Last night, an openly gay supporter of single-payer health care, marijuana legalization, and forcing corporations to put workers on their boards — who was a top target of the GOP donor class — won a Senate race in a pro-Trump state by nearly 11 points, dramatically outperforming the moderate Democratic gubernatorial candidate with whom she shared a ballot. Meanwhile, a staunchly pro-labor Democrat, who opposed a bipartisan bank deregulation bill last year, won reelection to the Senate in an increasingly red Rust Belt state — while a business-friendly Democrat who supported that banking bill lost badly in a neighboring one.
In Newt Gingrich’s old district in Georgia, a gun control activist who supports “a robust public option” for health insurance (appears to have) won where the aggressively nonideological Jon Ossoff lost — despite raising a miniscule fraction of the latter’s campaign funds; while in an Orange County House district that has never elected a Democrat, a supporter of Medicare for All and universal pre-K is expected to unseat a three-term Republican incumbent. And when voters in red states were given the opportunity to weigh in on progressive policies — unmediated by partisan conflict — they decided to expand public health-care provisions for the poor, restore voting rights for former felons, and raise taxes to support public education.
Also, last night, a right-wing Democrat who supported Brett Kavanaugh and border walls won reelection in a state that went for Trump by 40 points; Democrats who won primaries by claiming the mantle of anti-Establishment progressivism lost ostensibly winnable House races; most of the Democratic candidates who loudly championed Medicare for All in battleground races were handily defeated; and when voters in blue states were given the opportunity to weigh in on progressive policies — unmediated by partisan conflict — they refused to impose a tax on carbon emissions to save the climate, or to raise taxes on the rich to fund public schools.
All of which is to say: If you are a Democrat with strong feelings about where the party should be moving ideologically, last night did not prove that Team Blue can only win by adopting all of your policy preferences (it merely provided scattered data points ripe for cherry-picking).
The most widely cited case for reading last night’s results as a rebuke of the Democratic left might be this: Before the midterms, the socialist activist Sean McElwee and center-right journalist Josh Kraushaar mutually agreed on a list of nine races that would determine the left’s electoral viability — and in all nine races, the progressive Democratic candidate lost.
This list should give pause to any progressive who insists that Democrats would control every branch of government, if only they co-sponsored Bernie Sanders’s every bill. But it is also an arbitrary — if not bizarre — list of contests to cast as referenda on the electoral viability of social democracy in the United States. Kara Eastman, Katie Porter, Scott Wallace, and Leslie Cockburn make some sense — all ran as left-wing alternatives in primaries, and lost races that were broadly considered toss-ups (albeit, right-leaning toss-ups). Similarly, if Gillum does end up polling behind moderate Democratic Senator Bill Nelson in Florida — despite facing a markedly weaker opponent — one could reasonably cite that as (very limited) evidence for the electoral virtues of moderation.
But Arizona’s Republican governor Doug Ducey was overwhelmingly favored to win reelection, long before Democrats chose his challenger. And the same is true of Larry Hogan in Maryland, who enjoyed the support of much of the state’s Democratic Party. Finally, it’s unclear why the fact that modestly progressive candidates lost red states like Texas and Georgia would constitute evidence that Democrats must embrace moderation if they wish to win the Electoral College in 2020. One would think that the triumph of Sherrod Brown in Ohio, Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin, and the success of solidly left-of-center candidates in Michigan and Pennsylvania would be more relevant to the question of how the party should position itself in 2020.
Frankly, if you’re in the market for evidence that the progressive agenda isn’t politically viable, there are much more compelling things you can point to than the fact that Beto O’Rourke only came within three points of beating an incumbent Republican in Texas (while propelling Democratic House candidates to victory on his coattails). For example, deep-blue Washington voted down a carbon tax on Tuesday — while voters in Colorado, on a good night for Democrats, refused to raise taxes on households earning more than $150,000 a year, in order to increase funding to a school system that is currently ranked 39th in the country in per-pupil spending. Notably, opposition to the measure was strongest in affluent suburbs — which is to say, with the fastest-growing wing of the Democratic Party’s coalition.
Further, it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that the Democratic Party’s “centrist” candidates were far more liberal in 2018 than they’ve been in past cycles. In the not-too-distant past, support for cutting entitlements was a mainstream position within Team Blue’s tent; this year, virtually every Democratic candidate campaigned on an absolutist opposition to trimming Social Security and Medicare benefits, and in support of increasing public subsidies for health care more broadly. And there is little evidence that the party’s overall shift to the left on economic issues cost it at the ballot box. Rather, the broad popularity of “big government” health-care programs appears to have been a pillar of the Democrats’ success in the House.
All in all, last night’s results are consistent with the idea that voters in general — and swing voters, in particular — simply aren’t as ideological as pundits imagine them to be. A lot of Wisconsinites voted for Tammy Baldwin and Scott Waker on Tuesday. A lot of Idahoans voted for Medicaid expansion and politicians who oppose Medicaid expansion. In most cases, in most places, a candidate’s personal charisma, ties to the district (or state), and quality of campaign organization will count for more than the precise ideological valence of her “issues” page. After all, most voters will learn about your positions through television ads, not campaign websites — and in the Trump era, opposing Medicare for All will not prevent your opponent from attacking you for supporting Medicare for All.
The 2018 midterms did little to refute the idea that a broadly progressive agenda is electorally viable on a national level. What they might have done, however, is render the left’s policy goals legislatively unviable at the federal level for a long-time to come. The Republican Party’s domination of “toss-up” Senate races will probably prevent Democrats from achieving unified control in 2021 — and could keep the upper chamber in conservative hands well into the next decade. And even if Democrats manage to reclaim the Senate in 2023, the chamber’s overrepresentation of the most conservative parts of the country could limit their majority’s appetite for social democratic reform. Meanwhile, the party’s growing reliance on affluent, tax-averse voters — as lower-income whites continue shuffling out of the Democratic coalition — could be an obstacle to progressive policy goals in the House. Finally, there is a real threat that after Trump appoints another two years’ worth of federal judges, a far-right judiciary will be ready and willing to strike down any progressive legislation that Democrats manage to pass in the coming decade.
The American electorate did not soundly reject the progressive movement’s governing vision on Tuesday. But the GOP’s growing strength among the white, rural-dwelling Americans — whose votes count more than everyone else’s — just might have rendered that vision impossible to implement for the foreseeable future.