It’s almost a week after California’s “jungle” primary election, and some Democrats are sighing with relief.
The top two vote-getters, no matter what party, advance to November’s general election. As the campaigns progressed, some key districts, such as the 48th drew so many contenders that there were fears the Democratic vote would be so split that no Democrats would survive. Though it’s represented by Republican Dana Rohrabacher, the district favored Hillary Clinton in 2016. So the Democrats risked losing a district that they had high hopes of winning to retake the U.S. House.
The top two Democratic challengers, while still roughly tied, still came out ahead of the second-place Republican. The jungle primary is still a mess but no longer a problem this year.
What is a problem is the rising idea of a “blue wave” that’s sweeping social media, and possibly the conference rooms at the Democratic National Committee. It’s starting to feel a lot like 2016.
Aside from overconfidence again leading to fatal mistakes, there’s a very real worrying trend: Voter turnout in the California primary was low. And this is supposed to be a “safe” Democratic state, despite pockets of conservatism in the wealthy suburbs. Voter turnout was 22.5 percent statewide, down from 25.2 percent in the last midterm primary, in 2014.
In Orange County, a wealthy but still largely conservative battleground area, turnout was 26.7 percent, which is better, but it doesn’t necessarily bode well for Democrats to flip the district in their favor.
Rohrabacher’s district is considered one of the main Democratic targets, not least because Rohrabacher has closely allied himself with President Trump and is suspected, even among his own party, to be working for Russian President Vladimir Putin. He’s low-hanging fruit.
And yet, the congressman from Comintern placed first in the primary contest, taking 30.4 percent of the vote tally.
It was a competitive field, with six total Republican candidates, eight Democrats, one Libertarian, and one candidate who didn’t specify a party preference. Tallying the numbers by party, this is what you get: Republicans took 59,537 votes, Democrats 51,509, Libertarians 561, “no party” 456. And this is considered one of the must-have seats for the Democrats to pick up.
That difference can only be made up if the Democrats can get more people to vote.
But why is turnout so low anyway, especially now when politics is ever present in many aspects of American life? Why isn’t the Democratic message catching fire? What is the Democratic message, anyway?
There was a moment back in July 2017 when Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) presented the official party message: “A better deal.” Looking beyond the fact that the message bears all the bland hallmarks of overpaid consultants and focus groups, there’s something else wrong with what the Democratic Party is doing.
Midterm elections are often said to be a referendum on the current administration, and there’s a bit of truth to that. President Obama’s first midterm in 2010 led to the infamous “shellacking” in which Republicans won 66 seats and flipped the House, cementing the reactionary Tea Party’s influence in the halls of power. Today’s political machines tend to see the midterms as an opportunity to nationalize local elections: You’re not just voting for your local congressperson, you’re voting for or against the party leadership’s agenda.
It’s the antithesis of what late House Speaker Tip O’Neill once said: “All politics is local.”
That phrase has been interpreted to mean that to be successful as a politician, you need to address local concerns, work within local power structures, and on the national stage advocate for local interests and issues, as opposed to, say, foreign policy, the bond market, or how much China has devalued its currency.
But midterms do get nationalized.
2002 was about post-9/11. 2006 was about the continuing Iraq War. 2010 was about the newly passed Affordable Care Act. In 2018, as Democrats consider Donald Trump to be the most abhorrent individual to occupy the White House since… well, since the last Republican, you can see why the urge to make this election all about Trump is pretty overwhelming.
That’s a mistake.
Nationalizing the midterms obscures local issues that ordinarily would resonate but instead lead to a series of fait accompli elections to safe seats. The Cook Political Report estimates that only 25 out of 435 seats in Congress are in the “toss up” category this year, while 336 seats are considered a solid lock for one party or the other. In presidential elections, the race invariably gets decided by a handful of districts in three or four swing states, regardless of how the majority of the population votes. That’s what makes a somewhat lackluster turnout in California more worrisome.
That said, there are signs of progress that could lead to increased turnout come November.
One big reason is women. 2018 is starting to make “Year of the Woman” 1992—when 24 women won U.S. House seats and five won in the Senate—look amateurish. The Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University has estimated that there are more than 1,800 women running for federal and state offices across the country. They’re competing in 278 out of 435 Congressional districts.
Among that number, there are 603 Black women (97 of whom are federal candidates), and 62 Native women. In New Mexico, Deb Haaland of the Pueblo of Laguna tribe won the Democratic primary in the 1st Congressional District, which is largely urban and suburban Albuquerque. Since the Cook Political Report gives the district a 7-point Democratic advantage, Haaland could well become the first Native woman elected to Congress.
This isn’t just identity politics writ large. Ian Haney López, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class, has conducted research that he says shows 60 percent of voters in the middle—not the base of either party—believe that racial discord is a serious problem in America and that candidates should be openly addressing this.
“That runs directly counter to the dominant liberal consensus that we can’t mention race because doing so alienates a certain segment of White voters,” Haney López says. That dovetails with a desire to take back government from the wealthy and end the divide-and-conquer politics used to maintain their hold on power.
It’s unknown how many campaigns will make use of that messaging, Haney López says. But it’s one more sign that voters are hungry for something that gets beyond the usual partisanship. On June 7, a court in Michigan ruled that there will be an initiative on the state’s ballot in November that would create a citizens’ commission to draw districts after the Census.
That makes Michigan one of eight states taking measures to cut down on partisan gerrymandering this year and end those practices that make many elections a foregone conclusion.
Giving power back to the voters: It’s hard to think of better ways to increase turnout. In any event, it could be a test as to how much we want to vote at all.
Chris Winters is a senior editor at YES!, where he specializes in covering democracy and the economy. Chris has been a journalist for more than 20 years, writing for newspapers and magazines in the Seattle area. He’s covered everything from city council meetings to natural disasters, local to national news, and won numerous awards for his work. He is based in Seattle, and speaks English and Hungarian.