The After-Math: A midterm election post-count-em post

By: Richard W. Sharp

Time flies. It’s more than a month since the election, and we’ve had a chance to recover a bit from the national stomach flu otherwise known as the 2018 campaign. It’s time to reflect on what worked and what didn’t. It’s time to assess the new landscape, run the numbers, and adjust strategy as needed to achieve an equitable and just society.

It’s time for the after-math.


Just the facts

Let’s start with the facts. There was a blue wave.1


Now for the fun part: holding ourselves accountable.

We made a few predictions before the election. So how’d that work out?

Pretty well, if we do say so ourselves! Most notably, our predictions were significantly more accurate than this:

In May 2017, only months into the Trump administration, we started speculating about potential target districts for 2018, and refreshed the list in January of this year. We speculated that health care would be a significant issue. Democrats ran and won on health care, not to mention that voters from several states chose to expand medicaid coverage. We also felt that a targeted campaign by a third party could be successful in certain districts if the major parties didn’t throw money at it.

Well, we missed on the money thing (the average house race was already costing $2.76M at the last filing deadline before the election, Sep 30, 2018, so it’s safe to say the total amount spent per race is going to outstrip 2016’s $2.4M), but the districts themselves turned out to be pretty good picks. Of the 8 districts we originally chose to focus on, 2 were redistricted, making them non-competitive (both went D), 2 were won by Republicans, and the other 4 went to Democrats. Only MI-03, which went R by 10 points, was out of reach in the end. The final list…

Our Picks From May 2017
District Exiting Incumbent Party Tenure Clinton / Trump Spread Cook Report Rating 2018 result
MI-03 Justin Amash R 7 -9.4%   R +10.2%
NY-19 John Faso R 1 -6.8% Toss-Up R D +2.9%
GA-07 Rob Woodall R 7 -6.3% Likely R R +0.2%
NJ-03 Tom MacArthur R 1 -6.2% Likely R D +1.3%
PA-08 Brian Fitzpatrick R 1 -0.2% Lean R D (redistricted)
PA-06 Ryan Costello R 3 +0.6% Lean R  D (redistricted)
NJ-07 Leonard Lance R 9 +1.1% Lean R  D +5.0%
CO-06  Michael Coffman R 9 +8.9%  Toss-Up R D +11.2%

So where are we headed now?

In October we considered several scenarios and their consequences depending on the outcome of the election. In the end, the nation was treated to “the odds-on favorite: Democrats win the House, Republicans hold the Senate.” The outcome puts a range of powers and tactics into the hands of those seeking to check and balance. Elections have consequences, and the consequences have been swift.

Democrats gained the “power of the purse.” It’s not absolute, but they do have the ability to say no. The 116th Congress hasn’t even been seated, but Nancy and Chuck have already demonstrated how this works in their recent tinkle contest with Specimen 1. They will not be paying for that wall (either), and we now face the empty threat of a government shutdown (the risk of a shutdown is real, but the threat is empty because Trump gave up any leverage he might have had when he doubled down on the wall without the votes or popular support to see it through). We hope that this power will be used as leverage to moderate, for example, the judicial appointments process, but that will take some time to play out.

The new committee chairs will be firing up the investigatory apparatus. There are plenty objectionable objectives out there from corruption to collusion and beyond.  It’s not yet clear which topics are the top priorities, but some, such as the treatment of migrants and migrant children at the border, have potential to expose and put the brakes on especially heinous and harmful practices, and represent opportunities to do more than merely score political points.

For all this, the biggest new power and largest elephant in the House is impeachment. Democrats are being squeamish about it, perhaps because it’s not clear how it would play out.  The base would love it, but then what? It doesn’t poll that well, and without enormous public pressure the Senate would never remove Trump from power. Even winning would feel like losing because Pence is next in line, and he might actually be capable. Then again, he wouldn’t drop the bomb because somebody made fun of his hair. The problem with impeachment is that it could backfire, so leadership is playing the waiting game by refusing to move forward without Mueller’s report. We refused to try to guess what was on the Special Counsel’s mind before the vote, and we won’t start now. What has happened is that Jeff Sessions was removed and a belligerent replacement was found. Mueller nevertheless roared back into action, perceptibly increasing the legal pressure on Trump’s circle.  What will happen next is known only to Mueller. 

Trump’s supporters have stuck by him through thick and thin, but mounting legal and political pressures (chief among them, the economy’s downturn) could drive a wedge between the populists and the Wall Street wing of the Republican Party. It’s too soon to tell, but it is worth monitoring as focus turns to 2020.

The importance of local politics is also becoming apparent. The most prominent action of late has come out of New York state, which is taking an active part in fighting the corrupt practices of the administration. The Trump Foundation has been shuttered for its fraudulent activities, and the incoming attorney general promises to pick up the torch and carry on.

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Conclusion

The night of the election was an uncertain, half-empty affair, but, with time, the scope and implications of the rebuke delivered to Trump, the new power of House Democrats, and the outline of way forward for the resistance are becoming clear.

Why did it take so long for the wave to reveal itself? At a watch party with friends on election night, the reaction to the news that Democrats had retaken the house was one of relief, but there was also an atmosphere of disappointment. Where was The Blue Wave? Why was Trump declaring victory? Why wasn’t he giving a farewell speech and choppering off to exile? What happened in the Senate?

It shouldn’t have been surprising that the wave was slow to develop. It takes time to count votes. When the result is close, it takes more time, and over the following days we watched the Democrats pick up 40 seats in the House. Reporters (and most of the rest of us) hate a slow reveal, but as the days passed and Democrats continued to pick up seat after seat in contested districts, the headlines turned from ripple on election night to tsunami in December. It takes time to see clearly.

More interestingly a new dynamic is emerging. The young Democrats are challenging the old order. New members are very publicly trying to rally voters to their side on issues that the establishment would rather leave be. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez joined climate protesters outside Nancy Pelosi’s office. Nancy Pelosi will be speaker, but not before agreeing to term limits and describing herself  “as a bridge to the next generation of leaders.” It will be interesting to see if the party’s new blood is able to gain traction. Will progress be made, or will the old guard play the classic “Yes, but not yet” card?

Regardless, your representative will be more representative: by age, gender, race, and creed (and probably by income: TBD). Empathy has gained a foothold in government. What future can be built from this?


Notes:
1  Despite the press’s desire to put on the hurricane coats and declare the wave a bust, evidence mounted steadily. Funny, isn’t it, how the democrats command of the House was cemented by the districts that were running closest before the election and took longest to count afterward?^
2  It’s likely to become 333 men after NC-9 is decided, but a host of possible outcomes are still on the table.^
3  Despite our main source stating that Utah’s prop 4 is undecided, other sources indicate that it has now passed.^

About The Author

Richard is a Seattle area data scientist who builds predictive models and the services that deliver them. He earned a PhD in Applied and Computational Math from Princeton University, and left academia for the dark side of science (industry) in 2010, following his wife to the land of flannel. Fan of coffee, beer, backpacking and puns. Enjoys a day on the lake fishing, and, better, cooking up the catch for a crowd.

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