Democrats Can Refuel, But Not Rest

On Tuesday night, I badly wanted a sweeping disavowal of President Donald Trump’s duplicitous, hateful politics and sometimes lawless tenure.

My fellow Democrats and I got a critical safeguard against his worst impulses in the form of a solid blue majority in the U.S. House of Representatives.

For now, I’ll take it.

In hindsight, why did I expect a single night to provide a clear answer about the mood and direction of the country? We look for concise ways to name what currently ails our badly broken body politic, but there are no simple answers. This election was an accurate reflection of where our country currently stands: politically divided, historically engaged on both sides of the aisle and existentially fraught.

However, Democrats have a lot of reasons to breathe a sigh of relief. As Washington Post opinion columnist Dana Millbank put it, for the first time in two years, “America has stepped away from the abyss.” Based on pre-race ratings from David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report, Democrats had a probable chance of gaining the 23 seats in the House of Representatives that they needed to achieve control in that chamber. In fact, they exceeded that metric by flipping 27 seats, with two Democrat-held seats and more than a dozen Republican-held seats still left to count at the time of this publication.

Recapturing the House of Representatives was a monumental achievement for Democrats in itself considering the fact that they typically need to win the popular vote by about seven percentage points to overcome the inherent disadvantages in unfairly drawn congressional districts.

Many of the Democrats who turned red congressional districts blue were young first-time candidates, women, people of color and members of other underrepresented minority groups. I think of Antonio Delgado in New York, a young black Harvard Law graduate and Rhodes Scholar whom Republicans unsuccessfully attempted to dismiss as a “big-city rapper.” I think of Rashida Tlaib in Michigan and Ilhan Omar in Minnesota, who together will become the first Muslim women elected to Congress. The youngest woman elected to Congress; the first Native American woman elected to Congress; the list of young, idealistic, precedent-shattering Democrats (especially Democratic women and people of color) who will join the House of Representatives in January goes on.

Moreover, the rising tide of youthful Democratic energy dislodged a substantial amount of prominent GOP power. Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas, the current chairman of the House Rules Committee, was ousted by Colin Allred, a young African-American man and former football player. Rep. Dave Brat of Virginia, who became the first primary challenger to oust a sitting House Majority Leader since the position’s creation in 1899 when he defeated Rep. Eric Cantor in 2014, lost to Abigail Spanberger, a young mother and first-time candidate. Rep. Peter Roskam of Illinois, a former Chief Deputy Majority Whip, was handily defeated by Sean Casten, another up-and-coming first-time candidate. In short, the Congress that goes to Washington this January will look far more like the country it represents — and far less like an old boys’ club — than any preceding Congress.

At the same time, several senatorial races were bitterly disappointing for Democrats. It is unclear at the time of this publication what the exact balance of power in the upper chamber will be — the race in Florida between incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson and former Governor Rick Scott will be recounted, and the contest between Republican Rep. Martha McSally and Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema for Sen. Jeff Flake’s open seat in Arizona has not yet been called. It was certainly heartbreaking to see Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) and Claire McCaskill (D-MO) face defeat — I commend them both for their stalwart integrity in voting their consciences against Brett Kavanaugh, even though they knew that it would surely damage them politically. At the same time, it is important to keep in mind that regained control of one chamber of Congress is a stronger shift in the Democrats’ favor than a marginal increase in a chamber that they previously controlled is for the Republicans. In addition, while I am as crushed as anyone else that the smarmy Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) will be returning to the Senate rather than his intrepid challenger Rep. Beto O’Rourke, Beto narrowed Cruz’s margin of victory to just 3 points from his 16-point 2012 win. Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen also ousted Republican Sen. Dean Heller in Nevada. If similar momentum and energy can be maintained until 2020, when Democrats face a much more favorable map for Senate control, the likes of Sens. Ben Sasse, Pat Roberts and Bill Cassidy should be getting nervous.

In terms of state gubernatorial elections, there were two scenarios that largely played out: stunning, thrilling upsets and crushing (and potentially unfair and contestable) defeats. On one hand, Colorado elected its first openly gay governor, Democrat Jared Polis. In Kansas, Democrat Laura Kelly defeated former Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a Trump sycophant and author of infamous voter suppression legislation. The governorships of seven states are expected to change from red to blue hands, bringing Democrats closer to parity with Republicans; among the defeated Republicans is also the loathed incumbent Bruce Rauner of Illinois. However, in Florida, the blatantly xenophobic tendencies of the openly racist Republican candidate Ron DeSantis won out over Democrat Andrew Gillum. In Georgia, Republican candidate and sitting Secretary of State Brian Kemp unscrupulously orchestrated oversight of his own race against Democrat Stacey Abrams amid copious reports of racially-targeted voter suppression. At the time of this publication, the race is still too close to call, but in no legitimate democratic election should a running candidate conduct oversight.

But here’s the reason I was able to sleep last night: soon, there will finally be some pushback against Trump’s contemptible practices. The election results give Democrats much to be optimistic about, though I am sobered by the amount of work left to be done and fearful that Democrats could overplay their hand and allow Trump’s demagogic hocus-pocus to land him another four years in the White House. Now is not the time for the train to stop — it’s just time for a refueling.