Democrats had to win one policy argument to take the House and another to provide a pathway to future electoral victories. They did both, which should remind Democrats and Republicans alike that while President Trump’s ranting and raving can carry deep red senators over the finish line, he’s ceding important issues to Democrats.
It was essential for Democrats to defend their most significant legislative accomplishment in decades — the Affordable Care Act — and staunch GOP efforts to uproot it. They ably focused on Obamacare, especially protection for those with preexisting conditions, and wiped out a slew of Republicans who had pledged to repeal Obamacare. What’s more, in three red states — Idaho, Nebraska and Utah — voters approved Medicaid expansion, a central element of the ACA. It’s remarkable that with control of both houses of Congress and the White House, Republicans wound up popularizing the health-care law — and expanding an entitlement program they’ve attacked for decades as rife with waste, fraud and abuse.
Moreover, as the New York Times reports: “Democratic victories in governors’ races also improved the chances of Medicaid expansion in Kansas and Wisconsin, and all but ensured it in Maine. As a result, Medicaid could see its biggest enrollment bump since the health law began allowing expansion in 2014 . . . Another state to keep an eye on is North Carolina, where Republicans lost their supermajority in the state House and Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, has been trying to build support for Medicaid expansion.”
The ACA, it seems, is here to stay because even Republicans want its benefits. The task is to improve and strengthen it with an eye toward affordability. (The only comparable policy win I can think of is same-sex marriage — which is effectively a nonissue.) The era of Republicans pretending to be small-government advocates is over (especially considering their infatuation with debt). If the argument is who is going to do a better job of providing health care, Democrats have a substantial advantage. (If the ACA is “socialism,” as Trump and other Republicans try to argue, I suppose red-state voters are socialists.)
Equally if not more important for future electoral victories were Democratic wins in the area of voting rights. Ironically in an election in which Georgia gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp (R) pulled every trick in the book (voter purges, exact match rules, closing polling places) to suppress the vote, the 2018 midterms marked a big step forward to voting access. Progressives were ecstatic. Mother Jones crowed:
Florida passed a historic ballot initiative that will restore voting rights to up to 1.4 million ex-felons. Voters in Michigan dramatically modernized their election system by approving Election Day registration, automatic registration, no-excuse absentee ballots, and straight-ticket voting. Nevada passed automatic registration, and Maryland adopted Election Day registration. These measures will make it easier for tens of thousands of people to register in these states.
In addition, Michigan, Colorado, and Missouri approved initiatives to rein in gerrymandering by drawing political districts in a nonpartisan way. All of these initiatives received at least 60 percent of the vote, reflecting broad support for a pro-voting rights agenda. (A seventh initiative, to create an independent redistricting commission in Utah, was narrowly ahead with 50 percent of the vote as of Wednesday morning, but it remains too close to call until all the mail-in ballots are counted.)
“It’s a reaffirmation that voting rights are popular,” says Faiz Shakir, political director of the American Civil Liberties Union, which put a combined $10 million behind initiatives in Florida, Michigan, Nevada, and Utah.
These measures will help make voter ID and other voting-suppression stratagems a dead letter. The limits on gerrymandering, which were approved in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision earlier this year to punt on the issue, will theoretically open up more state and federal seats to competition and increase minority voting power (since gerrymandering in red states often serves to limit nonwhites’ voting power).
Putting aside any partisan advantage, increasing access to voting and creating more seats that are competitive are indisputably pro-democracy measures. Forcing more politicians to be responsive to more voters is the essence of democracy.
There were setbacks for advocates of voting reform in Arkansas and North Carolina, which passed voter ID measures, but overall this was the biggest comeback for voting rights since the Supreme Court struck down pre-clearance provisions in the Voting Rights Act in 2013.
States that elected Democratic governors and legislatures should follow the example in states that did not pass voting-access ballot measures. They can legislatively enact automatic registration, voting by mail and anti-gerrymandering measures.
For too long, Republicans have been extending the dominance of white voters through a variety of voting schemes. In 2018, voting-rights advocates began fighting back. If they are successful, Republicans might actually have to start appealing to nonwhite voters.