A Big Night for Democrats, but Not Progressives

Moderates do well in states across the country while leftist candidates lose Georgia, Florida and Ohio.


Wisconsin Gov.-elect Tony Evers speaks to supporters near Milwaukee on Nov. 4.
Wisconsin Gov.-elect Tony Evers speaks to supporters near Milwaukee on Nov. 4. PHOTO: DARREN HAUCK/GETTY IMAGES

Revulsion toward Barack Obama and the Nancy Pelosi-Harry Reid Congress in 2010 produced a crimson tide in statehouses across America. Republicans then exploited their power over decennial redistricting to bolster majorities in Congress and legislatures while advancing conservative reforms including right-to-work legislation, school vouchers and limits on the power of government unions.

Democrats now aim to copy the GOP playbook. Led by former Attorney General Eric Holder, liberals this year targeted governorships and state legislatures from Nevada to Maine. Capitalizing on disgust with Donald Trump, Democrats picked up seven governorships and flipped six legislative chambers.

As a result, Democrats next year will boast complete control of 14 state governments—six more than they do now—including Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada. They also broke the GOP’s hegemony in Kansas, Michigan, New Hampshire and Wisconsin.

These gains will strengthen Democrats’ hand over redistricting after the 2020 census, effectively foreclosing conservative reform in the majority of states for the next four years, and advancing a liberal agenda on the local level that has foundered in Washington. Yet Democrats owe their success more to Republican turmoil than any triumph of progressive policies.

One of Tuesday’s biggest Democratic victories was in Wisconsin, where Republican Gov. Scott Walker narrowly lost his bid for a third term to Democrat Tony Evers, the superintendent of public instruction. Wisconsin’s public-employee unions tried to make the election a referendum on Mr. Walker’s Act 10 collective-bargaining reforms, but a CNN News exit poll showed a 10-point plurality of voters supported the 2011 law.

Mr. Walker lost in large part because he failed to outline a bold third-term agenda. Instead, he promised more spending on public schools and tax credits for child care, elderly homeowners and college graduates who stay in the state. This liberal-lite platform failed to win over independents or energize conservatives to overcome huge Democratic turnout in the blue bastions of Madison and Milwaukee.

The governor’s support around his conservative “base” of Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington counties dropped significantly from 2010 and 2014. But Republicans appear to have picked up a state Senate seat near Green Bay that Democrats won in a June special election. That will make it harder for Democrats to take control of the upper chamber in 2020.

In Kansas, Democrats capitalized on rifts between conservative and moderate Republicans that were exposed by former GOP Gov. Sam Brownback, who left office in February to become the Trump administration’s religious-freedom ambassador. Democrat Laura Kelly ran as a moderate against Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who tied himself to President Trump. Moderate Republican legislators, who’d clashed with Mr. Brownback over his tax cuts and favored more government spending, threw their support behind Ms. Kelly.

GOP discord likewise sank Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette’s bid to succeed fellow Republican Gov. Rick Snyder. Mr. Schuette had tangled with Mr. Snyder and Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, his unsuccessful opponent in the gubernatorial primary. Mr. Schuette struggled to consolidate conservative support and lost by large margins to Democrat Gretchen Whitmer in Detroit’s suburbs and Grand Rapids—both regions that helped Mr. Snyder win re-election four years earlier.

To be sure, Republican state candidates, like their counterparts running for the House, also struggled to overcome the Trump undertow. But it’s notable that even as voters demonstrated their contempt for the president, they also rejected progressive candidates and repudiated left-wing identity politics.

In Florida, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum lost by 50,000 votes to Republican former Rep. Ron DeSantis. Mr. Gillum endorsed single-payer health insurance, free college tuition and a 2.25-point increase in the state’s corporate tax rate. The charismatic, youthful progressive also sought to stoke black turnout by denouncing Mr. DeSantis as a racist for flogging a state ethics investigation into Mr. Gillum’s dealings with a lobbyist and an undercover Federal Bureau of Investigation agent posing as a real-estate developer.

In Georgia’s race for governor, Democrat Stacey Abrams appears headed for defeat against Secretary of State Brian Kemp. Mr. Kemp imitated Mr. Trump’s immigration demagoguery but mainly focused on protecting gun rights, religious freedom and school choice. Meantime, Ms. Abrams ran on a progressive platform of more spending and in the final weeks of the campaign accused Mr. Kemp of suppressing minority turnout by removing voters from the state rolls.

Yet there was scant evidence of voter suppression. Voter turnout increased nearly 60% from 2014, and Ms. Abrams received almost twice as many votes in Atlanta’s Fulton County as the Democratic candidate for governor did four years earlier.

In Ohio, voters rejected Richard Cordray, the former Consumer Financial Protection Bureau head, who was backed by Elizabeth Warren. Republican Mike DeWine ran an insipid campaign and embodied the GOP “establishment.” But his mainstream brand of conservatism appealed to voters in the Columbus and Cincinnati suburbs far more than Mr. Cordray’s liberal populism. Mr. DeWine defeated Mr. Cordray by a larger margin than eight years earlier, when the two men ran against each other for state attorney general.

In places where progressive candidates won, they tacked to the center. In Colorado, Rep. Jared Polis, who had backed “Medicare for all” legislation, modulated his politics by opposing state referendums that would raise taxes on high earners and limit fracking. During one debate, he described himself as a “convener in chief” who would work with both parties.

By pledging not to raise taxes in Connecticut, Democrat Ned Lamont sought to avoid becoming a casualty in the voter revolt against Gov. Dannel Malloy’s ruinous tax-and-spend policies. Mr. Lamont narrowly defeated Republican Bob Stefanowski, who campaigned on eliminating state taxes on income, estates and corporate profits. Even in California, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom—whose campaign platform included single-payer legislation, universal preschool and free community college—tried to assure voters he’d be the “adult in the room” in Sacramento and restrain the spendthrift Legislature.

So although Democrats in many states now have the whip hand to implement the progressive policies they’ve been championing on the campaign trail, even they may recognize that they do so at their own political risk.

Ms. Finley is a member of the Journal’s editorial board.

Appeared in the November 8, 2018, print edition.

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