue making lifetime appointments on the federal bench, and possibly even appoint another Supreme Court Justice or two.
Apart from last year’s tax law, Trump’s half-term in office has not been a legislative juggernaut, with Republican initiatives on repealing Obamacare and funding a border wall all failing to pass.
With Democrats now in control of the House, it’s safe to say that whatever remained of Trump’s legislative ambitions are now dead.
If Trump’s minority presidential coalition is unsustainable in the long-term, the Republican Senate majority is not.
The Senate, by the way in which it’s elected, naturally favors a party that can run up victories in small states dominated by rural counties, such as Indiana, North Dakota, Missouri, Arkansas and Montana.
Some tend to forget that Obama’s legislative accomplishments were only possible because conservative (“Blue Dog” in the House) Democrats were able to win deep red districts in 2006 and 2008.
The Affordable Care Act passed with exactly the number of votes it needed to overcome a Republican filibuster, as did the Dodd-Frank law.
Without the support of conservative Democrats Mary Landrieu (Louisiana), Max Baucus (Montana), Ben Nelson (Nebraska), Mark Pryor (Arkansas), Blanche Lincoln (Arkansas), Mark Begich (Alaska) and Evan Bayh (Indiana), those laws would not have passed.
Those Senators were also crucial in confirming Justices Sotomayor and Kagan to the Supreme Court.
All those seats above are now represented by Republicans, and it’s difficult to imagine Democrats winning them back.
Considering this, the illiberal and populist threat to American institutions and democracy won’t likely come from laws, especially if Democrats are able (as expected) to draw fairer and more representative House districts for future elections.
It seems we’ve avoided the fate of Hungary and Poland — and, increasingly, Israel. It will come from the Senate and the court system.
If the Republicans continue to stock the federal bench and retain their advantage in the Senate, they will wield an important veto on a progressive policy agenda while the courts allow Republican states to build a parallel society in red states, with fewer voting rights, restrictions on abortion, private school vouchers and draconian policies toward undocumented immigrants.
Even if Democrats are able to take advantage of demographic shifts in states such as Georgia and Texas, voter suppression can be a mightily effective tactic for Republicans to remain in control of those states if federal courts are unwilling to intervene (as of this morning, Stacey Abrams was trailing Brian Kemp in the Georgia gubernatorial election, a vote marred by accusations of suppression).
Last night’s results contain reasons for hope, mainly that the Trump administration will now be held accountable in one chamber of Congress instead of none, important criminal justice ballot initiatives passed in Michigan and Florida, and Kris Kobach’s humiliating defeat in Kansas and Ted Cruz’s close call in Texas are an indication that there is still a point at which some Republican voters will say “enough.”
But they also contain seeds of acrimony and destruction.
If a Republican Senate and conservative courts continuously stymie progressive ambitions while waving through every right-wing excess, to say nothing of an electoral college that may in the future award the White House to more Republican candidates who lose the popular vote, our system of government won’t remain legitimate in the eyes of most Americans.
Abe Silberstein is a freelance commentator on Israeli politics and U.S.-Israel relations. His work has previously been published in the New York Times, Haaretz, +972 Magazine and The Forward.