Democrats face tough 2020 battle after blowing chance at blue wave

If there’s one thing that the left is consistently poor at, it’s managing expectations. Since President TrumpDonald John TrumpAvenatti ‘still considering’ presidential run despite domestic violence arrest Mulvaney positioning himself to be Commerce Secretary: report Kasich: Wouldn’t want presidential run to ‘diminish my voice’ MORE’s inauguration, his opponents hung their fortunes on the idea of a massive blue wave to sweep away congressional Republicans in the midterms. Instead, we saw a modest Democratic gain in the House of Representatives and a strong Republican gain in the Senate. Democrats lost crucial races where they ran candidates too far left to carry moderate or conservative districts; it was moderate Democrats who had the best shots, while most of the hardcore leftists lost race after race Tuesday.

The left believed that the midterms would be a bellwether for 2020. In many ways, it is — if the party can tack towards the middle instead of pushing for ideological purity.

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Just about every pollster and op-ed predicted a massive sweep for blue candidates across the nation. In states where Democrats needed a commanding majority, they actually lost ground. Gains in some parts of the Rust Belt, like Pennsylvania, were matched by losses in Ohio and Indiana.

Democrats lost many of these tight races because they nominated candidates well outside of the mainstream. Democrats tried to run the table and found fewer wins in states that were not already left-leaning. The party won impressive victories in New Mexico, Virginia and Colorado. However, this base-only effort largely failed to reach out to independent and moderate voters that Democrats won over in 2006 and 2008. In several notable examples, candidates who aligned themselves with the progressive Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersAvenatti ‘still considering’ presidential run despite domestic violence arrest Sanders rolls out bill aimed at getting Walmart to raise wages Left wants a vote on single-payer bill in new Congress MORE wing of the party lost winnable races.

Florida was, again, the ultimate bellwether. Andrew Gillum led the final RealClearPolitics average by 3.6 percent and was practically inaugurated in national press coverage. Instead, he lost by a slim but still shocking 1 percent. Gillum turned out to be a far more underwhelming candidate than originally advertised. The major reason for Gillum’s loss? His politics were well to the left of the traditionally pink state. Most notably, he called for a 41 percent increase in the state’s corporate tax. Yet even this $1 billion tax increase wasn’t enough to pay for his radical agenda — Gillum’s plan would have cost taxpayers an extra $2.6 billion per year.

Overlooked in most of the coverage of the two Florida gubernatorial candidates was a stealth issue that cost Gillum thousands of votes. He had been leading consistently in the polls but it is likely that a ballot initiative made a key difference in how people voted for the top of the ticket. Florida voted on Amendment 5, which changed the state constitution to only allow tax increases with a supermajority vote in the legislature. It passed with almost 65 percent of the vote.

The Democrats lost in races where reputed moderates voted hard left when it counted. Sens. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillMissouri New Members 2019 2020 politics make an immigration deal unlikely in lame-duck Mellman: The triumph of partisanship MORE of Missouri, Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterCortez Masto poised to become DSCC chair Mellman: The triumph of partisanship VA under pressure to deliver Trump reforms MORE of Montana and Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyIndiana New Members 2019 2020 politics make an immigration deal unlikely in lame-duck Mellman: The triumph of partisanship MORE of Indiana all cut independent images in their previous campaigns but voted sharply left on the Affordable Care Act, taxes and the Supreme Court. Of the three, only Tester survived.

Democrats left a number of high-profile races on the table because its base wouldn’t (or couldn’t) stop nominating candidates too left for their districts. In cases where Democrats nominated candidates appropriate for their districts, they won! Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinSchumer reelected as Senate Democratic Leader Mellman: The triumph of partisanship Senate GOP readies for leadership reshuffle MORE eked out a victory largely due to his moderate image as West Virginia’s former governor and on the back of his “yes” vote to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughFederalist Society welcomes Kavanaugh with standing ovation Amy Schumer cancels Dallas show, hospitalized due to nausea The paradox of the left’s feminist movement MORE. Rep. Conor Lamb won a convincing 56 percent victory in western Pennsylvania’s redrawn 17th District. Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownBudowsky: Sherrod Brown should run in 2020 Sherrod Brown: If Stacey Abrams doesn't win, Republicans 'stole it' Nearly six in ten want someone other than Trump elected president in 2020: poll MORE won another term in Ohio.

While each of these candidates spans the traditional Democratic Party’s political spectrum, they carry two main commonalities. First, they are not socialists. Second, they are tailor-made to run in their districts.

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Democrats had a unique shot at both the House and Senate in this year’s elections. Despite the strong economy, many voters — especially in richer suburban areas — have a deep dislike of Donald Trump. A coalition of hardcore progressives in cities and moderates elsewhere would have been a winning strategy. As much as voters dislike Trump, when they had a choice between “sending a message” to Washington and how their states were run they voted with their wallets. Jamming in any candidate’s nomination just because they support single-payer is just not enough to win the general. Now that the thin blue “wave” is receding, the job for Democrats will only get harder.

One of the clearest examples is in deep-blue New England. The region sent Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenAvenatti ‘still considering’ presidential run despite domestic violence arrest Warren congratulates former student and researcher on election to Congress Illinois New Members 2019 MORE of Massachusetts, Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseSenators introduce Trump-backed criminal justice bill 3 ways House Dems can fight climate change when sweeping policy is off the table Hillicon Valley: Trump eyes staff shake-up | Amazon taps NYC, Northern Virginia for new offices | What it will mean for DC | Tech firms buck Trump on cyber pact | Defense official warns against hacking back MORE of Rhode Island and Bernie Sanders of Vermont back to the U.S. Senate; its House delegations are nearly all Democratic. However, Republicans carried governorships in Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts; Bay State voters were willing to pick Warren while keeping Republican Gov. Charlie Baker by an even larger margin. It hearkens back to one of Robert Conquest’s three laws of politics: “Everyone is conservative about what he knows best.” Voters in New England wanted to show the nation their anti-Trump cred while bringing in local leaders who will keep their state taxes and fees lower: Socialism for thee, but not for me.

Now that the 2020 election cycle is started, Democrats should move toward the center if they want to have a chance to win both chambers of Congress and the White House. Excessive investigations and a hard-left agenda will severely harm their chances of winning. Seeking out a candidate between the left and hard-left constituencies, like Joe BidenJoseph (Joe) Robinette BidenAvenatti ‘still considering’ presidential run despite domestic violence arrest Election Countdown: Florida Senate race heads to hand recount | Dem flips Maine House seat | New 2020 trend - the 'friend-raiser' | Ad war intensifies in Mississippi runoff | Blue wave batters California GOP Democrats huddle for 2020 ‘friend-raisers’ MORE (or even Beto O’Rourke), may give the party a shot at the White House. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisAvenatti ‘still considering’ presidential run despite domestic violence arrest Election Countdown: Florida Senate race heads to hand recount | Dem flips Maine House seat | New 2020 trend - the 'friend-raiser' | Ad war intensifies in Mississippi runoff | Blue wave batters California GOP Human Rights Campaign chief to leave organization next year MORE and Elizabeth Warren are incompatible with most of the nation and, this week, showed that.

Most of all, Donald Trump still has the bully pulpit — and used it very effectively in 2018’s midterms.

Kristin Tate is a libertarian writer and author of “How Do I Tax Thee? A Field Guide to the Great American Rip-Off.” Follow her on Twitter @KristinBTate.