As we hurtle into the final stretch of the midterm elections, many of the Democrats who were elected in 2018 are now staring into the abyss of defeat. And at the core of their plight sits an unnerving paradox.
On the other hand, the threat of Trumpism remains very much alive. Yet that coalition is not mobilizing against it — allowing Trumpism to remain as a durable force in our politics.
Many Democrats ran for office for the first time in 2018 — for the express purpose of stopping Trump — without any background in politics. Abigail Spanberger (Va.), Elissa Slotkin (Mich.) and Elaine Luria (Va.) had national security and military careers. Tom Malinowski (N.J.) had a background in diplomacy and human rights. Sharice Davids (Kan.) had been an MMA fighter.
The powerful currents that propelled these outsiders into elected office were inextricably mixed up with the coalition that elected them. While analysts differ on particulars, the basic story of 2018 is that an anti-Trump backlash helped Democrats overperform among White voters, especially female independents and educated suburbanites, but also among rural and exurban voters.
This, plus elevated participation among Democratic base groups such as young voters, Latinos and African Americans, helped produce a big midterm turnout. The result, data firm Catalist found, was that these Democratic-aligned voter groups formed an uncommonly large share of the electorate.
That anti-Trump coalition produced a class of House members that was unprecedentedly diverse and female, and elevated the first Muslim and Native American female members. Yet it also reached deep into places far from diverse, cosmopolitan urban centers.
Now, this coalition is in doubt. Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg coined a term for it: “the anti-MAGA majority.” What happened to this majority, and what does its decline say about our politics?
The precariousness of Democrats who were newly elected in 2018 is a big reason Republicans are likely to capture the House. At least a dozen are ranked as very vulnerable in some of our best nonpartisan election forecasts, and Republicans need to flip only five seats.
“A whole raft of those 2018 freshmen are at risk,” David Wasserman, who analyzes House races for the Cook Political Report, tells me. As a result, some of the biggest rising Democratic stars of the Trump era might soon be out of office.
For many of them, the 2018 wave elections were a heady affair, and the energy driving that wave seemed to carry great transformative potential. What has happened since then — and what appears about to happen now — might revise what many believe is possible in our politics.
‘The anti-MAGA majority’
The coalition that ousted Trump in 2020 delivered an unprecedented 81 million votes to Joe Biden. But Democrats simultaneously lost a dozen House seats. This suggested cracks in the anti-MAGA majority. Analysts noted at the time that Republican-leaning voters who were alienated by Trump became ticket splitters, perhaps to elect Republicans to Congress as a check on an incoming Democratic president. For these voters, being anti-Trump didn’t translate into becoming pro-Democratic.
What’s happening now is complicated. Dan Sena, who ran the Democrats’ House campaign arm in 2018, notes that inflation and rising gas prices are particularly burdensome in suburban and exurban areas, even as voters in those places are already somewhat right-leaning.
If in 2018 Democrats made striking inroads in places where “the suburbs turn into dirt roads,” Sena tells me, many of those voters “have to fill up their car to get anywhere,” sharply limiting “how far their paycheck is going to take them.”
Meanwhile, Sena argues, Democrats have bled support among the independent women who were key in 2018. For a while, the end of Roe v. Wade appeared poised to reverse this trend, but that’s now uncertain.
“You had suburban independent women swing back toward Democrats in fairly large numbers,” Sena says, but now, with crime concerns mounting, the story is again one of “erosion.” Sena adds that college-educated men who were once alienated by Trump are now drifting back to Republicans.
On top of all that, recent polls suggest erosion for Democrats across the board, but particularly among Black, Hispanic and young voters relative to 2018, says Jacob Rubashkin, an analyst with the nonpartisan Inside Elections.
Of course, general erosion is “not surprising,” Rubashkin notes. It is the very nature of wave elections that unusual levels of support among all groups will leave some winners in a precarious position later, as those support levels subside and the underlying ideological makeup of tough districts reasserts itself.
There’s also the decennial redrawing of congressional districts, which means some Democrats who won in 2018 must now introduce themselves to new voters — on top of running in a tougher political environment than before. As Wasserman of the Cook Political Report puts it, this is the “toughest election” they’ve faced.
A Democratic loss is not preordained. Rosenberg, the strategist who coined “the anti-MAGA majority,” notes that Biden has launched initiatives on climate change, student loans and marijuana sentencing that could keep young voters energized. And Democratic analyst Tom Bonier points to supercharged voter registration among women in states where reproductive rights are at stake.
A dangerous paradox
The threat of Trumpism remains real. House GOP leaders are threatening to use their majority to unleash chaos at Trump’s urging. Every day brings appalling revelations about Trump’s coup attempt. Republicans in thrall to insurrectionism are running for positions of control over elections everywhere.
But will the anti-MAGA majority perceive the threat — and show up to vote against it — for a third time?
“Certainly if you had to list the top half-dozen issues, a concern about Jan. 6 and the democracy would maybe make it to five or six, at least in my district,” Rep. Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania, who was elected in the 2018 Democratic wave, tells me.
By contrast, Houlahan notes, in 2018 voters saw the immediacy of the Trump threat. “Right now, that’s not in front of them the way that it has been before,” she tells me, suggesting she hopes voters recognize that a Democratic House is essential to keeping that threat at bay.
That’s the paradox at the core of the 2018 class’s plight. Trumpism is still here. But the anti-Trump coalition might not vote accordingly.