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Opinion The midterms destroyed some conventional wisdom

The 116th Congress will have a younger, more diverse, more motivated group of congresswomen than ever before, says columnist Karen Tumulty. (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

Before the midterms, it was hard to avoid political pundits and operatives who claimed President Trump was getting away with something — that is, paying no price for his crazy nativist talk and constant lies. You see, the conventional wisdom told us that the country is hopelessly polarized, so Trump had no choice but to stoke the fires in deep-red states. Events such as the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh are vital to the party’s future.

Then the results came in. Republicans will wind up losing nearly 40 House seats, lost Arizona and Nevada Senate seats, lost at least seven governorships and were routed in the suburbs, among women and college-educated voters. In other words, the operating theory of super polarization didn’t work in a real election. The price of winning deep-red Senate seats (this is not supposed to be hard) was a disaster outside Trump’s niche.

I have long suspected that political elites are far more polarized than the voters, or at least the center is much bigger than politicians, academics and media folks would have you believe. The strong showing of Democratic moderates, especially in the suburbs, suggests that Democrats need not go far left as Trump goes far right; to the contrary, the large center is wide open if Democrats run appropriate candidates.

A poll conducted by the center-left group Third Way provides some evidence for my hypothesis:

In our election-eve poll, the predominantly mainstream and moderate Democratic candidates running in the battleground districts led with women by 14 points, voters of color by 35 points, and those under 35 by 15 points. These candidates had overwhelming support with self-identified Democrats, but they also led by nine points with Independents. And they matched Republicans’ support with high school graduates while winning college graduates by seven points.
These data and the election results show that voters gravitated to and voted for a diverse slate of pragmatic progressives who centered their agenda on core issues like health care. Voters resoundingly rejected Sanders-style policies like Medicare for All.

Moreover, voters seem to embrace values Republicans once advocated. “Seventy-two percent said hard work is very important to getting ahead in life. Fifty-eight percent of Democrats and Independents said they wanted a 2020 candidate who would focus on expanding opportunity to more people and places, while 31% prioritized someone who would focus on reducing income inequality.” This suggests that Democrats would get behind a candidate whose articulation of values and policy stances would attract a broad ideological coalition — unless, of course, they go the route of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Richard Cordray (who lost the governor’s race in Ohio).

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Since only 16 percent of Democrats said they wanted a more progressive choice, the poll undercuts the notion that center-left candidates aren’t satisfactory to the Democratic base. It turns out that such candidates were ideologically in line with Democratic voters — and able to win general elections all over the country.

Democrats don’t need and don’t want their own pugilist. (“Eighty-eight percent wanted someone who would work across party lines to bring the country together; just eight percent wanted a candidate who will be uncompromising in pursuit of their policy goals.”) Moderate policy, pragmatic politics and diverse, center-left candidates turned out to be a winning formula.

The race also suggests that the GOP paid the price in a major way for Trump’s and the GOP’s shameful treatment of Christine Blasey Ford and sexual assault victims who chose to peacefully protest; their attempt to make white males into the country’s greatest victims; and their loud, bullying and rude tone. Sure, they really got their numbers up in North Dakota, but look where the backlash wiped them out.

Axios reports that a post-election analysis from consultants found, “Democrats won 87% of the Congressional districts with the most college-educated women (40%+ of female residents).” One of the consultants, Bruce Mehlman, is quoted as saying, “The new geography of Trump Era partisanship is turning suburban congressional districts into GOP killing fields, more than offsetting gerrymander gains by mobilizing intense opposition among college educated women, the beating heart of the suburbs.”

In short, Trump’s bombastic tone, racism and failure to focus on the middle class (in fact, policies such as Obamacare repeal would have hurt these Americans) have repelled women, who in turn led the suburbs into Democratic territory. The Democrats who won include a record number of women whose tone and approach contrasted greatly with Trump’s incitement over the migrant caravan. Rather than imitate Trump by getting their own obnoxious, extreme character, Democrats would be well advised to find someone whose temperament is professional and who exhibits some common sense and familiarity with reality.

For voters who may never have voted for Democrats, the 2018 midterms were a leap of faith. They are prepared to join with Democratic voters, who far from Bernie Sanders socialists, sound fairly moderate. This, however, is a trial marriage of sorts; if Democrats roll out their own Trumpian demagogue and start sounding as radical as the GOP, suburban turf might go back into the GOP’s hands. Democrats should proceed with care.