Six months ago, Democrats were cautious in their optimism. They talked a lot about a strong 2018 that might chip away at the GOP's majority in Congress.
But after winning a pair of governor’s races, more than a dozen state legislative contests, and a shock Senate seat in a deep red state over the last month, they are no longer holding back.
“Republicans are going to need to appreciate this wasn’t all about Roy Moore and sexual assault,” said JB Poersch, president of the Democratic-aligned Senate Majority PAC. “This is a bigger issue."
Party leaders are eagerly anticipating the 2018 midterm elections in the aftermath of Democrat Doug Jones' stunning upset victory in Alabama, convinced they can now win outright majorities in the House and Senate in addition to a fleet of marquee gubernatorial races. To them, the victory in Alabama was the culmination of victories last month in Virginia and New Jersey, where the party swept to big wins in both gubernatorial and state legislative races.
“There’s no other way to argue it to except for the objective fact that our people are voting in droves, and their people are staying home in droves,” said Gov. Jay Inslee, governor of Washington and chairman of the Democratic Governors Association. “And when that happens, you have massive swings toward the blue part of the spectrum.”
Inslee’s group is targeting dozens of governor’s mansions held by GOP incumbents next year. National Democrats, meanwhile, are trying to gain 24 House seats required for a majority and even the two Senate seats necessary for control of that legislative chamber. (Democrats are defending twice as many Senate seats next year as Republicans, including 10 in states that Trump won in 2016.)
Even at this late stage of the election cycle, many Democratic officials are plotting ways to expand the electoral map even further into GOP territory, confident that a victory in a state as conservative as Alabama will persuade once-hesitant recruits to jump into previously overlooked races. An expanded map might not guarantee many additional victories, they say, but it can at least put additional pressure on a Republican Party still reeling from this week’s defeat.
“Not only have we reexamined every single potential race we could get into, every candidate who has said to us, ‘We’re on the fence,’ we were back calling them at crack of dawn this morning,” said Dan Sena, executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the political arm of House Democrats.
Sena said House Democrats have tried to recruit strong candidates in even longshot House races, hopeful that results in Alabama and some state delegate races in Virginia are proof that Democrats can score unexpected victories across the map. He cited as an example Illinois’ 12th Congressional District, where the party thinks it can defeat incumbent Republican Rep. Mike Bost in a place that gave President Donald Trump 55 percent of its vote just last year.
“Both Alabama and Virginia are proof points of why this strategy will bear a fair amount of fruit,” Sena said.
Democrats are careful the caution that they have a lot of work to do over the course of a long 11 months until Election Day 2018. Politics is always unpredictable, they say, but especially during Trump’s presidency.
But public polling backs up the party’s bullish view: A survey from Monmouth University released Wednesday found that Trump’s approval had slumped to 32 percent this month, a record low for the poll. Midterm elections are traditionally referendums on the incumbent presidency, with the incumbent’s popularity — or lack thereof — a huge factor on each race.
The opposition party has been the beneficiary of wave elections during the last three midterm seasons — in 2006 (when Democrats won the House and Senate), 2010 (when Republicans won the House), and 2014 (when Republicans won the Senate).
Many Democrats see a direct parallel in the current political climate to 2010, when Republicans swept to massive gains in the House and Senate after the first two years of President Barack Obama’s tenure. The GOP’s victories that year were foreshadowed by another upsest in a special Senate election, when Republican Scott Brown won in Massachusetts thanks to an energized conservative base.
“It certainly has that kind of meaning here, too,” said Poersch, who in 2010 had an up-close view of the Brown victory as executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “We certainly learned about the significance of what was happening then, call it the tea party, call it pushback … we had that affirmed in that January race.”
Even if Jones’ victory was tied to Republican Roy Moore’s personal faults, Democratic leaders say the results demonstrate their voters — especially the party’s loyal base of African-Americans — are excited to vote next year.
Democrats had fretted in the weeks leading up to the Alabama race that black voters were not as engaged as they needed to be, part of a broader concern among party operatives that the anti-Trump backlash that is energizing wide swaths of the Democratic base had not reached this constituency.
But black voters made up 29 percent of the state’s electorate Tuesday, higher than the 25 percent many Democrats had hoped for. They also gave Jones 96 percent of their support.
“The enthusiasm to stop Trump mirrored what happened in 2012 and 2008,” Chuck Schumer, Democratic Senate minority leader told reporters Wednesday.