Democrats won the House in a wave, while Republicans outperformed expectations in the Senate, leaving political observers scrambling to figure out what it all means.
But, as the results came in, some clear implications emerged for the future. Dozens of theories of how to win were tested by both parties. Some worked, some didn’t. And the shockingly high turnout offered seeds of hope to both sides that their coalition may be durable for 2020.
Here’s what the results tell us so far:
1. The Trump effect is real
There were two broad schools of thought on 2016: Either Donald Trump was a fluke president who only won by drawing an unpopular opponent, the divine intervention of James Comey and a complacent Democratic base — or he was a singular figure who had fundamentally reshaped the electorate.
Tuesday offered a boost to the latter theory, with some positive results for his party amid a whole lot of negative ones.
No one could say voters were caught off guard this time. Turnout soared in comparison to prior midterms. And once again, many of the trends that helped elect Trump, even as he lost the popular vote, held true.
Just like in 2016, rural voters in 2018 turned out in droves to elect Senate candidates in states Trump won, like Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota and even purple Florida.
But, in another echo of 2016, Trump did catastrophic damage to Republicans in the suburbs, long a traditional source of strength for the GOP. From Fairfax, Virginia, to Dallas, Texas, these angry voters made it clear early that Democrats would capture the House, even with a map whose gerrymandered lines strongly favored Republicans.
The wild card for the president is the Rust Belt and Midwest — the “blue wall” that Trump smashed in 2016 — which sent mixed messages on Tuesday night, with Democratic senators winning easily, House challengers picking up key seats and parties splitting governor races. Expect it to be a major battleground moving forward.
2. It’s not the economy, stupid
What may be the most unusual aspect of the midterm cycle is that voters overwhelmingly backed Democrats in the House even with unemployment low and wages growing.
In exit polls, 41 percent of voters cited health care as the most important issue, which Democrats universally emphasized in races, while 23 percent named immigration, which Trump focused on in the final weeks. Just 21 percent named the economy, the only time in at least a decade that it hasn’t topped the list, and a significant 11 percent named gun policies. Two-thirds said the president was important to their vote, either to show their support or opposition.
Prior waves have usually been easy to explain. Either the economy was performing poorly (2010), a major war was going badly (2006), or the White House was laid low by scandal (1974). Trump has seen enough scandals for several presidents, but they played a surprisingly minimal role in Democratic campaigns.
That suggests other messages matter a lot more for each party, but it also raises a troubling question for Republicans: If they lose the House by a wide margin when the economy is humming, what happens if things hit a speed bump?
3. The blueprint for Democrats is … ¯_(ツ)_/¯
Democrats were hoping Tuesday’s results would help them chart a course for the 2020 presidential race by clearly demonstrating that either mobilization (boosting turnout among liberals, minorities and other base Democratic voters) or persuasion (tacking to the center to try to win undecided voters) is the winning strategy in Trump’s America.
But instead of a clear signal, they got noise, with conflicting data that is sure to be cherry-picked by both wings of the party to argue the superiority of their side.
On one hand, some of the highest-profile progressive candidates in the country — like Randy “Ironstache” Bryce running for Speaker Paul Ryan’s empty seat, Beto O’Rouke in Texas and Kara Eastman in Nebraska — went down to defeat.