Nine Things to Keep in Mind if the Blue Wave Comes Up a Little Short

All the momentum, anger, and money in the world won't necessarily translate into victory.

Beto O’Rourke and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog (CBS/YouTube)

If you’re a little on edge but you haven’t seen SNL‘s sketch about anxiety-riddled Democrats completely losing it, you need its catharsis. The much-talked about Blue Wave should be cresting, but as Nate Silver and other statisticians have been reminding us, a one-in-seven chance is not the same thing as zero. In the event that the Blue Wave is more of a Blue Ripple and less of a Blue-nami, here are five things to keep in mind.

Gerrymandering Is Strategic

After the 2010 elections, Republicans won a number of seats at all levels in large swing states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Florida, and Ohio. Those six states have swung from red to blue and back at the presidential level, but collectively, they send 32 Democrats and 64 Republicans to the House of Representatives. That disparity is enough to account for two-thirds of the Republicans’ 48-seat majority in the House.

This was by design. “Packing” and “cracking” districts have created a virtually impregnable Red Wall that only a monster wave election can breach. Even a six-point swing toward the Democrats could result in little to no change. 2018 is a crucial election for two reasons: It can undo Republican majorities that drew the district maps after the 2010 census, and there are propositions on the ballot in states like Colorado and Utah that will take that task out of the hands of partisan legislators and give to neutral experts instead.

Voter Suppression Is Real

In state after state, we’ve seen some serious shenanigans. Majority-Latino Dodge City, Kan., moved a polling place to the edge of town to reduce turnout among low-income people (the ACLU helped out). North Dakota threw thousands of mostly Native American citizens off the voter rolls because a post office box no longer counts as an address (members of many tribes do not have mailing addresses). Texas saw early votes physically changed from Democratic to Republican. The same thing is happening in South Carolina.

Alabama straight up closed polling stations in its majority-Black counties. And in Georgia, Secretary of State Brian Kemp refused to resign or recuse himself from purging tens of thousands of voters, mostly people of color, from voting in the gubernatorial race in which Kemp himself is the Republican nominee.

If the conventional wisdom after the election is that “Democrats moved too far to the left” or “You just can’t trust these millennials to turn up,” it may be more accurate to say that hundreds of thousands of Americans were prohibited from exercising their rights in the first place.

However Insane the Country Is, the Economy Is Pretty Decent

Republican Party leaders have been all but begging President Trump to crow about job growth instead of the so-called migrant caravan that’s hundreds of miles from the U.S. border. The country added 250,000 jobs last month, pushing unemployment to 3.7 percent, and although some Republicans can’t help but lie about it, the economic boom has only continued. While Democrats and many moderate Republicans fret about the president’s intemperate language and fitness to hold office, it’s simply true that for millions of Americans, things look pretty good right now.

Many Scandal-Plagued Republicans Sit in Very Right-Leaning Districts

Democrats have pushed a corruption theme as a reason to get out and vote. But ethical clouds have gathered mostly over legislators who sit in comfortably right-leaning districts. Steve King, the Iowa Republican with blatant neo-Nazi sympathies, is in an R+11 district, which means it skews 11 points more conservative than the national average. In California, Duncan Hunter, who is accused of a rather rococo scheme of siphoning $250,000 in campaign funds for frivolous personal uses, also represents an R+11 district, the most Republican-friendly in Southern California. The same goes for New York’s Chris Collins, who is implicated in an insider-trading investigation.

If any or all of these three incumbents survives a Blue Wave, it won’t necessarily be because Democratic enthusiasm fell short. It will be because they represent strongly conservative districts, period.

The Democrats, by All Rights, Should Be Getting Creamed in the Senate

The 2018 Senate map is almost comically asymmetrical. Democrats have to defend 27 seats against the Republicans’ eight. Of the 27, nine are in states Trump won and four are in states he won by at least 20 points. That there has been any talk at all of Democratic gains is statistically almost mind-boggling. 

Yet the prospect is baked into the expectations. If the Democrats lose a seat or two overall, which is quite likely, it will appear as though they collapsed when in fact they will have held the line. 

The ‘Dems in Disarray’ Narrative Is Ready for Someone to Click ‘Publish’

We inhabit a diseased media landscape. In pursuit of false balance over empirical truth, too many journalists reflexively believe that politics obeys Newtonian physics, and the result is a dogma known as “both sides do it.” This ideology gives equal weight to climate scientists and frauds, neo-Nazis and protesters, and talking heads between the two parties.

Again, if the Democrats lose two seats in the Senate, or if they gain only 15-to-25 seats in the House — both highly plausible result — that outcome will nonetheless leave despair in its wake. The president and his followers will use Twitter to mock and belittle, and almost certainly launch baseless accusations of non-citizens voting in vast numbers. If downcast liberals respond on social media, the fracas will immediately be portrayed as yet another he-said-she-said, and it will be 2016 all over again even though the statistics were saying it was a likely result all along.

Texas Is Still a Conservative Place

The most closely watched race in the country is also the most expensive: Beto O’Rourke’s insurgent campaign against Sen. Ted Cruz. Having raised more $70 million, twice as much as his opponent, the toothy O’Rourke has become a walking, sweating repository for liberal hopes and dreams. Texas hasn’t elected a Democrat to statewide office since 1994, the longest such drought in the nation, and he’s within striking distance amid lots of talk of surging voter turnout in a strong Democratic year. 

But O’Rourke has trailed in every poll, and while Houston, Austin, San Antonio, and the Dallas-Ft. Worth Metroplex are big, cosmopolitan places, Texas is a humongous state with 254 counties — dozens of which voted for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by margins of 70, 80, and even 90 points. (He won Roberts County by a margin of 95-4 percent.) These are small, rural places, and while “nobody likes Ted Cruz” is as much a truism in the U.S. Senate as it is in Austin, plenty of people do. If Cruz triumphs in spite of Triumph, it will mean only thing: Texas remains a conservative place.

California Is Already Extremely Democratic

As we’ve written before, California has the potential to see anywhere from two to Democratic 10 pickups in the House. In its final pre-election predictions, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report downgraded several formerly Safe Republican seats to Likely or Lean Republican. Democrats need 24 wins to secure a majority in that chamber, and almost half of them could come from Nancy Pelosi’s home state.

Or will they? California sends 39 Democrats and 14 Republicans to the House. A switch of eight would result in a 47-6 delegation. That’s … a lot. The Golden State may be blue, but it’s not a one-party state quite like, say, Alabama in the 1950s. Plus Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom rather fiendishly maneuvered his race so that he would face Republican John Cox and not Democratic L.A. mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in the general election. Had he not done so, it might have depressed GOP turnout in the state further. Four-and-a-half million Californians voted for Trump, most of them are still here, and they’ve got someone to vote for at the top of the ticket.

The Real Change Is at the Local Level

How many Californians really care about the Michigan State House or the Arizona Senate? Not many. But these down-ballot races and others like them are vital. Republicans control 33 state governments, and their majorities and supermajorities may be in jeopardy nationwide. But if strong Democratic gains at the state level are eclipsed by meeker gains at the federal level, you might not hear too much about it. 

Similarly, a number of states have ballot propositions regarding cannabis, Medicaid expansion, or a carbon tax. Victory for progressive policy goals isn’t the same thing as incumbents getting ejected from office in an electoral rout, so keep that in mind, too.

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