By Tim Donner
There are many elements which contribute to America’s political DNA. Among them is an inherent suspicion of one-party rule, and a consequent preference for divided government. Too much power in the hands of a single party for too long has the look and feel of something less than democracy. That is why power has been handed back and forth between the major parties for the entirety of American history, but particularly in this century when wave elections have become almost the norm.
Thus, while Tuesday’s midterms hardly represented a wave, it was unsurprising that Americans unmistakably affirmed their ongoing desire for balancing the political power in the most expensive midterms – by far – in American history. Turnout more closely resembled that of a presidential election.
What was surprising is how the statement made by voters was so dramatically conflicted. On one hand, they followed the lead of history by turning over power to the minority in one branch of Congress, while simultaneously affirming the party in power by strengthening its hold on the other branch. They launched the House and Senate elections into entirely separate orbits. Just as Democrats would celebrate another of their many pickups in the House, Republicans would knock off another incumbent in the Senate.
These dueling and contradictory narratives represent perhaps the perfect allegory for where we stand as a nation and culture. Divided.
Just as conflicted is the verdict delivered by voters on Donald Trump in what was billed by both sides as a referendum on the President. The House turned over, though the number of seats gained by Democrats were not far beyond historical norms for midterm elections. And the Dems’ victory came in large part because of 40 GOP seats that were vacated, mostly by moderates, and turned into open seats. Since over 90 percent of incumbents are re-elected every two years, the subsequent handicap Republicans faced cannot be understated.
On the other hand, it is undeniable that Trump’s ubiquitous and tireless campaigning – electric campaign rallies before massive and adoring crowds – contributed mightily to the Senate victories of Trump-friendly candidates, particularly in Missouri (Josh Hawley), Indiana (Mike Braun) and Florida (Rick Scott). And his late appearance in Texas may just have saved Ted Cruz, who secured a surprisingly narrow victory over progressive godsend Beto O’Rourke.
Certainly, Trump must feel better than his predecessor in the Oval Office. All four candidates who were gifted with appearances by Barack Obama were losers, foremost among them the progressive candidates for Governor of Florida, Andrew Gillum, and Georgia, Stacey Abrams. The far left did not have a joyous night,
But Republicans were also given a gift. Much like the Democrats in the House capitalizing on GOP retirements, Republicans in the Senate took full advantage of an extraordinarily friendly map – Democrats were forced to defend all but nine of the 35 seats in play. It is also notable that every Democrat who voted against Brett Kavanaugh lost.
As we brace ourselves for all the wrangling and posturing sure to come in the days ahead, the nation may be divided but the Republican party is not. Given the retirement of so many gun-shy Republicans in the House, the addition of reliable Trump loyalists in the Senate and the departure of Trump critics Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, something unthinkable before November 8, 2016 is now reality: The GOP has become, truly, the party of Donald Trump.