Democrats won back the House of Representatives in the 2018 midterm elections thanks to strong gains among the rich. What many pundits have described as a Republican rout in the suburbs is nothing less than the party’s sharp decline among the wealthiest American households.
Imagine all 435 House districts lined up from richest to poorest according to their 2017 median household income (the latest available data from the Census Bureau), Silicon Valley (CA-18) at one end and South Bronx (NY-15) at the other. Before the 2018 midterms, the richest 15 percent of districts was fairly evenly split between Democrats (38) and Republicans (28), but no more. Sixteen of the thirty-seven seats (so far) flipped by the Democrats are in this strata. In the new 116th Congress, these wealthiest sixty-six districts will be represented by fifty-four Democrats and just ten Republicans (with two races yet to be decided). Starting January 3, 2019, twenty (twenty-one if Katie Porter’s lead in CA-45 holds) of the twenty-two richest districts will be represented by Democrats. This year the richest House districts in eleven (and possibly twelve) different states flipped from Republican to Democrat (CO-6, GA-6, IL-6, IA-3, KS-3, MI-11, MN-3, NJ-7, PA-5, SC-1, VA-10; UT-4 is still not called). Going further, in five states (six if Carolyn Bourdeaux wins GA-7) the top two richest districts flipped. These sixteen districts plus five others from the wealthiest 15 percent that weren’t tops in their states contributed well over half the Democrats’ new seats. Without them the House would never have turned blue.
Of course, districts are not individual voters. Though rich districts turned to the Democrats, this does not necessarily mean that the richest voters did so. Digging into some 2018 local returns does suggest, however, that rich voters across the upper income spectrum chose the Democrats this year. For example, Minnesota’s third district—the state’s richest, covering the wealthy Minneapolis suburbs—showed one of the biggest swings in the country to the Democrats. Not only that, the richer the city the bigger the swing to the left. It is still true that the very richest cities in Minnesota’s richest district cast a small majority of their votes for the Republican. But six of the sixteen cities with median household incomes over $100,000 turned blue, including the two most populous.
The upshot of the 2018 midterms is that the Democratic Party now overwhelmingly represents America’s rich. At the same time, Democrats continue to represent the poorest Americans, at least those who are not white. Managing this contradiction is ever more the party’s great challenge. So far its strategy has been an agenda of social issues near and dear to the hearts of rich white suburbanites combined with spending programs for the working class paid for mainly by the 1 percent. This is how the Democratic Party operated during the Obama presidency, advancing same-sex marriage and transgenderism on the one hand, the Affordable Care Act and the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 on the other. The ACA included new taxes that were limited to individuals with an annual income over $200,000 (households over $250,000). The 2012 tax bill reintroduced phase-outs for deductions and credits only on individual incomes over $250,000 (households over $300,000) and imposed a new higher tax rate only on individual incomes over $400,000 (households over $450,000). All these funding strategies left huge potential revenues untapped. Yet Democrats are forced into them because they represent Americans in the highest income percentiles.
Shedding so many wealthy suburban districts in the 2018 midterms offers Republicans a real political opportunity to become the party of the country’s working class. This promise is what attracted so many voters to the flawed vessel of Donald Trump in the first place. While Trump and the Republican Congress wound up wasting political capital on tax cuts for millionaires and alt-right memes for racists, a GOP course correction toward policies that actually help all working-class Americans—infrastructure spending, reducing low-skilled immigration, shoring up Medicare and Social Security—remains possible.
It helps that in the 2018 midterms three deep red states voted by referendum to expand Medicaid, five House Freedom Caucus members were defeated or retired, and Paul Ryan is out as party leader. Rather than follow Republican strategists like Karl Rove back to wooing wealthy suburbanites with yet another helping of small-state globalism, a better strategy is to let the dead bury their own dead. One party representing the rich is enough.
Darel E. Paul is professor of political science at Williams College and author of From Tolerance to Equality: How Elites Brought America to Same-Sex Marriage.
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