Dems boost their 2020 outlook, but Trump owns GOP

Whatever else that can be said about the 2018 elections, they are a picnic for pundits.

They can find anything they want in the results.  Trump won or he lost.  There was no “blue wave” or the Democrats scored big gains in the House and governor’s seats.  The president has gained a Democratic House to target in campaign attacks or the Democrats now have the votes to impeach him.

Whether the glass is half-full or half-empty is, as always, a matter of how one views it.  For many voters enough is enough, and they are ready to shift their focus to the holidays, their families and football.

Still, beyond the short-term effects, the elections may have provided some important markers about how politics in America is changing.

If people believed that the 2016 Trump election was a fluke, they have been corrected.  The make-up of the congressional GOP shows that the party belongs to him.  Traditional Republicans have lost control.  His hold on the Senate means he can worry less about moderates like Sen. Susan Collins.

In effect, the Republican Party has become more clearly conservative.  For Trump, it is a matter of “my way or the highway.”  It is time to stop talking about the Trump “base.”  He owns the GOP.

As for the House, Trump can see it as a normal midterm shift away from the party of the president and not as a swift rejection of his brand of politics.  If he is right, it may result from the fact that he never enjoyed majority popular support.

In 2016, he won 2.9 million votes less than Hillary Clinton, but her majority was so concentrated that he picked up the win in electoral votes.  It is possible this year that a popular majority voted for Democratic candidates, and, lacking the electoral vote effect, their party gained the House.

It is certain that Trump is running in 2020.  The question for the GOP is whether an anti-Trumper, like outgoing Ohio Gov. John Kasich or retiring Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake can muster enough support to take a run at him in the Republican primaries.

Beyond the question of whether the elections were a referendum on Trump, they shed more light on how the political world is changing.

The Census classifies all municipalities as urban or non-urban.  The country is becoming more urban, and the election showed that the Democratic-Republican split is becoming even more clearly an urban-rural divide.

In Maine, the First District House contest, easily won by the Democratic incumbent, was much less heated than the Second District battle, where a GOP incumbent was challenged.  Yet it looks like the more urban First will have cast more ballots than were counted in the rural Second.

More women and minorities ran and, it is likely more of them voted, along with added young people.  They tilted toward the Democrats.  As they become an increasing share of the electorate, that could reduce the long-term prospects for the GOP.

The strong runs of an African-American woman for governor in Georgia and a Democrat for the Senate in Texas, both unimaginable a few years ago, are signs of dramatic demographic and political change in the Republican heartland.

While these changes may look promising for Democrats, the future is not guaranteed to belong to them.

The GOP majority in the Senate has increased if for no other reason than most seats in the elections were held by Democrats.  That flips in 2020, when many GOP seats are up.

Trump and the Senate majority have the power to reshape the federal courts during the next two years.  The Democrats cannot stop them.  Their only hope, however unlikely, would be to trade House support for GOP policies for some neutral judicial appointments.

The Democrats must also better define themselves in the face of a clearly Trump GOP.  Will they be seen as the progressive counterforce to Trump or as centrists?

While the Democratic Party has historically been able to accommodate a wide range of political views, the candidate it selects in 2020 will have to send a message on how the party should be seen.  Trump has shown that the candidate defines the party and not the reverse.

As for issues, the economy can be expected to dominate.  The boom will end.  The government tax cut stimulus has been financed by debt.  Not only will the economy slow, but the bill will come due.

The pundits say the next election campaign has begun, but so perhaps has the next political era.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.