By Matthew Gerson
You didn’t have to be a political guru to know that Tuesday, Nov. 4 was destined to be a rough day for Democrats.
With many more Democrats than Republicans up for election this year in the Senate, the GOP was bound to pick up seats. Things were only made tougher when five Democratic incumbent senators retired rather than run for reelection. Midterm elections for second-term presidents are frequently bloodbaths: even the then-popular Ronald Reagan lost eight Republican seats, and his party’s Senate majority, to Democrats in 1986. In Ohio, the scandals plaguing Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ed Fitzgerald — including driving without a license — dragged down everyone lower on the ticket. And the electorate for midterm elections is substantially different than in presidential years, with lower participation from young people, women and minorities, groups traditionally more sympathetic to Democrats.
So there were lots of reasons to expect Republicans to do well on Election Day. But in the end, Republican gains were deeper and wider than almost anyone predicted — even the gurus.
Congress has been the big story: Republicans picked up seven Senate seats and a majority, and it seems likely the two still-undecided races will fall in their favor, too, while the House has more Republicans than at any point since the end of World War II. Less discussed, however, are the 10 state-level legislative chambers that flipped into Republican hands and the 23 Republican trifectas — when the same party controls the both houses of a state legislature and the Governorship — that now exist, compared to just seven Democratic ones. Last week, Republicans gained a stunning 432 seats in state house chambers. And shockingly, GOP gubernatorial candidates won in three Democratic bastions: Massachusetts, Illinois and Maryland.
What can a motivated Democrat at Kenyon do about it? Amid the gloom, there are a few things Dems on campus should keep in mind.
The first is to vote. Last week, voters aged 18-29 made up only 13 percent of the electorate. In 2012, nearly one in five voters was aged 18-29. Young voters are key to any successful Democratic campaign, but they let their party down this year. If 2016 is going to go in the Democrats’ favor, liberals our age will have to vote in stronger numbers than we did last week.
The second is to help get out the vote. Ohio is a bizarre place — depending upon whom you ask, the state has somewhere between one and 2.5 million more registered Democrats than Republicans. The key to Democrats winning in Ohio is not to convince voters to cross the aisle, but rather to get them to show up in reasonable numbers. It’s looking like Ohio broke a record this year for the lowest voter turnout ever in a midterm election. Only 40 percent of registered voters made it to the polls. In 2008, that number was 70 percent. Such deplorable numbers can be increased by simple get-out-the-vote efforts like making phone calls and knocking on doors. Many college students did just those things in 2008 and 2012, but elections happen every two years, not just every four.
Third, keep your head up. “Victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools,” wrote William Faulkner, and nowhere is this truer than in the cyclical motions of American politics. If I had a dollar for every time a party has claimed a defining victory in the last 30 years, only to quickly lose ground the next time voters went to the polls, I could probably take a friend to lunch at the Gambier Deli.
Americans are frustrated with gridlock, and so they punished the party of a president who promised change but was unable to bring it. But that’s very different than embracing Republican policies. Candidates hardly even discussed the issues this year — the election was all about President Barack Obama. Because important issues like health reform, climate change, tax reform and income inequality were not even on the table, it is impossible for Americans to have voiced their opinions on them. When it comes to policy, this was an election about nothing.
Lastly, remember that the real fight has yet to come. In 2016, the tables will turn. Some 24 Republican senators will be up for reelection — even more than the number of Democrats who were up this year. And the presidential race will draw tens of millions of additional voters to the polls, mostly from groups that, in the past, have overwhelmingly supported Democrats.
It’s a miserable time to be a Democrat in Ohio. Frankly, at the moment, it’s not fun to be one anywhere. But if, like me, you lament the results of the recent election and look with dread at what two years of a Republican-dominated Congress have in store for our country, heed the words of the American labor leader Joe Hill shortly before his execution by firing squad: “Don’t waste any time mourning. Organize.”
Matthew Gerson ’18 is undeclared from Washington, D.C. Contact him at email@example.com.