2018 Election and the Rural-Urban Divide

JACOB DENNINGER: The 2018 midterms have come and gone, and the Republicans have expanded their Senate majority while Democrats have captured the House of Representatives. Depending on the result of uncalled  Senate races in Florida and Arizona, and assuming Republicans win a runoff in Mississippi, Republicans will have between 52 and 54 Senate seats in the next Congress, a net gain of one to three seats. According to the New York Times, Democrats have netted at least 31 house seats, giving them a House majority of 226 seats at a minimum, and are leading in five more districts. Democrats may also win the first ever congressional race to be decided by a ranked choice runoff in Maine’s second congressional district. (Republican Bruce Poliquin won the plurality in the first tally, but two independent candidates denied him a majority on the first ballot. Democrat Jared Golden was the preferred pick of both independent candidates, and according to the Bangor Daily News, exit polling gives Golden a second round advantage.)

What does the divergent result tell us? Well, we already knew Republicans had a favorable map in the Senate. They were competing in rural states Donald Trump won by big margins, and I’m not surprised that Heidi Heitkamp lost in North Dakota, Claire McCaskill lost in Missouri, and Joe Donnelly lost in Indiana.

I am, however, surprised by how badly Donnelly lost. I predicted he would win narrowly, though I wouldn’t have been shocked by a narrow loss. But Donnelly lost by 7.5 percentage points, a much larger margin than I expected.

On the House side, Democrats won in the Suburbs. In New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Florida, Minnesota, Colorado, Texas, California, and elsewhere, Democrats flipped suburban House seats.

These suburban districts were drawn to favor Republicans. When the GOP executed a plan to win lots of state legislatures in 2010 and gerrymander congressional districts all over the country to lock in their House majority for what they thought would be the whole decade, they drew suburban districts to favor their own party. For example, Michigan’s 11th district outside Detroit, which Democrats flipped, is adjacent to the 14th district; the 14th packs as many black voters into it as possible.  The 11th district even has a ridiculously shaped cut-out where the population is slightly whiter and more conservative than the surrounding area.

Republicans are supposed to win these suburban districts. They’re supposed to win easily. But Donald Trump has gotten college educated voters in the suburbs, especially women, to vote for Democrats. By driving away previously reliable Republican voters in the suburbs, Trump managed to break the greatest gerrymander in the history of the United States. (Appropriately for Trump, when a gerrymander stops benefiting the party for which it is designed, the technical name is a dummymander.) Democrats should not have been able to win the house of representatives until 2022 because of gerrymandering, but because of Trump, they did.

Democratic losses in Senate races and rural states (including Donnelly’s big one) and Republican losses in previously reliable suburban districts tells me one thing. Donald Trump has cemented the urban-rural divide in American politics. He has managed to help push suburban moderates into the eager arms of the Democratic coalition, while he has won over rural voters and brought them so solidly into the Republican coalition that not even the independent and moderate images of Heitkamp, McCaskill, and Donnelly was enough to save them.

Nothing exemplifies the current urban-rural partisan polarization than the House results from Minnesota. The net gain of both parties in the state was zero seats. But Republicans flipped the more rural and historically Democratic 1st and 8th districts, while democrats flipped the suburban and historically Republican 2nd and 3rd districts.

Going forward, it looks like the urban-rural divide will continue to act as a major force in politics for the remainder of the Trump era, and probably longer as both parties continue to use culture war issues. Democrats will control metropolitan areas and Republicans will have a lock on rural America.

What does that actually mean? It means Democrats may continue to win the House via suburban districts, but they will have a much harder time winning the Senate, which gives rural states disproportionately high representation.

Max Magid