The Democratic Victories of 2018 Feel Mediocre. They Aren’t.

U.S. Senate candidate Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-TX) concedes the race while addressing a 'thank you' party on Election Day at Southwest University Park November 06, 2018 in El Paso, Texas. O'Rourke lost to incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX).
One of Tuesday’s losing Democratic candidates. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

What is it about Democrats’ 2018 election performance that feels so … meh? So bleh? A couple of things pop to mind.

The general-election candidates that Democrats became so emotionally invested in nationally—Beto O’Rourke in Texas, Stacey Abrams in Georgia, and Andrew Gillum in Florida—all lost (or appear headed for certain defeat). Gillum’s loss was especially painful, since he was ahead in just about every poll of the state.

Oh, and then there was that pesky subplot in which Democrats lost control of the Senate for what seems like eternity. The Republican flips in Florida, Missouri, Indiana, and North Dakota (with more potentially to come) insulate them from Democratic gains in 2020, not that there are all that many gains to be had for Democrats in 2020 anyway.

It may have felt like such a meh-bleh night for Democrats, then, because it was—relative to expectations heading into Election Day. Democrats had hoped that they’d have a fighting chance for control of the Senate (haha): that they could limit their incumbent losses to North Dakota, and North Dakota only, while picking up Arizona, Nevada, and either Texas or Tennessee. Democrats thought that they might net 10 governor’s races, seizing back the Midwest ahead of a presidential election and the next redistricting process, while potentially making historic pickups, with new, enthusiastic coalitions, in the South. And maybe Democrats would pick up, say 40 or 50 House seats?

The “tsunami” that Democrats had allowed themselves to believe might come never came, with Trump’s Republican coalition standing up to defend itself where it could.

But it’s worth questioning where the hope of a “tsunami” came from given the GOP’s geographical advantages in controlling, well, a lot of ground, and particularly a lot of small states. Expectations got out of hand. If you could’ve asked Democrats to take this night at the beginning of 2017, they would have eagerly accepted it.

No one was talking about Democrats taking back the House majority in early 2017. Republicans had gerrymandered critical states in 2010, and the conventional wisdom was that Democrats would have to wait for another round of redistricting in the next decade to have a shot. The House majority hadn’t been contested since 2010, and it seemed difficult to imagine following Trump’s election that the fiery wreckage that was the Democratic Party, represented most prominently by aging House leaders who refused to move aside, could muster a realistic challenge to it. Democrats are now on track to pick up somewhere between 30 and 40 seats and to subpoena every piece of literature that has ever crossed the desks of Donald Trump’s accountants. And the Republican legislative agenda is dead.

We’re all so sick of hearing it: Senate Democrats had to defend 26 seats this cycle, and 10 in states that Donald Trump won. It’s considered utter devastation that they’ve lost four of these 26 seats (though that number could easily increase to five depending on whether Montana Sen. Jon Tester can hold on.) They’ll at least pick up the seat of their only decent target this cycle, Nevada Sen. Dean Heller, and the Arizona Senate race, as of this writing, remains uncalled. The night will end with Democrats losing two to four seats on net. Their long-term problem in the Senate has more to do with the chamber’s small-state bias than with their candidates performing unusually poorly this cycle. (And it’s worth rating these results against an alternate history, in which Republicans comfortably pick up 60-plus seats under President Hillary Clinton.)

Democrats didn’t get all of the governor’s races they wanted, either. Democratic candidate Fred Hubbell, in Iowa, was ahead in polls heading into Election Day and lost. So did Ohio’s Richard Cordray.* And then, of course, there’s the aforementioned Florida and Georgia defeats. Still, though, Democrats can boast of picking up governor’s mansions in New Mexico, Michigan, Illinois, Nevada, Maine, Wisconsin(!), and Kansas(!!).They may lose Connecticut, but they’re still looking at a net gubernatorial pickup of six or seven.

The Democratic Party hit rock bottom after the 2016 election, when they lost the presidency to television character Donald Trump, and then had to find some way to regroup quickly enough to face a fantastically gerrymandered Republican House and the worst imaginable Senate map. They took the House within one election and grinded out Senate races where they could, even if they couldn’t save some of the ones that they had little business holding in the first place. They’ll have governors ready to veto Republican gerrymanders after 2020 in crucial states that they didn’t hold the last time.

As bleh as it all might feel, it’s a start.

Correction, Nov. 7, 2018: This piece originally misidentified Richard Cordray as Rob Cordray.