Blue Wave, Candidates and Races

A Rogue Blue Wave

Election Day 2018 turned out to be a rogue blue wave. Different races were called at different speeds over the course of days, piling up and growing larger over time. It took a hot minute to understand what happened, but when the seas calmed, it was pretty clear: Democrats had a great night. And center stage in that story was the success of Democratic candidates in state houses all across the country.

Awhile back, I was given a piece of advice by a senior colleague and friend: don’t do hot takes. As a political analyst, the job is to get it right, not to get there first. And that couldn’t have been better advice for this year. Early hot takes last week didn’t see the rogue wave. It took days for the waves to pile up and accumulate. Here, with a week of synthesis under our oars, are a few takeaways.

What Happened?
1.Big Wins Under Bad Maps. Democrats did very well at the congressional and state house levels under unfavorable, Republican-gerrymandered maps. Voter turnout was sky-high — 115 million people voted, 40% higher than the last midterm election in 2014. Democrats won about 385 state legislative seats, and Republicans flipped about 100 state seats red. This left Democrats with a net gain of about 250 state legislative seats. This wasn’t a statehouse wave by historical standards. We increased our share of statehouse seats by 4.6%, a bit less than the historical average of 5%.

But those historical averages don’t account for how bad the maps were for Democrats this year, which held us back from even bigger wins despite sky-high turnout. Consider this as an example: In Pennsylvania on Tuesday, Democratic candidates won 54 percent of the state house popular vote, but won just 45 percent, or 92 seats, of the 203-seat lower chamber. So, remember: the Democratic gains made this year were very significant, given the party’s disadvantage due to bad maps.

2. Great Night for Independent Redistricting. As we all know, in 37 states going into last Tuesday, state legislatures draw district lines. This process has, in recent cycles, led to gerrymandering by Republicans in control of state legislatures, which has diluted Democratic vote and voice in Congress and state legislatures. As one example, a 2017 Brennan Center for Justice report found that up to 17 Republicans in Congress owed their seats to “extreme partisan bias” in district maps. One strategy to change this process is by ballot initiative. Four states had redistricting reform ballot initiatives. Three have passed, with the fourth very likely to pass.

In Colorado, voters passed two measures, putting separate independent commissions in charge of state and congressional redistricting. In Missouri, redistricting passed by a landslide, under which a “non-partisan state demographer” will be appointed to draw state legislative districts, subject to a legislative commission’s approval. In Utah, it is likely that an independent commission will now draft new congressional and state legislative maps. And finally, in Michigan, voters supported a constitutional amendment to create an independent citizen redistricting commission to redraw both the legislative and congressional districts. This is fantastic news and provides good data to support that ballot initiatives can play an important role in the fight for fairer districts.

3. The Grassroots is Gorgeous. Our volunteer teams did incredible work this year. Sister District essentially doubled in size and field reach. We grew from about 35 teams in November 2017 to about 75 teams in November 2018. While we raised $350,000 in 2017, we raised nearly $775,000 for our candidates from 44,000 individual donations this year. Our teams held hundreds of creative and fun events, from phonebanks to fundraisers to canvassing trips. Our community grew stronger. And building these communities is a key pillar of growing infrastructure, and is an equally important part of our organization and long-term success as a movement as are electoral gains.