The Nov. 6 elections are first and foremost about Donald Trump. The president is a dangerous authoritarian whose political party not only refuses to restrain him, but seems to take pleasure in emulating his most nihilistic impulses. The meaning of the midterms depends on whether the Democratic Party can win control of at least one chamber of Congress, allowing it to conduct official investigations and perform meaningful oversight.
But the midterms are also a critical test for the health of American democracy. And while we won’t know the full story until Wednesday morning, there are some reasons for cautious optimism. Fear may be the most explosive force in our politics, but the most corrosive is apathy. So far, Americans appear to be responding to the Trump era with renewed political vigor.
In states that allow early voting, over 30 million ballots have already been cast, far surpassing the 20.5 million cast in 2014, with a few days left to go. New voter registration is smashing records in swing states including Colorado, Iowa and Virginia, all of which feature important congressional races. Surveys of interest and enthusiasm in the 2018 election indicate an electorate far more energized than it was four years ago. Fundraising from small donors is off the charts.
This is the sort of activity you would hope to see if you cared about the state of the world’s most powerful democracy. It’s also the sort of activity you’d want to see if you are emotionally attached to the beleaguered Democratic Party.
Nationwide, 31 states and the District of Columbia register voters according to party. Among these, Democrats enjoy an advantage of nearly 12 million, according to the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. Democrats outnumber Republicans in 19 states, including West Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Louisiana and Florida. The 12 million figure almost certainly understates the scale of the Democratic advantage, since of the 19 states that do not register by party, many are solidly Democratic ― Hawaii, Washington, Minnesota and Illinois ― while still others ― New Hampshire, Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana, North Dakota, Missouri, Montana and, yes, Alabama ― are currently represented by at least one Democratic official elected statewide. Of the 19 states that don’t track party registration, only five ― Mississippi, Texas, Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee ― don’t currently feature a Democratic senator or governor.
And yet. Twenty-six states exhibit unified Republican rule, while six more have a Republican governor and another six have a Republican-controlled state legislature. The Senate is split 51 to 49 and Republicans hold a 47-seat advantage in the House. When election day comes around, Democrats often have the voters, but not the votes.
Professional Democrats typically explain the gap between their registration advantage and their election-day results by emphasizing gerrymandering and voter suppression. It’s a comforting narrative ― Republicans win, but only because they cheat. And there is no doubt that gerrymandering and voter suppression are both very real, very destructive and very racist. Nationwide, Democratic candidates won 1,592,083 more votes than their Republican counterparts in 2012, yet Republicans secured 234 seats to Democrats’ 201. The tactics Republicans deploy to suppress the black vote seem endless.
You can’t win seats you don’t compete for.
Republicans resort to voter suppression and gerrymandering because it works. But Democrats have always had the ability to take the sting out of each by generating more enthusiasm and greater turnout. And they rarely deliver the goods. In 2014, only 36.7 percent of eligible voters bothered to show up, according to the United States Election Project at the University of Florida. In 2010, a wave year for Republicans, the figure was just 41 percent. Voter turnout hasn’t eclipsed 50 percent in a midterm since 1914, but it took an 8.2 percentage point dive in 1974 ― proportionally almost one-fifth ― and never really recovered. Bumping turnout by just a few percentage points in prior elections could have been the difference between a Republican triumph and a Democratic wave, dirty tricks notwithstanding.
Part of the problem is that Democrats just don’t run. You can’t win seats you don’t compete for. In 2018, with the party in its weakest electoral position since the Civil War, a host of candidates decided to roll the dice on what seemed like long-shot bids in deep-red territory. In California’s super-rich (median income: $93,995) 45th District, Katie Porter, an acolyte of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is running neck and neck with cut-my-property-taxes Republican Mimi Walters. In Virginia’s 5th District ― overwhelmingly rural territory gerrymandered to neutralize liberal votes in Charlottesville, lefty Leslie Cockburn is in a dead heat with her Bigfoot-friendly opponent Denver Riggleman.
Porter and Cockburn aren’t alone. A record number of women are running for office in 2018 ― good news for the representational part of representational democracy. There are 256 women on the ballot in House and Senate races this year, 197 of them Democrats. The 183 Democratic women running for the House is more than 50 percent higher than the party’s prior record of 120.
We don’t know if Rep. Beto O’Rourke will beat Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas or if Stacey Abrams will defeat Brian Kemp in Georgia. We don’t know if Democratic challenger J.D. Scholten can dethrone white nationalist Republican Steve King in rural Iowa. But all of these races are solidly competitive heading into the final stretch, and Democratic Party leaders who scoffed at the idea of spending time and money in deep-red territory now look foolish. Democrats are running well in Kansas, and even the Oklahoma governor’s race isn’t a lock for Republicans.
It isn’t just liberal candidates who are suddenly competitive in red states ― liberal ideas are too. In Idaho, Montana, Nebraska and Utah, activists cobbled together enough signatures to put Medicaid expansion on the ballot. Combined, the initiatives could expand access to health insurance to 400,000 people. In Florida, voters have an opportunity to restore voting rights to 1.4 million citizens who have a felony record. In Colorado, voters could raise taxes on the rich by $1.6 billion to fund public education. In Missouri ― where citizens abolished the state’s anti-labor-union “right-to-work”’ law by a 2-to-1 margin in August ― voters have opportunities to raise the minimum wage, and crack down on the revolving door between the state legislature and lobbying firms. A minimum wage hike is also on the ballot in Arkansas.
Much of this new competitiveness has been enabled by a new fundraising model. After years of emulating Republican campaign finance strategies ― targeting big donors and catering to their interests ― Democrats seem to have at last figured out how to raise money from people who are not millionaires or billionaires. This cycle, they’re out-raising Republicans more than 3-to-1 on donations of $200 or less. O’Rourke alone has raised $31 million from small donors, a staggering sum for a Senate race. That’s the money it takes to get the message out.
So what message will work? The midterms are about to test a bunch of different strategies. In the Senate, Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) are doing their best to survive in red states by yoking themselves to Trump ― touting their support for his banking agenda and his anti-immigrant message. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) are pursuing the opposite approach, presenting themselves as unapologetic populist progressives in Trump territory. In Arizona, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema ― one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress ― is essentially running as Mitt Romney, while O’Rourke is running as a progressive ― some of his voting record to the contrary.
Will all of this be enough to give Democrats a congressional majority? Most polling suggests that a House takeover is likely and a Senate switch is a long shot. But it all depends on who shows up to vote on Tuesday. Polling models slightly misgauged turnout demographics in the Upper Midwest in 2016, making what had appeared to be a sure thing for Hillary Clinton into a narrow upset for Trump.