Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is an investigative journalist and writer focusing on the radical Left and Islamic terrorism.
Some dubbed 2016 the Flight 93 election. 2018 was the Kavanaugh election.
The Democrats raised $950 million to take the House and another $513 million to take the Senate. They boosted their spending by 44% while Republican spending only rose by 21% since the last midterms. With that much at stake, just as in the Kavanaugh nomination, the Democrats used every dirty trick.
Republicans were harassed, threatened, assaulted and even shot. The media accused them of racism, sexism and treason. No smear was too low. No accusation too improbable. And some of them worked.
Before the election, these tactics exploded in the Kavanaugh hearings. And so did the backlash.
Democrat senators in red and reddish states, Donnelly, Heitkamp, McCaskill, and Nelson, who joined the lynch mob against Kavanaugh lost their seats. Senator Manchin who voted for Kavanaugh, kept his.
Republicans scored in the Senate, the body at the center of the Kavanaugh battle, but fell in the House, which had remained on the sidelines. There are structural reasons why Republicans were vulnerable in the House, but had more options in the Senate. But there was also a huge difference in perceptions.
The battle over Kavanaugh had emphasized the importance of the Senate as the gateway to judicial nominations, while many Republicans had come to think of the House as increasingly useless.
But the Kavanaugh fight was also a bellwether of the bigger cultural changes reshaping our national politics. Liberal Republicans in districts whose conservatism was purely fiscal took the worst beatings while Republicans in culturally conservative states rallied. It’s become much harder to be a Republican in a liberal state or a Democrat in a conservative state. And this is the truth that is defining our politics.
The split is less ideological than cultural. On one side there is a visceral disgust and loathing of Trump. And on the other, Trump is seen as leading a fight against a corrupt elitist establishment. These views cut across party lines. They transcend issues and address the bigger question of who we are and aren’t.
The same cultural signals that defined the Kavanaugh debate also defined the midterms. The Democrats have been transformed and the Republicans are transforming. The 2018 midterms were an attempt by both parties to take advantage of the consequences of these transformations. And both succeeded.
The Republicans took states while the Democrats took districts.
The media had been aching to spin the election results as a repudiation of President Trump, but the Republicans who had disavowed Trump got the worst of it, while prominent Trump allies survived.
The Democrats may own the House, but the Republican minority will be more conservative than ever. Republicans protected the path to judicial nominations, up to the Supreme Court, and that too carries the stamp and the scars of the battle to confirm Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Given a choice between protecting the House and the Senate, Republicans put more of their focus on winning the Senate.
And after Kavanaugh, Senate Republicans had a more compelling narrative to tell donors.
House Republicans who had played a meaningful part in the fight over Spygate and immigration survived despite the vicious attacks against them because voters and donors saw them as active. But liberal Republicans in districts that were reflexively hostile to Trump weren’t saved by opposing him.
In that way, 2018 was a continuation of 2016. Its fundamental lesson was that political survival requires a passionate and committed base. The Democrats had destroyed the center. Third Way candidates, once the future, had gone extinct. Republicans who didn’t get the memo joined them in the midterm massacre.
To win, you had to believe in something. And believe in it compellingly enough to express it passionately enough to connect with a base that would identify with your convictions and fight for you.
That was another lesson from the Kavanaugh hearings. It wasn’t due process or decency that won Kavanaugh a seat on the Supreme Court. It wasn’t his erudition or legal brilliance. It was his outrage.
In 2018, even more than 2016, candidates who didn’t really stand for anything were vulnerable. Democrat incumbents were knocked off by socialists. Republicans who leaned left were knocked off by Democrats and by conservative Republicans. Money was helpful, but it was no guarantee.
Ads alone weren’t enough. Showing up to shake hands and kiss babies wasn’t enough.
Passion fueled the blue wave of massive Democrat turnout. But Republican passion blunted the blue wave, dammed it and turned it into a trickle. Statistically the polls were right. Voters like to see a balance of parties between the executive and legislative branches of government. Midterm elections usually see the opposition party take the legislatures to balance out the White House.
The Republicans should have taken a beating. Passion and outrage were the reasons that they didn’t.
The Left believes in historical inevitability. History isn’t inevitable. But all too often Republicans act as if it is. They bow their heads, accept defeat and retreat to the next line and promise to fight on from there.
Trump changed that. And Republicans began to fight even when defeat seemed inevitable.
Once the Democrats brought out multiple accusers against Kavanaugh, and the weaker Republicans in the Senate began to bow out, defeat seemed inevitable and retreat appeared to be a wise policy.
Instead, Republicans fought and they won.
The midterm elections appeared to be an inevitable rout. Statistically, the party that occupied the White House was bound to lose. All the polls pointed toward a staggering blue wave sweeping away the GOP.
The Democrats had outraised Republicans by almost half a billion. It was all over.
But the Republicans fought anyway.
Republicans have slowly learned what the Left knew all along. If you don’t fight, you can’t win. If you only fight when the odds are absolutely in your favor, you’ll lose most of the time. And if you only fight when the odds are in your favor, but not when they are against you, your ranks will be filled with faithless establishment mercenaries who will desert you at a moment’s notice once you lose.
Sometimes victory is a glass half-full. It’s a tarnished Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court. It’s keeping a clear path to the judiciary while accepting the reality of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Every victory is built out of delaying actions, sacrifice plays and lost battles. It’s also built out of the ability to make the most of a bad hand and a bad election map. That’s what the Republicans did.
The Kavanaugh election of 2018 wasn’t a glorious triumph. It was a muddy battle fought in the dirt. Its outcome is mixed. There were victories and defeats. And lessons to learn for 2020.
But Republicans had learned the biggest lesson going into the fight. It was the Kavanaugh lesson.
Don’t give up. Don’t give up just because things are ugly. Don’t give up because of the death threats. Don’t give up because the experts say it can’t be done. Don’t give up because all the numbers are bad.
If you don’t fight, you will always lose.
The Republicans fought in 2018. They didn’t lose. And they won more than they expected.