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Mission Accomplished: Flipping the U.S. House of Representatives

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Photo of a piece of direct mail sent by Gil Cisneros with his image and the words Get Out the Vote

The November U.S. elections produced very good results for most Americans and indeed for the rest of the world. The Democrats won control of the U.S. House of Representatives. Since Trump was elected in 2016, the U.S. Senate, House of Representatives and the Supreme Court have been in the hands of Republicans and rabid conservatives. As we wrote last August, their iron grip on all three branches of government made recapturing the House a key political task for 2018.[1] Mission accomplished![2]

Just after the polls closed in California, CNN had already called the House election for the Democrats long before the votes were counted in the Golden State.[3] Political analysts expected that the seven California seats where Hillary Clinton won in 2016 — but currently represented by Republicans in the House — would determine the results. Instead, surprise victories for Democrats Max Rose on Staten Island in NYC[4] and Lucy McBath in Newt Gingrich’s old district in suburban Atlanta among others had already flipped and helped pad the Democratic margin.[5]

The “blue wave” wasn’t just at the Congressional level. Seventeen black female judges in Harris County, Texas (Houston area) bounced conservative jurists. Black gubernatorial candidates Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Andrew Gillum in Florida ran close races against racist white candidates, hopefully foreshadowing future victories in these two Republican states. Beto O’Rourke ran an inspiring campaign for Senate in Texas against incumbent Ted Cruz. The broad support he received bodes well for the future of America’s second most populous state. The enthusiasm and turnout that Beto’s campaign generated enabled Democrats to pick up an additional two Congressional seats.

Notes from two races

Nowhere were Congressional results more stunning than in Orange County, California, where over 3 million people are wedged between Los Angeles and San Diego counties. Orange County is legendary for being the base of far right conservatism. Richard Nixon was born in Yorba Linda. The John Birch Society was founded in Orange County. Ronald Reagan launched his political career in Orange County. Ku Klux Klansmen were prominent city fathers in the early City of Brea. [6]

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Not since the 1930’s has the county had solely Democratic representation. When Hilary Clinton carried Orange County in 2016 it foreshadowed major change, it was the first time a Democrat won the County since the second election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1936. With four Congressional seats flipped after the 2018 midterm election, now every one of Orange County’s six seats are Democratic. [7]

Two factors explain the change. The first is the shift in demographics. In 1980 the county was 78% non-Hispanic white. Fewer than 300,000 Latinos lived there, along with another 100,000 or so people of Asian descent. By 2010, the county was majority minority and nearly as many Latinos lived there as whites. The second factor is the revulsion towards Donald Trump by vast sectors of the suburban electorate, particularly women. The campaigns of all four Orange County candidates were flooded with suburban women volunteering to help flip Republicans out of office because of their disgust with Trump’s sexist, racist and xenophobic attitudes and policies. As one female volunteer stated, when Trump was elected it was “all hands on deck” for the next Congressional election. [8]

The Cisneros campaign

The 39th Congressional district is a particularly interesting microcosm of some overall trends. This is a district that is centered in northeastern Orange County with some small pieces in eastern LA County and western San Bernardino. The demographics from the last census are 34% white, 2.3% Black, 28.5% Asian and 33% Latino. These numbers would seem to bode very well for the Democratic nominee (now elected!) Gil Cisneros, an ex-Commander in the Navy and a winner of the California lottery to the tune of $266 million. His opponent was Young Kim, a Korean American raised in the district with deep roots in the Asian community and particularly the Korean evangelical church. She had been a long time aid to the incumbent, Ed Royce and had had one term as a State Assemblywoman. Cisneros had not lived in the district before deciding to run for office and this was his first run in politics. Could Cisneros overcome some of Kim’s home field advantages in the Asian community and her name recognition and ties in the District? Cisneros overcame Kim’s advantages and won the District with a razor thin margin. After the last mail and provisional ballots were counted, he was finally declared the winner on November 17. [9]

How did Cisneros do it? First of all he outspent his opponent five to one by pitching in $10 million of his own money. His message tagged Kim as a “Trumper” even though she tried to distance herself from the President on immigration and the Wall.

Cisneros built an effective ground game with paid staff and a huge volunteer force. The surge of volunteers came from outside the district, fueled by anti-Trump animus and focused on the strategic goal of flipping the house. On the last Sunday before the election, of the 408 volunteers who signed-in at the UFCW union hall in Buena Park, only 108 had cell phone area codes in Orange County. Like so many other key House races, Cisneros’ campaign benefitted from the united front effort mounted nationwide to flip the House.

The Golden campaign

Another example of the progressive mobilization to flip the house was in northern New England. In Maine’s Second Congressional District, Bruce Poliquin,[10] the last republican in the New England delegation, was taken down by State Representative Jared Golden.[11] Golden’s victory hinged on the fact that Maine is the first state in the union to use Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) for its elections.[12] On election night, Poliquin received a plurality of votes, but not a majority of votes cast. With the new Ranked Choice Voting law in place, that meant the second choice votes of the two independent candidates would now be counted. Despite Poliquin’s unsuccessful efforts to block RCV in the courts, Golden emerged victorious.[13]

Like Cisneros and so many other House candidates, Golden benefitted from a significant infusion of outside money and ground troops. Much of that support was organized by Swing Left, a group founded to help volunteers support progressives in their closest swing district.

In October and November, more than 100 volunteers from Massachusetts traveled out of state to volunteer for congressional campaigns. According to Swing Left, Jared Golden had 40 volunteers from Massachusetts alone who spent a total of 213 volunteer days on his campaign![14]

The Orange County and Maine House races are not dissimilar from others in the country where Democrats triumphed. Democrats needed to win 23 seats to flip the house, but now that the voting is over, at least 38 seats were flipped. Progressives nationwide heeded the call to form a united front against Trump. We worked for many Democratic candidates who we were not in full programmatic agreement with in order to put the brakes on the evil “Trumpster.”

Contending for power

The midterm victories have given new confidence and momentum to the opposition to Trump.

But while the victory was a sign of the left’s political maturity, Nate Silver who analyzes elections and is editor of FiveThirtyEight warns:

“Lest you think that the midterms were the first step toward an inevitable one-term Trump presidency, several facts bear repeating: Most incumbent presidents win re-election, and although Democrats had a strong midterm this year, midterm election results aren’t strongly correlated with what happens in the presidential election two years later. Moreover, presidential approval numbers can shift significantly over two years, so while Trump would probably lose an election today on the basis of his approval ratings, his ratings today aren’t strongly predictive of what they’ll be in November 2020.”[15]

Going forward, the challenge for the left will be to hold on to these newly elected Democratic seats while moving forward with an agenda that reflects genuinely progressive values. As we prepare to meet the challenge of the 2020 election, there will be a real ideological struggle inside and outside of the Democratic Party between those advocating for a continuation of neoliberal politics and those supporting the growing popularity of democratic socialist politics.

What strategy and tactics will move the resurgent democratic socialist politics forward? What will strengthen the insurgent movement inside the Democratic Party challenging the party’s dominant corporate leadership? What will build a more militant and class conscious movement for social and economic justice outside of electoral politics? What forms of organization will we need at the local and state level that are capable of holding the newly elected members of congress’s and other offices feet to the fire?

In our view, the best answers to these (and many other questions), will emerge by continuing to be actively engaged in electoral politics at every level that — like the 2016 Sanders’ campaign — raises class consciousness. Our work in electoral politics must also be accompanied by intensifying the conflict between the billionaire class and the working class through militant struggle in our unions and the labor movement. Finally, after we’ve played our hand in the 2020 primaries, a sober appraisal of the political situation as in 2018 will again require some hard choices for the left about how to build a united front capable of defeating Trump and his far right allies.[16]

Peter Olney is the retired Organizing Director of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). He worked for two months on the Gil Cisneros campaign in Orange County. Rand Wilson is the Staff Director at SEIU Local 888 in Massachusetts. He volunteered with the Jared Golden campaign in D-2 in Maine.


[1] “All Out for the Mid-terms: Democrats Must Retake the House to Put the Brakes on Trump!,”

[2] Democrats needed a net gain of 23 seats to win control of the House. Democrats gained 38 seats. See Washington Post for House midterm results.


[4] “Analysis: How a Democratic Newcomer Flipped NYC’s Last Republican Congressional Seat,”

[5] “A lot came together to help McBath score big win for Georgia Democrats,”–regional-govt–politics/lot-came-together-help-mcbath-score-big-win-for-georgia-democrats/5iSs160V5V3x6oug6ez5UO/

[6] “Yes Brea: Your Founding Fathers Were Mostly KKK Members. Get Over It,”



[9] “Democrat Gil Cisneros is the apparent winner of California House race, shutting GOP out of Orange County for the 1st time in decades,”



[12] Visit FairVote for the most through explanation of RCV.

[13] Poliquin is expected to mount a challenge to the constitutionality of RCV.

[14] Swing Left Greater Boston,

[15] “Trump’s Base Isn’t Enough,”

[16] The authors strongly recommend Tom Gallagher’s “The Primary Route: How the 99% Takes On the Military Industrial Complex,” available at


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