Trump voters carry Republicans in the Senate, while Pelosi claims victory in the House

Propelled by an unprecedented surge of rank-and-file enthusiasm and widespread urban and suburban dissatisfaction with President Trump, Democrats took control of the House of Representatives for the first time since 2011.

Yet with victories in Tennessee, Indiana, North Dakota, Missouri and Texas, Donald Trump’s Republican Party preserved and likely extended its majority in the U.S. Senate, capitalizing on a lopsided battlefield that forced Democrats to defend 10 seats in states Trump won in 2016.

The outcome is largely a repudiation of President Trump, who told a rally last month in Mississippi to “pretend I’m on the ballot” — and a partial vindication.

It all depends which side of widening gap between Red America and Blue America you stand on.

On Tuesday voters turned out in record numbers to deliver a verdict on Trump after two years in which he has monopolized the media, polarized the electorate and dominated American political life like no president since Franklin Roosevelt — or arguably ever.

As the last ballots trickled in, it became clear that America’s verdict wasn’t mixed so much as divided. The red, rural parts of the country voted heavily Republican. The blue, urban parts voted heavily Democrat. And the purple, suburban areas leaned leftward — far enough to flip dozens of suburban GOP House districts but not far enough to overcome Republicans’ statewide margins in conservative strongholds such as Missouri and Indiana and save moderate Democratic senators such as Claire McCaskill and Joe Donnelly. 

Winning the Senate was always a long shot. Still, the party was depending on Joe Donnelly to hold his seat and hoping that Phil Bredesen, a popular and moderate former governor, could eke out a win against GOP Rep. Marsha Blackburn. In Texas, Beto O’Rourke was a folk hero for liberals who thought he might defy gravity and defeat Sen. Ted Cruz, the Republican.

It was not to be.

Democrats faced serious hurdles this cycle. Republicans largely oversaw the last round of redistricting, redrawing the congressional map in ways that force Democrats to win the nationwide popular vote by seven or more percentage points just to secure a bare House majority. On the Senate side, Democrats were defending 26 seats to the GOP’s nine — by far the most difficult map either party has faced in decades. Republicans in some red states passed a set of restrictive voting laws that disproportionately handicap Democratic constituencies. Finally, the economy is humming and unemployment has fallen to a 48-year low — factors that traditionally boost the party in power.

None of that, however, prevented Democrats from heading toward victory in the House. In suburban, GOP-held districts that voted for Clinton in 2016, Democrats performed well: Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Miami, a moderate who co-founded the House climate change caucus, lost to his Democratic challenger, as did Northern Virginia’s Barbara Comstock, New Jersey’s Leonard Lance, Dallas’s Pete Sessions and Colorado’s Mike Coffman. And strong showings in Richmond and Oklahoma City, where GOP incumbents Dave Brat and Steve Russell went down in defeat, suggested Democrats could continue to pick off some Trump districts and cushion their potential victory.  

A Democratic victory in the House will provide a crucial check on GOP rule and usher in a class of lawmakers in both Washington, D.C. and state capitals across America that will be younger, more female, more diverse and more progressive than any in U.S. history, including the first two Muslim women in Congress, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Illhan Omar of Minnesota; Jared Polis of Colorado, the first openly gay man to be elected governor of any state; and Sharice David of Kansas, the first Native American woman in Congress as well as the Sunflower State’s first openly gay representative.

The contours of a Democratic House victory took shape early on. In previous cycles, Democrats had failed to field challengers in tons of politically promising districts, conceding hundreds of seats up and down the ballot to uncontested GOP incumbents.

Candidates casting their votes during the 2018 midterm election
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Candidates casting their votes during the 2018 midterm election
Democratic candidate Christine Hallquist votes during the midterm election in Hyde Park, Vermont, U.S. November 6, 2018. REUTERS/Caleb Kenna
Democratic Congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez arrives to vote in the midterm elections in the Bronx, New York City, U.S., November 6, 2018. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly
Missouri Attorney General and Republican U.S. Senate candidate Josh Hawley, left, checks in to the polling place before voting, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, in Columbia, Mo. (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson)
U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-TX), candidate for U.S. Senate arrives with his family to vote in the 2018 midterm elections in El Paso, Texas, U.S., November 6, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Segar TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Republican candidate for Governor Ron DeSantis arrives to vote, carrying his daughter Madison, in the midterm elections at a polling place in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, U.S., November 6, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
Democratic congressional candidate Ilhan Omar walks to the vote counting machine after filling out her ballot during midterm elections in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S. November 6, 2018. REUTERS/Eric Miller
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, center, carrying son Davis, age 16 months, leaves the polling place after voting with wife R. Jai, right, during midterm elections in Tallahassee, Florida, U.S. November 6, 2018. REUTERS/Colin Hackley TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Alaska independent U.S. House candidate Alyse Galvin smiles after emerging from a voting booth on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, in Anchorage, Alaska. Galvin, who arrived at the polling location with her family, is challenging Republican U.S. Rep. Don Young for Alaska's lone U.S. House seat. (AP Photo/Becky Bohrer)
California gubernatorial Democratic candidate Gavin Newsom walks with his daughter, Montana, 9, to turn his ballot after voting Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, in Larkspur, Calif. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
Georgia Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp gives the thumbs up sign as he and youngest daughter Amy Porter leave after voting Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, in Winterville, Ga. Kemp is in a close race with Democrat Stacey Abrams. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Virginia Republican senatorial candidate Corey Stewart, center, and his wife Maria Stewart, left, voting at St. Margaret's Episcopal Church in Woodbridge, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) Wife Maria Stewart
Marty Nothstein, Republican candidate in Pennsylvania's 7th Congressional District, arrive at his polling station to vote Tuesday Nov. 6, 2018, in New Tripoli, Pa. Nothstein is facing Democrat Susan Wild for the seat held by Charlie Dent who retired. (AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma)
Anthony Brindisi, left, Democratic candidate for New York's 22nd Congressional District, casts his vote at Mohawk Valley Community College in Utica, N.Y., Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. Brindisi, a Democratic Assemblyman, is hoping to defeat Republican Congresswoman Claudia Tenney in New York's 22nd Congressional District race. Pictured at right are his wife, Erica McGovern Brindisi, and his daughter, Lily Grace Brindisi. (AP Photo/Heather Ainsworth)
Democratic congressional candidate Amy McGrath checks in with poll workers before voting on Election Day in Georgetown, Ky., Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston)
Haley Stevens, candidate for Michigan's 11th Congressional District, gives a thumbs up as exits her polling place Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, in Rochester Hills, Mich. Stevens is running against Lena Epstein. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Candidate for Pennsylvania's 1st Congressional District Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., gestures after casting his ballot in Langhorne, Pa., Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
California gubernatorial Democratic candidate Gavin Newsom ties the shoe laces of his son Hunter, 7, as his son, Dutch, 2, looks on after voting Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, in Larkspur, Calif. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
Dana Balter, candidate for the House of Representatives in New York's 24th Congressional District, applies her "I Voted" sticker after casting her vote in Syracuse, N.Y., Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus)
AGUA DULCE, CA - NOVEMBER 06: Democratic Congressional candidate Katie Hill (L) shakes hands with a poll worker after casting her ballot at a polling place in California's 25th Congressional district on November 6, 2018 in Agua Dulce, California. Republican incumbent U.S. Rep. Steve Knight is competing against Hill for his seat in the district in a close race. Political races across the country are being hotly contested for House and Senate seats. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
COSTA MESA, CA - NOVEMBER 06: Longtime Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa) passes people heading toward a polling place as he walks with family members after dropping off his ballot on November 6, 2018 in Costa Mesa, California. According to recent polling, Rohrabacher and Democratic challenger Harley Rouda are in a virtual tie to represent the 48th Congressional district. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
COLUMBIA, MO - NOVEMBER 06: Missouri's Republican U.S. Senate Candidate Josh Hawley casts his vote on election day at The Crossings Church on November 6, 2018 in Columbia, Missouri. Hawley, the current Missouri Attorney General, is hoping to unseat current Democratic incumbent Senator Claire McCaskill. (Photo by Michael Thomas/Getty Images)
TURLOCK, CA - NOVEMBER 06: Republican U.S. Rep. Jeff Denham of California's 10th Congressional District casts his vote at the Berkeley Ave Baptist Church on November 6, 2018 in Turlock, California. Denham, a four-term Republican incumbent and Air Force veteran, is competing against Democratic challenger Josh Harder in one of seven closely-contested congressional races currently held by the GOP in California won by Hillary Clinton in 2016 as the Democrats hope to regain control of the House in the midterm elections. (Photo by Stephen Lam/Getty Images)
WHITMAN, MA - NOVEMBER 6: Republican U.S. Senate candidate Geoff Diehl and his wife KathyJo Boss leave Whitman Town Hall in Whitman, MA after casting their votes on Election Day, Nov. 6, 2018. (Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Democratic congressional candidate Cindy Axne gets her ballot for the midterm elections at her polling station in West Des Moines, Iowa, U.S., November 6, 2018. REUTERS/Scott Morgan
Democratic congressional candidate running in the 49th district Mike Levin gets an "I Voted" sticker put on by his wife Chrissy after they voted during midterm elections in San Juan Capistrano, California, U.S. November 6, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake
Michigan Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer shakes hands after voting in midterm election at her polling station at the St. Paul Lutheran Church in East Lansing, Michigan, U.S. November 6, 2018. REUTERS/Jeff Kowalsky
Democratic U.S. congressional candidate Rashida Tlaib points to her 'I voted' sticker after voting during the midterm election in Detroit, Michigan, U.S. November 6, 2018. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
U.S. Democratic Congressional candidate Jahana Hayes waits in line to fill out her ballot to vote at a voting station during the midterm election in Wolcott, Connecticut, U.S., November 6, 2018. REUTERS/Michelle McLoughlin

But 2017 and 2018 attracted droves of diverse, often rookie candidates appalled by Trump and itching to “resist.” By Dec. 31, 2017, more than 2,100 people had filed paperwork to run for the House or Senate, the most since the Federal Election Commission started keeping track in 1977. At that point, 510 Democratic House challengers had raised $50,000 or more, just shy of the GOP’s record-setting total (522) from 2010 — the year Republicans wound up flipping 63 seats and retaking control. By the end of primary season, Democrats were challenging all but 10 Republican representatives — an unprecedented feat that eventually helped the party capitalize on Election Day.

Women played a key part in this recruitment boom. Amid the backdrop of the broader #MeToo movement, more women launched campaigns this cycle for the U.S Senate (53), U.S. House (476), governor’s mansion (61) and state legislature (3,388) than ever before. Many were first-time candidates; most were Democrats. Activism among women — especially college-educated suburban women — skyrocketed as well.

Yet in some ways the bitter polarization of the results reinforced Trump’s view of America and of the controversial blunt-force messaging Trump brought to the campaign in its final days.

Trump brought prophecies of the apocalypse to red America, passing up the opportunity to run on positive economic news or appeals to a positive vision of the country.

The president did talk about GDP growth and low unemployment at campaign events, but he has always said he never gets credit for anything, and so he campaigned as if that were true. He was reportedly angered by an ad produced by his reelection campaign that touted the economy and showed a mother watching her daughter grow up, preferring an ad demonizing immigrants by portraying them as violent criminals. That ad was deemed so racist that every TV network — even Fox News —  rejected it.

He held 30 rallies over the final five weeks, and 14 rallies over the final two weeks, in large arenas and on airport tarmacs, where he talked about a migrant caravan passing from Central American countries into Mexico as if it were massed on the U.S. border, despite a U.S. military assessment that said they expected 20 percent of the 7,000 or so people in the caravan to actually reach the U.S.-Mexico border, and not until a few weeks from now.

Trump called the refugees an “invasion.” He floated conspiracy theories about Democrats and billionaire George Soros having something to do with the caravan, but offered no proof. He described those in the caravan as dangerous criminals, and speculated that some might be terrorists from Middle Eastern countries, which also contradicted intelligence findings from the U.S. military.

The unsubstantiated claims and accusations were so many, and so wild, that Trump overloaded the circuits of anyone trying to keep track of whether any of it was actually true.

But Trump’s appeal to his core supporters has always been centered around an us vs them mentality, and his message built on and expanded that narrative.

The key strategic piece to all this was that many of those who voted for Trump in 2016 were nontraditional voters who might have rarely, if ever, voted in a midterm election. They resembled the “low propensity” and “low information” voters that so often bolstered Democratic candidates in presidential elections but failed to show up in midterm elections.

A key Republican source with knowledge of voter data held by the Republican National Committee told Yahoo News the number of Trump voters who were non-traditional midterm voters had become an “obsession” for key GOP operatives, and that this voting bloc had become key in many contests Republicans hoped to win.

So the deployment by Trump of a scare-mongering messaging was a tool with which to activate voters who cared and knew little for the intricacies of policy or governance and sometimes even facts, but who would flock to the idea of taking part in a continuation of the movement that Trump started in 2016.

And the bottom line for many of Trump’s supporters was that the president — stymied in their view by Congress in his quest to build a wall across the entirety of the border — was doing something, anything, rather than nothing.

Trump ordered 7,000 U.S. military troops to portions of the border in Texas, and said that number could double.

He also floated the idea of revoking birthright citizenship through executive order, something he has no power to do.

The question was whether Trump’s inflammatory approach would alienate middle of the road voters who lean conservative but don’t like him.

The answer was that in key Senate states like Indiana and Tennessee, voters wanted red meat. But elsewhere Trump’s rhetoric drove Democrats to the polls.

Even Trump seemed conflicted on the eve of the election.

“I would like to have a much softer tone,” Trump told the conservative Sinclair Broadcasting Group.

But, he added, “I feel, to a certain extent, I have no choice.”

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