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What progressives won in U.S. midterm elections

Voting line-up in Ohio. Photo: Tim Evanson/Flickr

The media say there was no big blue wave in the U.S. election. So why are the U.S. Democrats so happy? In such a huge election -- involving 46 state elections as well as the federal House of Representatives and one-third of the federal Senate -- it's hard to get the big picture.

Without the excitement of a presidential campaign, midterm elections are usually sleepy affairs where the incumbents regularly win. For example, brothel owner Dennis Hof was elected to Nevada District 36 Assembly on Tuesday, despite the fact he died on October 16. In Trump Country, 70 per cent of the voters decided they would rather vote for a dead pimp than a live Democrat.

So calcified are midterms that many of the new Democratic stars had no opponent from the other party in the actual election. Rather, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, they organized locally within their own party and won at the party primary level, with unexpected challenges to unwary incumbents.

Still, this time the total voter turnout was astonishing, building up over weeks and weeks of "Wakanda" and youth voter-registration drives. In TV reports on election night, often half the ballots came from early voting, making trends clearer in early poll reports. Vox cites an early NYT estimate that "some 114 million ballots were cast this year, well above the 83 million votes cast in 2014 and 91 million ballots cast in 2010."

Democrats flipped the House, from Republican to Democratic control. Although the election results are still uncertain as this is written, it seems the Democrats have won about 222 out of 435 seats in the House of Representatives, leaving Republicans in the minority with perhaps 196 seats.

"One-party rule is over," said the New York Times. Its graphic showed a patchwork U.S. map, with blue edges stitched around a big red middle. In truth, commentators noted, several red states have started to turn purple. Texas, for example, now has a layered blue tail. With a majority in the House, Democrats have won control over which issues become bills, and go for a vote in the House, before they are forwarded to the Senate for confirmation. The House proposes, the Senate disposes.

Democratic control of the House means the tax cuts have stopped gushing, for now. As Business Insider reported at the end of September, "the U.S. House of Representatives passed a new $3.1-trillion tax cut on Friday. The vote was 220 to 191, including three Democrats." Granted, the bill died without Senate approval because of the elections. Such tactics won't happen again while most of us are distracted, say, by the mesmerizing Brett Kavanaugh hearings.

More than numbers, the new Representatives bring new viewpoints. At least 100 women were elected to the House and the Senate, which surpassed the previous record of 84. As Vox said, "Women also hit a series of significant milestones. Deb Haaland and Sharice Davids are the first Native American women elected to Congress. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar are the first Muslim women set to represent their states in the House. And Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez  and Abby Finkenauer are due to be the youngest women to serve as lawmakers."

The Guardian took a more colourful angle:

"A former CIA officer toppled an arch-conservative in Virginia. A cohort of women crashed Pennsylvania's all-male congressional delegation. Tennessee elected its first female senator. A 29-year-old Latina will be the youngest woman to serve in the U.S. House. And Kansas elected a lesbian former mixed martial arts fighter who will become one of two Native American women elected to Congress for the first time in the nation's history."

But that's just the beginning. New voices also swept into the state legislatures that held elections on November 6. Six states flipped to the Democrats, including Colorado, led by its first openly gay Governor, US Rep. Jared Polis. In New York, Catalina Cruz became the first "Dreamer" (undocumented immigrant) elected to the state legislature.

In Iowa, Zach Wahls beat a libertarian candidate for a state Senate seat, winning 78 per cent of the vote. At 27, Wahls had already appeared before the Senate as a teenager, speaking in praise of his two lesbian mothers.

On the other hand, there were some welcome defeats. In Kentucky, Democrat Elwood Caudill Jr took down County Clerk Kim Davis, who refused to issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple.     Democratic Secretary of State Kansas Laura Kelly defeated Governor Kris Kobach, whom the NYT called "quite possibly the most pernicious public official in America." In Wisconsin, Democrat Tony Evers defeated Governor Scott Walker, whom Wisconsin voters re-called from office once already, only to see him run again and win.

In the big picture, "Democrats picked up full control of a half dozen statehouses Tuesday, while Republicans lost full control of four others," CNBC reported. "The outcome could also affect the presidential election of 2020 and future control of the U.S. House of Representatives."

"In all, Democrats picked up at least seven of 26 GOP-held gubernatorial seats," Bloomberg reported, "a shift that could complicate Trump's re-election hopes and alter the nation's political landscape for the next decade...."

Both news sources are referring to congressional redistricting, due to happen in 2020. Back in 2010, National Public Radio (NPR) warned that, after the midterm elections, "Republicans will control more seats in state legislatures than at any time since the Great Depression. This means they will control the redistricting process, which happens only every 10 years."

"The process of drawing election districts so as to give one political party a majority is called gerrymandering..." said show, presciently.

As NPR predicted, the Republican party took over North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin -- four of the states with the largest delegations to the Electoral College -- and redistricted to give the federal Republican party a powerful electoral advantage.

Journalist David Daley's 2017 book RatF**ked does what the blurb says: it "documents the effort of Republican legislators and political operatives to hack American democracy through an audacious redistricting plan called REDMAP. [After the] election of Barack Obama, a group of GOP strategists...devised a way to flood state races with a gold rush of dark money, made possible by Citizens United, in order to completely reshape Congress -- and our democracy itself."

The same four states were up for elections this year, and this time, Democratic governors won in three out of four: North Carolina (Henry McMaster, R), Pennsylvania (Tom Wolf, D), Michigan (Gretchen Whitmer, D) and Wisconsin (Tony Evers, D). For Democrats to win back big electoral college states just in time for the every-10-years redistricting, is likely to make a huge difference in the 2020 federal election.

Unfortunately, Democrats have to win almost 10 per cent more votes than Republicans do, in order to win a seat. This is because Democrats tend to win elections in denser urban areas, with higher populations. Thay's why the NYT election map shows the centre of the country as a big bald red area -- rural areas have much lower populations. Republicans win through what one wag called "representation by square foot, not representation by population."

President No. 45 has already lashed out in response to the big blue wave results, by firing Attorney General Jeff Sessions, presumably with an eye to firing Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller before he brings any charges in the Russian collusion investigation. A Democratic majority in the House has the authority to impeach the president, and send him to the Senate for trial.

Perhaps the most powerful lever Mueller has is to lay charges against Don Trump Jr. Does Trump care enough about his son (or anyone else) to step down to protect him? We should know fairly soon whether this game leads to checkmate or stalemate.

In the meantime, there's reason to celebrate the new faces, new voices and new perspectives arriving in the House. Finally, the U.S. federal government begins to resemble the people it governs. 

Award-winning author and journalist Penney Kome has published six non-fiction books and hundreds of periodical articles, as well as writing a national column for 12 years and a local (Calgary) column for four years. She was Editor of Straightgoods.com from 2004 - 2013.

Photo: Tim Evanson/Flickr

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