Lauren Underwood was on almost nobody's radar screen in the frantic run-up to last Tuesday's midterm election, and that's not surprising.
As the Democratic candidate in Illinois' 14th Congressional District, the unknown Underwood faced a GOP incumbent (Rep. Randy Hultgren) who'd won the district – exurban homes sprouting across flat prairielands west of Chicago – by 19 points in 2016, on the night that Donald Trump (who endorsed Hultgren this year at a rally) was elected president.
Underwood is a 32-year-old registered nurse and health-policy expert who'd never run for office before. She was an African-American running in a district that is 86 percent white. Her center-left campaign was not loud but persistent – playing up her support for expanding health coverage in contrast with her opponent's votes to repeal Obamacare.
But while the pundits and the pollsters largely ignored Illinois CD-14, an army of volunteers – most of them women energized by Trump's shock election – worked the district and small donations to the tune of $4 million poured in. And when the votes were counted on Tuesday night, the newcomer had ousted the four-term incumbent.
"Together we have built a movement," Underwood told her supporters. "That is democracy." Then, according to the Chicago Tribune, she declared, "The girlfriends are winning!" As she left the stage, Alicia Keyes' "Girl on Fire" blared.
The girls were on fire across America on Tuesday, from the Illinois cornfields to the red hills of Georgia to the oil derricks of Oklahoma. Female candidates won more than 100 congressional races – smashing records – and it was striking to see so many women like Underwood who'd never sought office breaking new ground where conventional candidates had failed.
Outside Atlanta in Georgia's 6th District. Democrat Lucy McBath – an African American gun-control advocate who only became involved in politics after the high-profile murder of her son Jordan Davis – succeeded where a white male candidate (Jon Ossoff) with wads of money and bland focus-group positions had failed.
The four women from eastern Pennsylvania – Mary Gay Scanlon, Chrissy Houlihan, Madeleine Dean and Susan Wild – who shattered the glass ceiling of the state's 18-man hegemony in the House were very much the archetype of what worked in 2018. Center-left women who promised liberal-but-not-radical reforms to health care and education, who rarely even mentioned Trump because the contrast between their upbeat persistence and the rantings of a short-fingered vulgarian were self-evident. The only Democrat who fell short in the highly flippable Philadelphia suburbs was the party's only male candidate, Bucks County's Scott Wallace.
What happened on Tuesday across America was historic in its own right, not just because of the awesome power of women and the gains for a diverse Congress that will look more like America than ever before, but because Democratic control of the House provides a glimmer of hope that the decline of democracy under Trump can be checked. But — like it or not — the sun also rose Wednesday on the start of the 2020 presidential race. The midterm election was a learning lab for what works in today's U.S. politics — and we learned quite a bit.
The opposition party showed on Tuesday that Democrats can win in the upper Rust Belt, starting at Philadelphia's City Line Avenue and spreading west all the way to Iowa and Minnesota, but it takes the right kind of candidate: Office-seekers whose belief that the goodness of a diverse and open society trumps non-stop blather about "American carnage," and a reform-minded approach to schools, health care and climate, And being a woman is a huge motivator.
In so-called "flyover country," voters seem to be clamoring to replace the crudest and meanest president in American history with "Midwestern nice." If you went into the lab and ran Tuesday's algorithms to design the perfect Democrat for 2020, she would look almost exactly like Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who won a landslide re-election in her purple (in more ways than one) state on Tuesday.
And guess what? Klobuchar is available.
Klobuchar feels like the fulfillment of what many of us have been saying since November 9, 2016 — that the Democrat who can beat Trump in 2020 was out there hiding in plain sight amid the baggage-carrying, way-too-familiar front-runners like Joe Biden (age in January 2021: 78), Sen. Bernie Sanders (who'll be 79), and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (71 in 1/21).
Just re-elected to her third term carrying all but two of Minnesota's counties, including rural ground that was won by Trump in 2016, Klobuchar is a former county prosecutor who'll be hitting the sweet spot of age 60 when the next president is sworn in. Much of what has enabled Klobuchar to fly under the radar screen for the last 12 years — a decent low-key approach, and a belief in bipartisanship that may sound naive but has helped her get more bills passed than any other current senator — is suddenly what makes her a strong foil to the orange menace at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
And Klobuchar got something of a political break — even if America didn't — when she found herself facing off in the Senate Judiciary Committee with embattled jurist Brett Kavanaugh, who tried to bully the Minnesotan. When Klobuchar mentioned her father's struggles with alcohol and pressed the nominee on his own alleged drinking problem, Kavanaugh bizarrely tried to throw shade back on her, saying "I think you've probably had beers, senator," and asking her if she'd blacked out. Klobuchar responded with dignity and grace ("I have no drinking problem, Judge") while staying on course with tough questioning. The moment made Klobuchar a star, if not yet a superstar.
Two things. First, the notion of a pro-Prince president following Trump is exhilarating. More importantly, she's absolutely right on the politics. The Democrats' best hope of regaining the White House is to hold the reliably blue states won by Hillary Clinton, regain the three critical states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin and at least put the GOP on defense in Iowa and Ohio. Is there a candidate who speaks with a Heartland political accent who could better energize the Trump-resistance groups like Indivisible than Klobuchar? I don't think so.
Sure, her name recognition is still pretty low. Klobuchar would face opposition in the Democratic primaries from voters who find her style a little too accommodating for the Trump era, or those who view her politics as too centrist at a time when many young voters are more jazzed over the more radical politics of a Sanders or Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Some will point to a fresher face like California Sen. Kamala Harris as someone who's more aggressive — and the face of America's growing diversity. As someone who was a Bernie enthusiast in 2016, I totally get all of that.
Plus, she's a Vikings fan.
But Klobuchar's politics — a much-desired "F" rating from the NRA, opposition to the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal that mirrors Sanders, pro-liberalization of marijuana laws — are arguably a bit left of Clinton, and would help progressives get not maybe not they want but what they need, which is a complete reversal of Trumpism. And ultimately, the only real way to erase the damage of these last two years is to find someone who can win. You want a little more excitement on the ticket, and an even younger look? Vice President Beto O'Rourke could easily fix that problem.
American voters made a powerful statement on Tuesday over all the cable TV shouting. There's a majority of folks who want a White House that's honest, decent but determined, and reflecting the best of the country instead of the worse. That desire is stronger than any ideology. The girl doesn't have to be on fire. "Minnesota Nice" would be just fine.