The political realignment of the Donald Trump era — the new leftward lean of the suburbs, the deepening red tint of much of rural America — gave way this week to the new Democratic House of Representatives, the GOP’s stronger hold on the Senate, and a hyperpartisan nation where only one state now has split party control of its legislative chambers. (Hello, Minnesota!)
But one of the most significant developments to come out of Tuesday’s vote is an apparent reshaping of the presidential electoral map — even beyond the one that gave the country Trump as president two years ago. “The map,” said veteran Democratic strategist Mark Longabaugh, a senior Bernie Sanders advisor in 2016, “is definitely changing.”
The contours could still shift a lot more in the next two years, and the identity of the Democratic nominee will certainly be a factor. But consider the initial playing field from a theoretical Democratic candidate’s perspective, just like a range of leading party strategists in Washington are doing today as they begin to contemplate the paths to beating Trump to 270 electoral votes.
First, the tough news for Democrats: They may now be looking at a 2020 election that begins with Florida and Ohio — the two most important battleground states in the last few elections — being less in play, with their new Trump-allied governors Ron DeSantis and Mike DeWine in charge.
The tentative good news for you: It’s now hard to see how Virginia or Colorado, traditional swing states, begin 2020 anywhere but in the blue column, with Nevada leaning that way, too — after all three states yet again shifted significantly toward Democrats in both statewide races and at the House and local level.
Across the midwest, meanwhile, the Tuesday Trump backlash that saw Democrats win multiple statewide contests in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin — two years after going for Trump — likely augurs an election cycle where the Rust Belt is central to the discussion in a way it wasn’t back in 2016. Iowa now looks less red than Democrats initially feared after the last election, and Minnesota bluer. “The mistake we made in 2016 was taking the industrial midwest for granted, and we can go in this time and play hard in Wisconsin, we gotta play hard in Michigan, we gotta play hard in Pennsylvania,” said Longabaugh.
And that’s all before Arizona and Georgia — states that have, combined, gone for Democratic presidential nominees just three times since 1992 — begin showing up more often on swing-state maps. Even though Republicans seem to have prevailed in both, the razor-thin margin in Arizona’s Senate election and Georgia’s governor race bolstered the argument that local Democratic leaders began making in 2016, when the presidential-level results in both states were closer than in Ohio.
Plus, after Beto O’Rourke came within three points of Ted Cruz, some Democrats are already arguing hard that it would be political malpractice not to pay attention to Texas’s massive trove of electoral votes. (“Had Democrats built real infrastructure in the years and cycles before this one, we could have won a lot of races we fell short in,” said Tara McGowan, who runs ACRONYM, an organization focused on building digital groundwork for progressives. “If Democrats ignore Texas in 2020 we would run the risk of it slipping entirely back, and a lot of the young and new voters who turned out because of Beto’s campaign could turn [away]. It would be a total missed opportunity not to focus on it.”)
Still, the first 2020-focused conclusion plenty of Democrats drew from Tuesday is that the next nominee could easily live and die in the Rust Belt. As Philadelphia-area congressman Brendan Boyle told me Wednesday, “Pennsylvania is clearly one of the most important — but frankly, I’d argue, the single most important state for us if we’re going to win in 2020. There is no legitimate path to winning the White House if we don’t win in Pennsylvania.”
The three states that shockingly handed the presidency to Trump in 2016 didn’t double down on their support of him Tuesday. Far from it: Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin saw the expected surge of suburban white voters and high apparent turnout from people of color, accompanied by what looks like softening of GOP support among the working-class white men who backed Trump by large margins two years earlier. Each state reelected its Democratic senator and put a Democrat in the governor’s mansion. Democrats also made House gains in both Pennsylvania and Michigan. The party’s fear that the region would fully fall for Trump appears overstated, and having gubernatorial control of the states grants Democrats an electoral weapon they were missing in both Wisconsin and Michigan in 2016.
Democrats and Republicans alike are approaching the interpretation of Tuesday’s results in these states with some caution, of course, remembering Trump’s overperformance there last time. “The real question regarding 2020 is: Do the results of last night make it harder or easier for Democrats in the states that the president carried narrowly?,” warned Republican operative Mike DuHaime. “Wisconsin and Michigan flipped parties for governor, and you also saw House gains for Democrats showing negative movement for Trump in at least parts of those states. But he wasn’t on the ballot. Things could be different when there is a direct choice between him and a specific Democrat, especially if someone is nominated from the far left.”
While Democrats were disappointed not to pick up the governor’s mansion in Iowa, meanwhile, they woke up on Wednesday with control of three of the state’s four House seats, a gain of two, suggesting Iowans may be more up-for-grabs than feared after 2016’s nine-point Trump margin. And while Trump allies eagerly pointed to Minnesota as a pickup opportunity in 2020 after losing by under two points in 2016, the state on Tuesday elected two Democratic senators, a Democratic governor, and even a Democratic attorney general — Keith Ellison — who’s been facing accusations of domestic abuse from an ex-girlfriend. But the two blue-to-red flips in the state’s House races — in largely rural districts — were offset by two in the opposite direction — in partially suburban ones.
Still, much of the Democratic lesson-seeking on Wednesday has been focused, as ever, on Florida and Ohio. Republicans have ample reason to cheer in the former: Bill Nelson, the only Democrat to win a Senate or gubernatorial race in Florida since 1998, appears to have been unseated by Rick Scott, and the GOP will now control not only both of the state’s Senate seats, but also — in the form of Ron Desantis — its executive apparatus, which can prove crucial to turnout efforts in a presidential race. Yet Democrats are taking some solace on Wednesday in the close margins of the state’s Senate and governor’s races — Republicans are ahead in both by less than a point. Not only that, but after the passage of a ballot measure Tuesday, over 1 million voters who couldn’t participate due to felony convictions will likely be restored to the rolls, a shift that could reenfranchise more than one in five black Floridians, potentially significantly altering the state’s electorate.
And in Ohio, which some Democrats have started privately writing off altogether at the presidential level, it’s Senator Sherrod Brown’s reelection by six points that’s now getting the microscopic look from Democrats — even as Republicans cheer Mike DeWine’s victory in the gubernatorial contest in a state Trump won by eight points two years earlier.
“A place like Ohio feels harder and harder. Sure, Sherrod Brown’s able to do it, but nobody else, I mean nobody,” said Democratic pollster Jef Pollock. “That’s gotta be acknowledged.”
Youngstown area congressman Tim Ryan said Brown’s race was a road map for Democrats if they want to remain competitive in the region, pointing to the senator’s close relationship with organized labor and his disciplined message around jobs, wages, and trade rather than any nationalized issues. “Going to the mat for people’s economic interests is really important, and the only thing I would add is — and I think in a presidential more so than in a Senate race — [so is a] big vision for the country. People are still struggling,” he told me. “So you need to be with them, but you also need to lay out a path forward economically: How are we going to compete against China, other than just throwing tariffs on? We need an elevated message. People are tired of the mud.”
Brown himself leaned hard into that analysis when he spoke to supporters after his win, in a speech that — at times — sounded almost like a campaign address itself.
“You showed the country that progressives can win — and win decisively — in the heartland. Tonight, Ohio, you showed the country that by putting people first and by honoring the dignity of work, we can carry a state Donald Trump won by ten points,” he said. “As we celebrate the dignity of work, we unify, we do not divide. Populists are not racists, populists are not anti-Semitic. We do not appeal to some by pushing down others, we do not lie, we do not engage in hate speech.”
“Let our country — our nation’s citizens, our Democratic Party, my fellow elected officials all over the country — let them all cast their eyes toward the heartland, to the industrial midwest, to our Great Lakes state,” he continued. “We will show America how we celebrate organized labor and all workers — the waitress in Dayton, the office worker in Toledo, the nurse in Columbus, the mine worker in Coshocton. That is the message coming out of Ohio in 2018, and that is the blueprint for our nation in 2020.”
The rest of the party was listening. Soon enough we’ll see if it acts on it.