No ‘Blue Wave’ But Democrats Retake House

The 2018 midterms were mostly about Donald Trump. The results were idiosyncratic.

Democrats won twice as many Republican-held seats as they need to retake the House of Representatives and act as a check on President Donald Trump. It was also a night of firsts for minority and LQBTQ groups. Yet the results of Senate and gubernatorial races followed no obvious national pattern.


Propelled by an unprecedented surge of rank-and-file enthusiasm and widespread urban and suburban dissatisfaction with President Trump, Democrats took control of the House of Representatives for the first time since 2011.

The party was even projected to gain more seats than in 2006, the year they delivered what then-President George W. Bush described as a “thumping.”

“Thanks to you, we owned the ground,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — likely the next House speaker — said Tuesday night. “Thanks to you, tomorrow will be a new day in America.”

Yet with victories in Tennessee, Indiana, North Dakota, Missouri, Florida and Texas, Donald Trump’s Republican Party extended its majority in the U.S. Senate, capitalizing on a lopsided battlefield that forced Democrats to defend 10 seats in states Trump won in 2016.


As the last ballots trickled in, it became clear that America’s verdict wasn’t mixed so much as divided. The red, rural parts of the country voted heavily Republican. The blue, urban parts voted heavily Democrat. And the purple, suburban areas leaned leftward — far enough to flip dozens of suburban GOP House districts, but not far enough to save moderate Democratic senators such as Claire McCaskill and Joe Donnelly in conservative strongholds such as Missouri and Indiana.

Winning the Senate was always a long shot. Still, the party was depending on Donnelly, McCaskill and Florida’s Bill Nelson to hold their seats, and hoping that Phil Bredesen, a popular and moderate former governor, could eke out a win against GOP Rep. Marsha Blackburn. In Texas, Democrat Beto O’Rourke became a folk hero for liberals who thought he might defy gravity and defeat Sen. Ted Cruz, the Republican incumbent.

It was not to be.

Democrats faced serious hurdles this cycle. Republicans largely oversaw the last round of redistricting, redrawing the congressional map in ways that force Democrats to win the national popular vote by seven or more percentage points just to secure a bare House majority. On the Senate side, Democrats were defending 26 seats to the GOP’s nine — by far the most difficult map either party has faced in decades. Republicans in some red states passed a set of restrictive voting laws that disproportionately handicap Democratic constituencies. Finally, the economy is humming and unemployment has fallen to a 48-year low — factors that traditionally boost the party in power.

USA Today compiled several “historic firsts for women and minority candidates in 2018”:

Jared Polis: First openly gay man to win a governor’s race
Polis was elected governor of Colorado. He previously served in the U.S. House.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: Youngest woman elected to Congress
The New York activist and Democrat, 29, cruised to victory after upsetting established Democrat Rep. Joe Crowley in the primary race.

Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar and Michigan’s Rashid Tlaib: First Muslim women in Congress
Minnesota voters elected Omar, and Michigan voters elected Tlaib. Omar also became Minnesota’s first Somali-American legislator and the first woman of color elected to Congress from the state.

Ayanna Pressley: Massachusetts’ first black congresswoman
Previously, Pressley became first black woman elected to the Boston City Council. She ran unopposed in Tuesday’s election.

Deb Haaland and Sharice Davids: first Native American congresswomen
Haaland is a New Mexico Democrat and member of the Pueblo of Laguna tribe. Davids is a Kansas Democrat and member of the Ho-Chunk Nation; she is also Kansas’ first LGBTQ member of Congress.

Michelle Lujan Grisham: New Mexico’s first Latina governor
New Mexico Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham also became the first Democratic Latina governor in the country. New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, was the first Latina governor.

CNN‘s exit polls confirm that Trump was on most voters’ minds:

Two-thirds of voters say their vote in today’s congressional election is about Donald Trump, according to early exit polls, and more say they’re showing up at the polls to express opposition than support for the President. The President’s approval rating is net negative among the nation’s voters, and more say things in the country are on the wrong track than that they are going in the right direction. Still, nearly 7 in 10 say the economy is in good shape, and those who say their personal finances are in better shape now than two years ago outnumber those who feel their finances have worsened.

About 4 in 10 voters turning out to vote across the country choose health care as the most important problem facing the country, and more, 7 in 10, say the nation’s health care system needs major changes. About 2 in 10 each choose the economy and immigration as their top issue, and 1 in 10 say it’s gun policy.

Among the interesting results: Democrat Heidi Heitkamp’s courageous stand against Brett Kavanaugh likely didn’t matter; she was simply crushed in her re-election bid in North Dakota.

The governor’s races matter least in terms of the national picture, yet provided some of the most interesting contests. Tennessee pitted two very strong candidates against one another but the Republican woman easily bested the former Democratic governor. Republican Larry Hogan easily won re-election in blue Maryland.

There were some satisfying outcomes, wherein rather unsavory characters were defeated. Scott Walker, who was leading big when I went to bed last night, lost. Republican firebrand Kris Kobach lost in deep red Kansas. Joe Manchin, perhaps the only conservative Democrat left in national politics, handily won re-election in red West Virginia. Way down ballot, Kim Davis, the clerk who made national news for refusing to sign marriage licenses for gay couples, lost to Democrat in deep red Kentucky. Dana Rohrabacher seems to have lost his House seat in a mini-wave in California.

Alas, Ted Cruz won (as expected) over Beto O’Rourke, whose popularity nationally (including in my Virginia neighborhood) didn’t translate into enough votes in deep red Texas. Brian Kemp’s voter suppression campaign in Georgia was more than enough to overcome even Oprah Winfrey’s intervention. Ron Desantis’ racist dog whistles seem to have worked; then again Andrew Gillum was likely too progressive for red-leaning Florida.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2018, Donald Trump, Voter Suppression
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. @Resistance Ron:

    Manchin had a massive lead in West Virginia long before the Kavanaugh hearings. He was never really vulnerable.

  2. James Joyner says:

    @Resistance Ron: That’s the current Fox News narrative, and there’s some truth in it. Literally every Democratic Senatorial incumbent in a competitive race who voted against Kavanaugh lost; Manchin was the only winner in that situation and he voted for Kavanaugh. But I think the bigger story is that blue state Republicans and red state Democrats are just about an extinct species in this environment. Kavanaugh is just a stand-in for that.

  3. @James Joyner:

    It’s also worth noting that Democrats in four states that Trump won in 2016 — Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania — all won easily. And they all voted against Kavanaugh.

  4. grumpy realist says:

    @Resistance Ron: I’m sure you are flailing around wildly looking for some sort of excuse.

  5. mattbernius says:

    One bright spot in Florida (that I’m still puzzling my way through) is that Amendment 4 (restoration of voting rights) passed with 65% of the vote. This is especially noteworthy as both Scott and Desantis actively advocated against it (using some of those dog whistles James notes).

    This has a lot of potential ramifications for future elections.

  6. mattbernius says:

    BTW, someone just pointed out on Twitter that Karen Handel, who won a heavily watched “bell weather” special congressional election in GA last year against Jon Ossoff (remember him?), lost her seat to a Democrat this time around.

    It’s worth noting that this win could have been tied to increased voter turn out thanks to support for Abrams.

  7. mattbernius says:

    @James Joyner & @Doug Mataconis:
    One other point that’s left out of that rightwing Kavanaugh talking point is that in NV, Heller voted for Kavanaugh and was just voted out.

  8. KM says:

    @James Joyner:

    That’s the current Fox News narrative

    Of course it is. They need to downplay what happened in whatever way possible. The truth is over 100 women were elected last night – an unprecedented amount especially in an environment where people like Trump and Kavanaugh scream about bitches be lyin’ and #MeToo is getting questioned for “going too far”. They want to frame not getting the Senate as punishment for Kavanaugh because the overall picture is women gaining ground despite a system that puts men like Kavanaugh into power.

    There was totally a blue “wave”; there just wasn’t a killer blue “tsunami”. Dems didn’t get all the shinies but they weren’t really going to anyways. They got *close*, though – really, really, REALLY close in places that they wouldn’t have had a chance an election ago. TX, FL, GA were nail-biters for quite some time and those shouldn’t have been in question. The wave washed up the shore and missed your sand castle by a few inches – do you go nyah-nyah, you missed or do you look at the time and realize it’s not even high tide yet?

    I’ve been seeing this derided in conservative circles as the Blue Ripple but those idiots don’t understand how waves work. There never is just one – waves are a series of impacts big and small that wear down over time. This one may not have totally destroyed the GOP like some liberals’ fever dreams would have hoped but it did damage that the next one will compound on. And there will be a next one folks, sure as the tide.

    But hey Fox, it’s OK – we know you need to spin it to protect the Donald. His life just got a lot harder overnight and he needed good news this morning……

  9. lynn says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    And Amy Klobuchar. who currently has about 60% of the MN vote, not only voted against Kavanaugh but confronted him directly about his history of alcohol abuse.

    Tina Smith, who called Kavanaugh “a serious threat to women’s freedom to make their own health care choices,” beat her GOP opponent easily.

  10. Liberal Capitalist says:

    No Blue Wave?

    Sure, in key elections where voter suppression is overwhelming (Georgia, TX, FL), the wave was limited, but even limited, it was close.

    So, Blue enough to make a difference. What matters is the next 18 months.

  11. @mattbernius:

    Actually the New York Times is still listing the race in Handel’s district as too close to call.

    But thanks for reminding me about Handel, I’ve added her race to the list in my post

  12. @lynn:

    True but Minnesota is neither a red state nor a state Trump won in 2016.

  13. lynn says:

    @Doug Mataconis: “True but Minnesota is neither a red state nor a state Trump won in 2016.”

    Right — just noting the easy wins for the record.

  14. Kathy says:

    As a wise woman(*) once said, “If you won’t apply the many lessons of history to the present, why bother learning it in the first place?” So:

    If there was retaliation for Kavanaugh, that’s akin to Pearl Harbor being retaliation for America’s moves to constrain Japan. It was a terrible price to pay, and it led to carnage on a massive scale, but it was still the right thing to do.

    As for what this all means to El Cheeto, two things spring to mind. One is that now he can have immigration reform as was nearly done late last year, since the Freedom Caucus won’t be able to block it; but he won’t get his wall.

    The other is that he’s heading into Bush the elder territory, without the advantages Bush had. In essence, Bush was brought down by a mild recession that struck at a bad time, not long after he looked to be invincible. Trump will have a recession soon, it’s due. And his trade war may make it much worse. This is something any remaining conservative intellectuals would know, as they used to harp endlessly on the lessons of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act and its effects on the Great Depression.

    We’ll see. “It’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future.”

    (*) Actually I said it.

  15. Teve says:

    Even with voter suppression and gerrymandering Dems way outvoted Republicans. And Amendment 4 just gave 1.4 million floridians their right to vote back.

    And if you think women aren’t going to turn out like crazy in 2020, I’ve got some reverse mortgages and gold coins you should take a look at.

  16. Mikey says:


    There was totally a blue “wave”; there just wasn’t a killer blue “tsunami”.

    Maybe not in absolute terms, but in the context of 3.7% unemployment and 3% GDP growth it’s an absolute obliteration.

    Look at the GOP “wave” of 2010. It occurred during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. OF COURSE the party in power was going to get crushed, and did they ever.

    But today the economy is doing pretty well. The recovery Trump inherited from Obama continues. His party should have been a runaway winner yesterday. But not only did the House flip, some of Trump’s most significant supporters got their asses handed to them, and there were very close races in states that should have been easy wins for the GOP.

  17. gVOR08 says:

    @Kathy: Michelle Bachman (R-out there) famously harped about “Hoot-Smalley”.

  18. Joe says:


    I trust from you quotes you know the word is “bellwether” and refers to the lead sheep (middle English, “wether”) that has a bell around its neck to get the rest to follow.

  19. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Doug Mataconis: And Heller lost.

  20. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Mikey: Ezra Klein called it the trump tax:

    The opposite judgment should land with just as much force. Trump’s decision to keep the country in a constant state of agitation and his critics in a constant state of mobilization has failed. His effort to use immigrants to scare Americans rather than touting the economy to unite them lost the House. Republicans, rather than reaping the rewards of a booming economy, are facing a blistering electoral repudiation. The only reasons their losses are contained is that gerrymandering and geography have tilted the map in their favor, and so, like Trump himself, the share of power they win obscures how badly they lag Democrats in vote totals.

    Republicans, increasingly, wield power only because America’s political system insulates them from the public’s judgments. The leader of their party — and of the country — came in second in the popular vote to Hillary Clinton and, despite a roaring economy, hasn’t cracked 50 percent in the polls since taking office. Tonight, Republicans lost the House, and if Democrats hadn’t been defending 26 Senate seats to Republicans’ nine, it’s likely they would’ve seen a rout in the Senate too.

    The GOP needs to ask itself: What’s going to happen in 2020, when the Senate map reverses, and Republicans are defending twice as many seats as Democrats? What if unemployment is 5.7 percent rather than 3.7 percent?

    That Republicans performed this poorly amid this strong an economy and this much geographic advantage should be a wake-up call to the party. Trump’s political strategy is failing, and they are paying the cost.

  21. Kathy says:

    Many have been asking what it will take for his base to turn on Trump. I still think a recession will do it, though not for all of his base. But one thing that just might make most of his base dislike him, is if he starts working with the Democratic House. We saw some criticism that time he met with “Chuck and Nancy.”

    There can’t be any legislation without the House. His base may be okay with this, especially those concerned most about the judiciary, which is a prerogative of the Senate alone.

    But you can’t just shut down the federal government for two years while you refuse to legislate a budget and debt limits. And, in any case, Congress doesn’t need the president’s, or Trump’s, involvement in legislation. Just his signature on the finalized bill.

    One would think even El Cheeto’s base would recognize the need to compromise wit the House now, albeit while attempting to do so as little as possible. Fanatics aren’t known for being reasonable. We’ll find out how fanatical his base is.

  22. mattbernius says:

    Thanks for the correction — and the etymology. That’s fascinating…

  23. James Joyner says:

    @KM: @Liberal Capitalist: It was a great night for Dems, especially considering the strength of the economy. Still, you can’t call it a “wave” when Republicans increased their lead in the Senate and won several close gubernatorial races in swing states.

  24. Gustopher says:

    @James Joyner: Given how high turnout was, the fact that it wasn’t a complete wipeout for one party or the other is surprising.

    Colliding waves, rather than no wave.

  25. Liberal Capitalist says:

    @James Joyner:

    James, I did say that it was “Blue enough”. And it is.

    Much like you acknowledge, this is a huge showing for an economy that continues to do well (in spite of the last two years of leadership).

    This is echoed by others: “Unemployment is at 3.7 percent right now. The economy is growing. For the country to vote this decisively against the incumbent party is shocking. Midterm election results hinge on turnout, gerrymandering, and the specific set of Senate seats in play, so they’re not a clear picture of the national mood. But for the House popular vote to swing this hard against Republicans under these economic conditions reflects a profound political failure on Donald Trump’s part. Republicans are paying the Trump tax, and it’s getting larger.”

    So, yes. Not a Tsunami, maybe not a wave. But definitely not a ripple either. As people said, 2016 Trump may be the last hurrah of the scared white man… 2018 may be the foretelling of not a wave but a tidal change.

    We have seen outrageous voter suppression (Georgia) on the part of the GOP. The question is: will the rubes that continue to worship at POTUS feet realize that they have been sold down the river?

    That will define 2020.

    As far as my adopted state of Colorado, this place has gone nearly completely Blue. I’m OK with that.

    Blue enough.

  26. Barry says:

    @James Joyner: “economy. Still, you can’t call it a “wave” when Republicans increased their lead in the Senate and won several close gubernatorial races in swing states.”

    Please note the Senate map.