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.
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.
4. Wins Will Have Long-Term Impact. While Democratic wins weren’t historically a wave, those wins will have longer-term impact than a wave might have, because of where and how Dems won. This is particularly true compared to Republican losses — we won much more, in more strategic places, than they did. Democrats flipped 8 state legislative chambers this cycle (CO-S, CT-S, ME-S, MN-H, NH-S, NH-H, NY-S, WA-S), while Republicans gained control of just one (AK-H). Dems won 7 Governors seats, the most flipped by any party since 1994. And we busted Republican supermajorities in Michigan, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania — all states that now have Democratic governors. This means that Democrats will be able to keep Republicans from being able to override the vetoes of those Democratic governors.
In terms of the next round of redistricting, let this one sink in: a majority of governors holding veto power over new maps in 2021 are now Democrats. And in most of the states where Democrats took control of a legislative chamber, that legislature will control congressional redistricting. This is good news for our odds of ensuring we have fairer maps in the next districting cycle.
5. Closing The Gap — Key Criterion for Success. We must, as a movement, center gap-closing as a metric for success on par with wins. This year, Democrats competed in races and places where we haven’t in decades. While three races are still too close to call, most of our Sister District races this year will be decided within 5 percentage points — and several by less than 1 or 2 points. We played on a wider field and played a longer game. This is exactly what we need to do.
6. Building a Bench Takes Time (& Money). As above, we need to continue to focus on more than just flipping seats. We need to invest in excellent people, and put these candidates on a track where they can achieve longer term political goals. Candidates usually emerge stronger from losses, and when they run again, they win. There are so many things to learn during a first run — from fundraising to field plans. And building name recognition takes time. We need to support the growth of a culture of investing in candidates as people on a trajectory of power, not merely as static electoral objects.
7. Diversity Wins, But Challenges Remain. Women won huge on Tuesday, and candidates of color won historic races. We are sending some incredible women with diverse backgrounds to Congress: the first American Indian women (Deb Haaland (NM-01) and Sharice Davids (KS-11)); Texas’s first two Latina Congresswomen (Veronica Escobar (TX-16), Sylvia Garcia (TX-29)); and the first two Muslim women (Ilhan Omar (MN-05) and Rashida Tlaib (MI-13)). At the state legislative level, we saw historic wins too — as just a couple of examples, Sister District candidates Claire Wilson will be the first out lesbian to serve in the Washington Senate, and Padma Kuppa will be the first Indian American to serve in the Michigan assembly.
But challenges remain for candidates who have traditionally faced barriers to being elected, including candidates of color, LGBTQ+ candidates, and women. Structural, institutionalized racism and sexism continue to divide voters. This year, voters with the least sexist attitudes were about 15 points less likely to vote for the Republican House candidate compared to voters with the most sexist attitudes. And, in 2018 as in 2016, denying the presence of racism was highly correlated with voting for Republican House candidates.
And in our own races, consistent with national trends, we have seen an increase in insidious dog-whistle tactics, as well as unmasked bias. Some of our Sister District candidates faced expressly anti-Semitic and racist ads and mailers, in a blatant attempt to stoke divisions. Nonetheless, across the board, our candidates ran courageous, incredibly tight races. It is absolutely vital that we combat racial, religious, and gender bias with our pocketbooks and our volunteer time. We do this by continuing to invest in, and doubling down on, candidates who help us build a reflective democracy.
8. Voting Rights Must Be Key to our Agenda NOW. Voter suppression starts and ends in the states. The fight to count every ballot in Georgia and Florida — where Republican legislators and electeds have engaged in widespread voter suppression, including exact match and poll closings — put this front and center. Coming out of this fight, Democrats have the right and the responsibility to take voting rights up as an immediate centerpiece of the progressive agenda. Democrats picked up 7 trifectas this cycle — IL, NY, CO, ME, NM, NV, and WA. Democrats broke 4 Republican trifectas — MI, KS, NH, WI. And Democrats busted Republican supermajorities in NC, PA, and MI. This provides a huge opportunity for Democratic-led states, and Democratic-leaning states, to push aggressively to make voting rights a centerpiece of their agendas.
Republican-controlled states have used gerrymandering and and voting restrictions as tactics to suppress and distort voting power among their foes for years. Because of our federalist system and the clear trajectory of the Supreme Court, most voting rules and rights will continue to be set at the state level. The battle to protect and expand voting rights will increasingly start and end with the states. We have a new opportunity — now is the time to move fast and furious to push for voting rights in the states.
Make no mistake: last Tuesday was a rogue blue wave. It wasn’t a tsunami, coming together all at once. Instead, it was a slow roll, accreting wins slowly over days. This was because so many races were so close — and this in itself is a huge win, given the bad maps. Democrats made gains across the board. Equally importantly, we closed gaps and competed where Democrats haven’t in decades. And we invested in people running with diverse backgrounds and perspectives, building our bench and laying groundwork for the future. There are big fights around the corner, both in 2019 and 2020, and the grassroots has helped to put Democrats in a great position. The door to national and state level power has been propped open. We now have a great opportunity to throw that door open wide, if we continue to invest in strategic races and candidates. Let’s take a breath and appreciate the hard-fought gains made — but let’s keep our sleeves rolled up and get back to work together soon.