The election is over, and it has brought us the ultimate in mixed feelings. On the one hand, Democrats won the House! This was the one overriding goal of all our organizing, fundraising, effort, and hopes for the past two years. Failing to win the House in 2018 would have been a disaster for the country.
But the Great Slate got stomped. Since these races were long shots, we expected to lose most of them, but the magnitude of the loss was a bitter surprise. We went into this election with six races within the margin of error. We came out having lost 11 races by a large margin, one race narrowly, and with one race undecided.
Let's dive in and talk about it.
I'm going to group the races thematically in the discussion. You can follow along with individual results in this Google spreadsheet. The 'D pred' and 'R pred' columns refer to the FiveThirtyEight "deluxe" forecast, which proved quite accurate. I've included the previous midterm results from 2014 as well.
The “Did We Actually Win One?” Race
This is the one race we may have won.
The expensive smackdown between Jared Golden and Bruce Poliquin in ME-2 remains too close to call. Poliquin leads the vote count by about 1900 votes, but Maine has ranked-choice voting, which means that the 23,000 or so votes that went to two independent candidates will be re-tabulated to reflect those voters' second choice. This not-so-instant runoff is chugging along right now, with results from the Maine Secretary of State's office expected this weekend.
If Poliquin keeps his lead in the raw vote (there are still 5% of precincts left to report), he may sue over the final ranked-choice outcome, setting up a Supreme Court fight over the constitutionality of ranked-choice voting. Both sides have a team of crack lawyers in harness and ready to pull.
The two independent candidates in Maine endorsed Golden as a second choice, suggesting that these votes will break for him. But this is 2018, so who knows what will happen.
The “Let's Just Fund Them” Races
Four of the Great Slate races were a relatively simple case of a woman running at a significant cash disadvantage in a mildly Republican district, where there was reason to believe more funding could make the race competitive. There was nothing particularly ideological in these selections, just a desire to make sure that we did not lose otherwise winnable races for lack of money.
- Kyle Horton, NC-7
- Susan Moran Palmer, OH-16
- Theresa Gasper, OH-10
- Tracy Mitrano, NY-23
Palmer and Gasper were both running in Ohio districts near OH-12, which had seen a Democrat in similar circumstances come close to winning in the special election. Palmer had the additional advantage of running in an open seat, against a political novice who was basically the Republican version of J.D. Scholten.
Unfortunately, that promising special election result in OH-12 didn't carry over to election night (the OH-12 race ended up as a 52/47 loss). Democrats across Ohio had a very bad night, as did our candidates.
Our two other "just fund them" candidates, Kyle Horton and Tracy Mitrano, were both running against a widely-disliked Republican incumbent.
Tom Reed (Mitrano's opponent) makes his living as a medical debt collector.
David Rouzer had badly underperformed Trump in his North Carolina district in 2016. Rouzer's support for offshore drilling, a broadly unpopular issue in coastal North Carolina, made him look vulnerable. An August poll even had Horton in the lead, but that August poll told us sweet lies.
Three of these candidates four candidates lost by about 14%, while Mitrano came closer, losing by about 10%.
The “Red Dem Redemption” Races
Two highly energetic women on the Great Slate were running in a mountain West district against a far-right, Tea Party incumbent. Jessica Morse ran in CA-4, the High Sierra district that includes Tahoe, and Diane Mitsch Bush ran in the vast CO-3 district covering the Colorado Rockies. Morse had a national security background and had raised a fearsome amount of money back in the primary, while Bush could point to a strong record as a state legislator who got re-elected by comfortable margins in a not-very-blue district. Bush also had a history as a COBOL and Fortran programmer, which I think all of us in the tech community feared and admired.
- Diane Mitsch Bush, CO-3
- Jessica Morse, CA-4
Despite working their tails off, both Morse and Bush lost by 9%—about 25,000 votes.
In Bush's case, she was hurt badly by Republican turnout in Grand Junction, and an inability to turn out Democratic votes in large numbers in Pueblo. I have not talked to Morse yet about her analysis of the race.
The “Building Capacity” Races
Neither of these districts was going to be winnable unless we had a huge Democratic surge (which, remember, looked like a possibility!). But both these races looked like promising places to build electoral infrastructure in a place that had never seen a full-on Democratic campaign at the Congressional level.
- Karen McCormick, CO-4
- Shireen Ghorbani, UT-4
I'm going to talk about what "building capacity" could mean in another email. For now, let's just say that these losses were the least surprising, since they were our boldest bets. McCormick and Ghorbani were the only two candidates who finished with below 40% of the vote.
This race was a puzzle. On the one hand, the district (Syracuse, NY) voted for Hillary by four points, the only Great Slate district that voted Democratic.
The “What If We Ran In A Clinton District?” Race
On the other hand, the incumbent (John Katko) outperformed Trump by a huge margin in the 2016 election.
On the third hand, Katko's voting record since that election was straight Trump, including unpopular votes against the ACA.
On the fourth hand, Balter continued to poll far behind Katko.
On the fifth hand, Balter had polled just as far behind her primary opponent, only to beat her by a large margin.
And on the sixth hand, Balter was running a very intensive field program, comparable in scope to what was happening in Omaha and Lancaster, PA. If you believed (like I did until the Lancaster results came in) that intensive field organizing could turn out low-propensity voters in force, then this was a good race to back.
But it wasn't true, and Balter lost this Syracuse seat by about 15,000 votes, or 6%.
The “What If We Ran An Independent?” Race
Polls didn't close in Alaska until midnight eastern time, so this was chronologically the final Great Slate race to post vote totals. And what a heartbreak it was!
- Alyse Galvin, Alaska-at-large
Polls in October had consistently put Galvin just 2-4 points behind Young, and the most recent poll had shown her with a one-point lead. in the closing days of the campaign, her campaign got a cash infusion not just from the Great Slate, but from the Pod Save America people, who brought at least $50K into the campaign. Even the national press was starting to pick up on it.
The outcome, though, was nothing like the polling. Galvin lost to Young by 54/46 (a 19,000 vote deficit).
There are three complicating factors here to tease out. The first is a late change in the governor's race, which went from being a three-way contest with the Republican heavily favored, to a two-way race for an open seat after the incumbent's surprise resignation.
The second is Prop 1, a complicated salmon-related ballot initiative. While this was a purely state matter, it mobilized many voters who were told that the bill would somehow ban hunting and fishing forever.
The third is the lack of a libertarian candidate on the ballot. This was the first time that Alaskans had only two candidates to choose from (due to a change in voting law), and it's possible that vote all went to Young.
This one hurt.
The “What If We Ran Against A Nazi?” Race
I don't think it's possible to run harder than J.D. Scholten ran in Iowa's 4th district. He lived on the road in an RV, touring all 39 counties three times over. In the final two weeks, this campaign had seemed to catch fire.
Scholten's opponent, Steve King, crossed a line even the Republican Party couldn't stomach when he endorsed a Toronto mayoral candidate who had appeared on a Nazi podcast, just before the horrific massacre in Pittsburgh. King was repudiated not just by his corporate sponsors (Purina, Land O'Lakes, Intel, AT&T, Black Hills Energy) but by the head of the NRCC.
That wave of publicity caused money to pour into J.D.'s campaign, giving him the resources to dominate the airwaves in the closing days of the campaign. He got the endorsement of the Sioux City Journal, which had never gone against King in its history. He stayed relentlessly on message, taking every opportunity to attack King on his dereliction of duty to a heavily agricultural district.
And in the end, King won the district by about 10,000 votes. For most of Election Night, Iowa was all blue. In the end, King's margin of victory came from the far northwestern corner of the district. Scholten's greatest support, meanwhile, came from Story County, home of Iowa State University, in the southeast. Scholten carried his hometown of Sioux City, not a place that traditionally votes Democrat, but it just wasn't enough.
An overt white supremacist won re-election in America in 2018 despite the presence on the ballot of a capable, well-funded, politically centrist opponent, and the public opposition of his own party.
And that, dear reader, is why I am depressed as hell about the outcome of the 2018 midterms. We won the House, but we didn't repudiate the great political shift that Trump has ushered in. It was just a regular midterm election, not a wave of bipartisan support for basic decency in politics. The country that defeated Nazis with arms could not defeat a Nazi at the polls, and that is a dark thing to have to live with.
The only consolation I can give is that no one could have tried harder. J.D. Scholten deserves credit for the Herculean effort he put into this race, and the tenacity and good humor he displayed through fifteen months of touring a district full of the kind of people who would vote for Steve King.
The "What if We Did Nothing But Organize for Two Years?" Race
If you've followed me for a while, you know I can't shut up about Lancaster. This remarkable central Pennsylvania city is home to some of the most capable organizers in the country, and from their ranks came Jess King, who despite entering the Congressional race as a novice is the most talented politician I have ever met.
I spent the final week before the election canvassing in Lancaster, PA, first with Jess's campaign, and then with Lancaster Stands Up, the independent civic group that had grown up in the district.
Jess's district was redrawn in February from a R+5 to an R+14 district, at which point we knew a win was almost impossible. But the question remained: how much could grassroots organizing do to close the gap?
The early results were so promising! The Lancaster Stands Up effort swept city council and school board seats in November 2017, not just in Lancaster but in conservative outlying towns like Mannheim. The effort around Jess's campaign was gargantuan. The campaign called every household in the district not once, but multiple times. Jess did something like fifty-six town halls during the summer and autumn. At one point last week, the King campaign was knocking doors at a rate of 100 per minute. I believe they knocked over 100,000 in the final week. There was no more intense field program in the country.
The final polls, too, showed Jess closing. She went from an already remarkable 9 points down to 4 points down—within the margin of error. Her opponent, Lloyd Smucker, had to lend himself money to stay on the air with ads, and showed signs of deep anxiety.
And then on Election Day, Jess King lost 59/41, exactly in line with predictions for a district of her kind. All of the field organizing didn't seem to net a thing. Any extra voters who turned out because of the relentless field program were matched by Republican voters who turned out as well.
And it wasn't just the very conservative York County (the piece of the Confederacy that had been grafted on to PA-11 in redistricting) that delivered votes for Jess's opponent. Lancaster County favored him, too.
I had a long talk with Jess, who is not an ideologue or prone to false optimism, before leaving Lancaster. We both found it hard to reconcile the manifest energy of the campaign, our personal experience of the grassroots energy around it, with the lack of effect in the final vote. From an electoral point of view, organizing appears to have got us nowhere, and that's a hard pill to swallow.
Jess's campaign is digging in to its own numbers, and I hope we can glean more knowledge from this, and from Lancaster Stands Up, in the days to come.
Ghosts of the Great Slate
Finally, a word about the six districts we backed earlier in this effort, where our candidate lost the primary.
- Susan Wild, PA-7
- George Scott, PA-10
- Xochitl Torres-Small, NM-2
- Audrey Denney, CA-1
- Clarke Tucker, AR-2
- Paul Cook, CA-8
Susan Wild, who defeated Greg Edwards in PA-7, is going to Congress. The same districting that hurt Jess so badly turned a difficult gerrymandered district into what looked like an easy Democratic seat. Susan sealed the deal with a comfortable win over Marty Nothstein.
In New Mexico's second district, where we had supported Mad Hildebrandt, Xochitl Torres-Small won a closely-contested open seat that was initially called for her opponent.
In AR-2, things didn't go so well. Clarke Tucker, who defeated Paul Spencer in the primary, himself went on to lose to incumbent French Hill on a night that was generally dreadful for Arkansas Democrats.
George Scott, who defeated Shavonnia Corbin-Johnson in the PA-10 primary, lost narrowly to Scott Perry in PA-10, the district that includes Harrisburg.
Audrey Denney, the young woman who defeated Jessica Holcombe in CA-1, lost to Doug LaMalfa, carrying her hometown of Chico, but failing to do very well in Shasta County.
Finally, Republican incumbent Paul Cook defeated his right-wing challenger in CA-8, the only race in California where the Democrat (our beloved Marge Doyle) was locked out. Somewhat perversely, Cook's weakness made him susceptible to a primary challenge from the right that then guaranteed him smooth sailing in the general election.
So that, my friends, is what happened to the Great Slate.
I thought this first election after Trump would persuade voters, especially Republican women, to cross party lines to repudiate Trump, but it did not.
I thought we were witnessing a great realignment in our politics, but we were not. In terms of the races won, this was a completely normal midterm election. I poked relentless fun at pollsters and spreadsheet watchers, but the spreadsheets were vindicated.
I thought American voters whose grandfathers had fought in Normandy would balk at electing a Nazi sympathizer, but they voted for him with gusto.
I thought competent field organizing could activate large numbers of non-voters, the great dark matter of the American electorate, but it did not.
I was certain that populist progressives, given adequate funding, would be able inspire voters in neglected rural districts, but I was wrong about that, too.
In the end, we got one working class candidate through an incredibly tough primary, and on the cusp of winning a Congressional seat in Maine. We also came close to beating the Nazi, and that is worth something, too.
I find myself in the uncomfortable position of understanding politics less than I ever did, while having persuaded you to spend an awful lot of money.
But this was an emergency, and we treated it like an emergency, and for that I think we can be proud. We did not stand by; we acted.
As for the future of this effort, and the effect it had on these districts that is not reflected in the vote count, I will write about that soon. I gave you a frank accounting of our electoral performance because I think you deserve it without further cheerleading.
But I also don't think that the money we raised was spent in vain. The campaigns are gone; the people who worked on them are all still there. Our fundraising effort built an unlikely bridge between the tech community and people in Lancaster, Anchorage, Allentown, Little Rock, Salt Lake City, rural California, Iowa and Maine, all of whom want a different and better future for our country. That seems like something valuable and worth preserving. After everyone's had a chance to rest and recover, we should figure out how to build on it.
But for now, let's reflect and rest a bit.
A lot of you gave an amount to the Great Slate that really hurt to give. I am sorry I can't write to you today about a better outcome. The candidates you gave to worked their hearts out, and spent the money well. In the end, we won the House.
On behalf of every candidate whose campaign your donations made possible, and on my own behalf, I can only say thank you for all that you did.