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As Democrats take House, experts say partisan polarization will only get worse

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and President Donald Trump speak after the midterm elections. (CNN Newsource)

Empowered by midterm victories in the House but chastened by defeat in the Senate, Democrats stared down a new political landscape in Washington Wednesday, aiming to balance opportunities for cooperation with President Donald Trump with demands for accountability as they lay the groundwork for their 2020 campaign.

Current House Minority Leader and likely future Speaker Nancy Pelosi signaled a willingness to work with Trump on infrastructure and other matters, but she and Trump both suggested bruising battles are on the horizon.

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“We will strive for bipartisanship, seeking common ground, as we are responsible to do,” Pelosi told supporters on Tuesday night. “But when we cannot find that common ground, standing our ground.”

Trump was combative Wednesday morning on Twitter, but at an afternoon press conference, he posited that Democrats controlling the House would create opportunities for bipartisanship.

“The election’s over,” Trump said. “Now everybody is in love.”

As Democrats maneuver to solidify power and Trump attempts to advance a conservative agenda, whatever love he sees now will likely fade. Democrats are projected to come out of Tuesday’s elections with at least 222 House seats while Republicans expand their control of the Senate, setting up a divided government more likely to wind up mired in gridlock than singing together in harmony.

In addition to washing out more than two dozen House Republicans, the moderately-sized blue wave flipped at least seven governorships, taking down prominent Trump allies Kris Kobach in Kentucky and Scott Walker in Wisconsin, and picked up more than 300 seats in state legislatures.

“Since Truman, the average pickup in the U.S. Congress in such a midterm is 28 seats,” said Glenn Altschuler, a professor of American studies at Cornell University. “Democrats will exceed that by several seats. The pickup of governorships is something Democrats can brag about and is relevant for 2020 and for the redistricting that will occur after the census.”

While Democrats made significant gains, they suffered damaging losses as well. Sen. Bill Nelson and gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum are trailing with nearly all votes counted in Florida, as is Stacey Abrams in the Georgia governor’s race, and Republicans flipped Senate seats in Missouri and North Dakota.

“They basically didn’t get over the finish line and lost some seats they thought they were going to keep,” said Michael D. Cohen, CEO of Cohen Research Group and a professor at the University of Southern California’s Sol Price School of Public Policy.

Several other key races are up in the air. Votes are still being counted in Arizona, where Democrat Kyrsten Sinema is behind Republican Martha McSally in the fight to replace GOP Sen. Jeff Flake.

Control of the House gives Democrats power to conduct investigations and issue subpoenas to the Trump administration and to stymie much of Trump’s legislative agenda. The GOP will still have free rein to confirm conservative judges and Trump political nominees in the Senate, though, potentially beginning with a replacement for resigning Attorney General Jeff Sessions who will be more willing to accede to the president’s demands.

“Democrats appealed to a coalition of the decent, including Independents and independent thinking Republicans, by running on a program to protect healthcare, rebuild America and clean up corruption,” said Democratic strategist Craig Varoga. “A strong majority of Americans in all regions of the country supported that agenda, which is why Democrats won a majority of the votes this year, and took back the House, added governors, and increased the number of state legislatures governed by Democrats.”

Democratic losses in the Senate were partly a function of the luck of the draw, with an unusually high number of incumbents facing aggressive challenges in states where Trump won in 2016. On the House side, seizing the majority from a party overseeing the lowest unemployment rate in decades and the strongest economic growth in years is a noteworthy accomplishment, but it still fell short of the overwhelming margin of victory seen in past midterms.

“While the Democrats took the House, they are, at this moment, at +28 which is impressive in view of the economic numbers but below what they and history expect in a midterm, so not so different there in terms of underperformance,” said Michael Cornfield, a professor at the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management and director of the Public Echoes Of Rhetoric in America Project.

In an interview with Sinclair Broadcast Group’s Scott Thuman Monday, President Trump expressed regret over the combative tone he has taken during his first two years in office. His response to the election results Wednesday offered little hope that the tone in Washington will improve in 2019, threatening to adopt a “warlike posture” if the Democratic majority attempts to launch probes of his administration.

“They can play that game, but we can play it better, because we have a thing called the United States Senate,” Trump said at his press conference, hinting at politically-motivated investigations of Democrats if they come after him. “I could see it being extremely good for me politically because I think I’m better at that game than they are, actually, but we’ll find out.”

Trump claimed credit for the GOP’s Senate victories, and he is likely correct that his rallies in the waning days of the race boosted Republican candidates in Florida, Tennessee, and Missouri. His pushes to unseat Senate Democrats in Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia failed, though, and he lost several supporters in the House.

“Not only has the president, with some justification, taken credit for the wins in the Senate, but I think he in all likelihood is convinced that doubling down with strident rhetoric and policies toward immigration and the caravan worked,” Altschuler said.

Despite Pelosi’s somewhat conciliatory tone Wednesday, other Democrats are already presenting a more combative front, speculating about new investigations of the administration and threatening to pursue Trump’s tax returns.

“Americans must have answers immediately as to the reasoning behind @realDonaldTrump removing Jeff Sessions from @TheJusticeDept. Why is the President making this change and who has authority over Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation? We will be holding people accountable,” tweeted Rep. Jerry Nadler, expected to be chairman of the House Judiciary Committee in 2019, minutes after Sessions’ resignation was announced.

Nothing about Tuesday’s results provided Democrats with an incentive to turn the heat down on Trump, nor Trump with any reason to believe GOP voters want to see his softer side.

“We are in a new age of polarization that has basically solidified in 2018 and the question moving forward is, does either party try to get the people in the middle anymore?” Cohen said. “It’s not a great thing for compromise.”

Overall, the midterms offered a complicated message for Democrats, who succeeded with progressive candidates in some races and failed with more liberal nominees elsewhere, scoring big victories in some states where Trump triumphed in 2016 but losing ground in others.

“It was a very good night for Democrats, but the caution is, if the electorate was sending a message, the electorate is completely schizophrenic,” said Democratic strategist Scott Ferson.

One takeaway experts say is clear: the candidate needs to match the electorate. Andrew Gillum excited liberals across the country, attracted public support from Obama and Oprah, and generated 2020 buzz, but the moderate Democrat he defeated in the primary, Gwen Graham, may have been better positioned to win the general election.

“That’s the lesson of the Florida governor’s race… [GOP nominee Rep. Ron] DeSantis was sort of a vanilla Republican who embraced Trump and he won,” Cohen said.

Nominating moderate and conservative Democrats did not always work out so well either.

“You could argue that Stacey Abrams and Beto O’Rourke were the two most progressive high-profile candidates and they came within a whisker of winning in two very red states,” Altschuler said. “By contrast, Sen. Joe Donnelly, who is among the more conservative Democrats, got whipped in Indiana.”

Democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was the right choice for a liberal, reliably blue district in New York City, but more centrist, mainstream candidates found unexpected success in places where the party has been unable to compete for decades.

“There’s no better story for Democrats than Ocasio-Cortez and Kendra Horn,” Ferson said, referring to the Democrat who won Oklahoma’s 5th District for the first time since 1974. “Talk about a tale of two cities. We’re not disciplined enough to do that all over the place because we like to have the larger ideological battle about how progressive we can be. We’d rather be right than win a lot of the time.”

Although that is a concern, Cornfield pointed to research indicating the notion of Democrats as an extreme left-wing party is more a problem of perception than reality.

“As the Kamarck Brookings Study shows, Democratic candidates were as a whole closer to the Conor Lamb center than the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez left,” he said. “It's Trump and the Republicans who paint Democrats as farther to the left than most of them are on issue positions.”

Democrats were celebrating dozens of hard-fought victories across the country Wednesday, but they face daunting challenges in 2020. The Senate map is much more favorable, but losses Tuesday mean they will need to flip at least four GOP seats to take the majority. They will also be defending dozens of newly-gained House seats in competitive districts.

“The Democrats should be mildly encouraged by the results of the midterms and the Republicans should be concerned about the outcome, especially since the demography will be even more unfavorable for them in 2020 than it is in 2018,” Altschuler said.

Democrats will also, of course, be fighting to unseat Trump, and his success campaigning for Senate candidates in recent weeks demonstrated how formidable an opponent he can be, despite exit polls showing nearly half the electorate strongly disapproves of his performance. This is especially true if Democrats are unable to select a more palatable nominee than their unsuccessful Senate and gubernatorial candidates Tuesday.

“You can’t beat somebody with nobody and you can’t beat somebody even if they’re under 50 percent in presidential approval ratings if you’re not able to win over independents and Republicans,” Cohen said.

Democrats agree they need a unifying message with broad appeal to win in 2020, and they hope controlling half of Congress will enable them to develop that platform.

“Last night’s victory allows us an opportunity to demonstrate to American voters how Democrats could govern if we took the presidency back,” Ferson said, though he quickly added, “I don’t know if we figured that part out.”

Varoga stressed that does not mean backing down from fights with the president.

“The best message for 2020 is for candidates and the grassroots to show how they’re prepared to help make people’s lives better, and also how they have the strength to stand up to bullies who seek to divide our country,” he said.

Trump’s firing of Sessions Wednesday suggests he has no intention of backing down from conflicts with Democrats either.

Asked what all this means for 2020, Cornfield said, “More turbulence ahead.”

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