The Shape of the 2018 Elections: New Volunteers, New Movements?

by Betty O’Shaughnessy and Dick Simpson, authors of Winning Elections in the 21st Century

Results of the primary elections held during April through June begin to paint a picture of an evolving politics in the country. The results of the May and June primaries show that grassroots campaigns with women activists can be successful, although heavy financial support of the national parties’ leadership often gives victory to their endorsed candidates regardless of gender. For instance, in May, the Georgia Democratic primary for governor showed charismatic, heavily endorsed Stacey Abrams crushing Stacey Evans, whose campaign strategy seemed geared toward winning back poor rural voters.  Incumbent and heavily backed Dianne Feinstein easily won the Democratic nomination for California’s Senate seat; a Democratic takeover of the Senate would make her chair of the powerful judiciary committee. Pundits are now predicting that women in Congress will reach at least 25% representation from their current level of 20%.

While grassroots efforts are not always successful, they are effectively harnessing the renewed political awareness spreading – in both parties.  In Kentucky, schoolteachers came out to support one of their own, Travis Benda, to defeat the GOP state House leader, Jonathan Shell.  In the Democratic primary for Kentucky’s 6th Congressional district, former fighter pilot Amy McGrath won over DCCC endorsed Jim Gray. Vox.com found that in Texas, more than half of the 50 women running for Congress in both parties won their primaries. In California, Katie Hill, a grassroots progressive, won the Democratic primary for the 25th District Congressional seat.

While the “Blue Wave” of winning Democrats likely to turn districts from Red to Blue is continuing through the summer, nonetheless, pundits are commenting that the Republican party is now really the party of Donald Trump, whose tweets are effective in supporting his followers, and that many Republicans in Congress are reluctant to counter him for fear of losing in the November election. While some extreme candidates – such as former coal executive and ex-con Don Blankenship of West Virginia – have been defeated in Republican primaries by more moderate candidates, others are still winning important elections. In June, for instance, longtime incumbent Mark Sanford lost South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District’s Republican primary, to Katy Arrington, a vocal Trump supporter, and white-supremacist-backed Corey Stewart gained the Republican nomination for the Virginia Senate contest.

So although Democrats will clearly make gains in 2018, it is still problematic whether they can take back either house of Congress and probably will remain unpredictable until November. The final primaries will be held in August, after which we will know most party slates for the midterm election in November. It is important to remember that a lot can happen in the five months between now and then.

As we write in our book, Winning Elections in the 21st Century (Kansas University Press, 2016), the theme of the campaign is critical.  In 2016, Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” and Bernie Sanders theme of fixing income inequality both resonated with the country.  In 2018, both the women’s movement and disgust with Washington are working for candidates, and is reflected in both the campaign themes and the number of volunteers in especially many grassroots campaigns. This year, 422 women are at this date running for US House seats, and 49 women are running for the Senate.  And they are often winning, especially in close races. In the May 15th Democratic primaries, women won one US Congressional district in Nebraska, two in Pennsylvania as well as two contested state house races, and won one of two highly contested state senate races in Oregon. Many of the women ran in Democratic primaries but more Republican women are running and winning as well. Most women candidates have the help of grassroots local groups, using the strategies described in Winning Elections. These (mostly) women are active mainly in local groups that are similar but not closely connected across the country.

This is not just a case of a reverse Tea Party on the left taking over. As Lara Putnam and Theda Skocpol relate in a recent article, Progressive candidates have clearly won some elections but much of the change – especially the movement from Red to Blue is taking place in the suburban areas and being led by people who are pragmatic about winning. The new activists are not primarily leftist ideologues but retired teachers, librarians, and community leaders who don’t like the way the 2016 elections turned out or the Trump policies since then. Moreover, issues that have sat dormant, such as gerrymandering, ERA, and doing away with the Electoral College, are mobilizing activists. Some activists are addressing the fairness of wealthy candidates — such as the gubernatorial nominees for both parties in Illinois — self-financing their primary campaigns. But these volunteers — whether supporting candidates, issues, or both — as part of the “Me too” movement, the resistance, or just unhappy with the state of the country, are using their skills to do the old fashion precinct work, phone calling, and neighbor-to-neighbor contact that we recommend as essential for winning elections in the 21st century.

Dick Simpson is professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is the co-editor with Dennis Judd of The City, Revisited: Urban Theory from Chicago, Los Angeles, New York.

Betty O’Shaughnessy is a visiting lecturer in political science, University of Illinois at Chicago and coauthor of The Struggle for Power and Influence in Cities and States.