Watching the midterm election results come in on November 6 was somewhat of a letdown. Democrats took back the House, but they lost seats in the Senate and the 3 most talked-about races of the year. It certainly did not feel like the stinging rebuke of Donald Trump and the Republican Party that so many were hoping for.
However, the weeks since the election have shown that Democrats–and Independents and Republicans who care about the future of our democracy–have much to celebrate. A few House races remain undecided, but Democrats have already picked up 40 seats and won by the largest margin of victory for either party in midterm history. They held their Senate losses to 2, which means that taking back the Senate in 2020 remains feasible. At the state level, Democrats gained 7 governorships, including surprise victories in Kansas and Wisconsin.
3 of those governor wins–in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania–are particularly encouraging for Democrats’ prospects of defeating Trump in 2020. Those are states that the Democratic nominee will absolutely need to win, especially given Florida’s apparent drift to the right.
Even more important than these top-of-the-ticket races are the gains that Democrats made in state legislatures and on ballot referendums. Democrats gained a net of about 300 state legislative seats, taking control of 7 chambers and increasing their number of state trifectas (where they control the governor’s office and both legislative branches) to 14. More control at the state level will allow Democrats to push back against voter suppression and partisan gerrymandering, which, in turn, will greatly increase their chances of winning more races in 2020 and beyond.
There were also many progressive policy victories in the form of ballot measures. Voters in 3 red states approved Medicaid expansion, while in 2 other conservative states they agreed to raise the minimum wage. 3 states passed referendums that will limit partisan influence in redistricting. And, in addition to Florida’s much-watched Amendment 4 that restored voting rights to felons, 3 other states approved measures to make registering to vote and casting a ballot easier.
These state-level gains are perhaps even more consequential than winning the House. In addition to allowing Democrats to fight back against efforts to suppress young and minority votes, they will give the party a chance to sell their vision for a progressive future. As we’ve seen with Obamacare, progressive policies tend to be highly popular once people get a taste of them, so Democrats now have two years to build evidence for the case they’ll be making in 2020.
The Democratic Party has tended to neglect state and local races, so this also marks a distinct opportunity to build a deeper bench of candidates. This is an area where Republicans have long held an advantage, but it appears that the grassroots energy sparked by Trump’s election is helping to level the playing field.
It might not have felt like a Blue Wave on election night, but the results should certainly be seen as a signal that a majority of the country is unhappy with the state of our politics and willing to give Democratic policies a try. We still face significant structural disadvantages going into 2020, but we at least now have a roadmap for success.