Sunday, November 18, 2018

The midterms 2018: Blue tides


FOR WEEKS, it seems, we’ve been using the shorthand phrase ”blue wave” to describe the long-forecast Democratic victories in the House of Representatives, and it actually worked. That tidy little aquatic metaphor to explain what was coming, or what was anticipated on Election Day 2018, worked fine for the race that was called the night of Nov. 6.

That’s when more than 30 House seats were gained by Democratic candidates, confirming the long-held suspicion of analysts and pundits. But what’s happened since that already historic night has been even more profound. The original phraseology doesn’t work anymore. Not even close.

Thanks to immense grassroots interest in the election; late-arriving absentee, provisional and mail-in ballots; a general exhaustion with the Republican style of rule; and a turnout that suggested people had crossed a mental threshold and decided that voting was, well, cool — the 2018 midterm count wasn’t really evidence of a blue wave. A wave hits once, expends its energy and dissipates. What’s just happened — what’s still happening — has been a series of blue tides, waves that strike a complacent shore again and again, over and over.

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In Arizona on Nov. 12, Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema won a close race with Republican Rep. Martha McSally (49.7 percent-48 percent), winning the fight for the Senate seat opened up with the pending retirement of Sen. Jeff Flake. Sinema’s victory, after days of lead changes and late-counted votes, gave Democrats a second Senate pickup.

Sinema, once a Green Party activist in Phoenix, becomes the first woman senator from Arizona, flipping the Grand Canyon State to Democratic for the first time in 30 years — partly through her talent for holding onto longtime Democrats, and attracting moderate Republicans moved and molded by the late Republican Sen. John McCain. It’s called reaching across the aisle.

A lot more’s happened since Nov. 12. In Maine’s 2nd congressional district, Democrat Jared Golden, a former Marine and state lawmaker, beat Republican incumbent Bruce Poliquin, the only Republican member of Congress from New England. With Golden’s victory, the entire congressional delegation from the New England states has flipped to solidly Democratic.

And in California, a trifecta has similarly transformed the political map in a very unexpected place. Democratic businessman Harley Rouda, a challenger with deep pockets, dislodged Putin’s congressional poodle, Republican Rep. Dana Rohrbacher, ending Rohrbacher’s 15-term grip on power in the California 48.

In the California 45, Democrat Katie Porter, a single mother defeated GOP Rep. Mimi Walters, a Trump acolyte body and soul, by about 3 percentage points (6,200 votes). Porter will join 113 other women in the 116th Congress starting in January.

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PORTER’S VICTORY, confirmed Friday after a slow trickle of late votes, was the penultimate shoe to drop. In the California 39, in the battle to replace retiring Rep. Ed Royce, Democratic philanthropist Gil Cisneros has won out over Young Kim, another Trump supporter. According to state data, Cisneros leads Kim by 3,500 votes, or 50.8 percent of the vote, with all precincts reporting.

With Cisneros’ win on Saturday evening, Orange County — bastion of conservative identity for two generations, what historian Jon Meacham called the ur-base of Reagan conservatism” — has, completely and improbably, morphed from Republican red to Democratic blue.

It’s the cap on a midterm election that saw 7.9 million more voters pull the levers for Democrats than Republicans. A midterm in which more than 116 million people voted in a national survey whose participation and emotional impact flirted with that of a presidential election.

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IT’S AN AMERICAN truism: Money is the mother’s milk of politics. Republican candidates and the moguls who’ve bankrolled them have long taken that as an article of faith, and spent to win accordingly. This election cycle has been different.

Billionaires like hedge-fund chieftain Tom Steyer and former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg pumped tens of millions into the Democratic cause on their own. Coverage of Democratic flanks from such megadonors got a big assist from a funding mechanism that Democrats (most memorably Barack Obama) made full use of in two successful presidential elections:

All hail the small donor, the everyday people whose drops made an ocean of money that swamped GOP fundraising initiatives this year, and which ought to send a warning to Republicans conjuring war plans for 2020: A little money from a lot of people turns into a lot of money, in a hurry.

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Republican seers with vision are learning this from ActBlue, the closest thing Democratic candidates have had to resemble an ATM for serious contenders for the House or Senate. The Massachusetts-based social-technology PAC, started in 2004, uses easily-accessible fundraising software that lets progressives, nonprofits and candidates to raise money with small donors buying in online.

It’s working. Politico reported that ActBlue “funneled over $700 million in small donations to House and Senate candidates over the course of the 2018 campaign.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Politico reported on Nov. 12, “said Republicans were getting swamped in the hunt for online givers and that he has charged his political team with coming up with a solution to enable them to compete in 2020.

“McConnell’s push underscores the urgency confronting Republicans. In race after race, turbocharged liberal donors pumped cash into Democratic coffers — much of it through ActBlue, an easy-to-use site that allows givers to plug in their credit card information and send contributions to their candidate of choice with a click. Republicans have no such centralized fundraising platform.”

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BUT EVEN mother's milk gets you just so far. Sooner or later, it’s not about the money, it’s about the message, and this midterm cycle has seen Democrats stepping up their ground game with enhanced grassroots outreach — an outreach reflected in the dramatically higher numbers of those who turned out to vote.

We’ve seen much higher numbers of women engaged in the process, spurred on in some large measure, no doubt, by the Brett Kavanagh debacle. ActBlue reported on Nov. 15 that “[t]his cycle 60 percent of the millions of donors on ActBuoe identified as women.” That’s a phenomenal civic reflection of outrage and determination the Republicans have absolutely no answer for.

It’s this combination of intention on the part of voters and the never-ending string of unforced errors by the Republicans in general, and President* Trump in particular, that made the still-rolling transformation of the House of Representatives not just possible, but damn near inevitable.

Image credits: Sinema: Rick Scutari/Associated Press. Rouda: screengrab from Rouda website.  Orange County comparison graphic: MSNBC. ActBlue logo: © 2018 ActBlue. Midterm turnout graphic: fivethirtyeight.com.

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