The Midterms Are More Than a Vote Against the President

Here’s what’s on the line.
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In 2018, more is at stake than a vote against President Trump.

Photo by Mirah Curzer/Unsplash

Midterm elections often get “nationalized,” becoming a comment on the party in power rather than a vote for representation. But in 2018, more is at stake than a vote against President Trump.

1. The pink wave

Forget talk of “blue waves” or “red waves” sweeping aside the political opposition. Truth is, most congressional districts are so gerrymandered that the chances of swinging them are minuscule.

What is undeniable, however, is the record number of women running for office in state and federal elections. Some might say this is backlash against President Trump and partly inspired by the #MeToo movement. But this pink wave has been a long time coming. The first “Year of the Woman,” in 1992, saw the election of four female senators and 24 female representatives to Congress, a record at the time. As of Sept. 18, according to the Center for American Women and Politics, 53 women have filed to run for U.S. Senate, and 476 for the House of Representatives—more than one for each open seat, and a new record number. At the state level, 61 women are candidates for governor, 64 for lieutenant governor, more than 100 for other statewide elected offices, and more than 1,800 for state legislatures.

2. The shift in Florida

Florida has been the largest swing state since the 1960s. George W. Bush won the state by 5 percent in 2004, Barack Obama by 2.8 percent in 2008 and by 0.9 percent in 2012, and Donald Trump won the state by 1.2 percent of the vote in 2016. It’s always close.

Then came Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico when it made landfall on Sept. 20, 2017, cutting off power to all 3.4 million residents and knocking out 95 percent of cell networks. A painfully slow and neglectful recovery has followed under the Trump administration. 

Now, an estimated 300,000 climate change-impacted refugees from the island territory live in Florida. The inclusion of that many refugee voters could well turn the Sunshine State blue permanently. These people are citizens, and so they can’t be deported and will remember who abandoned them in a time of need.

Law professor Ian Haney López of the University of California, Berkeley, author of Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class, says the diaspora may spill over into other states, such as Georgia and North Carolina, with similar political results. “I wouldn’t be surprised if a significant Puerto Rican bloc in those states could tilt those states from red to blue,” Haney López says.

3. Racial unity

Cell phone cameras show police shooting unarmed Black men with impunity. Conservative states from Arizona to Kansas to North Carolina are still trying to keep people of color from voting. A predominantly White-male Congress has undermined health care and other social programs that help low-income and minority groups.

One response from Black America has been to step into the policymaking fray. As of this printing, the database Black Women in Politics has been tracking more than 444 Black women running for office in 2018. Stacey Abrams’ victory in the Democratic primary for governor of Georgia was sparked by a surge in Black voters.

Research from Haney López shows that people are broadly supportive of racial unity, ending violence against communities of color, and taking government back from the rich. Those messages transcend traditional political boundaries. “It does better with not only progressives and racial justice advocates—it does better with the roughly 60 percent of the population in the middle, including many Whites and many Republicans,” he says.

4. Empowered Native Americans

Perhaps it was the extended demonstrations at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in 2016 that lifted Native American voices. Maybe it’s the growing awareness of catastrophic climate changes. But Native Americans are showing up in government.

Mark Trahant, the editor of Indian Country Today, is tracking more than 100 Native candidates for public office across the country, half of whom are women. That includes Debra Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna tribe who is running for a New Mexico House of Representatives seat. After winning her primary for the urban Democratic-leaning seat, she’s poised to become the first Native American woman elected to Congress.

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Many candidates are running on platforms embracing a list of largely (but not entirely) progressive causes that appeal to constituencies even beyond the Native community. Paulette Jordan of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe of Indians is running for governor as a Democrat in deep-red Idaho. “What got her through the primary was her talking about her rural values as a native Idahoan,” Trahant says.

The presence of so many Native women running for office also is having a profound effect on how young Native girls see themselves and their lives. “Wherever Paulette Jordan goes, you see flocks of young girls following her,” Trahant says.

5. Democracy

For all of the attempts to disenfranchise voters in some states, other states are taking steps to safeguard elections and voting rights. Seven states have implemented automatic voter registration in advance of the 2018 elections, says Max Feldman, counsel in the democracy program of the Brennan Center for Justice.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order restoring voting rights to 24,000 people with criminal convictions, and a similar measure will be on the ballot as a voters initiative in Florida. “Bottom line is we’re seeing a lot of energy around pro-voter reforms,” Feldman says.

The technology of democracy remains a challenge. In 2016, 44 states used voting machines that were at least a decade old, and most of those machines are no longer manufactured.

Congress this year approved $380 million to help states upgrade and secure their voting systems.

“That represents a significant investment, but that’s very late in the game for states to upgrade their voting systems in 2018,” Feldman says.

Nonetheless, it can be done. In 2017, Virginia upgraded all of its voting machines and systems only two months before the gubernatorial elections. The election drew the highest turnout in 16 years for a gubernatorial race, and it all went off without major issues.

Update: October 23, 2018.

This version differs from the original, published in August 2018. It cites the latest figures available for number of women running for public office, as of Sept. 18.