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Election 2018 takeaways: A realignment, a split, and messages for 2020

The midterm elections showed that there is a backlash to President Trump, but also that his messages still resonated in some key areas.

Democrat Chrissy Houlahan celebrates her victory in the Pa. Sixth Congressional District on Tuesday in Phoenixville.
Democrat Chrissy Houlahan celebrates her victory in the Pa. Sixth Congressional District on Tuesday in Phoenixville.Read moreBRADLEY C BOWER

Both parties claimed victory Wednesday after an election that reinforced the country's divide and reshaped the power structure on Capitol Hill.

President Trump and Democratic leaders each laid out new goals following Tuesday's election, as strategists and elected officials hashed over the results. The suburban backlash against Trump proved real, but his message still resonated enough to strengthen Republicans' hold on the Senate.

Democrats rode the fury over Trump to gain control of the House by capturing seats in affluent, diverse areas around major cities from Pennsylvania and New Jersey to Minnesota and Texas.

Trump's approach again succeeded in more rural and conservative states, allowing the GOP to expand its Senate majority. The result reflected a country sharply divided by race, geography and gender, and hardened a realignment of U.S. politics.

"This election probably more neatly organizes the institutions of the Senate and the House into Trump and non-Trump areas," said U.S. Rep. Ryan Costello, a Republican from Chester County who didn't seek reelection.

Among other signs, the results also revealed the power of the woman-led reaction to Trump, hints of cracks in the president's Midwestern barricade, and the limits of some of Democrats' rising stars.

A realignment

Republicans once relied on fiscally conservative but socially moderate suburban areas to sustain their majority. No more. Not after two elections with Trump leading the party.

Across the Philadelphia region, Republicans had six seats in the Philadelphia suburbs and Lehigh Valley at the start of 2016. They lost at least four Tuesday. U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick eked out the GOP's only clear win in the area, in Bucks County. A South Jersey race between U.S. Rep. Tom MacArthur and Democrat Andy Kim remained too close to call.

Such shifts went beyond the areas around the biggest cities: Democrats also flipped House seats in Kansas, Oklahoma, and South Carolina.

The trend, which started before Trump but has accelerated as the president has repelled college-educated voters, worried Pennsylvania Republicans who fear it has left them with an unsustainable model for success in a state with two big cities and growing suburbs.

"My hope is that next cycle we can spend more time messaging to those [suburban] voters about why they should vote for us. When you quit trying to persuade people is when you lose elections," said Mark Harris, a Republican consultant based in Pittsburgh.

He pointed out that Philadelphia and the counties around it account for some 40 percent of the statewide vote — and worried that there aren't enough Republican votes elsewhere to overcome routs in those areas.

But the Senate, by design, gives outsize power to less populous states, and Trump's strength in largely white, rural areas showed as the GOP won big in Indiana, Missouri, and North Dakota. Republicans were on track to expand their Senate majority by at least one seat.

Over the long haul, the diversifying Democratic coalition looks more like the evolving face of the country, as Republicans become overwhelmingly reliant on white men.

In Pennsylvania, for example, Gov. Wolf won by double digits among white women, non-white women, and non-white men, according to a Fox News exit poll. His GOP challenger, Scott Wagner, won by 50-49 among white men. Democratic women, meanwhile, flipped three GOP House seats.

"It's not just Trump. I think overall Republicans have a real problem in those [suburban] areas now moving forward as long as Trump is at the top of their ticket," said U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle, a Philadephia Democrat.

Republicans had the advantage of historically favorable Senate battlegrounds Tuesday — almost all of the key races were contested in conservative states. But Democrats' advantage with growing demographics hasn't translated into sweeping victories in the past two elections. Unless they can break through in some more conservative states, the Senate could be out of reach.

Trump’s power

In part, that's because even though Trump's dark, divisive approach cost Republicans in the suburbs, candidates in big races in Indiana, Missouri and Florida embraced him and won.

"I thought it was very close to complete victory," Trump said at a White House news conference.

In fact, his tone and tactics seem to have inspired others: Florida and Georgia saw openly race-based attacks on African American Democratic candidates for governor. Republicans appeared likely to win both of those races.

Trump wants more fealty. On Wednesday he belittled some Republicans, including New Jersey U.S. Senate candidate Bob Hugin, who lost after distancing themselves from him. "Too bad, Mike," he said at one point.

Costello called Trump's comments "a disgrace."

"To bite ur lip more times you'd care to; to disagree & separate from POTUS on principle & civility in ur campaign; to lose bc of POTUS & have him piss on u. Angers me to my core," he tweeted.

Warning for 2020

Despite their Senate gains, Republicans suffered big defeats on some of Trump's most valuable political turf — Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan, states that helped him seal the presidency in 2016.

Democrats won the Senate races in each state, mostly by big margins, including Sen. Bob Casey in Pennsylvania. They flipped governor's mansions in Wisconsin and Michigan, and retained their hold in Harrisburg under Wolf.

Those results hint at openings for Democrats to win back these states in two years, particularly after two Trump-styled candidates were trounced Tuesday night in statewide Pennsylvania contests.

At the same time, Republicans kept the governor's office in Ohio and Florida, and some Republicans noted that Trump has a unique appeal.

"It's a much different animal in a presidential election," said Ted Christian, Trump's Pennsylvania state director in 2016. "The allure that this president has, especially, there are people who will turn out for him who aren't necessarily Republicans and aren't necessarily fond of Congress either."

Dem gains, but no big upsets in Pa. 

Pennsylvania proved critical to Democrats' gains in the House, where they were poised to add at least 27 seats nationwide.

But despite adding three seats in the Keystone State, the Democratic gains looked like a strong tide, not a wave. Each seat they added was one where the incumbent Republican had retired, and Democrats were heavily favored.

They were unable to unseat Fitzpatrick, despite the suburban energy on their side, and fell short in upset bids around Harrisburg and Erie County.

Their success came through Chrissy Houlahan of Chester County, Mary Gay Scanlon of Delaware County, and Susan Wild of Lehigh County, who flipped Republican  seats. Madeleine Dean of Montgomery County won as well. The four will break the all-male hold on Pennsylvania's U.S. House delegation.

There were other firsts: Michigan and Minnesota elected women who will become the first female Muslims in the House. New Mexico and Kansas will send the first American Indian women to the chamber.

Overall, more than 100 women were poised to join Congress, a record.

Their victories were a bookend to the Women's March in Washington, the day after Trump's inauguration, which signaled the depth of women's rejection of the president.

Democrats’ next challenge 

Those gains give Democrats in Washington a chance to limit Trump's agenda and formally push back on some of his decisions — as they quickly vowed to Wednesday when he fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

But while leading the House is far better than being in the minority, it comes with its own headaches. Just ask Paul Ryan.

When Democrats take power they will also be partially responsible for governing, demonstrating what they are for, and at least doing the bare minimum to keep the government functioning — a task that has at times proved difficult for the fractious GOP majority.

Several Democrats, including Jeff Van Drew in South Jersey and Conor Lamb in Western Pennsylvania, won by pledging bipartisanship. If moderates are pulled too far from the center by more liberal party voices — as conservative House Republicans often tried in their caucus — some of Tuesday's victor could face short tenures.

Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi talked up areas of potential cooperation Wednesday, but also added that "we have a constitutional responsibility to have oversight."

Democrats will have the power the investigate Trump and his administration, and may seek the president's tax returns. That can be a double-edged sword, as Republicans saw during Bill Clinton's administration.

Trump thrives when he has a foil. Now he has one.