The Resistance Strikes Back
Posted November 10, 2018 12:00 p.m. EST
In April 2017, progressives across America turned toward Georgia’s 6th District for the race to fill the House seat vacated by Tom Price, who’d become President Donald Trump’s (short-lived) secretary of health and human services. That affluent, highly educated district in Atlanta’s northern suburbs had been solidly Republican for decades; Newt Gingrich had held it for 20 years, and Price won his 2016 election by more than 23 percentage points. But Trump had prevailed there only narrowly, and Democrats dreamed of using the special election to rebuke him.
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A great many local women, some awakened from political indifference by shock and revulsion at Trump’s victory, threw themselves into his campaign. Money poured in from all over the country for the Democratic candidate, Jon Ossoff. It became the most expensive House contest in history.
He lost. Afterward, people complained — often on cable TV — that Democrats had squandered their money. But last week, some of that investment finally paid off.
On Thursday we learned that a year and a half after Ossoff’s loss, Lucy McBath, an African-American gun control advocate, had flipped the seat.
McBath’s victory was emblematic of the Resistance triumphs in the midterms. There was no immediate catharsis Tuesday, no definitive national rebuke of a president whose bottomless depravity continues to dumbfound more than half the country. But the steady work of citizens who’ve been trying, over the last two years, to fight the civic nightmare of Trumpism bore fruit. It was a slog, pockmarked with disappointments. At the end, though, there was hope.
During the Ossoff campaign, “we built an army of volunteers,” said Stacy Efrat, a mother of three with a full-time job who’d organized voter registration drives most weekends this year. “We built the Resistance in the 6th District, and we already had our infrastructure in place to work on the Lucy election.”
It took a while for the conventional wisdom of the American political class, accustomed to treating Democrats as hapless and disorganized, to catch up to what the Resistance had accomplished all over the country. There was an initial sense Tuesday night and Wednesday morning that the midterms had been a letdown for Democrats, a blue trickle rather than a wave. Three of the marquee candidates progressives were most excited about — gubernatorial candidates Andrew Gillum in Florida and Stacey Abrams in Georgia, and Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke in Texas — seemed to fall short. (As of this writing, Gillum’s race appears headed for a recount, and there’s a possibility of a runoff in Georgia.)
Some of the first races to be called, including Amy McGrath’s challenge to Rep. Andy Barr, a Republican, in Kentucky, left progressives dispirited.
By the end of the night, it was clear that Democrats won the House, but not by how much.
In the following days, however, new races kept being called. McBath’s victory was especially sweet. She’d become an activist after the 2012 murder of her son, Jordan Davis, by a white man who, angry over loud music, shot up a car Davis was riding in. Running in her son’s memory, she beat an incumbent with a top rating from the National Rifle Association in a largely white district.
As I write this, Democrats have flipped at least 30 House seats, and their total haul could go as high as 40. Democrats virtually wiped out the Republican Party in the Northeast, but they also won new seats in Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas and South Carolina. The party is on track to make more gains in the House than it has in any election since Watergate’s aftermath. Across the country, Democrats flipped at least 333 statehouse seats, a third of all those lost over the course of Obama’s presidency.
The seeds of this success were planted after Trump’s election, when all over America scared, angry people searched for mechanisms that could constrain him. The democratic institutions that should have thwarted an authoritarian demagogue like Trump had failed, said Ezra Levin, co-founder of Indivisible, which would quickly become one of the most important Resistance groups. People were “looking around to see who or what was going to come and save them,” Levin said. “And the answer was nothing. The answer was that they had to do it themselves.”
So newly mobilized activists got to work, and quickly realized that Trump was as much a symptom of American democratic rot as its cause. In many places Democrats had neglected local organizing, allowing the party to wither at the state and local level. Throughout Barack Obama’s presidency, Republicans had built up tremendous power in the state legislatures, which they’d used to making voting harder. In the 2010 redistricting — the once-in-a-decade process of redrawing electoral maps — a significant degree of Republican gerrymandering gave the party an enduring advantage in the House of Representatives.
Indeed, it’s hard to remember now, but last year, many people thought it highly unlikely that Democrats could win the House, since Republicans had engineered a significant structural advantage. “Ultimately, Trump’s approval rating probably needs to be at or below 35 percent for the House to flip,” said The Cook Political Report.
Levin recalled a meeting last year with allies and supporters in California. He told them that because grassroots passions had grown so intense, “I think we can take the House.” But the notion felt so wishful, he recalled, “You had to say it in hushed tones. You couldn’t say it out loud.”
Since then, Resistance energy has kept building on itself. Last year, Erin Zwiener, a children’s book author, three-time “Jeopardy” champion, and Indivisible activist in Texas, launched a campaign for state representative in her Republican-controlled district south of Austin. “Particularly at the beginning, it definitely seemed uphill,” she told me this week. But while her district had voted for Trump, the margin had been only about 4.5 percentage points, “and we were seeing folks rise up against the presidency.”
Last October, she realized she was pregnant. Zwiener went into labor at a demonstration against migrant family separations, then campaigned with her newborn in tow. She used a photo of O’Rourke kissing her baby in some of her ads. On Tuesday, she became one of 12 Texas Democrats to flip state House seats. (Democrats also flipped two state Senate seats.) Because there’s another round of redistricting coming up in 2020, this has implications for the future makeup of Congress.
O’Rourke’s campaign, like Ossoff’s before it, was not a waste. He became a vessel for masses of people who’d felt alienated from their state’s harsh right-wing politics, who longed for something more inclusive and humane but weren’t sure it was possible. “What I think was so important about Beto running is that it gave everybody hope,” said Zwiener. “Beto running made it so much easier to recruit statehouse candidates. Beto running made people feel like it was worth their time to come out and volunteer for candidates.”
The movement he leaves behind is likely to endure. Sen. Ted Cruz beat O’Rourke by less than 3 percentage points, which makes an eventual Democratic majority seem newly imaginable. “We will definitely win something statewide within the next two cycles,” Zwiener said. “I’m not going to predict which thing. But we will win something.”
Shortly after the 6th District was called for McBath, I asked Efrat if she was going to take a break. “Now we’re scrambling trying to get the provisional vote counted for Abrams,” she said, referring to the fight over the tally in the Georgia governor’s race. Consumed with that work, she felt bad about missing the protests Thursday against the firing of Jeff Sessions that had sprung up all over the country at a moment’s notice.
After this past week, people in the Resistance are exhausted. But they’re not resting.
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