When enraged liberal activists, old-school partisan Democrats, and rattled suburbanites huddled in front of their TVs and phones hoping for a spectacular rebuke against Donald Trump during Tuesday's midterm elections, part of what united them was a shared sense of cultural outrage. The racist fearmonger accused of sexual violence had violated every legal and political norm in the book. Now it was time for him and his party to pay.
That didn't exactly happen. Democrats won a solid majority in the House and gained a healthy amount of investigative oversight power over the president—the country will now presumably have a chance to learn more about the president's possibly illegal business dealings and hush-money payments. But devastating losses at the state level in Florida coupled with a handful of defeats in Senate races pointed to the limits of voter backlash against Trump's personality and rhetoric. In an era of unprecedented polarization, voters backing the party in power were apparently as fired up to hold it down for their guy as Democrats were to stick it to him. Though it's hard to draw clear takeaways from results as scattershot as Tuesday's, one thing was clear: Anti-Trump rage will only get the Democrats so far.
The good news for the party is that a bevy of decisive outcomes in places as diverse as Arkansas, Massachusetts, Nebraska, Ohio, and Missouri pointed to something tangible Democrats can run and should run with from here: unbridled economic populism.
Ballot initiatives to bypass lawmakers and increase the state minimum wage passed in Missouri and Arkansas, even as Republicans clobbered Democrats in those increasingly right-wing locales. Populist Democrat Sherrod Brown easily won re-election to the US Senate from Ohio even as his party's other candidates generally struggled in the state. Medicaid expansions passed in deep-red Idaho, Utah, and Nebraska, and shocker gubernatorial results in Kansas boded well for a Medicaid expansion there, too.
“Voters across the political spectrum are fed up with politicians who pay lip service to the dignity of work but do nothing to reward struggling, hardworking families," Jonathan Schleifer, executive director of the Fairness Project, which advocated for the minimum wage and Medicaid bumps, said in a statement.
In other words, explicit promises of delivering economic goods and going after inequality seemed to prove effective. This may be somewhat counterintuitive, because by many measures the economy is doing very well—the country is coasting in a period of historically low unemployment. But despite this rosy macroeconomic picture, exit polls suggested most people felt their family's economic standing was the same or worse than in 2016.
"What Sherrod Brown did, what [Massachusetts Senator] Elizabeth Warren did, frankly: They leaned into an economic message," Celinda Lake, a prominent Democratic pollster who worked on midterm races across the country, told me. "They had a clear economic populist message for their voters, and that is a winning formula for 2020."
With the weight of debt—student loans, auto loans, home loans, credit cards—held by Americans at its highest level ever, and only nascent signs of real income growth for non-rich people, Democrats would do well to keep in mind that voters are still concerned with the oligarchy that is modern America.
"It's not so much a question of jobs but what do those jobs pay," Lake said. "What kind of healthcare came with that job, how many jobs do you need to make a living? That'a super powerful message."
Moderate Senate Democrats who voted to, say, deregulate banks did not exactly enjoy a wellspring of support on Tuesday, going down in Missouri, North Dakota, and Indiana. Meanwhile, Scott Walker, the anti-union conservative whose two-terms as governor of Wisconsin amounted to a reign of terror for Democrats and the left, finally lost. Populist candidates were one of the main success stories of the night, though even this wasn't a universal narrative. Most notably, Richard Cordray, the former head of the federal Consumer FInancial Protection Bureau, lost his race for governor of Ohio.
What remains to be seen is how the populist attacks on the ruling class that proved so effective for Democrats in some key races can be turned on the president in 2020. What about these campaigns worked, and how can these lessons be used to counter right-wing pitches to voters based on racism and xenophobia?
Brown, the salt-of-the-earth, gravely-voiced free trade opponent from Ohio, seemed to have a sense of the answer in his victory speech. "Populists are not racists," he told supporters in Columbus. "Populists are not anti-Semitic. We do not appeal to some by pushing down others. We do not lie. We do not engage in hate speech."
Rather than running away or dodging the president's attempt to pit working people against each other, Brown showed how to push back.
"We are having a race-based conversation in our country," Lake told me. The effective argument for Democrats, she argued, is "the race-class combination in calling out his dog-whistle politics for what they are—an attempt to distract and divide us, so we don't focus on what his economic policies really are."
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