Midterms show Dems the party of the elite, not the middle class

Midterms show Dems the party of the elite, not the middle class
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In 2004, liberal journalist and political scientist Thomas Frank caused a stir with his book, "What’s the Matter with Kansas," a broadside against the natives of his home state and their lurch to the right that Frank perceived to be against their economic interests.

In the wake of the 2018 midterms, it should be the Republicans asking, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?,” after Kris Kobach lost the governorship to Democrat Laura Kelly in a state in which registered Republicans outnumber Democrats almost 2-1.


Some in the GOP establishment were quick to point the finger at Kobach, whose tough approach to immigration had made him a controversial figure in the media. But a closer look pours cold water on that theory and shows a more disquieting story for GOP.

Kobach ran just a few percentage points behind Sam Brownback, the most recently-elected GOP governor, almost everywhere in the state — except one place.

Kelly blitzed Kobach in Johnson County, by far the most affluent county in Kansas, one that had not voted for a Democrat for president since Woodrow Wilson in 1916, but which has been trending Democratic in recent years.

Sam Brownback carried it by 3,000 votes (1.5 percent) in 2014. Kobach lost it by 44,000 (16.5 percent) in 2018. A total drop of 9 percent — more than 47,000 votes; that was greater than his statewide margin of defeat.

But these affluent voters weren’t’ turning away from allegedly “extreme” Republicans like Kobach; they were turning away from Republicans in general.

Until 2018, the Johnson County district had been represented by Kevin YoderKevin Wayne YoderBottom line Bottom line Bottom line MORE, co-chairman of the Bipartisan Congressional Civility Caucus. He'd been a moderate on immigration, frustrating the party’s right wing.

Yet Yoder, who won Johnson county 62.7 percent to 37.3 percent in 2014 lost it to challenger Sharice Davids 53-44 in 2018, a drop of more than 17 percent, a drop far steeper than Kobach’s vs. Brownback.

But the data show there's nothing unique going on in Kansas. Yoder and Kobach’s experience was imitated in wealthy districts throughout the country.

Much of the media’s discussion of the GOP “losing the suburbs” frames the issue in a way to flatter the sensibilities of liberals and Democrats (the two parties split 49-49 in the suburban vote according to exit polls).

The Democrats actually did slightly better in the suburbs in 2006 and 2008 and only slightly worse than 2012 when GOP dominated the House of Representatives elections. 

The reality is that the Democratic Party has become the party of the rich (including rich suburbs) and the poor, and the GOP the party of the forgotten and increasingly disempowered middle class.

Want proof? At the conclusion of the election, Democrats control all 20 of wealthiest congressional districts in the country (They won the top 10 by an average vote of 65-34 percent).

Republicans are allegedly the party of the rich and big business. The biggest winners of the Tax Cuts and Jobs act were both the top 1 percent and the 90th percentile and up. Yet, data suggests these affluent voters have pocketed the tax cut and went out and voted for the Democrats.

Given the dominance of Democrats in wealthier areas, it was perhaps unsurprising to see that they also dominated the GOP in fundraising, continuing a trend from 2016 in which Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonPoll: Trump leads 2024 Republican field with DeSantis in distant second The politics of 'mind control' No Hillary — the 'Third Way' is the wrong way MORE almost doubled Trump’s fundraising haul.

During the final full quarter of fundraising, Democratic challengers outraised an incredible 92 House GOP incumbents, with more than 51 outraised more than 2 to 1. In the 44 open seats due to GOP retirements, the Democrats were even more dominant in fundraising.

Simply put, the GOP was not in trouble because it is out of touch with the middle class; it is out of touch with the elite and the poor voters who are often dependent on that elite.

Exit polls showed the parties roughly split in their allegiance between voters making $200,000 and up, but the complete dominance of Democrats in these wealthy areas suggests such exits are inaccurate or that the GOP only dominates among wealthier voters in poorer areas. 

The nature of the blue wave in 2018 was apparent from the breakdown of flipped House seats, conducted by the Washington Post.

Despite the predominance of Democrats in some of the poorest districts in the country, Democrats picked up just one of the 50 House districts with a median household income of $50,000 or less, giving the GOP a continued majority of 49-46 in these lower-income districts.

Despite losing almost 40 seats overall, The GOP also maintained an advantage in middle-income congressional districts: 135-116.

But among upper-income voters, there was Democratic domination. Democrats Hold a 45-14 edge in districts with $75,000-$100,000 median household income.

Looking at another data source tells much the same story. Of the 10 percent of congressional districts with the highest poverty rates, the Democrats hold 38 of 43.

Of the 10-percent richest districts, the Democrats control 37 of 43, and of the six districts held by the GOP, all are marginal— only one held with more than 55 percent Of the vote. Meanwhile, Democrats hold many of these seats with overwhelming numbers.

These trends are even more visible at the extremes, where Democrats held the 10 richest districts by an average of 65-34 and the 10 poorest by an average of 69-31.


Overall, the Democrats hold the poorest 10 percent and wealthiest 10 percent of districts by a staggering 75-11. Among the other 80 percent of seats, Republicans hold a 190-158 advantage, even after taking heavy losses in the midterms. The Democrats have become the party of the McMansion and also the party of the tenement.

The GOP holds a substantial majority among the middle-class districts, particularly among the lower middle class (as evidenced by the fact that they have a slight majority among low-income districts despite controlling almost none of the 10 percent of poorest districts.

While it is great to campaign as a champion of the middle class, the reality of being the middle-class party with little elite support is more true for the GOP. The midterms make it clear that the Democrats control the commanding heights of American society.

Academia, high-technology, professional sports, the media and Hollywood are all fully dominated by the Democrats. And as the 2018 election shows, they are beginning to dominate the general business community and affluent professionals as well.

All in all, the middle-class GOP is startlingly bereft of institutional power centers that support the party. If the GOP can’t stem that tide by fundamentally developing a more positive relationship with some elements of the establishment, the blue wave figures to be a blue tsunami in the future. 

Jeremy Carl is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.