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The Real Trump Effect: Down-Ballot Disaster for Democrats

Democrats sustained losses at every level of government. Even so, some state-level victories shine through.

Part of the Series

Heading into the 2016 Election, Democratic Party strategists, pollsters and political scientists discussed the “Trump Effect.” The theory, it was widely believed, was that Trump would get crushed so badly that his presence at the top of the ticket would be a boon for Democrats down the ticket, helping them win back the Senate and state houses across the country.

Clearly the “Trump Effect” proved to be dramatically different. Not only did Trump take the White House from Democrats, but he did so with the frightening combination of GOP control of the Senate and the House firmly intact. This also gives Trump enormous agency in choosing a Supreme Court nominee to replace Antonin Scalia, as the Judiciary Committee will be controlled by the Republicans. It was arguably the worst day for the Democratic Party since Nixon won 49 states in 1972. It has been called a repudiation of the Democratic Party agenda, while others describe it as a rebuff of the neoliberal consensus of both parties. It has turned conventional wisdom and polling models on its head, and volumes will be written about the most surprising Election Night in generations.

For more original Truthout election coverage, check out our election section, “Beyond the Sound Bites: Election 2016.”

However, hidden in the rubble of the disastrous election were some important victories for progressives, particularly when it came to ballot referendums across the country. Voters, for instance, passed recreational or medical marijuana reform in numerous states, and right-wing attacks on public schools were successfully defeated by Massachusetts voters. Ranked voting, which helps third-party candidates thrive, was passed in Maine. And Vermont elected a third-party progressive to lieutenant governor. Nonetheless, these successes are outliers. The 2016 election is a down-ticket disaster.

GOP Protects Its Senate Majority

Heading into election night, pollsters had given Hillary Clinton high odds of winning the election — ranging from 66 percent from FiveThirtyEight to 98 percent from The Huffington Post. But political pollsters (whose industry must be in shambles in the aftermath of Tuesday) also gave the Democrats a good chance of taking back the Senate — 60 percent, according to The New York Times. With the Republicans defending 24 seats, compared to 10 for the Democrats, the Democrats needed victories in a few key battlegrounds: Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

The defeat of Indiana’s Evan Bayh — a former chairman of the conservative Democratic Leadership Council who was roundly critiqued by progressives — came early and proved to be an ominous sign for Democrats. As the votes were counted, more bad news came for Democrats, who lost in eight of the 10 most contested seats. Perhaps the biggest disappointment of the night came in Wisconsin where Russ Feingold, who was one of the most progressive senators in the country for years — the only one to vote against the Patriot Act in 2001 — failed to win back the seat he lost in 2010 in Wisconsin. Feingold’s loss was a stunning upset — “a race that Republicans had seen as a lost cause just weeks ago,” Politico reported.

The Democrats needed five seats to take back the majority, but gained just two. This gives Republicans a 52-48 advantage, leaving the body sharply divided but firmly in the control of Mitch McConnell. Chuck Schumer will replace the retiring Harry Reid as Senate Minority Leader.

There was never much optimism that the Democrats could take back the House, even if Clinton won in a blow-out. The Republicans, as Dave Daley explained in Salon, had successfully gerrymandered the map to the extent that their control of the House was never a serious threat. “The Republicans built themselves an unbreakable majority,” he wrote in June.

The Democrats appear to have gained just seven seats, according to the Times. They had hoped to win 20 or more, and would have needed 30 for a majority.

Democrats Fall Short of Goals in States

As Truthout reported in October, there was a great deal at stake in state elections, as Democrats hoped to bite into the Republican’s domination of State Houses across the country. Heading into the election, the GOP had31 governors in office, compared with only 18 for the Democrats (the governor of Alaska is an Independent). Republicans also controlled 69 of 99 state legislative bodies and had a “trifecta” (control of both legislative bodies and the governorship) in 23 states, compared with just seven state trifectas for the Democrats.

Democrats were optimistic Trump would have a toxic effect on the “GOP brand” and be a drag on the down-ticket races, which are heavily influenced by the presidential candidates. A strategy memo from the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC) viewed “14 chambers as key pickup opportunities for Democrats” and “expect to flip 8–12 of them to Democratic majorities this fall.”

The projections were, like most, far too optimistic for the Democrats. As of this writing, the Democrats and Republicans had each flipped 3 legislative bodies, leaving the balance of power largely the same. Among the bodies flipped by the Republicans was the Kentucky House of Representatives, which had been in the hands of the Democrats since 1923. This is noteworthy since, according to Western Kentucky Radio (an NPR affiliate), “it’s the last legislative chamber controlled by the party in any Southern state.”

There were 12 gubernatorial races on Election Night, eight of them were held in states with a Democrat in office, while four had Republicans. Democrats retained five seats, lost two and the race in North Carolina is too close to call (the Associated Press says the winner may not be declared until provisional ballots are counted). The best-case scenario is that the Democrats will have 16 governors in office, compared with 34 for the Republicans — another disappointment for the party. Due to these losses, Governing magazine reports, the Democrats will only have four trifectas, down from seven.

The GOP prevailed even in the liberal haven of Vermont where the current lieutenant governor, Phil Scott — who distanced himself from Trump throughout the campaign — defeated Sue Minter, who was known for ably handling the recovery from Hurricane Irene.

Small Victories in Ballot Initiatives, Local Elections

Phil Scott’s current office, however, will be replaced by the victorious Progressive-Democrat David Zuckerman, who started his career working with Bernie Sanders and is a legislator for Vermont’s Progressive Party (though he ran on a fusion “Progressive-Democrat” ticket). This lieutenant governor seat is a significant victory, as no other third-party progressive candidate in recent history has held a state office this high.

Zuckerman was endorsed by Our Revolution, the group founded by Bernie Sanders that endorses down-ticket candidates and ballot initiatives. A summary of candidates and ballot initiatives endorsed by Our Revolution can be found on its website (though many results are still pending).

Progressives are also celebrating the end of the six-term xenophobic reign of Maricopa County (Arizona) Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was defeated on Tuesday and faces charges for violating federal court orders in his enforcement policies.

Ballot initiatives are an area where progressives can point to many important victories. The legalization of marijuana, which was on the ballot in five states, was passed in four of them, while another four states passed medical marijuana according to the Marijuana Policy Project.

Massachusetts, which was among the states to legalize recreational use of marijuana, also rejected a charter school expansion question, which was supported heavily by Wall Street donors and the state’s Republican Governor Charlie Baker. “It’s really clear from the results of this election that people are interested in public education and value that,” said Barbara Madeloni, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, to The Boston Globe.

Another key victory was the passing of voting reform in Maine, which some called the “Second-Most Important Vote on Election Day.” The referendum sets up a “ranked voting” system, which allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference, empowering third-party candidates to run without fear of the spoiler effect.

“Voters should have the freedom to vote for the candidate they like the best without fear that their vote will help the candidate they like the least,” said Michelle Whittaker, communications director for Fair Vote, in a statement.

Defeat for Health Care Activists in Colorado

Despite these victories, many advocates for single-payer health care are upset by the overwhelming defeat of Colorado Care — a ballot referendum which would’ve created a pseudo state-wide single-payer system. The question asked voters to change the state constitution to create a health care system that would cover the entire state. As Truthout reported in March, the Koch Brothers were fighting for its defeat. Also troubling was that much of the Democratic establishment in Colorado — perhaps not wanting to counter Clinton’s opposition to single-payer — also opposed the referendum. The bill, despite being endorsed by Bernie Sanders, only received about 20 percent of the votes.

Steffie Woolhandler, of Physicians for a National Health Plan (PNHP), says there is still momentum for the single-payer movement and praised the work done in Colorado. “[T]he Colorado Care campaign did important work educating and mobilizing many Coloradans about universal health care, and that can only push the debate forward,” she said in an interview with Truthout.

Woolhandler notes that despite the lack of support from the Democratic Party establishment, single-payer reform is broadly supported across the country.

“A recent Gallup poll found that 57 percent of Americans want to replace the ACA with single payer, so apparently, the populace is not disillusioned about single payer reform,” she said. “So the Democratic Party establishments’ opposition to truly universal health care may, in the long run, prove to be more of a problem to them than to the single-payer movement.”

The Road Ahead

Woolhandler’s comments about the Democratic Party being out of touch with the public are prescient. As progressives look back at Tuesday’s election, it is hard not to realize how the Democrats lost, in large part, due to their support for things that are largely opposed by the left (and, it is worth noting, by Bernie Sanders): needless wars, unfair trade deals and the party’s closeness to Wall Street and corporate America.

Despite some progress, the results of the 2016 election, up and down the ticket, may provide some crucial lessons for progressives. But clearly, these lessons have come at a steep price.

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