The Memo: Dem hopes for 2020 grow in midterms afterglow

The Memo: Dem hopes for 2020 grow in midterms afterglow
© Greg Nash

Democrats are gaining confidence about winning back the White House in 2020 in the days following last week’s midterm elections. And they increasingly think a candidate from the party’s left flank could be the person to do it.

On election night, the midterms were widely perceived to end in a split decision, with Republicans making gains in the Senate that offset Democratic victories in the House.

But that narrative, which seemed to crystallize within hours of East Coast polls closing, failed to acknowledge more positive signs for Democrats that emerged later.

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First, in the later hours of election night, Rep. Jacky RosenJacklyn (Jacky) Sheryl RosenSchumer walking tightrope with committee assignments 10 things we learned from the midterms Election Countdown: Florida fight ends with Scott, DeSantis wins | Dems see Sunbelt in play for 2020 | Trump to campaign in Mississippi ahead of runoff | GOP wipeout in Orange County | Ortiz Jones concedes in Texas House race MORE (D) won a Senate seat back for her party by defeating incumbent Sen. Dean HellerDean Arthur Heller How to reform the federal electric vehicle tax credit White House jumps into fight over energy subsidies One last fight for Sen. Orrin Hatch MORE (R) in Nevada.

In the succeeding days, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D) has come from behind in early tallies and is now the favorite to win a Senate seat in Arizona — another pick-up for Democrats.

Two marquee races in Florida, for governor and for Senate, are going to a recount, having initially looked like Republican wins.

And Democratic gains in the House have ticked up toward the high end of expectations. Democrats have gained a net 32 seats already and they have a good chance of adding at least another four from the 10 contests that remain undecided.

All of those events have put a more vibrant spring in Democrats’ step.

“I see a much more viable pathway [in 2020] after analyzing not just the returns on election night but analyzing the last week,” Democratic strategist Julie Roginsky told The Hill.

Roginsky added that she had been “quite depressed” on election night because, though the bottom-line results for Democrats were solid, the party had not appeared to receive the popular mandate for which its partisans had been hoping.

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Since then, she asserted, it has become evident that energizing the liberal base and nonhabitual voters, and providing an “antidote” to President TrumpDonald John TrumpAustralia recognizes West Jerusalem as Israeli capital, won't move embassy Mulvaney will stay on as White House budget chief Trump touts ruling against ObamaCare: ‘Mitch and Nancy’ should pass new health-care law MORE, could pave the road to success in 2020.

“Playing it safe, as Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonLanny Davis says Nixon had more respect for the Constitution than Trump Clinton commemorates Sandy Hook anniversary: 'No child should have to fear violence' Sanders, Warren meet ahead of potential 2020 bids MORE did in 2016, is not the antidote,” Roginsky said. “The antidote is to do what Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaNearly the entire country gets it wrong on the minimum wage The Hill's Morning Report — Trump maintains his innocence amid mounting controversies A sea change for sexual conduct on campus MORE did in 2008, which is to energize different communities where people don’t feel they are being listened to.”

There was deep progressive disappointment on election night, when it appeared that three of the left’s favorite candidates had all come up short: Rep. Beto O’Rourke in the Senate race in Texas, as well as gubernatorial candidates Andrew Gillum in Florida and Stacey Abrams in Georgia.

As time has passed, there is growing recognition that the trio nevertheless outperformed expectations, especially in the cases of O’Rourke and Abrams.

Gillum has retracted his initial concession in the governor’s race, while Abrams never conceded — though both candidates face steep uphill climbs to win.

More broadly, liberals contrast the strong showings from the progressive trio with the defeats of more centrist Democrats by wider margins. Sens. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillThe Year Ahead: Tech braces for new scrutiny from Washington McCaskill: 'Too many embarrassing uncles' in the Senate FEC votes to allow lawmakers to use campaign funds for personal cybersecurity MORE (D-Mo.) and Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyHatch warns Senate 'in crisis' in farewell speech Dem senators Heitkamp, Donnelly urge bipartisanship in farewell speeches Schumer gets ready to go on the offensive MORE (D-Ind.) lost their seats by about 6 points each.

Other figures share the view that the midterm results show a popular appetite for candidates who will make a direct charge at Trump.

Allan Lichtman, a history professor at American University and one of the few people to predict a Trump victory in 2016, insisted that Democrats would be taking precisely the wrong lesson from the midterms if they were to nominate a “safe, establishment, so-called ‘electable’ candidate” in 2020. 

Citing the examples of former Presidents Obama, Clinton and Carter, he said that “rather than looking into the heart of the Democratic establishment, they should look for a new, fresh charismatic candidate.”

Results from exit polls also buoy Democratic spirits, showing even wider advantages than usual with female, young and college-educated voters.

The results even give some Republicans cause for concern.

Whit Ayres, a GOP strategist who has argued for years that his party needs to adapt to demographic changes, said that Republicans were becoming more dominant in rural areas but that Democrats were making substantial inroads into “the suburban areas that for many years have formed the backbone of Republican victories." 

Ayres added, “We saw in 2016, as we did in 2000, that it is possible to win the electoral college without winning the popular vote. But that strategy requires threading a very fine needle.”

Still, some Democrats express notes of caution, especially when it comes to the apparent resilience of the Trump base.

Democratic gains in the House, they note, were positive but hardly outside the historic norms. Democrats lost 63 House seats in Obama’s first midterm election, in 2010, and 54 seats during the first midterm contest of the Clinton presidency, in 1994.

“Donald Trump is very much in charge,” said New York-based Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf. "Despite having lost the House, he held onto big states in the Senate.”

Looking ahead to 2020, Sheinkopf added, Democrats needed a presidential nominee “who appeals to more than the coasts. They need someone who can break off even a part of the Trump constituency.” 

Jerry Austin, a Democratic strategist in Ohio, lamented that his state is now “much more of a guaranteed red state than we are a purple state.”

Still, Austin noted, incumbent Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownDem senator: Trump 'seems more rattled than usual' GOP rep: If Mueller had found collusion, ‘investigation would have wrapped up very quickly’ O’Rourke is fireball, but not all Dems are sold MORE (D-Ohio) prevailed comfortably in his reelection campaign.

Nationally, Austin said, Democrats should not let the failure of candidates who were fighting on difficult territory take the gloss off the party’s overall performance.

“So many people in the Democratic Party were lamenting O’Rourke’s loss, and results in Florida and Georgia,” he said. “But if you put those aside — which would have been big upsets — Democrats had a terrific day.” 

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.