Polls across almost half of the country had not yet even closed when CNN commentator Van Jones pronounced Tuesday night’s US midterm election results to be “ heartbreaking.”
“The hope has been that antibodies would kick in,” Jones said. “That this infestation of hatred and division would draw a response from the American people in both parties to say ‘no. No more’.” Jones was echoing the frustration that many on the left were expressing, a feeling that a progressive surge did not seem to be materialising to sweep Trump and the Republican party entirely away.
Three hours later – while it became clear that while the Republicans had, as polling predicted, held the Senate, the Democrats had swept them out of the House of Representatives, bringing in the most female, most diverse, and youngest legislative cohort in history – the inescapable atmosphere of disappointment lingered like stale air on a windless day.
The Democrats let themselves imagine that Trump’s braggadocio, his careening administration and his constant, ridiculous lying would invite some kind of cosmic justice which would deliver them not just victory but vengeance, a stinging and unanswerable humiliation from the people at the ballot-box.
It was not to be. The much-hyped insurgencies of Beto O’Rourke in Texas and Andrew Gillum in Florida failed to make it over the line – though they came pretty close – and while Democrats flipped governorships in Illinois, New Mexico, Michigan and even Kansas, they failed to grab them in Florida and Ohio.
Still, the dismay from some parts of the progressive cognoscenti was puzzling. “So much for the blue wave” became the line of the night even before anything had really happened. But the Democrats were never really going to be able take control of the Senate: there just weren’t enough races in which they had a chance of flipping a Republican seat. Except for Nevada, which they won, and Arizona, which remains too close to call, there simply were more vulnerable Democrat seats than there were vulnerable Republican ones. Before election day, FiveThirtyEight.com’s model gave the Democrats just a 16.5 per cent chance of winning the upper chamber.
From the start, this election was all about the House, and the governors’ races. The Senate was a pipedream. Democrat incumbents Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota and Claire McCaskill in Missouri were always likely to be toast, late victims to the same changes in the electoral psyche that brought Trump victory in 2016.
Fox News, usually a good indicator of the Republican party line, called the House for the Democrats crazily early, at just half past nine – long before polling had closed across the West, and several hours before anyone else called it. That allowed them to disarm the sense of momentum from the Democratic victory there, framing their failure to take back the Senate – which had been highly improbable from the start – as the main story, an easy counter to the “blue wave” narrative. At 11:30, Trump tweeted that the night had been a “tremendous success.”
But the left-wing despondency on Twitter wasn’t really about the specific results as they poured in – on paper, this was a decent electoral showing. Instead, it stemmed from the collective realisation that it would be at least two more years before Trump’s hubris could lead to that yearned-for moment of humiliation. The dream of an equal and opposite reaction died, for now. In a stinging rebuke to the shock 2016 election result, voters chose for everything to pretty much work out the way polling predicted this time.
But despite the progressive chagrin, the night held major victories for Democrats. It was a night of firsts. Lauren Underwood, at 31 years old, became the first woman and the first African-American to represent Illinois’ 14th district. In Colorado, Jared Polis became America’s first openly gay governor. Rashida Tliab became the first Palestinian-American woman in Congress. Sharice Davids, in one of America’s deepest red states, became not only the first Native American woman to serve in Congress but also the first openly gay person to represent the state of Kansas.
That wasn’t the only pleasant surprise Kansas had in store, either: Kris Kobach, the former Kansas secretary of state and self-styled “ACLU’s worst nightmare” who headed Trump’s preposterous Voter Fraud Commission, lost his gubernatorial election to Democrat Laura Kelly. Iowa elected not just its first ever female representative to Congress but its second as well.
Across the country, ballot initiatives brought more good news. Florida voted to pass Amendment 4, granting the vote to 1.4m people with previous felony convictions in what civil rights advocacy group Public Citizen called “the largest expansion in voting rights since the Voting Rights Act.” Missouri voted to legalise medical marijuana and raise the minimum wage to $12. Michigan voted for automatic voter registration.
Even though he failed in the end, the fact that O’Rourke came so close to winning – in Texas, against a former presidential contender! – is frankly amazing, and the sheer power of his campaign led the Democrats to pick up several Congressional seats in Texas that they probably would not have otherwise.
Gillum was even more astonishing, if you think about it: if you had predicted three years ago that a candidate running on a platform of Medicare-for-all, abolishing ICE, and a $15 minimum wage would come within a hair’s breadth of the governorship of Florida, you would have been called crazy. Joe Manchin holding on to his seat in West Virginia – a state Trump won in 2016 by more than 40 points – is also pretty incredible.
OK, so Trump is still president. And the Senate is still under Mitch McConnell’s control, which means that the Republican project to cram the judiciary with doctrinaire conservatives will continue. But the Republicans should not be allowed to claim Tuesday as a victory simply because they played the narrative expectation game better. And Democrats should allow themselves a moment of relief: they have the House now. That’s a start. Oh yes: and the 2020 campaign begins tomorrow.