2020 Starts Now

2020 Starts Now

A view of Capitol Hill while voters across the United States participate in midterm elections November 6, 2018 in Washington, DC. - Americans vote Tuesday in critical midterm elections that mark the first major voter test of Donald Trump's presidency, with control of Congress at stake.

SourceBRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/Getty

Why you should care

Democrats had a good night overall. And with it comes some lessons.

Tuesday was a strange night for Democrats. A substantial popular vote margin swept them to power in the House — with room to spare — and netted a few governorships, including surprises like Kansas.

But Democrats lost ground in the Senate, and the three candidates who set liberal hearts aflutter for the past year — Andrew Gillum in Florida, Beto O’Rourke in Texas and Stacey Abrams in Georgia — appeared headed for defeat. (Abrams has yet to concede.) All three, had they won, would have been instantly talked about for the White House. O’Rourke, the fundraising dynamo who made Texas feel almost purple for a night, might still be in with a chance at the Oval.

As President Donald Trump settles in for two years of trench warfare with a Democratic House prepared to subpoena his White House to pieces, if not impeach him, Democrats are starting to figure out how to challenge him. Tuesday’s results offer a few clues for how 2020 might go.

If we’re being honest, the 2020 race began almost immediately after Trump was elected. He formed his re-election campaign on Inauguration Day. Rep. John Delaney of Maryland became the first announced Democratic candidate in July 2017, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s recent bumbling rollout of a DNA test showing she has a tiny percentage of Native American ancestry was an obvious attempt to put the issue to bed before a presidential run.

Iowa and New Hampshire have been stocked with presidential contenders, pretenders and shameless attention-seekers. Of course, in this era, it’s hard to tell the categories apart. “It’s kind of an eye roll,” says Democratic strategist Adrienne Elrod, who worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 bid, of seeing so many people flock to early presidential primary campaign states before the midterms were done.

But Elrod lauded all that Democrats with an eye on the White House were doing for the midterm cause, whether as surrogates (Sen. Kamala Harris and former Vice President Joe Biden were prized campaign-trail assets) or check writers (former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg plowed $110 million into this year’s elections; Silicon Valley billionaire Tom Steyer planned to spend $120 million). Both can go a long way toward earning goodwill.

Tuesday’s results won’t change the fact that Democrats have a field that could make the Republicans’ 17 candidates in 2016 look quaint. Senators, mayors, congressmen, businessmen and even Oprah are in the possible mix. Republican opposition researchers are digging into the likes of former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, Disney CEO Bob Iger and JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon. It’s worth noting, however, that when a top Democratic opposition research firm sent a book to reporters about this time four years ago laying out its dirt on the Republican presidential contenders, Donald Trump was nowhere to be found.

Michael Avenatti, the attorney representing adult film actress Stormy Daniels in her lawsuit against Trump, is playing the Democrats’ version of Trump: a brash political newbie winning plaudits from crowds for telling it like it is and standing up to the powers that be.

Avenatti recently caused a stir when he said the Democrats’ 2020 nominee “better be a White male.” Though the comment was self-serving, Avenatti said it was merely a reflection of the reality of America in 2018. “I don’t necessarily want to buy it just yet, but … I’ve heard it a lot,” says Christina Greer, a political science professor at Fordham University. “And I’ve heard it not just from White men. I’ve heard it from a lot of different people who have an interest in Democrats winning.”

There are a lot of White men who could contend, but given the composition of the Democrats’ voting coalition — which leans more toward women and people of color by the year — that’s not looking like the best bet.

Take Tuesday’s results. As Democrats swept through the suburbs to capture crucial House seats across the country, their most impressive performances came from women like Abigail Spanberger in Virginia, Sharice Davids in Kansas and Lauren Underwood in Illinois. Or men of color like Antonio Delgado in New York and Colin Allred in Texas. These candidates won with a wide array of policy prescriptions and approaches to Trump, though expanding health care access was a common and successful theme.

You can credit the booming economy, Brett Kavanaugh or Trump’s nativist closing argument. But the president was able to stop the GOP bleeding in critical states — and holding onto governorships in Ohio and Florida will pay crucial dividends in terms of who controls the political machinery in 2020 swing states.

Democrats’ path to reclaiming the White House runs through the same suburbs they won convincingly on Tuesday. They still don’t have a clear choice who can stand toe-to-toe with Trump on the national stage, though they have plenty willing to try.

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