Forty-four years ago, I was a young political consultant in Boston, working alongside revolutionaries like John Marttila who would redefine progressive politics. Watergate was dominating the headlines when we helped win a special congressional election in a Michigan district that had been represented by Gerald Ford for 25 years. The newspaper headline blared: “The Democrat Wins Ford Seat and Calls for Nixon to Quit.” After our 2018 midterm elections, the class of incoming Democrats elected to Congress won’t make such bold demands — but just as the 1974 midterm election was a referendum on another polarizing president, Richard Nixon, 2018 is a referendum on President Trump. In the biggest wave election since Watergate, America has begun to repudiate Trumpism — with the decisive battle to come in 2020. It’s worth looking back at the parallels and differences to divine where we go from here.
The 2018 election results are just as dramatic. The Democrats have won more House seats in a midterm election than any time since 1974, just 60 days after Nixon resigned in disgrace. Democrats flipped seven governorships, including Wisconsin and Michigan, states Trump carried two years ago, the first Republican presidential win there since Bush in 1988. Democrats beat a Republican incumbent in swing-state Nevada, and Arizona elected its first Democratic senator in 30 years. Democracy prevailed: It was the first midterm election in American history to top 100 million voters.
The stage for a great progressive era was set in 1974, however short-lived. What will 2018 portend? Let’s look back to look forward.
Lesson one: Watch the farm team. The 1974 election replenished the Democratic bench. George Miller and Henry Waxman became important members of House leadership. Tom Harkin and Max Baucus would later make a mark in the Senate. Colorado sent Gary Hart to the Senate at age 38 and he could’ve been elected president 10 years later in a longshot bid for the Democratic nomination against Vice President Walter Mondale. This year, progressives were disappointed that Beto O’Rourke didn’t win. But comb the ranks of the newly elected and you’ll see stars in the making, from Massachusetts’ Ayanna Pressley to decorated veterans like Representative Max Rose of Staten Island. It’s a class of historic firsts, and it’s historically young and diverse.
Lesson two: Don’t assume this will be easy. Two years after the 1974 wave, Jimmy Carter was elected president with just 50.1 percent of the vote, carrying 23 states to President Ford’s 27. Had Ford not pardoned Nixon, history might have been different. Nimble presidents have nine lives; Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama bounced back from devastating midterm losses to win reelection.
Lesson three: All majorities are fragile, but this majority could be more fragile than in 1974. Twenty years of gerrymandering has taken a toll. Unlike the House of the 1970s, which produced Republicans like Gerry Ford who worked with Democrats like House Speaker Tip O’Neill, those Republicans who remain in the new minority are more conservative and beholden to an unforgiving partisan base.
Lesson four: Proceed carefully on oversight. The 1974 election was a referendum on the Nixon impeachment and resignation. House Democrats in 2019 inherit a more complicated picture. We don’t know what special counsel Robert Mueller will find in the Russia investigation. Very few Democrats were elected to impeach Trump, but the base increasingly wants him removed from office. It will be a difficult issue to navigate knowing that it would face certain death in the Republican Senate.
Lesson five: Open the floodgates for Democratic presidential candidates. In 1976, 15 Democrats ran, from my candidate, Mo Udall, to Ambassador Sargent Shriver and the newly elected California governor, Jerry Brown. The 2020 presidential race will attract a large field. The wildcard remains: The 1974 wipeout motivated Reagan to run against Gerry Ford in the 1976 presidential primaries. Will any Republican challenge Trump now? No matter what, Democrats must galvanize a big coalition. In 2018, millennials and women made the difference in changing control of the House and swing states that Trump must win in 2020. Democrats won young people by 35 percent. Democrats won the overall women’s vote by almost 20 points — and the women’s vote was a larger share of the electorate than it was in the last midterm elections. That must be repeated. Democrats must move carefully to use their newfound House majority to hold Trump accountable and choose a candidate capable of winning in 2020, articulating an alternative to Trumpism while reconnecting with persuadable Trump voters in the industrial sector, voters who feel left behind by globalization. Trump is not the only one with a difficult dance to perform.
The jury is out to see if, two years from now, we will remember this election’s headline not unlike the one in 1974 that portended so much change — only this time it would read “The Democrats flip 40 seats — and make Trump a one-term president.”
David H. Thorne, President Obama’s ambassador to Italy from 2009-2013, was a founding partner of the political consulting firm Marttila, Payne, Kiley and Thorne