So disaster did not strike, the worst did not happen, the shutouts feared and talked about continually ahead of Tuesday’s voting did not come to pass. Democrats awoke Wednesday and surveyed the landscape in California and elsewhere across the country and looked toward November with relief.
The battle for the House is far from over. Mixed signals about the state of the country vs. the state of the electorate persist. Will this be a year in which macro trends — a rising economy and falling unemployment — help to shore up Republicans? Or will grass-roots energy on the left and hostility toward President Trump spur a turnout differential strongly in favor of Democrats?
With the Republicans’ House majority at risk and their Senate majority so slender that it cannot be taken for granted, that push-pull dynamic will shape the coming months of campaigning. But if those are open questions, the degree to which Trump remains the organizing figure around which the election will be fought and the power of women in this election cycle are not in question. Nothing that happened Tuesday suggests otherwise.
Trump’s overall approval ratings remain weak and a concern for Republicans. His presidency generates the energy that is the foundation of Democratic grass-roots intensity that has shown up repeatedly in special and primary elections for a year or more. But Trump’s approval ratings among Republicans are near historical highs and remarkable for a president who has so often abandoned GOP orthodoxy on issues and created so much discomfort with his conduct.
Trump so dominates the Republican Party that efforts to escape his shadow carry significant risks for any GOP candidate. That has proved difficult for some Republicans who have had to run in the Trump era, and it will continue to be a factor this year. The president knows no game other than it’s-all-about-me, which will make for tricky balancing for Republicans who need to expand their appeal beyond the GOP base in some competitive races.
Another organizing principle for this election year (and perhaps 2020, as well) is the role that women are playing in leading the opposition to the president. What began on the day after Trump’s inauguration, with the marches in the streets of Washington and across the country, has remained the most potent force in Democratic politics. The gender gap on the president’s approval rating remains significant, and his disapproval rating is especially high among college-educated women.
In election after election, whether primary contests or special elections, women have provided energy at the ballot box and, increasingly, the leadership as candidates for the Democrats. That was in evidence again Tuesday, another day of validation that the dynamics of American politics have shifted under this president. If Democrats are to win the House in November, they must hope that is maintained through Election Day, although there have been no signs that this energy is abating.
Primaries were held in other states on Tuesday, as well, but California, by dint of size, significance and available House seats, loomed largest in the thinking of both major parties. Heading into Tuesday’s voting, a fear of unforced errors plagued the Democrats, as a result of the state’s unusual primary election system, which allows the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, to advance to the general election ballot.
Seven California House districts won by Hillary Clinton in 2016 are in Republican hands, and although not all are likely to be truly competitive in November, Democrats need to take maximum advantage of those seats if they hope to take overall control in the next Congress. But an embarrassment of riches — multiple eager Democratic candidates in the Trump era along with the top-two system — threatened to produce such a splintering of the Democratic vote in some of those competitive GOP-held seats that no Democrat would make the November ballot.
That appears not to have happened. Political parties have only limited ability to influence the outcome of primaries, but in this case, Democrats believe they have emerged with candidates ready to compete for as many of those available seats as possible. That is true in California and also in many other states that have held primary elections this year.
No other state has as many potential conversions as California, which will keep the focus there through the rest of the election year. If Republicans are on the defensive there, and they are, Tuesday could have been worse for them. They succeeded in ensuring that there would be a Republican candidate in the gubernatorial race — the premier contest in November — after fears that they might be shut out because of the top-two system.
Thanks in part to Trump, Republican John Cox finished second to Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. In that race, Newsom, a former mayor of San Francisco, will be the heavy favorite to succeed Democrat Jerry Brown, given the overall Democratic advantage in California. But the presence of Cox as a candidate for the general election will help to spur Republican turnout, which will be essential in efforts to hold on to some of those contested congressional seats.
Republicans were spending part of Wednesday morning analyzing California turnout figures, looking to assure themselves that there will be enough Republican voters in November to block Democrats from taking too many of those competitive contests. They will not know the answer to that for months.
One measure of the shape of the midterm election is that four states on opposite coasts — California, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York — have enough seats in play to get Democrats much of the way to a House majority. In those four states, the independent Cook Political Report counts 19 seats in GOP hands that are somewhat at risk to significantly at risk. That is about one-third of the total number of GOP seats nationally considered competitive.
Trump won only one of those four states, Pennsylvania. But a newly drawn congressional district map has given Democrats additional opportunities to take seats away from the GOP. The other three states gave Clinton big margins, and California alone gave her enough votes to secure her popular-vote margin over Trump as the president was winning his electoral college majority.
Trump is an unorthodox Republican but plays good soldier when asked by GOP leaders, mindful that a Democratic House could cripple his agenda in the coming two years. So he is willing to endorse candidates who were not strong supporters of his in 2016, as was the case with California’s Cox, who did not even vote for Trump. Ultimately, however, the president will act on his own instincts, as he has on an issue such as trade, where he is off in territory that few elected Republicans support. Republicans must live with that reality.
Democrats, too, have their divisions, but the anti-Trump sentiment has been more powerful than the ideological tensions inside the party. That is likely to hold through the rest of this election year, given the stakes and the hostility toward the president among Democrats of all stripes.
Tuesday’s primaries cannot forecast the results in November. But they did reinforce the environment that will shape the coming campaign. That is of a Republican Party strapped sometimes uncomfortably to a polarizing president and a Democratic Party hopeful that women and minority voters will turn out in numbers big enough to reverse the party’s general disadvantage in midterm elections.