Before the midterm elections, CNN Opinion asked commentators to weigh in on the races they were watching most closely. We have asked those commentators to assess the outcome of those races – and what they mean for the future of American politics. The views expressed are solely their own.
Raul Reyes: Chances are, we have not heard the last from Beto
On Tuesday, just hours before the polls closed in Texas, Beyonce made a surprise endorsement for Democrat Beto O’Rourke over Republican Ted Cruz in the race for Texas senator. Maybe Queen Bey should have weighed in a little sooner. Maybe O’Rourke should have run a more traditional campaign, instead of refusing to run negative ads. Maybe O’Rourke should have worked harder at winning over Republican voters, rather than focusing on identifying new voters.
The “what-if’s” will no doubt linger around O’Rourke’s candidacy for a long time, as incumbent Cruz defeated him in the Lone Star State by single digits. Though O’Rourke excited voters in a way reminiscent of Barack Obama, this was not Beto’s night. His narrow defeat was a heartbreaker for Democrats who have long dreamed of turning this state blue.
Still, this has been an extraordinary campaign, one that O’Rourke can and should be proud of. If he had run a conventional campaign, it likely would not have captured national attention, inspired Texas Democrats and made “Beto” a household name. O’Rourke should be pleased with the fact that he has awakened the state’s Democrats. Just the fact that, until around 10 p.m. Tuesday night, the race was seen as a tossup is an accomplishment in itself.
O’Rourke has shown that a progressive Democrat can mount a serious challenge in a red state. He has brought in thousands of first-time voters, among them many Latinos and millennials. And he did this while refraining from personal attacks and staying true to his inclusive values.
Ted Cruz likely benefitted from the structural electoral advantages that Republicans enjoy in Texas – as well as a healthy dose of political tribalism. But thanks to his charisma and sharp political instincts, O’Rourke has made a substantial impact on Texas politics. He is well-positioned to challenge Sen. John Cornyn, or even consider a presidential run. Chances are, we have not heard the last from Beto.
Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today board of contributors. Follow him on Twitter @RaulAReyes.
Jennifer L. Lawless: Three lessons from Texas 23
Republican incumbent Will Hurd’s win over Gina Jones in Texas’ 23rd Congressional District race demonstrates three important lessons about the midterms.
First, TX-23 is one of the 23 House districts that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, but which sent a Republican to Congress. Both parties were laser-focused on this year’s race because it was prime real estate to flip. The fact that the GOP held it yet the Democrats still found a path to control the House highlights the importance of broadening the electoral map. A loss in TX-23 would have been devastating for Democrats had fewer districts been in play.
Second, a compelling profile can only take a candidate so far. Gina Jones’ background was a progressive Democratic voter’s dream come true. She’s young. She’s gay. She’s a woman of color. She’s an Iraq War veteran. But even if she motivated and energized Democrats, there weren’t enough of them in the district.
Third, Hurd’s win isn’t synonymous with a Donald Trump victory. Hurd isn’t a Trump acolyte. He differs from the President on DACA and the border wall (not surprising given that the district is 55% Hispanic). And as a former CIA official, he’s condemned the administration for how it handled Russian interference in the 2016 election. Hurd didn’t embrace Trump and managed to eke out a win, probably to the president’s chagrin.
TX-23 reminds us that even in a nationalized election, some politics are still local.
Jennifer L. Lawless is the Commonwealth Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia.
Julian Zelizer: Trumpism was victorious in Tennessee
Tennessee produced an important victory for Trumpism, a Republican agenda that revolves around nativism, tariffs and nationalism – as well as an unorthodox style of governance. The state’s Senate race was perceived by both parties as a good test of what kind of impact Trump was having in territory that was friendly to him in 2016.
Democrats were hoping that the former governor, Phil Bredesen, a moderate and beloved politician, could defeat the conservative Representative Marsha Blackburn, a close ally of Trump.
And Bredesen put up a good fight. He stuck to whatever center still exists in American politics – supporting Judge Brett Kavanaugh and saying he wouldn’t vote for Sen. Chuck Schumer as the party leader. But the fact that he could not pull this off will be deflating.
If the Senate remains in Republican hands, the administration and the Republican leadership will certainly read into the results signs that the last month’s aggressive partisan strategy worked – play to the base, be as rightward as possible and do not cede anything to moderation.
The message from Tennessee will also have an effect on Democrats, as they start sorting through what kind of candidates they want to run in 2020 – with an inevitable battle between those who favor centrists and those who want progressives. Bredesen’s inability to pull off a victory in Tennessee means there is little hope that anyone else in the party can.
With Tennessee, even in an evening when Republicans suffered in swing House districts, score one for Trumpism.
Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress and the Battle for the Great Society.”
Sally Kohn: Georgia’s 6th District reminds us why every vote matters
When Democrat Lucy McBath announced her candidacy to unseat Republican incumbent Karen Handel in Georgia’s 6th, no one really thought the flight attendant turned gun control advocate had a chance. After all, Handel had won her seat in the fiercely contested special election against Democrat Jon Ossoff in June 2017. While Ossoff broke fundraising records and almost became a national rock star, Handel ultimately won by more than 3 percentage points.
Georgia’s 6th District – the one that once sent Republican Newt Gingrich to Congress – is historically red and 60% white. McBath is a black woman who rose to prominence as a voice in the Black Lives Matter movement after her 17-year-old son, Jordan Davis, was shot and killed by a white man at a gas station after an argument over the volume of music playing in the teen’s car.
In addition, a strong base of volunteers showed up for both McBath and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, at the top of the state ticket. What really seems to distinguish this election is the level of sustained and enthusiastic grassroots support across the country. Trump supporters may have shown up in big numbers to attend rallies in airport hangars, but Democrats knocked on millions of doors, made millions of calls and mobilized in ways that will continue to shake politics in this country. That surge of progressive grassroots action is just beginning. George Goehl, the director of People’s Action, rightly called the midterm results a “people’s wave.”
That’s in a state where allegations of voter suppression were widely reported, especially after Georgia’s secretary of state and Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp canceled more than 1.4 million voter registrations since 2012, according to The Associated Press. Republicans and Trump made clear in this election that they’re willing to fight dirty by spreading hate or actively discouraging people from voting. And the Georgia 6th race reminds us why every vote matters.
Sally Kohn is a CNN political commentator and author of the book, “The Opposite of Hate.”
Jeff Yang: Never underestimate a well-run Democratic campaign
In a night where the Democratic Party’s hope for a blue tidal wave was tempered by a redder-than-expected reality, Antonio Delgado’s victory in New York’s 19th Congressional District was a sterling example of how the traditional combination of an appealing candidate, methodical grassroots organizing, and, of course, an ample war chest is still the formula for success in demographically challenging areas.
Delgado, running as a pragmatic progressive in a rural, 84% white district that Trump won, set incumbent John Faso back on his heels with his ability to fund-raise and with competitive results in early polls.
Republicans tried to fight him by playing the racial fear card, running an ad referring to Delgado as an ex-rapper whose profane lyrics and left-wing politics showed him to be out of touch with the values of the community – obscuring Delgado’s status as a Harvard-educated lawyer and Rhodes scholar.
The ads may have backfired; at the least, they led to articles shaming Faso’s clumsy attempt at race-baiting in the New York Times, Washington Post, New York magazine and local papers like the Times-Union. This allowed Delgado to avoid directly responding to the attacks, while focusing on more pertinent concerns for the district, such as health care, a topic on which Faso, who had voted to kill Obamacare, was already vulnerable. The victory polishes Delgado’s status as a potential rising star in the Democratic Party – which the party needs, given its lackluster bench going forward into 2020 and beyond.
Jeff Yang is a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion, a featured writer for Quartz and other publications, and the co-host of the podcast “They Call Us Bruce.”
Scott Jennings: Progressives cannot win in Kentucky
Republican incumbent Andy Barr in Kentucky’s 6th Congressional District found himself in a dogfight with Democratic challenger Amy McGrath, a former fighter pilot who came home to storm her primary and give Democrats hope in a district that covers Kentucky’s beautiful bluegrass region.
But Barr brought in a wingman – President Donald Trump – and defeated McGrath in one of the closest congressional races in recent Kentucky history.
Trump rallied for Barr in Madison County, where thousands packed an arena on the campus of Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond. And when the votes were tallied on election night Madison delivered for Barr, giving him 59% of the vote and a nearly 7,000-vote margin.
Republican turnout in the district’s rural counties overcame McGrath’s strong showing in Fayette County, the urban heart of the district. There was some Republican handwringing over whether Barr should cleave so closely to Trump, but the campaign made the correct call and used the President in just the right way, giving Barr his happy landing.
This campaign showed the value of opposition research. Insiders say McGrath had a double-digit polling lead during the summer, but crashed back to earth when the Barr campaign unleashed tapes of her talking to liberal donors at out-of-state fundraisers.
“I am further left, I am more progressive, than anyone in the state of Kentucky,” McGrath told her donors in one speech, a clip of which appeared in numerous sidewinders fired off by Barr and the Republicans in their ad barrage. Note to future candidates: everything you say anywhere might follow you home.
McGrath’s strong showing could make her a player for a future contest, perhaps a state office in 2019 or a run for US Senate in 2020 or 2022 when senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul next face the voters, respectively. But given the damage the opposition research did to McGrath’s image in a purplish district like Kentucky’s sixth, it’s hard to imagine her words playing any better throughout the redder portions of Kentucky.
Trump will be at the top of the ticket in 2020, and his alliance with McConnell will make it hard for any self-professed progressive to overcome the President and Senate majority leader in a state that’s among the most receptive to the #MAGA agenda.
Scott Jennings, a CNN contributor, is a former special assistant to President George W. Bush and former campaign adviser to Sen. Mitch McConnell. He is a partner at RunSwitch Public Relations in Louisville, Kentucky. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJenningsKY.
Jen Psaki: Sometimes the national party gets it right
On a night when Texas sent Ted Cruz back to the Senate, his opponent still made a significant contribution to a big democratic night. Beto O’Rourke’s grassroots turnout operation,and energizing message helped bring more Democrats to the polls and helped Lizzie Fletcher defeat John Culberson in Texas’ 7th Congressional District.
Fletcher ran a smart race focused on health care and Culberson’s votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act. And she successfully appealed to the anger and frustration of women in the Houston suburbs, including independent and Republican women, who were eager to send a message to President Donald Trump.
This race also showed that, once again, Democrats can come together after a bruising primary contest – even one where the national party ham-handedly weighed in with opposition research against the primary candidate they viewed as weaker. Whether or not it was the right tactic, the Democrats ended up with the nominee they wanted and a nominee who won a crucial southern seat.
Jen Psaki, a CNN political commentator, was the White House communications director and State Department spokeswoman during the Obama administration. She is vice president of communications and strategy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Follow her at @jrpsaki.
Robby Soave: It’s tough out there for third-party candidates
Former Gov. Gary Johnson came up well short in his third-party bid for New Mexico’s Senate seat – a familiar outcome for the Libertarian presidential aspirant.
Johnson, who previously earned 3% of the national popular vote in the 2016 presidential election, entered New Mexico’s Senate race in early August. He took an early lead over Republican candidate Mark Rich, but trailed incumbent Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich. An early Emerson College poll put Johnson at 21% vs. Rich’s 11% and Heinrich’s 39%. That turned out to be the high-water mark for Johnson; his support collapsed in subsequent polls. News outlets called the race on Tuesday night for Heinrich.
It’s tough out there for third-party candidates. Dissatisfied voters who plan to spurn the two major parties often come around and cast a lesser-of-two-evils vote for one or the other. Johnson, for instance, was polling at 10% at various points in 2016, but the final tally – while still the strongest showing for a third-party candidate since Ross Perot – was just over 3%.
Johnson’s loss is not unexpected, but it’s still a pity. An independent senator willing to challenge Trump and the Democratic Party would have been a welcome change of pace. Alas, the two-party duopoly is tough to break, no matter how many Americans would prefer a wider variety of choices.
Haroon Moghul: Ojeda represented something unusual
I wanted Richard Ojeda to win, not just because he is a Democrat, but because he represented something as important as it is unusual. A one-time Trump supporter, the military veteran switched sides, not out of crass political calculation – West Virginia, whose 3rd Congressional District he ran in, is obviously not a blue state – but out of genuine conviction. He believed, and rightly, that the President was not keeping his promises, that his fellow West Virginians were better represented by a party that cared for and fought for them. Ojeda represented, in other words, the possibility of partisan fluidity.
It may be that, in a district where he had little, if any, realistic chance of victory, there is no larger lesson to be learned. It could be, though, that this speaks to a disquieting obstacle; that, come 2020, Democrats will be doomed by a terrible trinity: gerrymandering, an Electoral College that slights majorities and party loyalty impossible to transcend.
But in the same state where Ojeda lost to Carol Miller, the state Trump won by a whopping 42%, Democratic incumbent Sen. Joe Manchin held on. However, Manchin voted to confirm Kavanaugh. That’s another kind of partisan fluidity.
Be careful what you wish for.
Haroon Moghul is Fellow in Jewish-Muslim Relations at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, and author of “How to be a Muslim: An American Story.”
Errol Louis: DeSantis benefited from the Trump boost
Andrew Gillum’s potential loss to Ron DeSantis in the race for Florida governor continues a pattern: Democrats, who have frequently carried the Sunshine State in presidential contests, have not won the governor’s mansion since 1998, despite coming within 1% of victory three times.
The race was nasty from the very start, with DeSantis drawing criticism for warning supporters not to “monkey this up” by losing to Gillum – a statement immediately condemned as racist by DeSantis critics.
Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee, at first looked like the candidate to change the Democrats’ luck. He led in 34 out of 37 polls leading up to election day; the final pre-election sounding by NBC News/Marist found Gillum leading DeSantis by a healthy 50% to 46%.
Gillum rolled up decent majorities in urban areas, including Jacksonville, Tampa, Miami and his base in Tallahassee. But last-minute campaigning by President Donald Trump boosted the turnout for DeSantis in Republican strongholds, as well as many suburban and exurban communities surrounding the Democratic cities.
One bright sign on the horizon for Democrats is the passage of a voter referendum that abolishes Florida’s onerous practice of banning ex-felons from voting for life unless a special pardon was granted. The restoration of voting rights could add more than 1 million voters to the rolls. That could be a game-changer in a future race.
Errol Louis is the host of “Inside City Hall,” a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel.
Tara Setmayer: It may be another generation before we see a New Jersey GOP Senator
Democratic incumbent Bob Medendez won his third term handily, despite his ethics-plagued tenure. His Republican challenger, Bob Hugin, tried to make the race a referendum on Menendez’s scandals by spending $36 million of his own money in what became one of the nastiest Senate races in the country. Hugin spent millions on TV ads alone, hammering Menendez on his alleged corruption and outspending the incumbent two to one. But he could not overcome Trump’s unpopularity in a state where the blue wave crashed ashore with a vengeance.
Hugin gave Democrats a scare when he pulled within single digits of Menendez, prompting the party to infuse almost $8 million into a race that shouldn’t have been competitive in the first place. Menendez’s ethical issues in office created lukewarm support for him within the party. Democrats were already in a tough spot defending multiple Senate seats in red states that Trump won in 2016. The last thing they wanted to do was spend that kind of money in a reliably blue state like New Jersey. It took home state elected officials like Senator Cory Booker and Governor Phil Murphy to use their political capital to convince reluctant Democrats to hold their noses and support Menendez.
Given how well Democrats performed in New Jersey, turning three long-time Republican congressional districts blue, it may be another generation before we see a GOP senator from the Garden State.
Tara Setmayer, a CNN political commentator, is the host of the “Honestly Speaking with Tara” podcast. Follow her on Twitter @tarasetmayer.