Humans, and even political pundits, have a natural inclination to create patterns and narratives out of chaos, and never is that more obvious than during midterm elections, when they are called upon to make sense of thousands of different outcomes that hinge on hundreds of different idiosyncratic local issues. Sometimes those pronouncements are anodyne, obvious and mostly harmless: “Americans are still waiting for a national leader ,” perhaps. Or the equally timeless and meaningless nostrum, “Candidates matter.” But amid the hyperbole of the Trump era, analysts’ attempts to paper over the country’s restlessness with bland truisms are both a failure of imagination and a disservice to those Americans who have poured their labor, their money and their lives into their communities.
I understand the desire to tidy up the sprawl of democracy. There were more than 6,000 state legislative seats up for election this year, plus thousands of sheriffs and school board members, judges and county commissioners. There were 155 statewide ballot measures and even more local ones. And the results were, I suppose you could say, all over the map. Grand narratives are attractive but unattainable, as the contours of individual races are as unique as the people running in them. Candidates have personal strengths and weaknesses; constituents’ interests may not align perfectly with party agendas; precincts have their own unique brews of social and economic forces. New York City’s only Republican borough elected a Democrat to Congress on Tuesday, which had far more to do with commute times on Staten Island than with President Trump.
A pro-life Democrat lost his state Senate race in Minnesota. A pro-Medicaid-expansion Republican won her bid to be insurance commissioner in Kansas. Jurisdictions weighed in on policies ranging from water privatization in Baltimore (now banned) to San Francisco’s “homeless tax,” placing a levy on large businesses to help fund housing programs (approved). People cast ballots on issues from fracking to vaping, term limits to taxes. Alabama passed a constitutional amendment “supporting the sanctity of unborn life,” and Colorado passed a constitutional amendment officially (finally) abolishing slavery. In Fargo, N.D., citizens moved to adopt the same candidate selection process used to name medieval popes (it allows voters to cast ballots for multiple candidates, and the top vote-getter wins).
How do you begin to pull these data points into a cable-news-ready sound bite? Generalizations from data — “the suburbs trended blue” or “states are becoming more ideologically homogenous” — are helpful, if not terribly exciting. The problem arises when analysts rely on one story to explain everything or decide there’s only one story that matters: “Trump vindicated,” in the words of the Washington Examiner, for instance, or “nearly every candidate running on the left...lost,” as the Daily Caller asserted.
A lot of people whom Trump endorsed won — but some of his highest-profile acolytes didn’t. Kansas elected a Democratic governor over Kris Kobach, Trump’s handpicked lead investigator into 2016’s nonexistent “massive voter fraud.” Two-term Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker lost, despite hosting a MAGA rally and enabling every presidential initiative he could, from sending National Guard troops to the Mexican border to flogging a work requirement for Medicaid.
As for those overly progressive Democrats: Yes, some were defeated. But in a Hillary Clinton-won Georgia district where a studiously moderate Democrat lost badly in 2016, Lucy McBath , a black woman who became part of the Black Lives Matter movement after losing her son to gun violence, saw victory Tuesday. A socialist judge was elected in Houston, and across the country, “far left” policies met with voter approval, including marijuana decriminalization in Michigan and police oversight in Nashville. But there are exceptions to those trends, too. Ohioans rejected sentencing reform; North Dakota declined to decriminalize pot.
Expand your vision to ballot initiatives in general, and it becomes even harder to say exactly what happened. Three red states voted to expand Medicaid (and two of those states handed easy victories to GOP gubernatorial candidates). Florida, where the state-level races are neck-and-neck, approved an amendment to reenfranchise formerly incarcerated people with 65 percent of the vote.
In the face of these confounding, conflicting realities, many chin-strokers have settled on what sounds like an admission of defeat: the claim that this election was a “split decision.” I heard the phrase echoed on every channel covering the election, and it was in headlines from the National Review to NPR . “A split decision” is less an analysis than a rhetorical throwing up of hands. Some won, some lost! America is about evenly divided! Trump is popular, except where he’s not! The Wall Street Journal: “Trump Did What He Needed to Do in the Midterms .” The New Yorker: “Make No Mistake, the Midterm Elections Were a Democratic Victory and a Rebuke of Trump.”
Rather than try to divine the will of the nation, we in the media should think more broadly and more historically. The night saw its share of firsts, all of which got deserved coverage. Colorado has the country’s first openly gay man elected governor. Congress got its first Muslim and Native American women, a new youngest woman ever, and the first lesbian mom. Not all of these diversity firsts were Democrats, either: The first female governor of South Dakota, the first female senator from Tennessee and the first Korean American woman in Congress are all Republicans.
But those victories aren’t the full story. Behind each of them — and each of the ballot measures and county clerk races — was a historically large army of volunteers that knocked on doors and registered voters, phone-banked and donated. Republicans trained five times more students as Republican Leadership Initiative Fellows this year than in 2016. The Democrats’ mobile canvassing app had 65,000 more users this year than two years ago. Texas congressional candidate Sri Preston Kulkarni held phone banks in 13 different languages. Democratic Georgia gubernatorial hopeful Stacey Abrams funded a 300-person door-to-door campaign staffed primarily by black women. The Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy group, sent field staff to support Andrew Gillum’s gubernatorial run in Florida after sitting out the last contest. Their work is what led to the largest midterm turnout in a generation. If it was only about Trump, people might have just tweeted at him.
Kulkarni lost — 51 to 46 percent. Abrams and Gillum are headed toward runoffs or recounts. But their campaigns are evidence that the enduring story of the midterms isn’t about who won or lost, it’s about who participated. The real danger in letting conventional wisdom congeal around any specific narrative is that we write off huge swaths of the country — and more often than not, it’s the parts of the country that always have trouble getting their stories told.
Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that North Dakota had elected its first female governor. It was South Dakota.
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