Yet for all the panic, all went more or less as expected. If anything, coming in the wake of the colossal twist-ending of 2016 and all that has happened since, watching the election returns last night felt oddly normal.
Democrats took the House, while Republicans expanded their majority in the Senate, roughly as the pre-election polling predicted. The surprise was that nothing too strange happened.
Although Trump played a role, the election was largely fought over conventional kitchen table issues: education and the economy in Wisconsin, where GOP Gov. Scott Walker lost a close race; pre-existing conditions regulations in Arizona, where Republican candidate Martha McSally won; Obamacare's Medicaid expansion in the Kansas governor's race, where Republican Kris Kobach lost to Democrat Laura Kelly, who ran on expanding the program; as well as state ballot initiatives in Idaho, Nebraska, and Utah—all of which were approved.
Yes, the Democratic gains in the House were significant, a rebuke to Trump and a sign of the particular ways in which he is unpopular, notably amongst the sort of outer-ring suburban voters who have often gone for Republicans in the past. But even those gains were tempered somewhat by Republican pickups in the Senate and by Democratic losses in a few high-profile contests, like the Texas Senate race, where Beto O'Rourke, despite raising $70 million, lost to incumbent Ted Cruz.
Immigration played a role, too, and the last-minute fearmongering by Trump and his supporters over the migrant caravan—which was nowhere near the U.S. border, and which was hardly the invading criminal army that Trump insinuated—was unusual in a way. But even there, you could find a whiff of normalcy; given the persistence of the immigration debate and its importance to both parties, you would have expected immigration to be at or near the center of any midterm election, regardless of who was in the White House. And even Trump's rhetoric was normal for Trump, who has been running on fears of immigrant crime since the day he launched his presidential campaign.
None of which is to say that American politics is simply business as usual right now, or that we have somehow settled into a stable and unremarkable equilibrium.Trump really is an unusual and alarming president, and, with the loss of Republicans who don't match his style, the Republican Party is likely to grow Trumpier, at least in style and emphasis (the party would need an actual agenda in order to grow more Trumpy on policy). Increasing geographic polarization, meanwhile, in which Democrats consolidate support amongst high-density urban areas while Republicans make gains in rural communities, is likely to lead to even more intense partisan warfare and could result in a Democratic Party that effectively ignores voters outside of major metro enclaves. The new Democratic House majority is nearly certain to focus on oversight intended to check Trump. The Russia probe looms. I suppose we could still meet some aliens.
Yet last night's election is nonetheless a reminder that politics is often chaotic, that it can be hard to judge how unusual a moment really is when it is happening, that what feels, on the surface, like a time of pandemonium might actually turn out to be point at which normalcy, against the odds, asserts itself, resulting in a return to the divided government, with the clearer checks between branches that Americans often seem to prefer. As Josh Kraushaar writes, Americans voted for a balanced government rather than a full-on resistance.
It is also a reminder that the laws of political gravity still apply, and that voters still care about ordinary policy issues like education, jobs, and especially health care, which 40 percent of voters rated as their top problem facing the country, according to early exit poll data from CNN.
It's a sign, in other words, that even in our Trump-obsessed era, which often plays out like a deranged reality show focused entirely on culture war stunts and clashes of personality, retail politics is still about more than liking or disliking the president. Trump matters, but our political contests still revolve around essential policy and governing decisions that matter to the people casting their votes. It's a notion that really shouldn't be a shock, but in 2018 it may be the biggest surprise of all.