How Third-Party Votes Sunk Clinton, What They Mean For Trump

For all the talk about why Donald Trump was elected president while losing the popular vote and how he could win again, one of the least discussed results of the 2016 election offers valuable lessons for Democrats.

An astounding 7.8 million voters cast their presidential ballots for someone other than Trump or Hillary Clinton. The two biggest third-party vote-getters were Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson (almost 4.5 million votes) and the Green Party’s Jill Stein (1.5 million voters). But others received almost another 1.9 million votes as well.

Libertarians and Greens may try to convince you that this reflects growing support for their parties. It doesn’t.

Their strong showing was due to the unpopularity of the two major-party nominees.

Remember, Johnson and Stein were also on the ballot four years earlier, and the former drew under 1.3 million votes and the latter not quite 470,000 votes.

In 2004, the two major-party nominees, George W. Bush and John Kerrycombined for 99 percent of the popular vote.

Four years later, Barack Obama and John McCain drew 98.6 percent of the popular vote. And in 2012, Obama and Mitt Romney took 98.3 percent of the popular vote, according to the Federal Election Commission.

But in 2016, Clinton and Trump together received only 94.27 percent of the popular vote.

Both were so widely unpopular that millions of voters opted to waste their votes by supporting third-party candidates who had no hope of winning.

Breaking down the votes

Two key swing states, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, make clear what occurred.

The Democratic presidential nominee carried Pennsylvania in 2004, 2008 and 2012. Kerry and Obama’s popular-vote margins in those three contests ranged from a low of 144,000 votes in 2004 to 620,000 in 2008. In all three elections, the Democrat received a majority of the vote.

The weakest showing was in 2004, when Kerry won with 50.9 percent of the vote and defeated Bush in the state by 2.5 points.

But in 2016, Trump carried the state by 44,000 votes — just over seven-tenths of a point, even though he won 48.2 percent statewide.

Obama and Romney combined for 98.6 percent of Pennsylvania’s popular vote in 2012, but Trump and Clinton combined for only 95.6 percent four years later.

While third-party hopefuls drew just under 83,000 votes in the Keystone State in 2012, they drew more than three times that number, 268,000 votes, four years later. Apparently, hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania voters couldn’t stomach either of the major parties’ nominees, so they cast protest votes for third-party and independent candidates.

The same thing happened in Wisconsin, but in an even more stunning way.

Wisconsin was a near dead heat in 2004. (Kerry won it by a mere 11,000 votes.) But Obama carried it by comfortable margins in 2008 (415,000 votes) and 2012 (213,000 votes).

Then in 2016, Trump carried the Badger State by fewer than 23,000 votes. But his vote total was less than what Romney received in 2012 — yet Trump carried the state while Romney lost it by over 200,000 votes.

Third-party and independent hopefuls in Wisconsin drew 39,000 votes in 2012 but more than four times that number, 188,000 votes, four years later.

At the same time, the major-party vote there dropped from just over 3 million in 2012 to 2.8 million in 2016.

Major-party baggage

Elsewhere, the same thing happened.

In Florida, the third-party presidential vote quadrupled from 73,000 votes in 2012 to 297,000 votes in 2016.

In Michigan, it increased almost five-fold, from 51,000 to almost 251,000, while the total number of votes in the state for major-party nominees fell.

Some third-party votes came from Libertarians, Greens and others who regularly vote third party.

But the surge in third-party and independent voters undoubtedly reflected the baggage of the major-party nominees in 2016.

Increased support for third-party candidates occurred in every state, though with differences in magnitude.

In very pro-Trump states like Mississippi, Louisiana and West Virginia, the increase was muted, since there were fewer defections from Trump and Clinton in those states.

Many conservative and pragmatic Republicans found Trump vulgar, narcissistic, intellectually lazy and unqualified to be president, but they couldn’t force themselves to vote for Clinton.

On the other hand, some Democrats saw Clinton as insufficiently progressive and untrustworthy, and there was no way they could vote for her.

What it means for 2020

In theory, Trump could have reached out during his presidency to Republican defectors. Instead, he chose to double-down on personal attacks, nationalist rhetoric and divisive appeals to non-college-educated whites, who helped elect him.

That makes it unlikely for Trump to attract many of those who wasted their votes in 2016.

On the other hand, Democrats have the rare opportunity next year to woo progressives, Republicans and swing voters who threw their votes away by supporting third-party nominees.

Progressives now see the damage Trump has done, and Republicans who rejected Trump in 2016 have had their worst fears about him confirmed.

But if Democrats select a nominee who is again unpalatable to many voters, as Clinton was, that could send anti-Trump Republicans and swing voters back to third parties again in 2020.

While it is completely true that the Democrats “waste” large numbers of popular votes in California and New York, that’s not why Clinton lost in 2016.

She failed to mobilize anti-Trump voters, too many of whom decided that they couldn’t support either major-party nominee. Winning those voters who defected from the two major parties would be an important step for either side.

And right now, only the Democrats are in a position to take advantage of that, which is not good news for Trump, not only in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, but also nationally.

Note: An earlier version of this column appeared initially on the Roll Call website on July 29, 2019.

Republicans Want an Election About Socialism. They Likely Won’t Get One

If there was any doubt congressional Republicans want to make the 2020 election about something other than President Donald Trump, look no further than the House GOP’s campaign chairman.

“Republicans will make 2020 race a choice between socialism and freedom, NRCC Chair Emmer says, w starring role for AOC & Squad as ‘Speaker in fact,’ & rest of Democrats as the ‘new Red Army,’” New York Times reporter Julie Hirschfeld Davis tweeted last week about National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Emmer.

That’s not a complete surprise, of course, since Republican candidates, officeholders and strategists have appeared intent for months to transform the 2020 elections from a referendum on Trump into a referendum on socialism.

Even before Emmer’s chat with reporters last week at the Christian Science Monitor breakfast, in which he said “This is not a squad. This is an army of socialists,” the Minnesota Republican had signaled his intentions in an op-ed for Roll Call.

“After 100 days of accomplishing nothing but tax increases and bad headlines, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives boldly proclaimed her socialist Democratic caucus have the 2020 elections in the bag. Her faux confidence is misplaced; the past three months for her band of socialists were disastrous,” he wrote on April 15.

But one side doesn’t dictate what an election is going to be about, and you can be pretty certain that most Democratic strategists want the 2020 elections to be a referendum on the president’s character, judgment, integrity and priorities.

And since Trump occupies the highest and most powerful elected office in the land, it’s easier to make next year’s elections about him than about a handful of freshman members of Congress.

Democratic message

If Democrats are going to run on any “ism,” it’s probably going to be the alleged “racism” of the president and his party, a message that should have considerable appeal among minorities, progressives and college-educated swing voters.

Last cycle, Republicans spent time and resources trying to make the 2018 midterms about Speaker Nancy Pelosi. They failed — as I suggested they would in a Feb. 21, 2018, column — because the leader of the minority party in the House simply isn’t seen as running the country.

With Trump in the news daily and the GOP controlling both houses of Congress and the presidency, Republicans never had a chance to make 2018 “about” Pelosi.

As I wrote last year, Republican campaign operatives didn’t have many options in their effort to hold the House, so I could understand the strategy. But that didn’t mean that it was likely to be successful.

This cycle, Pelosi and the Democrats control the House, so at least the NRCC can plausibly label her responsible for the nation’s ills and Trump’s failures.

Plus, some Democrats on the party’s left have become more vocal about moving their party in a more progressive direction, which plays into GOP hands next year.

But most voters don’t see the speaker of the House — or the Senate majority leader, for that matter — as dictating the direction of the country. They think of the president as in control.

That’s particularly likely to be the case when the incumbent president has a large personality, dominates the news and is inherently controversial, either because of his policies or his character and personality. And that description fits Trump perfectly.

Presidential contests are part referendum on the occupant of the Oval Office and part choice between the two parties’ nominees. But Trump’s personality and profile enhance the chance that 2020 is more about him than about anyone else.

All about the nominee

Of course, Emmer’s (and the White House’s) strategy is more likely to be effective if Democrats nominate someone for the presidency who can more easily be portrayed as a radical, and particularly as a socialist.

The most obvious example is Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has embraced the “democratic socialist” label over the years. But even Sanders currently leads Trump in national ballot tests.

But can’t Republicans use the high profiles of Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna S. Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan — a.k.a. “the squad” — to define the entire Democratic Party, as well as the party’s national ticket?

Probably not, though it may be worth a shot given the paucity of other options available to GOP strategists.

The small band of controversial, progressive Democratic women might be able to keep themselves in the limelight if they make an effort so do so next year, which would play right into Republican hands.

But they almost certainly are too junior to become the face of their party, even though they receive an inordinate share of national media coverage now.

By next fall, almost all of the media’s attention will be on the presidential contest — and particularly on the two presidential nominees.

That’s why the Democratic presidential nomination is so crucial to Trump and Emmer’s strategy.

Trump will likely continue to use the squad as punching bags if he needs to (and he will), but most voters will see 2020 as a clear choice between him and his Democratic opponent, especially if Democrats nominate someone who wants to occupy the political center during the general election campaign.

Note: An earlier version of this column appeared initially in the July 23, 2019 issue of Roll Call.

Biden, Unions and the Politics of 2020

Shortly after former Vice President Joe Biden announced his candidacy for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, he received his first union endorsement. “I couldn’t be more proud to have the International Association of Fire Fighters on my team,” Biden tweeted in response. “Unions built the middle class in this country — and as President, I’ll fight to strengthen them and grow the backbone of this country.”

As CNN noted, “Biden has long enjoyed close ties to labor groups and often attributes his political ascent to unions, referring to them as the ones who ‘brung me to the dance.’” But while Biden’s strength among working-class voters is one reason some observers see him as potentially able to win back Democrats who defected to Donald Trump in 2016, his initial comments about the IAFF endorsement at least raise a question about priorities and strategy.

Biden was born in 1942 and was first elected to the Senate in 1972. Unions were a strong economic force then, and they carried significant political clout, with large, politically active memberships and financial muscle. But the percentage of American workers belonging to unions peaked in the mid-1940s and has been falling ever since.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 10.5 percent of wage and salary workers were members of unions in 2018. Many of them were in government, so union membership among private-sector workers was a microscopic 6.4 percent.

Of course, the distribution of union members around the country is not uniform. Most union members live in states that are already normally Democratic.

Of the 11 states where union membership in 2018 constituted at least 15 percent of the employed, Hillary Clinton carried nine: New York (23.8 percent), Hawaii (21.3), Washington (18.8), Connecticut (16.9), New Jersey (16.2), Rhode Island (16.1), California (15.5), Minnesota (15.2) and Illinois (15.0).

Trump won two of them, Alaska (18.1) and Michigan (15.6), which is normally a Democratic state.

Union membership as a percentage of all employed stood slightly above the national average in one key swing state, Pennsylvania (12.0), but it was well below the national average in three other states that could decide the presidency in 2020: Wisconsin (8.3), Florida (5.6) and North Carolina (3.4).

Appeals to unions and union members may be effective in many already rock-solid liberal and Democratic states — making unions still relevant in Democratic presidential primaries and caucuses — but it is hard to see how organized labor will change the political equation for 2020.

Of course, in a general election against Trump, Biden’s pro-union, pro-working-class message could appeal to some Americans who are not union members (or union households) but have a favorable view of unions.

An April 25-May 1, 2018, survey by the Pew Research Center found that 55 percent of adults had a very or somewhat favorable view of labor unions, while only 33 percent have a very or somewhat unfavorable view of them.

And when Pew followed up by noting the decline in union membership and asking whether that development has been “mostly good” or “mostly bad” for working people, 51 percent said “mostly bad” and 35 percent said “mostly good.”

Trump surely will run on the economy, and a Democratic nominee who is too far to the left on the issue, such as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders or Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, would make it easy for the president to argue that Democrats will drive the economy into a ditch.

Biden should be more difficult to paint with that broad brush.

But it’s difficult to believe that any Democrat is going to win the White House by focusing on the economy — not with an April national unemployment rate of 3.6 percent and strong gross domestic product growth.

No wonder 51 percent of respondents told the April 26-May 1 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll that they approved of Trump’s handling of the economy.

Instead, the Democrats’ best path next year appears to be on cultural issues and non-economic concerns, including health care, gun control and climate change, as well as the president’s personality and character issues, and “change.”

Those issues energized core Democratic groups and swing voters in 2018.

The question is how Biden addresses those concerns and whether Democratic voters can get excited about him and his agenda.

Unions surely continue to be a part of the Democratic coalition, and any Democratic nominee who can improve on Hillary Clinton’s showing with blue-collar workers and whites without a college degree will be formidable next year.

But Democrats are probably better off trying to turn out their 2018 coalition again in 2020 than trying to recreate the non-college/working-class coalition they relied on before Trump. And that may require Biden to be the proverbial old dog who learns new tricks. He’ll need to avoid falling into old patterns and relying on old messages, even as he appreciates those who initially brought him to the dance.

This column appeared initially in the May 7 issue of Roll Call.

Arthur Finkelstein Reprised with GOP’s ‘Socialists’ Cries

If you’re on any Republican list, you’ve undoubtedly received emails from one of the GOP campaign committees or a Capitol Hill communications staffer calling the Democrats “socialists.” To those of us who were around in the 1980s and 1990s, that’s nothing new. We remember the late GOP campaign consultant Arthur Finkelstein’s strategy: Call your opponent a liberal again and again until voters believe it.

Finkelstein’s style was “unmistakable,” wrote Howard Kurtz in The Washington Post in 1996, “an avalanche of attack ads painting Democrats as ‘liberal,’ ‘ultraliberal,’ ‘embarrassingly liberal’ and ‘unbelievably liberal.’”

Each cycle, Finkelstein returned to his name-calling strategy, and each cycle, political reporters and handicappers rolled their eyes and snickered at his ads, which were as shallow and superficial as they were predictable. They were all about labeling and demonizing.

But in Finkelstein’s case, shallow didn’t necessarily mean ineffective. “Liberal” became a pejorative, and Finkelstein took advantage of that.

The consultant, who died in 2017, worked for a long list of high-profile and successful Republicans and conservatives, including Sens. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, Connie Mack of Florida, Orrin G. Hatch of Utah and Alfonse M. D’Amato of New York. He also worked for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

After a while, Finkelstein’s strategy grew stale. Democrats wisely nominated a politically moderate Southerner in 1992 in Bill Clinton, and 12 consecutive years in the White House left the GOP with enough baggage to hand the presidency to the Democrats (albeit with a little help from Ross Perot).

Still, it’s undeniable that the liberal label has been an albatross around the necks of Democratic nominees for decades.

A successful strategy

Now, Republicans have raised the stakes by trying to brand the entire Democratic Party as advocating “socialism.”

Of course, the Democratic Party is a long way from being socialist, but the election of a few high-profile, self-declared Democratic socialists has given Republicans the hook they need to portray the entire party as “socialist.”

Defining Democrats as “liberals,” “progressives” or “socialists” is likely to continue to be a successful strategy for the GOP.

February’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found only 23 percent of respondents identified themselves as “very liberal” or “somewhat liberal,” compared to 38 percent who embraced the “very conservative” or “somewhat conservative” labels.

Of course, those numbers reflect how people see themselves, not where they actually fall on the ideological scale. But since people are more likely to pick a category they like over one with negative connotations, it is surely relevant that a strong plurality chose the conservative label over the liberal one.

As always, there is another side to the coin. The same February NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey asked respondents whether government should do “more things” (usually seen as a more liberal response) or whether it was already doing “too many things,” (the normally more conservative answer).

A surprising 55 percent of respondents said government should do more compared to only 41 percent who said it should do less. In fact, attitudes seem to be changing.

While Gallup recently found Americans age 30 and older continue to have a much more favorable view of capitalism than socialism, those aged 18-29 have a more favorable view of socialism.

The right response

In the near term, Democrats need to figure out how to respond to the GOP’s attempts at branding the party of Bill and Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Joe Biden.

Do they merely laugh off the “socialism” charge, aggressively dismiss the characterization or look for a way to fight back, possibly by turning the tables on the party of Donald Trump, Steve King, Mike Pence and Sean Hannity?

One possible but very risky approach would be to link Trump and his party to an extreme form of conservative populism: fascism. But few Democratic candidates or officeholders would want to get into a name-calling war with the president, and equating Trump and GOP with fascism would likely be seen as demagoguery.

Fascism is such a loaded word — evoking images of Mussolini and Hitler — that it could generate a backlash, putting the Democrats on the defensive. The obvious answer is to create and repeatedly use a new term, possibly “Trumpism,” that describes the president’s attributes and behavior, from his narcissism and problem telling the truth to his crude language, his appointments of unqualified people and his demeaning of opponents. It would include his gentle treatment of dictators, especially compared with his attitude toward America’s allies, and his efforts to undermine key American institutions when it suits his purposes.

Of course, instead of looking for a new label to define the GOP, Democrats could simply fall back on their traditional attacks – including charging that Republican policies are dividing the country and are hurting children, seniors, women and racial minorities. Depending on where the economy is, those more traditional attacks might well be enough to keep Republicans on the defensive.

Perhaps the best way for Democrats to push back against the socialist label is the simplest — to nominate a pragmatic progressive who, on an issue or two, deviates from liberal orthodoxy and is more concerned with self-discipline, integrity, tolerance, and the ability to unite opponents of Donald Trump than with mere ideological purity.

That would make the GOP’s “socialism” charge both hollow and ineffective.

This column appeared initially in the April 30, 2019 issue of Roll Call.

Nancy Pelosi: the Democratic Party’s Undisputed Leader

For most of the last campaign cycle, Republican ad-makers treated then-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi like a piñata.

They used her name and image in thousands of GOP television spots around the country, trying to turn the midterm election into a referendum on her liberalism and “San Francisco values.” That effort failed, of course, because midterms are never about the minority party’s congressional leadership, at least not when the president is someone as controversial and polarizing as Donald Trump.

But Pelosi, who turns 79 today, didn’t merely survive the GOP attacks. She has prospered and continues to be the glue that holds the Democratic Party together, proving again and again that those of us who believed last summer that her party would be better off with new leadership were completely wrong.

In fact, Pelosi may be the only individual now able to keep her party together and keep Trump back on his heels. Pelosi — not Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez nor Sen. Elizabeth Warren nor Rep. Ilhan Omar — remains the leader of the Democratic Party, no matter how often Republicans and their allies try to paint the Democrats as a lunatic band of socialists preparing to ban cows and air travel.

Since last year’s election, Pelosi has shown her gifts as a leader, vote-counter and strategist. She succeeded in winning another term as speaker and, so far, has kept a more fractured party together.

Last August, almost three months before the midterms, The New Republic published a piece titled “The Democrats’ Real Pelosi Problem Is After the Midterms.”

The focus of that piece and others was the substantial number of Democratic House hopefuls who insisted that they could not and would not support Pelosi for speaker.

And yet, she successfully maneuvered through the mini-revolt of newly elected pragmatists from suburban, swing districts and outspoken progressives who wanted fresh leadership and were impatient for change.

Yes, she had to make a handful of deals to keep the speakership, including agreeing to only four more years in the position. But making deals is nothing new for Pelosi.

Only a few weeks later, she and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer gave Trump enough rope to allow him to hang himself (politically, that is) when the government shutdown and the president shouldered most of the blame.

Between two wings

How was Pelosi able to survive those very different challenges? One of the congresswoman’s great skills, a former House Democratic staffer told me recently, is that “she is comfortable both with being in the establishment and with challenging the establishment.”

While Pelosi has long political bloodlines and was elected to the Democratic National Committee in her mid-30s, she hasn’t always been the insider she has become.

When she defeated Maryland Rep. Steny H. Hoyer in a fall 2001 contest to become the House Democrats’ new whip, The Washington Post observed that while Hoyer “had chaired the Democratic Caucus and served in other leadership posts, Pelosi styled herself as an outsider who would bring a fresh approach to inside-the-Beltway politics.”

Only 13 months after winning the whip job, Pelosi was elected House minority leader by her party. That made her the first woman to lead a party in either the House or Senate.

She ran, she said back then, “as a seasoned politician and experienced legislator. It just so happens that I am a woman, and we have been waiting a long time for this moment.”

Apparently, Pelosi had no problem morphing from insurgent outsider to experienced legislator in the blink of an eye.

As a woman in an arena dominated by men, Pelosi had to see herself as something of an outsider intent on making history.

That fact may well make it easier for her to understand the ambition and impatience of her younger House colleagues, many of whom are women.

In spite of her liberal bent, Pelosi is smart enough and strategic enough in her thinking to know where her party can and cannot go.

A survivor

Her efforts to short-circuit talk of possible impeachment is just the latest example of her savvy.

Her ideological positioning in the party, her gender and her fundraising IOUs have allowed her to survive when others might have lost control of House Democrats.

Even those new House members who would like the party to change more are quick to respect Pelosi.

They understand that she rose up through leadership starting at a time when junior members were expected to be “seen but not heard.”

Of course, Pelosi’s role as party leader will end about a year from now, when the Democratic Party has a de facto presidential nominee.

That person will represent the party nationally, though Pelosi, as speaker, will still have a significant voice.

For years, observers of the House have been asking each other when Pelosi will call it quits. Her recapturing of the speakership, combined with her promise not to serve more than two more terms in the House’s top post and her age, suggest that retirement is fast approaching.

That development, whenever it happens, is likely to be a far bigger headache for the Democratic Party than the gentlelady from California has ever been.

Note: This column appeared initially in the March 26, 2019 issue of Roll Call.

House GOP Moving Right, Democratic Direction Less Clear

We don’t know exactly how many House seats Democrats will gain in November, though Democratic control of the chamber next year looks almost inevitable. But even now it is clear that the midterm results will move Republicans further to the right. Where the Democrats will stand is less clear.

In the House, GOP losses will be disproportionately large in the suburbs and among members of the Republican Main Street Partnership, the House GOP group that puts “country over party” and values “compromise over conflict,” according to its website.

Not all the 70-plus members of the group are pragmatists or generally seek to defuse partisanship, but many are endangered this election cycle.

GOP casualty list?

Reps. Barbara Comstock of Virginia and Mike Coffman of Colorado are headed for defeat, and Democrats are likely to flip the seats of retiring pragmatists such as Florida’s Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Pennsylvania’s Ryan A. Costello, and New Jersey’s Frank A. LoBiondo and Rodney Frelinghuysen, as well as the seats of former Pennsylvania Reps. Charlie Dent and Patrick Meehan.

Reps. Tom MacArthur of New Jersey, Kevin Yoder of Kansas and Peter Roskam of Illinois are running even or behind their Democratic challengers, as are Mimi Walters of California and Leonard Lance of New Jersey. (Roskam is not listed as a member on the Main Street website.)

Some Republican pragmatists and advocates of increased cooperation with Democrats, including Reps. Will Hurd of Texas and John Katko of New York, are likely to survive the wave. They are the exceptions to the general rule.

But at least 30 of the House members listed on the Main Street website are now at risk in the midterms, and when Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan starts to crawl on to some endangered Republican lists, you know that most of the remaining GOP pragmatists on Capitol Hill have reason to be nervous.

Not every Republican incumbent in a tough race, though, is a pragmatist who at least talks about changing the tone on Capitol Hill.

A handful of Freedom Caucus members are at risk — including Iowa’s Rod Blum, Virginia’s Dave Brat, North Carolina’s Ted Budd and California’s Dana Rohrabacher — and a number of conservatives are retiring or running for governor, including former Rep. Ron DeSantis of Florida (who left Congress last month to focus on his gubernatorial bid) and Steve Pearce of New Mexico.

Rep. Jason Lewis, a Minnesota conservative, will likely lose, and the GOP’s California delegation will take a significant hit.

This isn’t intended to be an exhaustive list of Republican losses, but it does demonstrate that while there will be House losses across the party’s ideological spectrum, the biggest losses — relatively speaking — will be among party members for whom “compromise” is not a dirty word and Donald Trump is a liability.

The House Republican Conference next year will be smaller but also more conservative and presumably more belligerent being in the minority.

Democratic divisions

The effect on the Democrats is more complicated and less certain.

On one hand, Democrats are likely to add a number of more pragmatic members to their caucus. These members won’t be “conservatives,” but they are less likely to see everything in knee-jerk ideological and partisan terms.

Among the likely winners in November are Rep. Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania, who won a special election this cycle and is a solid favorite over GOP incumbent Keith Rothfus in a newly drawn district. Former Navy helicopter pilot and prosecutor Mikie Sherrill looks likely to win Frelinghuysen’s open seat, and state Sen. Jeff Van Drew appears an easy winner in the district LoBiondo is vacating.

If they win, Democrats from upscale suburban areas — e.g., Virginia’s 10th, Kansas’ 2nd and 3rd, Minnesota’s 2nd and 3rd, New Jersey’s 3rd, 7th and 11th, and a handful of California seats — will be well aware of the “swing” nature of their districts, and they will be less likely to be robotic followers of their party’s liberal agenda, particularly on economic issues.

But while the House Democratic Caucus will add more pragmatic members who represent competitive districts, it will also see an influx of progressives who say the party has been too timid when it comes to proposing and defending liberal proposals.

All of the energy on the Democratic side is on the left, and progressives surely will demand an unapologetically confrontational approach to Trump nationally and on Capitol Hill.

The fight over the direction of the party is likely to play out first when House Democrats choose their leadership after the midterms.

In mid-August, NBC News identified more than four dozen Democratic incumbents and candidates who’ve indicated they won’t support Nancy Pelosi for speaker next year if the party takes the House.

Not all of the candidates on that list will win, and Pelosi’s opponents come from both the more moderate and the more progressive wings of the party.

While much of the opposition to Pelosi obviously is generational, not ideological, it’s notable that Lamb, Sherrill, North Carolina’s Dan McCready and Kathy Manning, Virginia’s Abigail Spanberger, Michigan’s Elissa Slotkin and Kansas’ Paul Davis are among those who have said the party needs new leadership.

Republicans will surely call next year’s House Democratic agenda “extreme,” “radical” and “socialist.”

But those labels reflect the GOP’s knee-jerk ideological approach and beliefs as much as the Democrats’ positioning, and the Democratic Party will need to work out its agenda during the next two years, when its voters will pick a presidential standard-bearer.

That nominee will, to a large degree, define the positioning of the Democratic Party just as the 2020 Republican nominee will make a statement about the GOP’s values and direction.

Note: This column originally appeared in Roll Call on October 4, 2018.