Two upstate New York congressional districts unexpectedly became bellwether midterm races that tested the viability of Trumpism and the potential for moderates to prevail in 2020. But does the vaunted blue wave and the success of some moderates point to Trumpism’s coming demise? As long as the growing income gap is not addressed, leaving working and middle class Americans feeling left out, it is unlikely.
Centrist Democrat Anthony Brindisi is the presumptive winner over Trump stalwart Claudia Tenney in New York’s 22nd district, which the president carried by 16 points two years ago. (Votes are still being counted in this cliffhanger.) In the neighboring 24th district, won by Hillary Clinton two years ago and Obama in 2012, progressive Democrat Dana Balter ran a strong but ultimately unsuccessful battle against a moderate and occasionally Trump-defying GOP incumbent John Katko. My pre-election examination of these mirror-image districts pondered whether these outcomes would forebode a resetting to the center to pose a check on President Trump.
The stakes were high in both races. More campaign ads were aired in New York’s largely rural, heavily conservative 22nd district than in any other in the nation, according to Wesleyan Media Project. And outside PACs and mega-donors, including the Koch brothers, poured millions into both campaigns. The Democratic Campaign Committee placed Brindisi and Balter on their elite Red to Blue list while President Trump and three of his children visited the district to boost Claudia Tenney’s chances.
New York’s 24th district, which centers around Syracuse, is one of the top swing districts in the country, having switched between Republicans and Democrats four consecutive times between 2008 and 2014. More than $8 million went into the race. Balter’s feisty grassroots campaigning and impressive fundraising narrowed Katko’s lead to six points in the final vote tally. She earned the highest vote total for a losing candidate in that district in forty years.
If these races prove one thing, it’s that all the cash and outside star power in the world won’t necessarily buy you a victory. A young, affable Brindisi proved to be a stronger challenger against a personality-challenged Tenney. But Balter simply could not match Katko’s incumbency advantage and high popularity. Intrinsic factors, like personality and charisma, demonstrated that a Democrat could win in a district Trump carried by 16 points but lose next door in a district he lost by four.
But Donald Trump made the midterms about himself, a referendum not only on his policies but his style of governance. And Americans gave their feedback at the ballot box. As of this writing, the Democrats have gained a net 36 House seats, seven governorships and more than 300 state legislative seats. The party’s net loss in the Senate is now down to one or two seats. The House pick-up is the largest by Democrats since the wave election after Watergate when they gained 49 seats.
The director of Utica College’s Center of Public Affairs and Election Research, Luke Perry, told me that these districts revealed that a connection to the president could be more hurtful than helpful to Republicans. “The GOP incumbent who most distanced himself from the president, John Katko, retained his seat while John Faso and Claudia Tenney did not,” Perry said. “Disaffected Republicans exhibited a willingness to cross over for a moderate Democrat who was viewed more favorably at large in the district than Tenney, who polled at just 60 percent support from NY-22 Republicans, while her GOP predecessors endorsed her opponent.”
Grant Reeher of Syracuse University added that there were fundamental differences in political dynamic that influenced the way these two races played out. “Tenney is too extreme in a district that has always been more comfortable with moderate Republicans,” he said. “Brindisi, as a moderate Democrat, was her perfect foil.” In the 24th district, the public thought of Katko as a local son, whereas Balter was viewed as a transplant resident.
One upshot to the midterms is they reinforced Tip O’Neal’s famous dictum that “all politics is local.” Individual candidate perception prevailed in many of the races that became nationalized. With media attention focused on compelling campaigns by persons of color, women, and military veterans, the Washington Post noted that “several moderate white men who have deep roots in their local communities … positioned them well to pick off Republican-held districts” but who are under-covered by the national news media.
The New York Times also observed that “the Democrats’ broad gains in the House, and their capture of several powerful governorships, in many cases represented a vindication of the party’s more moderate wing. The candidates who delivered the House majority largely hailed from the political center, running on clean-government themes and promises of incremental improvement to the health care system rather than transformational social change.”
New York’s 22nd and 24th districts are chief examples of this trend. John Katko and Anthony Brindisi, though of opposing parties, embody the strength of moderation in politics. Dana Balter, pursuing a Bernie Sanders-style left-populist agenda, and Claudia Tenney, copy-catting Trump’s right-wing populist agenda and style, did not resonate with voters.
With the midterms behind us, are we witnessing the imminent demise of Trumpism and a return to the political center? Don’t count on it.
“Polarization is many decades in the making and won’t go away with Trump,” Reeher told me. “He’s merely exacerbated it. There is a wall separating the American people along class lines that is growing higher. This can be attributed to the growing income and wealth gap. As long as many in the working and middle classes feel stuck in place, this trend will continue.”
According to the Urban Institute, over the past half century, families near the bottom of wealth distribution (those at the 10th percentile) went from having no wealth on average to being about $1,000 in debt. Meanwhile, middle-class Americans more than doubled their wealth. But families near the top saw their wealth increase fivefold—Those in the 99th percentile saw their wealth grow sevenfold. Growing wealth inequities have resonated with Trump’s base, who fit his description of the “forgotten Americans” who suffer from wage stagnation.
Redistributive policies proposed by Bernie Sanders and other “democratic socialists” have not resonated with voters from New York’s 22nd and 24th districts. But neither has the GOP’s brazen attempts to give the wealthiest Americans a massive tax cut. If we are to mitigate the growing and dangerous polarization of our society, this expanding income and wealth gap must be addressed—and soon. If not, Trumpism may not be defeated in 2020 and the future of the American experiment will be in jeopardy.