Making sense of what happened and what comes next.
Jackie Headapohl Managing Editor
If there is one piece of good news that both Democrats and Republicans can celebrate about the 2018 midterms, it’s that voter turnout was the strongest in decades, about 113 million nationally, or 49 percent of eligible voters, compared to 36 percent of eligible voters in 2014. About 4.3 million people voted in Michigan, 1 million more than in the last gubernatorial election.
According to Edie Goldenberg, a professor of political science and public policy at the University of Michigan, “The high voter turnout is extraordinary and reflects the efforts of many grassroots organizations that have been working tirelessly over the past two years.
“It also reflects the sharpness of divides and the competitiveness of a lot of races for elected office, as well as President Trump’s efforts to mobilize his base,” she said.
According to Goldenberg, young people turned out at a higher rate than normal. “Their turnout did have an impact on close races in their districts,” she said. “Their opinions of President Trump are decisively more negative than the older population overall. To the extent that President Trump ‘nationalized’ these state races, he mobilized voters on both sides, and younger voters tended to vote for the candidates opposing President Trump.”
No Real Surprises
When all (or most) of the ballots were counted, at the end of the night we learned Democrats would control the House of Representatives and Republicans made slight gains in the Senate.
“Republicans were expected to make gains in the Senate as there were 10 Democrats running in states won by Trump. No blue states went Republican,” said Robert Sedler, a professor of constitutional law at Wayne State University. “The House turned over as expected, despite
gerrymandering to favor Republicans.”
Now that Democrats control the House of Representatives, Sedler expects the country will see more compromises on legislation.
“The drafters of the Constitution made it difficult to enact legislation without consensus, and the only way to get consensus is through compromise,” he said. “I see the possibility that compromises will be made on infrastructure, middle-class tax cuts and immigration. It might even be easier to reach compromise now that Republicans no longer have to worry about the (far-right) Freedom Caucus … or there may just be gridlock.”
He also said not to pay attention to “any babble about impeachment. Doing so would not be of benefit to the Democrats.”
The Jewish Vote
According to Dr. Herbert Weisberg, emeritus professor of political science at the Ohio State University, there was “some movement among Jews this fall toward the Democratic side.” Weisberg, who previously taught at U-M, has a book, The Politics of American Jews: The Politics of Tradition, that will be published by U-M Press next year.
Early exit polls show the Jewish vote nationally as 79 percent Democratic, 17 percent Republican and 4 percent not answering, Weisberg said.
“The Jewish vote for Barack Obama and for Hillary Clinton was about 70 percent,” he added.
The number of Jews in the legislature is also on the way up, he said. “Jacky Rosen, a former synagogue president, was elected to the Senate from Nevada. The two Jewish Republicans in the House of Representatives, Lee Zeldin from New York and David Kutoff from Tennessee, were re-elected, and it looks like there will be about two dozen Jewish Democrats in the House, including two newcomers from Michigan, Andy Levin and Elissa Slotkin.”
According to Nancy Kaufman, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, it was pretty clear what was motivating most Jewish women voters this year.
“NCJW empowers Jewish women to act on the Jewish values we hold dear, and there’s been a major challenge over the past two years to those values. Women had enough,” she said.
Kaufman said there was enormous mobilization of Jewish women, “particular after the Kavanaugh hearings that left many women feeling marginalized.
“As Jewish women, they felt their voices needed to be heard. The shootings in Pittsburgh and the rise in hate crimes and anti-Semitic attacks were further motivating,” she said, “as was what’s going on at the Southern border.”
Kaufman cited the deep Jewish commitment to welcoming the stranger. “It upset people to see troops at the border and children separated from their parents,” said Kaufman, who adds that Jewish women historically have been at the core of progressive social change — even before women had the right to vote.
“People felt they couldn’t sit idly by while reproductive rights and an independent judiciary were being challenged,” she said.
NCJW didn’t support individual candidates, but did work on ballot proposals, particularly those related to voting rights, including Proposal 2 in Michigan, which will end gerrymandering in the state, and a proposal in Florida that will allow those with a felony record to vote. Both of those proposals were approved by voters.
Year of the Woman
According to Kaufman, the number of women running in the 2018 midterms was unprecedented. On election night, 98 women won House seats, including 65 incumbents. The previous record was 85. Twelve women won Senate seats, joining nine incumbents. (Some races are still pending.)
“Particularly encouraging was the number of young women who are becoming part of the political process,” Kaufman added.
In Michigan, all the winners at the top of the ticket were women and Democrats. Gretchen Whitmer won the governor’s race. Dana Nessel was elected attorney general. Jocelyn Benson will be secretary of state. Debbie Stabenow will be returning to the Senate, and two newcomers, Haley Stevens and Elissa Slotkin, flipped two districts from red to blue on their way to the House of Representatives. The only male at the top of the ticket was Lt. Gov.-elect Garlin Gilchrist.
“It was a spectacular year for women, way overdue,” said political commentator Jack Lessenberry, who hosts a daily radio show on 910 AM from 9-11 a.m. weekdays.
Lessenberry was most surprised that Megan Cavanaugh beat incumbent Michigan U.S. Supreme Court Justice Curtis Wilder. “It was the first time in 10 years an incumbent justice was defeated,” he said.
‘Blue and White’ Wave
According to Kenneth Wald, professor emeritus of political science and Samuel R. “Bud” Shorstein professor emeritus of American Jewish culture and society at the University of Florida, there was “a ‘blue and white wave’ over the Republicans.”
Wald said two sets of data show Jews voted slightly more than 4-1 in favor of Democratic candidates, an increase from 2-1 in the 2014 midterm elections and up from 3-1 during the 2016 election.
“Jews have been heavily Democratic for a long time, yet this is still amazingly lopsided,” said Wald, whose book Foundations of American Jewish Liberalism will be published next year. “It’s hard to see how it could have been any more Democratic than it was.”
Wald said American Jews have built a political culture based on the principle of equal citizenship in a secular state. “A significant number of Jews felt that Trump contributed to the atmosphere that led to the Pittsburgh shootings. Underlying that is the concern about the growth of blood-and-soil nationalism in the United States. Trump has, in Jewish eyes, been responsible for attacking that notion of equal citizenship.”
It’s a continuation of something that’s been building since the Christian evangelicals became the base of the Republican party, Wald said.
“Evangelicals are as Republican as Jews are Democratic, and they believe that public policy should reflect Christian values. When a state considers itself Christian, that’s never good for Jews historically,” he said.
The Results in Michigan
“In Michigan, there was something of a blue wave,” Lessenberry said. “Trump was never as popular here as he has been in some places. His tariffs are hurting manufacturing and agriculture. Still, the Democrats gained more seats than I thought they would, and far more Democrats were elected than Republicans.”
He added he was surprised Republican John James did so well against Debbie Stabenow, losing by only 200,000 votes. The last time Stabenow was up for re-election, she won by more than 1 million votes.
“I was surprised by Slotkin’s win, but not by Stevens’ win over Lena Epstein, who was seen as a fringe candidate,” he said.
Sedler said he wasn’t surprised either. “I looked at Epstein’s campaign ads in the JN. She had no endorsements; Stevens did. And Jews vote about 80 percent Democratic. It makes no difference if the Republican candidate is Jewish or not.”
The real question, Lessenberry said, is whether Slotkin and Stevens will hang onto those seats. “Michigan is going to lose a seat in Congress in 2022, and Stevens and Slotkin may end up being thrown into the same district.”
The winner of the night, said Lesseberry, was the passage of Proposal 2 to end gerrymandering. “That may have more impact than anything else on the state’s future,” he said.
Sedler said it will be interesting to see how a Democratic governor will work with a legislature still under Republican control. “The governor has enormous power under the Michigan Constitution, so expect to see some heavy dealings between Whitmer and the legislature,” he said.
Gilda Jacobs, president and CEO of the Michigan League for Public Policy, said her organization is looking forward to more progressive policies coming out of Lansing.
“I think Gov.-elect Whitmer understands much of the tax cuts in the last eight years were made on the backs of working people and wants to make up for that,” she said. “She has an appreciation for the need to invest in higher education and childcare, understanding the multi-generational approach to policy: that you can’t help kids if you don’t help their parents, too.
“Since Republicans no longer have a supermajority, there will be no more steamrolling of certain policies,” she added. “Whitmer is a moderate Democrat who will find opportunities for conversations across the aisle. We’re hopeful about what that means.”