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Back from the Brink? Reflections on the Mid-terms

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People celebrating a win in an office setting

During the lead-up to the midterms, there was a common refrain among liberals, progressives, and leftists alike: the country was in danger of descending into fascism. Some said that the 2018 midterm elections were “Do or die.’ If Democrats, and particularly progressive Democrats, couldn’t grab some of the reins of power in the House of Representatives (at least) in order to exert some checks and balances on the Trump regime, then we could kiss the future goodbye.

I don’t want to debate the accuracy of those predictions. Instead, I want to ask another question: How did we do in these elections, and where do we stand now?

How did we do?

By most measures, the 2018 midterms were ultimately a victory for Democrats. A blue wave manifested on election night, sweeping many Republicans out of office at federal, state and local levels. The swing of Congressional seats in the has been the largest midterm shift for Democrats since 1974, immediately after the Watergate scandal.

There were some painful moments in the initial results: a number of major Senate races were dominated by Republicans, and several champion progressive candidates seemed to fall short. But, in the hours and days that followed, we have seen a remarkable set of results develop across varied regions of the country, from the top to the bottom of the ticket. The blue wave continues to grow, as final votes are counted recounts have been ordered. The number of State Legislative seats that have flipped from Red to Blue stood at 350 on Wednesday, but continue to tick up each day. At least six state legislative bodies were flipped from Republican to Democratic control. So far, seven Governors mansions flipped, with excitement at a peak about the possibility of adding Florida and Georgia to that list if things go well with the ballot recounts in process.

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Turnout was massive in the midterms. Estimates say that this was the biggest midterm turnout in more than 50 years, since 1966. Turnout approached 50% of all voters, which is unheard of for a midterm election. The organizing on all sides was effective: many races were hotly contested, people from almost all demographics were more motivated to turn out to vote.

Almost every organization that could legally participate in elections did so this cycle. Hundreds of new organizations emerged since 2016. Millions of individuals volunteered, and millions more gave money.

Not only was turnout massive, fundraising was off the charts. These were the most expensive midterms in history. Though he lost, Texas’s Beto O’ Rourke raised over $60 million dollars for his race alone. Some campaigns developed interesting innovation in small-dollar fundraising, adding to the massive sums coming into the elections from corporations and billionaires.

But, as impressive as these developments are, these midterms weren’t all that we wanted them to be. Many of us wanted a much bigger wave. We hungered for a stunning rebuke of Trump, something so clear and strong that it would rock his Administration and his party back on their heels. We wanted this election to paralyze them for the next two years, making his re-election in 2020 impossible. We wanted a backlash to Trump’s economic program of cutting taxes and undermining our safety net. We wanted to see an unmistakable reaction to the racism, misogyny, and homophobia that have played out in races in in urban, rural and suburban areas across the country. The evil of the Right is so real to us. We wanted 2018 to demonstrate that everyone knew it.

Unfortunately, Trump has been able to use his two years in office to strengthen his base, and he used the elections to mobilize them. He built on his success in the Kavanaugh confirmation battle, which built up resentment among abusive men around the country in defiance of the wave of truth-telling in the MeToo moment. Trump has been working up racist vitriol for months, through wild accusations of illegal voting and immigrant invasions. He’s toured the country like a pop star, agitating white people in campaign rally after campaign rally.

The momentum he built manifested on election day, providing some brakes on the blue tsunami that we were hoping would manifest. So, the midterms did not settle the score. But they did put us back on the board. Here’s one way to capture the moment simply: We won most of the races that we had to win, but not all the ones that we wanted to.

How did the Left do in the elections?

For the Left, the elections were pretty damn good. More organizations, more activists and more funders engaged in Democratic primaries in the 2018 primary season then we’ve seen for decades, since the days of the Rainbow Coalition. Entirely new organizations, like Justice Democrats and Indivisible, emerged, and they jumped into primaries. Movement for Black Lives organizations threw down, generating efforts like Black Voters Matter, Black Futures Lab, and Woke Vote, all weighing in over the course of the year. Meanwhile, stalwart primary-fighting organizations, like Working Families Party, grew enormously during the past year, fielding candidates up and down the ballot and all across the country. Community organizing 501c4 organizations dove deep into primaries, and new funding collaboratives incorporated primary challenges into their core strategies this year, investing millions in left challenges. George Soros whet his appetite for electoral investments in 2017 by investing in District Attorney elections and helping to win some flagship fights like Philadelphia’s Larry Krassner. He expanded that focus in 2018, dropping more than a million for Andrew Gillum in the Gubernatorial primary, among others.

So we weighed in on the primaries and advanced a number of bold Left candidates to challenge the Democratic establishment. But we didn’t win all of our primary races; we didn’t even win the majority. But a strong set of progressives won in some significant Congressional primaries across the country, including two Muslim women (Ilhan Omar in Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib in Michigan), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York and Ayanna Pressley in Massachusetts, to name a few. They will join other strong women of color progressives in Congress next January, forming a new flank of the Progressive Caucus that could well transform the potential of that body to advance bold measures and to change the debate.

As the general election approached, there were a number of progressive champions that led pitched battles in swing states and districts. These fights were bravely and deeply fought, and left organizers were often the front-line forces, building canvass operations and digital shops and grassroots fundraising campaigns. Just to name a few: Jess King’s bid to win a Congressional seat in a deeply red district in Pennsylvania was fueled in part by the organizing efforts of Lancaster Stands Up. Andrew Gillum’s brave campaign in Florida was fueled by a number of progressive organizations, including New Florida Majority, Organize Florida, Dream Defenders and a number of other progressive organizations, and it was bolstered by the successful fight to win the restoration of voting rights for formerly incarcerated people. These campaigns were impressive and innovative, each in their own way. But many of these progressive fights came up short. Andrew Gillum and Stacey Abrams are fighting for victory as we speak, holding onto hope in races that appeared to have been lost. But even in these defeats, we saw the debate move left within the Democratic party. The push to shift the platform of the Party to the left, which began during the Bernie campaign, gained new life in many of these campaigns. The progressives who led that charge pulled most other Democratic races to the left along with them.

Where do we stand now?

With the dust settling on the midterms, we have dealt a blow to Trump. But have no doubt: He will continue his rampage, undeterred. The balance of power in the Senate will be worse. We should not count on the “moderates” of either party to lead the fight, although we can predict that Congressional representative who are up for re-election in 2020 may begin to inch their way towards bolder stances, as that election approaches.

At the state level, the right’s stranglehold has also been loosened, and we are now a bit further from the threat of a right-wing dominated Constitutional Convention. In the states that now have blue trifectas (governor’s house and both state legislative chambers) and states where legislative chambers flipped to blue, we will see a rush of organizing and actions to win progressive policies. Congressional redistricting will take place after the 2020 elections, and fights on this front will be vicious. On the one hand, that fight may now not be as much of a nightmare, since more states will be poised to challenge racist gerrymandering. But on the other hand, redistricting will still be impacted by the 2020 elections and by Trump’s attempts to rig that process in his favor, using the census and any other measures he can find. We need to keep redistricting in laser focus in the lead-up to 2020.

Looking forward

Neoliberalism is in a political crisis. We saw that in Bernie’s unexpected success and in Trump’s election. Left populism cracked open space in the Democratic Party, and right populism drove Trump to victory.   This suggests that the Left should have dual goals for the next period:

  1. To defeat Trump and Trumpism (that is, the right-wing populism and nascent authoritarianism that Trump represents) at all costs.  
  2. To advance left, multi-racial populism as the strongest alternative to Trumpism.

What about the prospects for advancing multi-racial populism in the lead-up to 2020? Some would say that multi-racial progressive populism did not fare well in the elections. The Wall Street Journal opined that moderates won the day (of course the WSJ would say that!). But, as I noted above, many of our candidates made it through in the primaries. Some even won in swing races. And those who lost laid important groundwork, and they may very well win in the next round. Remember: the Tea Party lost the vast majority of its races in the first cycle, but they laid the groundwork to have major influence in the Republican party in subsequent elections.

Neoliberalism is – increasingly – a bad word, but we have not yet slain the beast. A battle for dominance continues to rage within the Democratic Party, and it is a fight between those who represent the elite class and its ideology and those who represent the multi-racial working class.

The outcome of that battle for dominance relies on two forces: emergent social movements and the grassroots organizations that are outside of the Democratic Party. Our organizations are poised to play important roles in this period: advancing a bold policy agenda, building their independent political power, and expanding their use of direct action and civil disobedience alongside their day-to-day policy and organizing work. But our forces need to strengthen our ability to shift the debate and move ambitious electoral operations that can play a determinative role in future elections. We also need to develop stronger capacities to identify and train up political candidates from our ranks and to expand digital organizing to reach more working-class audiences. Our side has a lot of work to do.

The polarization of our society will offer both the positives and negatives for our work. Our side will be more and more able to advance a coherent left agenda and vision, and we will win more and more people to our side. At the same time, the hard right will level ever more serious attacks. They will escalate, rather than retreat. And their violence will continue to do damage to our communities and to the planet. Elections will continue to be one of the central terrains that we have to struggle on, though we have to resist the pull towards competitive and ego-driven enclaves that have shaped so much of left politics for the last decades. We have to weave electoral organizing together with other strategies – like deep community organizing, direct action, movement upsurges and legal battles – into a cooperative and reinforcing cycle. In our electoral work, we have to take every opportunity to change the rules in our favor, to amplify our vision to the millions of people who vote, and to wrest every political position away from the Right that we possibly can win.

To say it simply: We did good, comrades. Now, let’s get ready to do even better.



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