In mid-September, a leaked report from the Republican National Committee showed dampened enthusiasm among the GOP base heading into the midterms. Complacency and a sense of invulnerability left GOP voters unconcerned about the midterms, leaving GOP strategist very concerned. The problem voters were “those who support the President’s policies but not his leadership style.”
To engage these voters, Republicans needed to make fear of the Democrats greater than dissatisfaction with the president. Democrats and progressive activists came to their aid with the Kavanaugh hearings. They started with Senators using the hearings as a venue to audition for 2020, with several trying to show that their moral outrage over the nominee matched that of the protesting base. They ended with activists calling Kavanaugh a rapist despite a lack of evidence and incidents of Republican leaders being run out of public spaces by protestors screaming at them.
The antics may have satisfied the already-fired up Democratic base, but they also awakened those sleeping Republicans. In their opinion, progressive activists and Democratic opportunists proved that they could act as poorly as the president, turning the confirmation hearing into a circus and trying to railroad Kavanaugh instead of seeking the truth. They might not be willing to get excited about Trump but they wouldn’t sit by while Democrats harassed the people they considered the responsible GOP leaders.
The Kavanaugh effect wore off a bit when it was overshadowed by the MAGA bomber and the shooting in the Pittsburgh synagogue, but GOP voters were more engaged and Trump was able to re-energize them with his warnings about a pending invasion of immigrants. He was aided by news reports and photos that stayed focused on the caravan as moved into Mexico.
Democrats killed the emerging wave by energizing complacent Republicans with their behavior during the confirmation hearings. A wave election happens when one side is motivated, the other is not and the middle breaks for the motivated side. Had it been a wave, Democrats would have picked up a lot of lean-Republican and a few likely-Republican seats for Congress. Instead, they just won almost all of the tossups. Competitive US Senate seats would have gone to Democrats instead of Republicans. In North Carolina Democrats would be a lot closer to majorities in the two legislative chambers.
Democrats had a good cycle, but they weren’t aided by a wave. Instead, they showed that they can fight and make every race competitive. Their efforts made it a good year and if they can sustain their enthusiasm to fight, they’ll have good years moving forward. However, this year, they just made up for some the seats they lost during Republican waves in 2010 and 2014, and the Trump bump the GOP got in 2016. Republicans were at a high water mark. Democrats brought them down to normal.
This year also highlighted the fundamental shift taking place in our politics. In urban/suburban centers, voters prefer Democrats regardless of their party affiliation. In rural areas, they’re becoming even more Republican than they’ve been. Those weren’t waves in Mecklenburg and Wake Counties; they were realignments that we’ll see for decades.
When all the dust settles, I suspect we’ll find that Democratic turnout matched Republican turnout in North Carolina for the first time since 2008 and that the unaffiliated voters broke for Democrats. If Democrats want to see more progress, they’ll need to increase their turnout more among millennial voters and start to appeal to exurban voters in counties like Union, Cabarrus, Harnett and Johnston. They need to build on the enthusiasm of events like the Women’s March instead of building Republican enthusiasm with stunts like shouting at people in restaurants.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com. Before beginning PoliticsNC, Thomas spent twenty years as a political and public affairs consultant. Learn more >