Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.), making his concession speech on Tuesday in El Paso. O’Rourke lost in his bid to unseat incumbent Republican Sen. Ted Cruz. (Eric Gay/AP)
Opinion writer

The 2018 midterms — like every election — have provided an opportunity for yet another iteration of the eternal argument among Democrats about whether they need to tack to the center or move to the left if they want to win future elections.

The problem, though, is that neither of those options captures what just happened, or the real challenge the party is confronting. It can do both, and something more.

Right now, centrist Democrats are crowing that a number of Bernie Sanders-style socialist Democrats either failed to win primaries or lost in the general election, while many other Democrats who ran less ideological campaigns ended up winning. But there are also reasons to believe that centrism wasn’t what worked either. Alex Seitz-Wald of NBC News sums up the picture:

Despite a good night for congressional Democrats overall, nearly all of national progressive groups’ star candidates fell short in their contests in red or purple districts and states, potentially slowing the momentum the emboldened left had enjoyed since Hillary Clinton’s loss two years ago. . . .

Moderates can hardly claim to have found a sure-fire recipe for success either after Tuesday night, however.

Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, who supported impeaching President Donald Trump, came within three percentage points of winning a Senate seat in Texas, which hasn’t sent a Democrat to the upper chamber in 30 years.

Meanwhile, incumbent Democratic Sens. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who both tacked aggressively to the center, lost by wider margins in friendlier states. And Tennessee Democratic Senate challenger Phil Bredesen, who said he would have voted to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, got trounced by 11 percentage points to an unpopular opponent.

Overall, the results offer mixed signals for Democrats, providing just enough evidence for both sides to continue their low-boil civil war.

So the real answer to “Should Democrats run to the center or to the left?” is: It depends. Every district and every state is different, and what’s really important to understand is that it isn’t just about finding where each district or state lies on a line from most liberal to most conservative.

The most important question to ask may be this: Just how many liberal voters are out there to mobilize?

If the answer turns out to be that there are quite a few, running as a progressive even in a place with lots of conservatives may be the best strategy. The question isn’t whether there are lots of people in your district who love guns or worship Trump or hate liberals, it’s whether there are enough Democrats about to counter them, no matter how conservative the Republicans might be.

Take Wisconsin, for instance. Proponents of moderate politics might say the classic swing state is precisely the kind of place where Democrats should want to reach across the aisle to win persuadable voters. But evidence suggests that there actually aren’t that many of them there. As Alec MacGillis noted in 2015, “Wisconsin is not politically purple because it is full of voters who straddle party lines and swing back and forth from election to election. It is purple because it is divided into two strikingly cohesive and fiercely energized camps.”

That’s why the state can elect a right-wing culture warrior and advocate for the plutocracy like Scott Walker as governor, but also elect Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a strong progressive who was the first openly gay senator in U.S. history. On Tuesday, Baldwin won reelection by a comfortable 11-point margin.

What O’Rourke showed is that Texas isn’t all that dissimilar, it’s just that the balance is shifted a little too far to the right. Texas Democrats could have told you that there are lots of liberals in the state, and they were energized by O’Rourke’s campaign. He fell short by less than three points, compared to the 16 points Ted Cruz won by in 2012. It would be difficult to argue that a centrist Democrat would have beaten Cruz, just as there’s no reason to believe a full-throated socialist would have been able to hold Sen. Joe Manchin III’s seat in West Virginia, a state that gave Trump a larger margin of victory than any other except Wyoming.

At the same time, this election reminded us that, as we’ve known for a long time, progressive policies, as opposed to progressive candidates, are popular just about everywhere. Voters passed initiatives expanding Medicaid in Idaho, Nebraska and Utah. Voting rights and anti-gerrymandering measures passed in Florida, Michigan, Utah, Colorado, and Maryland. Marijuana legalization passed in Michigan, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Utah. Voters in Arkansas and Missouri increased the minimum wage. All of those are progressive policies that are embraced by both the center and left of the Democratic Party.

I suspect that when we have these arguments, liberals all have in the back (or maybe the front) of their minds the kind of presidential candidate and campaign they’d like to see. That is its own very particular question, one that can be more complicated than what kind of candidate is best suited for a particular district. Recent elections should have shown us that if you’re going to have a national mobilization strategy, you need a candidate who gets voters up out of their chairs. The Democrat who has the charisma to do that — whatever their precise ideological position — is the one that’s going to beat Donald Trump.

Read more:

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Greg Sargent: Trump’s authoritarian response to Florida shenanigans hints at worse to come

Greg Sargent: Can the Democratic majority that won the House endure through 2020?

Dana Milbank: Can the Democrats keep it together?

Jennifer Rubin: Three days later: Hey, Republicans really did get clobbered