Commentary Politics

Progressive Victories Lay the Groundwork for a 2020 Groundswell

Peter Dreier

Democrats—and the progressive movement—will need to keep their troops mobilized for the next, even bigger, battle in 2020.

Politics is a struggle for power—over ideas and interests—and after this year’s midterm, two things remain clear. First, voter suppression and intimidation, racism, and corporate money continue to infect U.S. politics like a virus. Second, despite those obstacles, the United States is a much more progressive country than most pundits and political analysts believe. Voters this election cycle embraced many progressive candidates and ballot measures, even in so-called conservative states. And though Trump was not on the ballot, the midterm election was viewed as a nationwide referendum on his leadership and presumably his corruption.

Almost 116 million voters went to the polls—that’s 49 percent of eligible voters, the highest turnout rate for a midterm election in nearly half a century. Hundreds of grassroots groups helped turn the anti-Trump “resistance” movement into an electoral powerhouse. These include labor unions, immigrant rights groups, local community organizing groups, Planned Parenthood, MoveOn, the NAACP, Swing Left, and others. No group played as important a role as Indivisible, which was founded soon after Trump’s election and quickly expanded to every congressional district, training and mobilizing first-time activists and new leaders in the skills of issue organizing and campaign work.

The midterm victories give Democrats an opportunity to thwart much of Donald Trump’s agenda, to investigate his and his administration’s corruption, and to put forward a progressive policy agenda as an alternative to Trumpism that can help Democrats expand their majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, take back the U.S. Senate, and win the White House in 2020.

The U.S. House of Representatives

In the 435 House races, Democrats outpolled Republicans by 54.5 million to 48.9 million votes, flipping many seats with Republican incumbents in blue, red, and purple states. The final result could bring the Democrats between 229 and 237 seats in the House, breaking Republicans’ eight-year lock that started with the Tea Party wave in 2010.

Progressives will have a larger role in shaping Democratic strategy and policy agenda. Many of the newly elected Democrats who won House races are left-of-center, including some who flipped GOP seats. They reflect grassroots activism that has grown across the United States over the past decade, and especially since Trump’s election. Some version of Medicare for All is a mainstream Democratic goal for many. Ditto on a $12 or even $15 minimum wage, progressive tax reform, background checks and limits on assault weapons, a bold infrastructure and jobs plan, regulating Wall Street, a carbon tax, and support for the right to have an abortion.

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One byproduct of Tuesday’s election: After January, the House Progressive Caucus, which now has 78 members, is projected to grow to over 100 members. Two of them, New York City’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY-14) and Detroit’s Rashida Tlaib, are members of Democratic Socialists of America. Progressives may seek to challenge Nancy Pelosi’s hold on the speakership or at least insist that she appoint some of their ranks to House leadership positions.

With control of the House, Democrats may be able to block Congressional Republicans’ plans for additional tax cuts for the super-rich, tougher immigration legislation, and the repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). They may even force Trump and his Republican allies to make concessions to pass a budget.

Democrats will also now control House committees and have subpoena power to investigate Trump’s personal and business dealings, including his long-withheld tax returns. One of Trump’s toughest critics, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), will likely replace Trump puppet Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) as chair of the powerful House Intelligence Committee. Ardent progressives Reps. Maxine Waters (D-CA) and Jerry Nadler (D-NY) will chair the Financial Services and Judiciary committees, respectively. They and their Democratic colleagues could initiate hearings and investigations about Trump’s use of the White House to benefit his family businesses, his business activities in other countries, his payoff to Stormy Daniels, his incompetent response to Hurricane Maria, his firing of former FBI Director James Comey and obstruction of justice, his separation of families, his travel ban, his efforts to weaken consumer protections on banks, and his ties to Vladimir Putin and other Russians, especially his knowledge of their involvement with the 2016 elections.

The Democrats can use a little-known 1924 law to obtain Trump’s tax returns and even make them public, which would shed light on his business activities, philanthropy, and overall wealth. They can prevent Trump from firing Special Counsel Robert Mueller by attaching a provision to a must-pass appropriations bill. And after Mueller releases his report, House Democrats could even begin impeachment proceedings, which would further air Trump’s corruption and incompetence in public, even if Senate Republicans refuse to convict him.

Laying the groundwork for the 2020 elections, House Democrats could also sponsor bills and hold hearings to lay out their policy ideas and force House Republicans to vote on them before facing voters in a presidential year. Their agenda could include raising the federal minimum wage, enacting a Medicare for All plan (including incorporating long-term care for seniors), lowering prescription drug prices, embracing a bold job-creating infrastructure plan, dealing with the high cost of college, adopting comprehensive immigration reform (that prevents Trump from deporting young immigrant Dreamers protected by the DACA program), expanding funding for reproductive health and family planning, strengthening regulations on Wall Street to protect consumers, reforming outdated labor laws, promoting a progressive tax plan and campaign finance reform, strengthening voting rights, and adopting tougher environmental regulations.

The U.S. Senate

Although the Democratic-controlled House can thwart Trump’s legislative initiatives, the GOP’s continued control of the Senate allows the president to further put his right-wing stamp on the federal judiciary. For progressives, this makes it imperative that 85-year old Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg stay healthy.

In the total vote in the 35 Senate races, Democrats won a huge majority—49.5 million (58.1 percent) to 34.4 million (40.3 percent). This year, Republicans dislodged three Democratic senators, while Democrats won two GOP-held Senate seats. Depending on the result of the Florida recount and the Mississippi run-off, Republicans could hold their current 51 seats or expand their majority to 53 seats. The Senate map for 2020 gives Democrats a good chance to gain a majority. Republicans will be defending 22 seats, including five battleground races (Arizona, Colorado, Maine, North Carolina, and Iowa) that Democrats could flip. In contrast, only two of the 12 seats that Democrats will be defending (Alabama and New Hampshire) are in likely battleground states.

Despite being in the minority, Senate Democrats can still propose a similar progressive policy agenda to their House colleagues, participate in joint hearings, and raise holy hell to challenge Trump’s nominees to the federal bench.

Trump took his traveling circus to many states to campaign for Republicans in the midterm elections and helped defeat Democratic Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, and Joe Donnelly of Indiana. But he couldn’t unseat Montana’s Jon Tester, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, Ohio’s Sherrod Brown, Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin, Michigan’s Debbie Stabenow, or Pennsylvania’s Bob Casey though Trump won in those states two years ago.

A strong push by organized labor helped Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen, a stalwart progressive, defeat Nevada’s Republican Sen. Dean Heller. In Arizona, efforts by unions and immigrant rights groups to increase Latino turnout paid off. Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema narrowly defeated Republican Rep. Martha McSally for Republican Sen. Jeff Flake’s vacant seat by a 49.83 percent to 47.79 percent margin, a gap of about 46,000 votes. But Green Party candidate Angela Green, who received at least 54,764 votes, almost cost Sinema the seat by attracting votes that would have otherwise gone to the centrist Democrat.

Progressives had hoped that charismatic Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke could win his uphill battle to unseat Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas. He came much closer than most pundits expected, gaining 48.3 percent of the vote, but even a last-minute endorsement on Instagram from Beyonce couldn’t push him over the top. His showing puts O’Rourke in a good position to challenge Texas’ other Republican senator, John Cornyn, in 2020, when turnout among Democratic-leaning voters may be higher.

Governors and State Legislatures

For more than a decade, Republican control of state governments has given the GOP the ability to redraw Congressional districts—gerrymander—to increase the number of safe Republican districts, even in states where votes for Democrats outnumber those for Republicans. Before the mid-term elections, Republicans held 33 governors offices while Democrats held just 16 (Alaska had an Independent governor). Republicans also controlled two-thirds of the 99 state legislative chambers. (Nebraska has only one house in its legislature). The GOP held a trifecta (governorship and both houses of the legislature) in 25 states, according to the New York Times, compared with just eight for Democrats.

Democrats chipped away at the GOP’s advantage. The number of states with Republican trifectas will fall to 22, while the number of states with Democratic trifectas will grow to 14. Democrats flipped at least one legislative chamber in Colorado, New York, New Hampshire, Minnesota, and Maine.

Democrats also flipped control of governors’ offices in seven states—Kansas, Illinois, Michigan, Maine, Wisconsin, Nevada, and New Mexico. In Kansas, Democratic state Sen. Laura Kelly defeated Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a close Trump ally. Wisconsin’s education chief Tony Evers, a Democrat, handed another Trump supporter, Republican Gov. Scott Walker, his walking papers. Democratic Maine Attorney General Janet Mills won her race for governor, replacing combustible Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who was term-limited. Democratic Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham succeeds New Mexico Republican Gov. Susana Martinez. In Michigan, Democrat Gretchen Whitmer defeated Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette. Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner in Illinois lost his bid for a second term to Democrat J.B. Pritzker. Ned Lamont’s narrow victory in Connecticut means that Democrats will maintain control of the governorship there. Rep. Tim Walz, a member of teachers’ union Education Minnesota, kept the Minnesota governor’s office in Democratic hands. The Democrats’ legislative and gubernatorial victories will limit Republican gerrymandering of the electoral maps following the next census.

In Georgia, Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp sought to steal the governorship from former state Sen. Stacey Abrams by using his position to purge hundreds of thousands of voters from the rolls. Abrams, who is vying to become the nation’s first Black woman governor, has refused to concede until every vote is counted. Florida’s tough voter suppression laws, which kept many Black voters from casting ballots, hurt Democrat Andrew Gillum’s gubernatorial campaign against Republican Rep. Ron DeSantis. A few days after the election, Gillum—the charismatic 39-year old Black Tallahassee mayor—retracted his concession because the margin in the race was narrow enough to trigger a recount.

In addition to redrawing congressional maps, the new wave of Democratic governors and legislatures can use their influence to expand Medicaid for many low-income families whose access to health insurance was stymied by the opposition of the GOP. They can embrace higher minimum state-level wages, promote green jobs and carbon taxes, expand funding for public schools, and resist the privatization of prisons.

State and Local Victories

The midterm headlines understandably focused on the races for the U.S. Senate, U.S. House, and governorships, but progressives also scored many impressive victories for state and local candidates and ballot measures.

Florida’s voters overwhelmingly embraced Amendment 4, a progressive ballot measure that could transform the nation’s largest “swing” state into a Democratic bastion and will likely dramatically shape future elections up and down the ballot. About 65 percent of Florida voters approved Amendment 4, which ends the state’s Jim Crow-like law that disenfranchised anyone with a felony conviction for life unless the governor and cabinet restores their voting rights on a case-by-case basis. The measure will automatically give nearly 1.4 million former felons—a group that is disproportionately Black—the right to vote. If they exercise that right, it could usher in a huge increase in Democratic voters. In presidential races, this could put Florida’s 29 Electoral College votes in the Democratic column, increase the likelihood of Democratic candidates winning Florida’s governorship and its other U.S. Senate seat, and change the make-up of the state’s Congressional delegation and state legislature, now both dominated by Republicans.

Progressives won many other ballot measure victories in cities and states, including those to raise the minimum wage (Missouri and Arkansas), make it easier to register and vote (Nevada, Michigan, and Maryland), limit the role of money in politics (Missouri, North Dakota, New Mexico, Florida, and Portland, Oregon), expand Medicaid benefits (Idaho, Utah, and Nebraska), tighten gun control (Washington state), raise taxes on some businesses to fund low-income housing (San Francisco, California), raise an additional $500 million for public schools (New Jersey), and preserve a statewide law providing anti-discrimination protections for transgender people (Massachusetts). Louisiana voters approved Amendment 2 which eliminates a Jim Crow-era law that allowed juries to render non-unanimous verdicts in felony trials—put in place to make it easier for juries to convict Black defendants. Voters in Washington state passed an initiative making it easier to prosecute police for negligent shootings. Oregon voters rejected an effort to repeal the state’s sanctuary law, which limits cooperation between local police and federal immigration officers. Coloradans voted to remove language in the state constitution that allows prison labor without pay.

Aaron Ford—Nevada’s progressive state senate majority leader and a strong proponent of raising the minimum wage, paid sick leave, and gun control—will become the state’s first Black attorney general. Tish James, New York City’s public advocate, became the first Black women to be elected New York State attorney general. Democratic Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison won his race for state attorney general, making him the nation’s first Muslim AG.

For several years, Black community activists have been focusing on electing progressive candidates as local district attorneys to address such issues as police brutality, cash bail, and mass incarceration. Reformers such as Kim Foxx in Chicago and Larry Krasner in Philadelphia have already led the way. On Tuesday, Democrat Rachael Rollins won her race to become Suffolk County’s (Boston) first Black woman district attorney, running on a promise not to prosecute 15 low-level nonviolent offenses. On a similar platform, Wesley Bell, a city council member in Ferguson, Missouri, was elected St. Louis County prosecutor.

North Carolina voters elected Democrat Anita Earls, executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, to a seat on the state’s Supreme Court. She is a prominent voting rights lawyer and a leader in the fight against voter suppression.

California state Sen. Ricardo Lara, a progressive Democrat who sponsored legislation to adopt a single-payer healthcare for all system, is the likely winner in the race to become state insurance commissioner.

Immigrant rights activists and their allies in New York, North Carolina, Minnesota, and Maryland defeated local officials—a county executive and three county sheriffs—who had cooperated with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to carry out President Trump’s war on immigrants.

Democrat Safiya Wazir, 27, who moved to the U.S. from Afghanistan, was elected to the New Hampshire House of Representatives, making her the first former refugee to win a seat in the state legislature. She fled the Taliban as a child, lived in an Uzbekistan refugee camp for ten years, moved to Concord in 2007, and became a U.S. citizen in 2013.

More Diversity

Trump’s election, the Women’s March in January 2017, and the #MeToo movement inspired a record number of women to run for office this year, from school boards to the U.S. Senate. An unprecedented 277 women were on the ballot this November for Congress and governorships, according to the Washington Post, including 210 candidates in the U.S. House alone. The upsurge of women’s activism shifted voting patterns. Exit polling collected by CNN and analyzed by the Washington Post found that in Congressional races, 59 percent of women voted for Democrats—“the largest margin ever seen in midterm exit polls.” White women favored Republican candidates in the House in 2010 and in 2014, but this year they split their votes evenly between the two parties.

There are currently 84 women (61 Democrats and 23 Republicans) in the House—19.3 percent of its 435 members according to the Center for American Women and Politics. More than 100 women (overwhelmingly Democrats) won House seats earlier this month, shattering the record. Newly elected U.S. Representatives include the first Native American women (Sharice Davids of Kansas and Deb Haaland of New Mexico), the first Muslim women (Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib and Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar), and the first Latinas in the Texas Congressional delegation (Sylvia Garcia and Veronica Escobar).

There will be at least 23 women in the Senate’s next session. (Cindy Hyde-Smith’s Mississippi run-off has yet to be decided.) Two of the 17 Democrats (McCaskill and Heitkamp) lost their seats to Republican men, but two other Democrats, Jacky Rosen and Kyrsten Sinema, won seats that had been held by Republican men. In addition, Tennessee Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn won her election to the Senate.

Democratic women won all four statewide races in Michigan—Debbie Stabenow (Senate), Gretchen Whitmer (governor), Dana Nessel (attorney general), and Jocelyn Benson (secretary of state). In the Nevada Assembly, 22 women won seats, making that state the first to have a state legislature with a majority of women.

The number of women governors will increase from six (2 Democrats, 4 Republicans) to nine (6 Democrats, 3 Republicans), reflecting a Democratic upsurge in state elections. Voters re-elected Democrats Gina Raimondo (Rhode Island) and Kate Brown (Oregon) and Republicans Kim Reynolds (Iowa) and Kay Ivey (Alabama). Democrats Laura Kelly (Kansas), Michelle Lujan Grisham (New Mexico), Janet Mills (Maine), and Gretchen Whitmer (Michigan) will replace Republican governors. Republican Kristi Noem will replace term-limited fellow Republican, Dennis Daugaard, in South Dakota.

The number of Black members of the House will grow to an all-time peak after an additional nine Black candidates won their races. All nine were Democrats and all prevailed in predominantly white and mostly suburban districts. The number of Latinos serving in Congress will reach a record high, to at least 41.

At least 244 LGBTQ candidates, all of whom are Democrats according to the New York Times, ran for office this year at all levels of government. That includes 21 LGBTQ candidates for Congress and four for governor. In what the LGBTQ Victory Fund is calling a “rainbow wave,” 152 of its endorsed candidates won their races. Democratic Rep. Jared Polis of Colorado will become the nation’s first openly gay man to be elected governor. Kate Brown, a bisexual who was the first openly LGBT person elected governor when she won her Oregon race in 2016, was re-elected. Lesbian Angie Craig (Minnesota), bisexual Katie Hill (California), and Chris Pappas, a gay man from New Hampshire, will be going to Congress. So will Sharice Davids of Kansas, making her the first gay Native American woman elected to Congress. Sinema will be the first bisexual in the upper chamber.

There is currently only one trans person in any state legislature, but that number quadrupled after Gerri Cannon and Lisa Bunker won seats in the New Hampshire House of Representatives and Brianna Titone was elected to the Colorado House.

Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones, a first-generation American, a lesbian, and a veteran of the Iraq war, may still become the first Filipina-American congresswoman. Her race against incumbent Republican Rep. Will Hurd in a district that stretches from San Antonio to El Paso was still too close to call this week, with the official tally showing Jones behind by roughly 1000 votes. Hurd declared victory but Jones has refused to concede.

What Now?

This year’s midterms were in many ways a dress rehearsal for 2020. The unprecedented level of activism-turned anger against Trump resulted in grassroots victories for Democrats. Nationwide, Democratic candidates combined garnered nearly 52 percent of the vote in the House races, a good measure of public sentiment. In the next two years, as they anticipate that Trump will be at the top of the ticket, can Democrats and progressive activists sustain that activism?

Trump won the presidency in 2016 because he got about 77,000 more votes than Hillary Clinton in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, but polls show that Trump has lost support in those states. This November, Wisconsin voters ousted Republican Gov. Scott Walker (a Trump clone) and re-elected progressive Democrat Sen. Tammy Baldwin. Michigan voters flipped the governorship by electing Democrat Gretchen Whitmer and re-electing Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow. Pennsylvania re-elected Democrats Bob Casey to the Senate and Tom Wolf as governor.

One lesson the Democrats should learn after almost two years of dealing with Trump: Don’t take his bait. Whether he’s daring you to make a deal on a government infrastructure plan (that primarily benefits private investors), forge a compromise on DACA by agreeing to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border, or take a DNA test to prove you’re a Native American, just say no. You can’t trust him, he’ll win the public relations battle by appearing willing to cooperate, and you’ll be normalizing his racism and authoritarianism. At his embattled post-election press conference, Trump stated that he’ll declare war on Democrats if they insist on investigating him. This is war, and the Democrats just won an important battle. Democrats—and the progressive movement—will need to keep their troops mobilized for the next, even bigger battle in 2020. The soldiers are ready. Are the generals?

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