Now that nearly all the results are finally tabulated, it’s clear that Democrats really did produce a Blue Wave in 2018. Even with some individual disappointments, the overall results send a strong message that a lot of voters are unhappy with the direction in which Donald Trump is trying to take the country. A new batch of hard-working candidates, many of them women, and incredible energy by their campaigns led to Democrats regaining control of the House of Representatives and, for the first time in a decade, making significant advances in state legislative elections.
Right now Democrats are savoring their successes and hoping to continue their momentum in 2020. The problem is there really isn’t a lot of time for resting. If we are going to see similar progress in 2020, candidate recruitment, fundraising, and strategizing need to be underway immediately. And that doesn’t even take account of the fact that many states will have local elections in 2019.
Let me outline the major challenges I see to achieving the next Blue Wave. The first is the risk of complacency. Enduring political success takes more than a single election. Lots of people got involved, gave money, volunteered in campaigns in 2018 for the very first time. Keeping all those newcomers engaged will not happen automatically. The most repeated observation in that respect is that Donald Trump will, by his outrageous words and actions, continue to motivate Democrats. That’s not enough. We must have a positive message as well.
One of the keys to the progress that was made in 2018 was a dramatic increase in Democratic turnout, far above the norm for non-presidential election years. 2020 will require a similar jump in voter participation if similar successes are to be realized. And that will mean engagement way before Election Day 2020. This year’s election showed that it can be done, but only if there is an investment of organizing and hard work starting in 2019.
A second challenge is to avoid being distracted by all the noise that accompanies politics. We face an era of non-stop media, a president who thrives on hogging the spotlight and a Democratic presidential nomination field that will be extraordinarily crowded. I’m particularly concerned about this latter factor. Democrats have frequently, to their peril, focused so much on presidential politics that they have forgotten the importance of other elective offices. That’s exactly why so many state legislatures are controlled by Republicans and why there are so many Republican governors. It’s critically important to be able to multi-task, to support, financially and with volunteer efforts and organization, candidates for a wide array of political offices, not just the presidency.
Early estimates suggest 20 or more candidates for the Democratic nomination. That possibility could draw voters’ attention away from other races as well as produce serious divisions among Democratic voters. We are about to morph from a moment when many people were bemoaning the absence of any candidates to being awash in them. It’s vital that Donald Trump not serve a second term as president, but there are a lot of other really important races that deserve our attention as well.
Regaining control of the Senate would enable Democrats to begin fixing the enormous damage that Trump has already done and will do before the next election. Similarly, winning back state legislatures is critical if there is to be any correction to the Republican gerrymandering that has distorted election outcomes in so many states.
That gets me to the third challenge, one that might too easily be ignored but could directly impact every aspect of the 2020 election. Republicans won more races than their vote totals should have given them in 2018 because they controlled the machinery of elections and used that control to rig the game. Gerrymandering was particularly egregious but far from the only manipulation that they engaged in.
As Donald Trump has said about other issues, we may never know what really happened in the Florida election. As I write these words, one Congressional race in North Carolina is still being reviewed because of the possibility of election fraud. In Georgia, perhaps the highest profile example of putting a thumb on the scale, the Republican candidate for governor was also the Secretary of State, the office that oversees elections. In that role, Brian Kemp purged hundreds of thousands of Georgians from the voter rolls.
Some of the anti-democracy tactics are less visible, but no less pernicious. Once the Supreme Court gutted the 1965 Voting Right Act using the absurd argument that it was no longer needed, states controlled by Republicans rushed to institute voter id laws, cut the number of polling places and reduce the hours for voting. And, ignoring the clear benefits to citizen involvement in our political process, none of those state has allowed early voting, mail-in voting or same day registration, all measures that have been shown to increase turnout.
Republicans continue to talk about voter fraud but can’t really point to serious infractions. The occasional example gets presented as proof rather than the rare exception.
Much has been written in recent years about changing demography favoring Democrats. Increasing numbers of minorities in this county, groups that are attacked and demonized by the Party that once had Lincoln as its standard-bearer, pose an existential threat to the continued viability of the party of Trump. Almost more surprisingly, Republicans seem determined to make a compelling case that women should never support them. While some still do, those numbers are declining.
Republicans, led by a president who only knows how to appeal to a diminishing base, seem to have decided that they have only one route to hold onto power. If they can rig the system and prevent enough people from voting, they might be able to retain their positions for a little longer. In light of this perverse reality, the stakes in the 2020 election must be seen as historically high.
Preventing more partisan gerrymandering and putting the brakes on blatant disenfranchisement of voters requires electoral success in 2020 that far exceeds that of 2018. And that can only happen if people work even harder, are even more committed and don’t get distracted or discouraged. That challenge might sound daunting, but the rewards make it well worth the effort.