Politics

Medicare for All Turned Out to Be a Winning Issue in the Midterms

Or at least it wasn’t toxic in the swing districts where progressives pulled off crucial wins.

Clockwise from top left: Katie Porter, Harley Rouda, Josh Harder, Jared Golden
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Mario Tama/Getty Images, Mario Tama/Getty Images, Jared Golden and Alex Edelman/Getty Images.

The further we get from Election Day, the drastically better the midterms results look for Democrats. And more specifically, no one can now conclude that progressives fell flat while the rest of their party was busy retaking the House. Sure, moderate Democrats filled the win column early, but a growing number of progressives have joined them in the days since. The past 24 hours alone have increased their ranks by two: Katie Porter was projected the winner in Southern California on Wednesday night, and Jared Golden was declared the ranked-choice winner in northern Maine on Thursday afternoon. Both defeated two-term Republican incumbents in swing districts.

To be clear, it’s fraught to try to neatly label every candidate, particularly when so many Democratic newcomers had no voting records to define them. But one helpful signifier of a progressive candidate is her support for Medicare for all, an issue that became an early litmus test on the left during the primaries and then a late line of attack from the right during the general election. Public support for the proposal—as amorphous as the term proved to be in some stump speeches—also marked a clear contrast with other Democrats’ far more moderate health care messaging, focused on preserving Obamacare and its protections for pre-existing conditions.

So how did those Medicare for all–touting congressional hopefuls fare in the midterms? It depends a bit on how you crunch the numbers, but the short answer is: pretty darn good!

As of Thursday, these progressives appear to have flipped nine congressional seats from red to blue and were still hanging on in another such race, Texas’ 23rd, where Gina Ortiz Jones trails Rep. Will Hurd by a fraction of a percentage point in an election that remains too close to call. When all the votes are counted, then, they should account for either nine or 10 of the 36 to 42 seats Democrats will have picked up in the midterms. Those victors will join 11 other representative-elects who voiced support for Medicare for all and are replacing Democratic incumbents, as well as more than 100 re-elected incumbents who have already attached their names to such legislation.

A quick note on the methodology I used to arrive at these numbers: I’m working off a tally released in late October by National Nurses United, a Medicare for all–supporting union that tracked support for the proposal via public comments, voting records, and survey responses; the Cook Political Report’s district ratings and partisan index; and official returns as of Thursday afternoon.

Nine flipped a GOP seat from red to blue:

• Harley Rouda defeated Rep. Dana Rohrabacher in California’s 48th District (PVI: R+4)

• Katie Porter appears to have defeated Rep. Mimi Walters in California’s 45th (PVI: R+3)

• Jared Golden defeated Rep. Bruce Poliquin in Maine’s 2nd (PVI: R+2)

• Mike Levin defeated Diane Harkey in California’s 49th (PVI: R+1)

• Josh Harder defeated Rep. Jeff Denham in California’s 10th (PVI: Even)

• Katie Hill defeated Rep. Steve Knight in California’s 25th (PVI: Even)

• Kim Schrier defeated Dino Rossi in Washington state’s 8th (PVI: Even)

• Susan Wild defeated Marty Nothstein in Pennsylvania’s new 7th (PVI: D+1)

• Mary Gay Scanlon defeated Pearl Kim in Pennsylvania’s new 5th (PVI: D+13)

Zoom in a little closer, however, and the picture is blurred by the fact that the winners talked about the issue in their own ways. In Washington state, for instance, Kim Schrier spoke of a gradual shift to Medicare for all. In California, Katie Hill was simultaneously careful and not careful enough with what she said. And in Pennsylvania, Susan Wild was willing to talk openly about “government-run health care.”

The list of Medicare for all–supporting losers, meanwhile, runs nearly 90 names long—but the vast majority were running in deep-red districts where Democrats were destined to lose. (Splinter, which published its own Medicare for all analysis on Monday, has more on those progressives who were likely doomed from the start.) Only four of the candidates have so far lost in districts seen as competitive coming down the home stretch, and one of those, Joe Radinovich, was trying to defend a Democratic seat in Minnesota district that went for Donald Trump by 16 points, and another, California’s Ammar Campa-Najjar, was hit with a barrage of xenophobic attacks ads in a district that was only competitive because of incumbent Duncan Hunter’s indictment.

Why, though, didn’t the progressive winners get more attention on election night? Because most of the races listed above remained too close to call for days on end. As of Friday, the list of winners was less than half as long: Schrier, Levin, Wild, and Scanlon. And Wild and Scanlon both benefited greatly from Pennsylvania’s redrawn congressional map, which is why their victories weren’t hailed as traditional flips.

Another reason is that, as with the party as a whole, many of the biggest progressive names either went bust or were prohibitive favorites. Randy Bryce became a mustachioed poster boy for Medicare for all, but he lost his bid to replace outgoing Speaker Paul Ryan in Wisconsin. Kara Eastman scored the first big progressive win of the primary season when she took down a Blue Dog Democrat in Nebraska, but she came up short Tuesday against Rep. Don Bacon. And well-known lefties like Jesus “Chuy” Garcia—who, like Bryce, got an early endorsement from Bernie Sanders—and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—who had to win her primary the hard way—were elected in landslides in Illinois and New York districts that were so bright-blue as to never be in doubt. Meanwhile, moderates hogged the spotlight last week simply because there were more of them running in competitive races and more of them winning.

The Oval Office–shaped question as Democrats gear up for 2020 is whether Medicare for all would help or hurt with voters nationwide. The midterms offer an incomplete answer. While the results don’t prove the issue is a winner everywhere, they do make clear that support is not instantly toxic in purple and red swaths of the country, something that won’t go unnoticed by those White House hopefuls with one eye on the primary and one on the general. That should make life easier for could-be candidates like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris, all of whom already support Medicare for all. But it also might change the calculus for Joe Biden or other centrists who have stopped short of backing single-payer plans.

The progressive newcomers who were elected this year, then, may not have gotten credit for turning the House blue for the next two years. Their impact, however, could very well be felt for much longer than that.