What, you might ask (but perhaps don’t need to), that occurred Tuesday was about Donald Trump?
Everything was about Trump, said a bipartisan panel of political analysts Wednesday morning at the University of Minnesota’s Center for the Study of Politics and Governance.
Why did Jenifer Loon (a 10-year veteran Republican legislator of the Minnesota state House of Representatives, who represented Eden Prairie) lose, moderator Larry Jacobs asked veteran Republican strategist Ben Golnik? Replied Golnik:
“It was a referendum on Donald Trump. He’s very unpopular in the suburbs.” Golnik also mentioned a huge increase in turnout in Dinkytown, adding: “That was Donald Trump too.”But where Trump wasn’t political poison, he was political magic. Golnik said that on his pre-midterm campaign swing through Minnesota, Trump made stops in the mostly rural 1st and 8th congressional districts to endorse Republican candidates Jim Hagedorn and Pete Stauber. Trump drew huge, excited crowds, and he told the audiences, “Pretend like I’m on the ballot.” Hagedorn and Stauber both won, offsetting the two other seats, in the mostly suburban 2nd and 3rd Congressional Districts, in which DFLers ousted Republican incumbents.
“Obviously, Trump was a huge factor, everywhere, both pro and con,” Golnik said.
Veteran DFL operative Denise Cardinal also “credited” Trump, and a general change in suburban politics, for activating some formerly inactive suburbanites to go to the polls. “Suburban Democrats are not sitting at home anymore …,” she said. “The suburbs have changed. They’ve become bluer.”
Former Minnesota Republican congressman Vin Weber, now a Washington-based lobbyist and a Trump critic, said the national story was likewise very Trumpy. A big part of that story was that Trump inspired a spike in turnout among energized Democrats that led to the Democratic takeover in the House.
Sure, Republicans increased their numbers in the U.S. Senate on Tuesday, Weber noted, but that was a fluke of the political calendar that put a disproportionate number of Democratic Senate seats on the ballot. “If different seats had been up in the Senate, the Democrats would have taken that too,” Weber said. “Trump motivated both sides, but he motivated the Democrats more.”
(Turnout was up overall significantly over every midterm election of the last 50 years. Tuesday’s turnout was 49 percent of eligible voters. That was up from 36 percent in 2014.) By the way, I wrote a piece recently, headlined “We suck at voting,” about our nation’s poor voter participation rates in general. I specified midterms, where turnout in recent cycles has been more like 40 percent. So 49 is better, but still looks terrible compared to most democracies for an election when all seats in the House are on the ballot. Minnesota, as usual, did much, much better than the national average. This wasn’t part of the panel, but Secretary of State Steve Simon put out a preliminary number for voter participation: 63.8 percent. Minnesotans do not suck at voting.
Also on the panel, Ilhan Omar, one of two Muslim women elected to Congress, said the message of Tuesday was “that we do not like being pushed around. … [It was] a clear rejection of the politics of fear and division … a kind of resistance that came out of opposition to this awful person who’s in the White House.”
When Jacobs asked what Democrats need to do heading into the 2020 campaign, Omar replied: “We have to stand up to Donald Trump, without getting down to his level.” Political leaders, she said, need be “bigger, braver, and more accountable to the people.”
While Weber shared the consensus that anti-Trump sentiment was a huge explanatory factor for Tuesday’s results, he cautioned Democrats about assuming that the same magic will work again when they hope to dump Trump in 2020. He noted that Democrats got clobbered in the 2010 midterm, during President Barack Obama’s first term, but Obama was re-elected two years later. The same thing happened during President Bill Clinton’s first midterm. Weber’s theory:“Midterm elections are largely grievance elections.” [Voters] are “more motivated by what they’re pissed off about,” and, in the case of 2018, “it was Donald Trump.”
And they were pissed off at Trump despite the fact that, by many measures, the U.S. economy is strong, which usually helps the president’s party during midterms. Polls suggested that the top issue on many voters’ minds was health care, which was not a good issue for Republicans.
Cardinal cited an exit poll that showed that 74 percent of Minnesotans who voted for Tim Walz for governor said health care was their No. 1 issue. “Republicans missed that message,” she said.
Golnik agreed with the critique on health care, and expressed surprise bordering on shock at Trump’s decision to make his last big pre-election push on scaring people about the group of migrants moving toward the U.S. border. Trump could have and should have made it about the great economic numbers, Golnik said, but “It’s just not in his DNA to make it about the economy.”
Cardinal said that when polled on what was the top issue on their minds heading into the election, 50 percent of respondents said health care compared to 22 percent who said immigration.