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Split Election Result Sends Polarized Politics Toward 2020

A Commentary By Michael Barone

The Republican president, considered a lightweight and an ignoramus by many in Washington, suffered a setback in the offyear elections, losing several seats and effective control in the House, while maintaining and perhaps strengthening his party in the Senate. His leverage on domestic issues is reduced, but he retains the initiative on foreign policy and judgeships.

That's a fair description of this week's offyear elections -- and of those in 1982, the last time voters paired a Republican president with a Democratic House and a Republican Senate. It also resembles results in 1962, when a Democratic president's party gained four Senate seats and lost four in the House.

We know what happened after 1982 and 1962. The economy boomed, and Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson, won landslide victories two years later. Voters then remembered the Depression and World War II and rewarded incumbents in time of peace and prosperity.

Voters today have no memory of those events, and there hasn't been a presidential landslide since Reagan's in 1984. Donald Trump, ace polarizer, is certainly not going to win one. Nor, Tuesday's results suggest, is he likely to be beaten in one either.

Senate results support that point. At this writing, Republicans gained three seats in heavily Trump states (Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota), held a solid lead in Florida and a shaky one in Arizona, while losing one seat in Nevada. Their majority, rising from 51-49 to 54-46 or 55-45, looks maintainable into the 2020s.

The three defeated Democrats and Florida's Bill Nelson voted against the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, while West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, the one Democrat voting aye, held on to win by 3 percent. Senate races seem to have become contests to determine who gets on the Supreme Court.

Similarly, one issue helping the surprise Republican gubernatorial winner in Florida, Ron DeSantis, is that he can appoint a conservative majority on the state Supreme Court. Courts making public policy can expect to be held accountable politically.

Democrats did gain a majority in the House, but the blue wave was a gentle wash, not a tsunami, aided by redistricting. In 1982, about half the Democrats' 26-seat gain came from redistricting; this year, about a half dozen did, from post-2012 court-forced remapping in Pennsylvania, Virginia and Florida.

Pending final results -- astonishingly, counting can take weeks in California -- it appears Democrats have gained 30 to 35 seats, for a total of around 230. That's well behind Republicans' 63-seat gain to 242 in the tea party year of 2010.

This was a Whole Foods wave, with about two-thirds (by my count) of Democratic gains coming in upscale and suburban districts dominated by high-income college graduates. Upscale suburbs in the Northeast, on the West Coast and in many Midwestern metro areas started trending Democratic in the 1990s. In 2016 and again this year, similar parts of metro areas in the South -- Atlanta, Miami, Houston, Dallas and even Oklahoma City -- started doing so.

Other subgroups of what Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg dubbed "America ascendant" have not moved as sharply to the Democrats. Black turnout seems not to have been robust, even in Florida and Georgia, where black governor nominees Andrew Gillum and Stacey Abrams were lavished with favorable media coverage. Both lost and ran behind their poll numbers.

Hispanics voted 69 to 29 percent Democratic, according to the CNN exit poll. But if anything, that's better for Republicans than in pre-Trump years. As for young people, the 2018 exit poll pegs under-30s as 13 percent of the electorate, about the same as in other years.

Overall turnout was robust, as expected, but among Republicans as well as Democrats, whose party identification edge was an unremarkable 37 to 33 percent. This confirms polls that show the Kavanaugh controversy raised Republicans' enthusiasm to Democrats' already high levels.

Democrats have to be disheartened by the defeats of Senate candidates Beto O'Rourke in Texas, Gillum in Florida and Abrams in Georgia. The nation's second-, third- and eighth-most populous states are not yet tilting as Democratic as the states from which their new residents have fled.

"The prayers of both could not be answered," Lincoln said in his second inaugural address. "That of neither has been answered fully." So it is with this offyear election in which candidates and voters re-litigated the astounding but now familiar presidential election of 2016.

If Donald Trump hasn't shown he can improve on his 46 percent of the popular vote, the kind of candidates Democratic primary voters prefer haven't shown they can improve on Hillary Clinton's 232 electoral votes. On to 2020!

Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.


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See Other Commentaries by Michael Barone.

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