The 2018 midterm elections were a huge win for the Democrats. Democrats gained 39 seats in the House and managed to contain their losses in the Senate to 4 seats in a year when 10 incumbents were up for reelection in states Trump won, and still gained seats in Nevada and Arizona.
With the election results (finally) in, we can begin to learn from the Democrats’ biggest victories and determine what the approach should be for Congressional races in 2020.
The three biggest swings for Democrats all came in New York or New Jersey, with New Jersey’s 11th, New York’s 11th, and New Jersey’s 2nd all seeing more than 28 point swings from 2016 to 2018. Each of these districts provides valuable insight on what the strategy for Democrats nationwide should be in 2020.
New Jersey’s 11th Congressional District - 32.6 Point Swing
Mikie Sherrill (D) defeated Jay Webber (R) 56.8% - 43.2%
New Jersey’s 11th is the textbook example of the type of district Democrats were targeting to flip in 2018. The predominately white, well-educated, suburban district has been reliably red since 1984. But President Trump won the district by less than one percentage point, putting the district on the radar for Democrats.
The incumbent in the district, Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee Congressman Rodney P. Frelinghuysen, announced his retirement in early 2018 after holding the seat since 1994. He won in 2016 by 19 points.
The Republican candidate, state Assemblyman Jay Webber, aligned himself with the Trump administration, running on his opposition to sanctuary cities, abortion, and federal spending. On the other hand, the Democratic candidate, former assistant US Attorney Mikie Sherrill, ran a moderate campaign, emphasizing healthcare, expanding renewable energy, and infrastructure.
Ultimately, New Jersey’s 11th had such a large swing because of a combination of a retiring incumbent and being the archetype of the educated, suburban district Democrats were targeting in 2018. Sherrill ran a campaign that fit the district, instead of subscribing to a single ideology.
New York’s 11th Congressional District - 30.9 Point Swing
Max Rose (D) defeated incumbent Congressman Daniel Donovan (R) 52.9% - 46.7%
This is the only district on our list where the incumbent was running for reelection. In 2016, the district, encompassing Staten Island and the southern edge of Brooklyn, went for President Trump by 9.8 points and Congressman Donovan won reelection by 25 points.
Congressman Donovan, New York City’s only GOP representative, was a fairly moderate member of Congress, voting against the Republican tax bill and the Republican healthcare bill in 2017. His 2018 campaign focused on transportation, cutting taxes and regulations, and homeland security.
His challenger, Army veteran Max Rose (D), ran a fairly nonpartisan campaign, focusing on the opioid epidemic, healthcare, and infrastructure. He also framed himself as a Washington outsider, not accepting any donations from corporate PACs.
New York’s 11th likely saw such a large swing because of Rose’s campaign strategy, deciding not to focus on political alignments or ideology. Donovan’s campaign repeatedly tried to link Rose to broader, progressive Democratic policy proposals, such as abolishing ICE, universal healthcare, and the impeachment of the President, that Rose publicly opposed. Rose’s clear focus on the issues relevant to his constituents was key to winning this race.
New Jersey’s 2nd Congressional District - 28.4 Point Swing
Jeff Van Drew (D) defeated Seth Grossman (R) 52.0% - 46.2%
Incumbent Congressman Frank LoBiondo, a more centrist Republican, announced his retirement in November 2017 after holding the seat since 1995. In 2016, the district went for Trump by 4 points and LoBiondo won reelection by 22 points.
The district, located in southern New Jersey, encompassing Atlantic City, is predominately white and less than 1/4th of the constituents hold a college degree.
The Republican in the race, Seth Grossman, ran a Trumpian campaign, touting his support for the current administration and their positions on immigration. He received harsh criticism after a video was released in June capturing Grossman stating, “The whole idea of diversity is a bunch of crap and un-American.” After facing backlash, Grossman stood by the comments, saying, “I’m rejecting the whole premise of diversity as a virtue.”
The Democrat in the race, Jeff van Drew, ran as a conservative Democrat, actually drawing concerns in the primary elections that he was too conservative. Van Drew’s campaign focused on New Jersey’s agriculture, college affordability, and bringing manufacturing jobs back to South Jersey.
Van Drew likely prevailed due to a combination of Grossman’s miscalculation of aligning himself closely to the president in a district he only won by 4 points and Van Drew’s focus on local issues, such as fishing and keeping betting centralized in Atlantic City.
Lessons For 2020
The common denominator between the Democratic candidates who were responsible for flipping these three districts is they all ignored pure ideological debates. Instead of allowing themselves to fall into the “progressive vs. moderate” debate plaguing the Democratic party (or just the media’s editorial sections), the candidates in these districts ran on issues that mattered to their constituents, regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum.
National Democratic figures are not popular. House Minority Leader, and likely future Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) only has a a 28 percent favorability rating. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY.) isn’t faring much better, polling at a 29 percent favorability rating. Yet, Democratic policy proposals are overwhelmingly popular. 70 percent of Americans support Medicare for All. 66 percent of Americans support the legalization of marijuana. 84 percent of Americans support a pathway to citizenship for immigrants living in the US illegally.
So what does this mean? Democrats need to continue to ignore the nationalization of issues, such as the caravan of migrants approaching the US. This caravan will have no effect on the vast majority of Americans, yet it was the number one issue for supporters of Minnesota GOP gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson, a state nearly 1,000 miles away from the Texas border. When Democrats allow these Congressional races to focus on national issues, issues that have no effect on the communities where they are running, Democrats do badly. But when Democrats focus on local issues, like Rose’s focus on the opioid epidemic, Sherrill’s focus on renewable energy, and Van Drew’s focus on agriculture, Democrats excel.
Ignore the national media. Run on the issues.