Token Dissonance

Black & gay, young & conservative. A Southern gentleman writes about life and politics after Yale


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The Good, The Bad, and the 2018 Midterm

“I’m pretty excited, but I also know that we have a lot of work to do… you gotta get right to work.” –Denver Riggleman

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It’s that most wonderful time of year: Post-Election Day hot takes! Woot woot!

To start with the obvious, this was a relatively good cycle for Democrats and a bad one with some key upshots for Republicans and President Trump. Democrats took the House and a bunch of governor’s mansions. Republicans expanded their Senate majority, maintained the majority of governorships, and retain an even larger majority of state legislatures. Moreover, Republicans won difficult statewide races in key swing states (though not enough of them) that will be valuable in 2020 and beyond.

Perhaps most excitingly, on a personal level, the first ballot I ever cast for somebody I knew personally helped Denver Riggleman win the open race here in Virginia’s 5th congressional district. It was a single bright light amid otherwise dispiriting gloom settling across the Commonwealth, but we’ll take it.

Among the most encouraging developments came from my home state: Florida. I was rooting for Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis early on, back when he was a scrappy underdog in the GOP gubernatorial primary. He was one of my favorite congressmen because of his strident, principled conservatism, and I have fond memories of lively conversations with him and other conservative leaders over bourbon and cigars when I was visiting home years ago. I’m ecstatic that he’s earned the governor’s mansion.

Believe it or not, I once despised Gov. Rick Scott, even after I evolved from a Democrat to a Republican. But his strong record as governor—and the fact that he was clearly right about the high-speed rail boondoggle for taxpayers—brought me around, and he’ll undoubtedly be a marked improvement in the Senate over Bill Nelson.

Like Texas, Florida is an enormous multiethnic state that’s become more Republican as it’s become more diverse. Florida has the second-longest unbroken streak in the entire South (after Texas) of complete GOP rule (since 1999 vs 1995). If the GOP lead in the open race for Agriculture Commissioner holds, then there will be no statewide Democrats left in Florida for the first time since Reconstruction. Minority voters are a key part of this shift.

The 2016 and 2018 elections set records for minority voting in Florida, with sky-high turnout to boot. Republicans won both years—from Marco Rubio to Ron DeSantis—because as minority turnout has increased in Florida, the Republican share of minority votes has also increased. For all the talk of new voters from Puerto Rico padding Democrat margins in the I-4 corridor, Republicans gained significant ground against Sen. Bill Nelson (who came a little closer to victory than Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum) in the Tampa Bay area because Latino Floridians are generally voting *more* Republican, not less, as they get more engaged, just as black Floridians are voting *more* Republican, not less, even when a black Democrat is on the ballot.

Because of the Sunshine State’s growing diversity, Florida Republicans, like their Texas peers, need stronger margins among minority voters than Republicans in many other states. Rick Scott increasing his share of the black vote over his previous two elections is literally why he is in office today. According to exit polls, DeSantis roughly matched or exceeded that already relatively high showing, though neither was quite as high as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s impressive (for a Republican) 20 percent. DeSantis also earned nearly 40 percent of the Latino vote, about the same as Abbott, with Scott winning even more. This stronger performance among minorities is especially important because Florida Republicans, like Republicans elsewhere, have lost ground among whites with the flight of upper-class suburbanites and need minority voters to make up the difference. In Florida, as in Texas, Republicans are fighting hard for and winning these votes, and national Republicans would kill for such margins.

Of course, there are limits to this good news, as the bigger picture of 2018 reminds us: Minority voters still vote mostly Democratic, albeit much less so in Florida (and Texas) than they do nationally, and Florida Republicans lost two winnable House races in heavily West Indian South Florida (I dearly miss Carlos Curbelo already) and several more in Texas. Still, the numbers offer hope for a constructive way forward.

Now that Floridians have rightly repealed Jim Crow-era restrictions on voting rights for formerly incarcerated citizens, an estimated 1.4 million people with felony convictions are expected to regain the right to vote. They are disproportionately nonwhite. The enduring survival of Republican governance in Florida, along with all the robust economy this governance maintains for the state’s rapidly swelling population, will depend in part on conservatives’ ability to attract and engage those and other new voters. And these lessons and successes will be vitally important for the national GOP, even and especially if Trump continues to drag down Republican popularity throughout growing segments of suburban America.

The blue wave of 2018 was neither as deep as Democrats expected nor as weak as Republicans  hoped, but the real impact long-term will come from what we make of the landscape it leaves behind.

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Rising Tide of the Big Tent

“The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.” –Edward Kennedy, failed presidential candidate

Nothing lasts forever.

Nothing lasts forever.

In the rosy-fingered wake of the Republican wave of 2014, the Party of Lincoln will be in complete legislative and gubernatorial control of 24 states, which together amount to nearly half the population of the United States. As Reid Wilson reports in the Washington Post, Republicans now hold majorities in a modern record 68 of the 98 partisan legislative chambers (16 of which are supermajorities) among 49 states. (The Nebraska legislature is unicameral and nonpartisan, though effectively Republican.) Compare this to only six states completely controlled by Democrats, accounting for only 15 percent of the country.

As it stands, Joe Manchin may wind up among the last of the Senate’s red-state Democrats—assuming, of course, he continues to resist the Elysian lure of the elephantine caucus. Among purple-state Democrats, a modest number remain, but the unexpectedly close scares in New Hampshire and Virginia (still a shock to most, and where I’m proud to say my boyfriend, many our friends, and I voted for Ed Gillespie)—combined with the surprising Democratic loss in North Carolina—has essentially put this crowd on notice. Whereas, six years ago Southern Democrats like Mark Pryor and Mark Warner could rack up impregnable victories with high-soaring rhetoric and ostensibly centrist appeal, now almost anybody can lose nigh on anywhere. It’s as though George R. R. Martin somehow got ahold of the scripts of our elections.

Even as red-state Democrats have faded, Republicans have proliferated at every level of blue and purple states. There will be Republican governors from progressive Maryland to liberal Massachusetts. There will be Republican Senators from left-leaning Maine to purple Colorado. In supposedly blue Iowa, which birthed Barack Obama’s presidential ascent and has only voted for a Republican Commander-in-Chief once in seven elections since Ronald Reagan, conservatives will control both U.S. Senate seats, three of four House seats, the governor’s mansion, and the state House. And, of course, in President Obama’s own political backyard, the GOP of deep-blue Illinois will have the governor, a Senator, and nearly half the U.S. House delegation.

By contrast, a broad array of Democrats once hailed as rising stars have gone with the wind, like the debris of a star-crossed missile under a mid-Atlantic sky. Alexander Burns sings the dirge of the midterm Democrat over at Politico:

“At the start of the 2014 campaign, Democrats envisioned an election that would produce new national stars for the party in at least a few tough states – Georgia Sen. Michelle Nunn or Kentucky Sen. Alison Lundergan Grimes, for instance, or maybe even Texas Gov. Wendy Davis. Even if the party fell short in those “reach” states, Democrats hoped to produce new heavyweight blue-state Democrats – Maryland Gov. Anthony Brown, the country’s only black state executive; or Maine Gov. Mike Michaud, who would have been the first openly gay candidate elected governor.

Any of them could have landed on a vice presidential short list in 2016.

Instead, all of them lost.

Joining them were numerous down-ballot Democrats widely viewed as future contenders for high office: attorney general candidates in Nevada and Arizona who looked like future governors; aspiring state treasurers in Ohio and Colorado who could have gone on to bigger things; prized secretary of state candidates in Iowa and Kansas as well as countless congressional hopefuls around the country.”

Predictably, some progressives, including President Barack “my policies are on the ballot, unless they lose” Obama, are chalking up the bulk of their popular rejection to midterm demographics. Americans don’t “really” agree with Republicans, the thinking goes; it’s just that the Democratic “coalition of the ascendant” didn’t turn out—but they would have saved the Democrats, had they showed up! As it happens, we have exit polls, and they paint a more interesting—and more conservative—picture. As ABC reports (my emphasis):

Young adults, a Democratic mainstay…supported Democrats only by 54-43 percent, down from a 60-38 percent margin in their House vote two years ago. Nonwhites – a growing share of the electorate – slipped to 25 percent of voters, more than in any previous midterm but also 3 points off their share in 2012.

Single women, another core Democratic group, gave the party their smallest margin, 60-38 percent, in exit polls back to 1992. Women overall voted +5 points Democratic for House, 52-47 percent – down from +11 in 2012. Men, for their part, voted +14 Republican, 56-42 percent.

Key Republican groups came out swinging. Eighty-five percent of conservatives voted Republican, the most on record (albeit by a single point from 2010). White men voted Republican by 64-34 percent, the widest GOP advantage in this group in data since 1984. Seniors – 22 percent of voters – backed Republicans for the House by 57-42 percent.

And independents, back to their swing-voter status in this election, voted Republican by a 12-point margin, trailing only the 2010 and 1994 GOP advantages in this group.”

In other words, no midterm in history—including the Democratic wave of 2006—has featured higher minority turnout than this 2014 GOP wave. In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, the 25 percent of the electorate that was nonwhite in 2014 actually exceeds the mere 23.7 percent minority showing in the “most diverse in U.S. history” Obama wave of 2008.

Let me say that again: the 2014 midterm electorate that restored complete GOP control of Congress was less white than the presidential-year electorate that first propelled Barack Obama to the White House. The difference, of course, is this that blacks, Hispanics, and Asians voted more Republican this time around.

Likewise, according to multiple exit polls, including those conducted by The Washington Post, NBC, and Wall Street Journal, the 2014 electorate was markedly less conservative and less supportive of the Tea Party than in 2010—though a modestly higher percentage of liberals, moderates, and middle-class Americans voted Republican this year. Republicans won among college graduates, independents, suburbanites, the employed, the unemployed, and voters who paid attention to the campaigns, and GOP completely erased an Obama-era deficit among Asian-Americans.

The picture for long-term progressive planners gets even grimmer when looking at some key states Democrats plotted to recapture. In the abortive left-wing hope of majority-minority Texas, Gov.-elect Greg Abbott not only performed strongly among Hispanics, but he also won a solid majority of women voters against a female challenger who arguably embodied the progressive charge of a so-called “War on Women.” Her fellow vanquished champion of “women’s issues,” Colorado Sen. Mark “obnoxious…insult to those he seeks to convince” Udall, saw his advantage among nonwhite voters collapse from a margin of 36 points in 2008 to merely 10 points in 2014. In Georgia, nonwhite turnout reached a record high even as Michelle Nunn surprised most observers by failing even to force a runoff. In Nevada, soon-to-be Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid will be the last statewide Democrat left in a place where the Hispanic Republican governor (who might make a promising U.S. Senate candidate in 2016) was reelected with more than 70 percent of the vote.

With the latest defeat of Alcibiades Charlie Crist, after the collapse of Alex Sink, the Democratic bench stool in Florida has essentially been reduced to the aging Southern charm of Bill Nelson and, perhaps, the inherited (political) fortune of panhandle Rep.-elect Gwen Graham, who will become the sole white Democrat in Congress elected from the Deep South. Supposedly purple Florida has no statewide elected Democrats (except U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson), a nearly 2/3 GOP congressional delegation, and yet another GOP supermajority in the state House. Florida has not seen Democratic majorities in either chamber of the legislature since at least 1996 (1992 for the state Senate), and my home state has not elected a Democratic governor since Lawton Chiles in 1994 (the year I started kindergarten), one of the longest such streaks in the South—after only Texas.

In other words, Democrats across the country can now finally empathize with the insatiable aching for a political savior—any savior—in the weary, embittered hearts of their comrades in the Sunshine State. Most of the swing districts—and there are dozens left—are now held by Republicans. There are districts as blue as D+7 that soon may be held by Republicans, pending final counts. The GOP bench is young, deep, and diverse—like the country—whereas the Democrats are enervated and grasping at atrophic platitudes.

To put it bluntly, while the Democrats wrote off the GOP as a regional party in 2012, the reality is now looking decidedly the reverse. Republicans won seats in every region and socioeconomic makeup of the country, including in cities (like New York and St. Petersburg), suburbs, and small towns. Democrats, by contrast, are largely reduced to urban enclaves, majority-black districts, and the coasts of the blue states. This has long been the case in Florida; now that the trend has obtained nationally, it will be fascinating to watch the results.

It’s also interesting to note that LGBT issues, to the extent they came up at all, were largely championed by Republican candidates from Maine to California to Florida. While not all of those contestants prevailed, many won easily. In my home state, Carlos Curbelo unseated an incumbent Democrat in the southernmost district on the continent, and Rep. David Jolly, who purportedly won the ire of many a social conservative for his endorsement of same-sex marriage, won his race by a greater than 3:1 margin. Both seats lean Republican. Given that Republicans will be defending seats mostly in the blue and purple states—like Pat Toomey’s—next cycle, this encouraging trend is likely to continue.

Republicans are by no means out of the woods demographically—the singularly unpopular Rick Scott, for one, hemorrhaged quite a bit of nonwhite support in his nail-biting reelection, and the midterm electorate was predictably older and smaller than in presidential years—but there is much cause for optimism. If the GOP moves swiftly to consolidate and expand recent demographic gains ahead of 2016, the future of American politics could very well turn out much differently than progressives like to imagine. If the Party fails as miserably as the Democratic supermajority of not-that-long ago, then everything could yet be undone.

For now, though, it’s time to prepare to govern. We have miles to go before we sleep.