A “Critical Progressive Pivot Point” for Our Country: DFA’s Top 5 Takeaways from the 2018 Election

Headlined by a night of historic "firsts" and the return of Democratic control of the U.S. House after the crushing loss of 2016, future generations will likely remember Election Night 2018 as a critical progressive pivot point in our country's political history.

Led by the people of color, women, millennials, and white progressives who make up the New American Majority, the 2018 election results delivered a clear repudiation of Donald Trump, pulled the country back from the brink of Democratic collapse, and decisively pushed it toward the kind of multiracial inclusive populist agenda we need to address the challenges we face and move the country forward.

DFA's Top Five Takeaways from the 2018 Election Results:

  • While Democrats' successful flip of the U.S. House shifts power in Washington, the historic night of "firsts" and the boost it gives to building a more reflective democracy will have an even longer lasting impact. These history-making trailblazers will not only bring new, vital perspective to Congress, they are also set to be leaders in the fight for the bold inclusive populist reforms, like Medicare for All, that drive the New American Majority.

    DFA-endorsed historic "first" House winners include: Veronica Escobar (TX-16, one of Texas' first Latina Congresswoman), Deb Haaland (NM-1, one of the first Native American women elected to Congress), Jahana Hayes (CT-5, Connecticut's first Black Congresswoman), Joe Neguse (CO-2, Colorado's first Black Member of Congress), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY-14, the youngest woman ever elected to Congress), Ilhan Omar (MN-05, the first Somali-American and Muslim woman), Ayanna Pressley (Massachusetts' first Black Congresswoman), Rashida Tlaib (MI-13, the first Palestinian-American & Muslim woman), and Lauren Underwood (IL-14, the youngest Black woman ever elected to Congress).
  • The incoming Democratic Caucus in both the House and the Senate is set to be the most progressive in a generation. In addition to flipping control of the House, the 2018 election represents a rapid expansion of the number of leaders who are ready to help lead the fight for multiracial inclusive populism in Congress. Not only is the House gaining a new generation of progressive visionaries like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib from blue districts, but the latest data from the Progressive Change Institute shows that 64% of the Democratic Freshman Class support inclusive populist economic priorities like Medicare for All, a Medicare Public Option, and/or Social Security Expansion.

    Moreover, while we were tremendously disappointed that Democrats were unable to retake the Senate, after losing members like Sen. Joe Donnelly and Sen. Claire McCaskill and gaining the new voice of DFA-endorsed Jacky Rosen, the new Senate Democratic Caucus is likely to be even more ideologically united in their approach to confronting Donald Trump than before.
  • Racism, left-bashing, and trying to score points by backing alleged attempted rapists for the Supreme Court are not winning strategies for Democrats. In a last-minute effort to save his limping campaign, Senator Joe Donnelly aired ads attacking the "radical left" and fully embraced Trump's monument to bigotry on our Southern border. Senator Claire McCaskill acted similarly by closing out her ultimately losing campaign by throwing a wild punch at "crazy Democrats." Even more perplexing, former Governor Phil Bredesen effectively tanked his chances of winning a Republican-held Senate seat in Tennessee with the wholly unnecessary announcement that he would have voted for alleged attempted rapist Brett Kavanaugh for the U.S. Supreme Court if he'd been in the Senate -- afterward, his fundraising fell off a cliff and he went on to lose his race by nearly 11 points.

    Conversely, while he came up shy of victory, DFA-endorsed candidate Beto O'Rourke's Medicare for All-embracing, pro-Immigrant rights inclusive populist campaign got much closer (2.6 points) to giving Ted Cruz an upset loss in deep-red Texas than any of the anti-progressive Senate Democrats who lost.
  • Expanding the electorate is paving the way for the future success of Democrats. Overall, Democrats' success in the 2018 election was led by a number of candidates who rejected a dated establishment playbook and focused their campaign strategy on expanding the electorate and increasing midterm voter turnout, rather than continuing to target an ever-dwindling number of right-leaning, overwhelmingly white, regularly voting so-called "swing voters."

    The impact of this change in targeting is most directly seen in the massive increase in voter turnout Democrats saw in 2018 across the country. According to early data from the United States Elections Project, 2018 saw the highest voter turnout in a midterm in over 50 years, with a projected 114 million votes cast representing a more than 31% turnout increase over the last wave election in 2014. This massive spike in turnout was particularly pronounced in states like Georgia (a staggering 16.4 points over 2014) and Florida (a more than 10-point increase over 2014) where the top of the tickets featured dynamic leaders who were themselves from the New American Majority and ran campaigns focused on turning out a statewide coalition of Black, brown, and progressive white voters.

    While the Gillum race appears ready for a recount and Abrams is still fighting for the votes necessary to secure a run-off, the work these two campaigns put into transforming and expanding midterm election turnout undoubtedly got them closer to victory in states that have never elected a Black governor and haven't seen a Democratic Gubernatorial victory in at least 15 years. Moreover, even with races still unsettled, the down-ticket impact that Gillum and Abrams's electorate-expanding efforts had in Georgia and Florida is undeniable. For example, DFA-endorsed candidate Lucy McBath's shock win in Georgia's 6th Congressional District likely has ties to the exceedingly strong, electorate-expanding campaign that Abrams ran throughout the state, as do the upset victories of a number of DFA-endorsed Georgia State House candidates like El-Mahdi Holly (GA-HD-111) and Mary Robichaux (GA-HD-49).

    In Wisconsin, DFA-endorsed Governor and Lt. Gov candidates Tony Evers and Mandela Barnes also ran a strong grassroots campaign focused on turning out sporadic midterm voters and centering the New American Majority. One of the most important features of their victory over one of the progressive movement's most elusive white whales, Scott Walker, was the massive Democratic landslide in Madison's Dane County. The key Democratic stronghold likely secured Evers and Barnes' victory by supplying nearly twice the number of Democratic votes as it did in 2010 and nearly 50,000 more votes than either 2014 or the Walker recall in 2012.
  • Voter suppression, the rise of white nationalism, and our culture of white supremacy are a drag on progressive change, but they aren't stopping it. While there is much to celebrate about the 2018 election, there's little doubt that massive levels of voter suppression held back the gains of many electorate-expanding candidates across the country -- from purging voters of color from the rolls and closing polling locations in Black and brown communities to passing voter ID laws specifically designed to make it harder for non-white voters to be counted. For example, despite nearly doubling turnout over 2014 and massively increasing the number of new voters and voters of color, Stacey Abrams's opponent's efforts to use his power as Secretary of State to construct hurdles to voting and the counting of ballots undoubtedly held back her chances of an outright win.

    At the same time, times are changing. While this cycle exposed the culture of white supremacy that still plagues our politics, the primary victories of Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum -- and the massive spike in participation they inspired among the New American Majority of Black, brown and progressive white voters -- showed meaningful forward momentum. In Florida, for example, 150,000 of the votes cast for Andrew Gillum in August's gubernatorial primary. came from voters who either were voting for the first time or had not voted in the previous three elections. Similarly, the victory of Second Chances Florida's Amendment 4, which finally ends a vicious Jim Crow-era law that kept more than 1.4 million Floridians from the ballot, only moves us closer to the day when an inspiring, inclusive populist candidate of color like Andrew Gillum will win a statewide race in the Sunshine State. Meanwhile, in this election, Steve King, a long-time advocate of white nationalism, was forced into the fight of his political life by DFA-endorsed inclusive populist J.D. Scholten. In previous cycles, King prevailed handily with 61.6% of the vote in 2014 and 61.2% in 2016. In 2018? He barely squeaked by with 50.4%.

While there are still a number of races left to call and lessons we will learn from 2018 in the weeks and months ahead, it's important for us to honor the people who really made these monumental victories happen: the grassroots.

Over the last two years, a wave of grassroots leaders and organizers took the despair they felt in 2016 and turned it into a movement that firmly rejects the politics of bigotry, hate, and fear that Trump has used to turn the country against itself and unrelentingly worked to elect a new generation of leaders committed to an inclusive, populist progressive vision for the United States.

If there's one clear message from Democratic victories in 2018, it's that the future of the Democratic Party lies with the candidates, campaigns, and voters of the New American Majority leading the fight for multiracial inclusive populism into 2020 and beyond.

More than any group of insiders or highly paid consultants in Washington, the grassroots understands the change that needs to happen, the fights we need to wage, and the battles we need to win. We are proud to call many of those leaders DFA members and we can't wait to continue working with them as they help deliver the change our country needs.

Key Facts about DFA's work and results during the 2017-18 election cycle:

  • Over the 2017-18 cycle, DFA raised and spent more than $8.2 million in support of progressive candidates across the country -- including more than $1.1 million raised directly from DFA members for DFA-endorsed candidates.
  • DFA generated more than 3.5 million grassroots voter contact calls via its DFA Dialer distributed calling platform -- the largest number of grassroots calls in a single election cycle that DFA has ever generated in its nearly 15-year history.
  • DFA backed 299 progressive candidates running all across the county -- the largest number of primary and general election endorsements in the organization's history.
  • DFA provided direct support to the broadest range of candidates ever --backing an unprecedented 7 folks running for governor, 11 folks running for Senate, 44 for U.S. House, and 243 running for local office
  • DFA delivered on its commitment to building a more reflective democracy and fighting for racial justice by throwing its weight behind its most diverse slate of candidates ever -- 139 of the candidates DFA supported during the 2018 cycle are people of color, 157 are women or non-binary, and numerous others are poised to bust historic barriers to representation in Congress and Governor's mansions across the country.
  • As of Friday, November 9th, 139 DFA-endorsed candidates won election to office during the 2017-18 election cycle -- likely the largest number of targeted wins in a single cycle since DFA's 2004 founding. This includes four special elections that took place during 2017-18, the 2017 off-year elections, and the 2018 general election. At publication, at least 6 races were outstanding.
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