A deeply divided electorate delivered a split verdict on President Trump’s first two years in office on Tuesday, one that reflects growing chasms along geographic and ideological faults.
On one hand, suburban voters delivered a stern rebuke to an unpopular president, ousting both Republican incumbents who had embraced Trump and those who had sought to distance themselves. Democrats made big gains in Midwestern governors' races, a step in the direction of rebuilding once-favorable political terrain that Trump had claimed.
On the other hand, rural voters stormed to the polls in virtually unprecedented numbers, delivering once again for the president they voted for in 2016 in a handful of critical Senate and gubernatorial elections in ruby red states.
“We’ve got some big schisms out there,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who won reelection in an exurban and rural district on Tuesday. “Rural America’s much more Republican than ever before.”
Exit polls showed three-quarters of voters said Americans are becoming more divided.
President Trump’s divisive rhetoric in the closing days of the campaign exacerbated those divides, by turns strengthening Republican chances in Senate races where the GOP base turned out and weakening his party’s hopes of keeping the House.
The exit surveys showed Trump was a major factor in Tuesday’s elections. Nearly two thirds of voters said they cast their ballot for Congress either to support Trump (26 percent) or oppose him (38 percent). More voters said they were casting a ballot to support Trump than oppose him in Senate races in Missouri, Indiana and North Dakota, three states where Republicans beat Democratic incumbents.
The Senate Democrats who lost their reelection bids on Tuesday all saw their vote shares drop in rural areas.
Six years ago, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) won 53 counties as she won a second term; on Tuesday, McCaskill won only five counties — around Kansas City, St. Louis and Columbia — and lost her seat to Sen.-elect Josh Hawley (R). Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) won seven counties along Indiana’s southern border in 2012; this year, he won only one, Vanderburgh County.
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who trails state Auditor Matt Rosendale (R) by a tiny margin with votes left to count, improved his performance in Montana’s largest counties, around Missoula and Helena. But he lost by big margins in rural counties from Lincoln, along the Idaho border, to Carter, which borders South Dakota.
The same rural surge doomed Democrats, for a second election in a row, in the pivotal state of Florida. Tallahassee Mayor and gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum (D) ran ahead of Charlie Crist, the 2014 Democratic gubernatorial nominee, in mega-counties like Miami-Dade and Orange.
But Republicans have improved on both their turnout and overall performance in rural areas for several elections in a row; Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis (R) ran ahead of President Trump’s 2016 performance or Gov. Rick Scott’s (R) 2014 vote share in 13 of 16 counties in the Panhandle.
Where Democrats lost ground in rural areas, they won big in the suburbs. Democrats picked up big chunks of House seats in Minneapolis, southeastern Pennsylvania, Richmond and New York. The suburban wave even swamped Republicans who had prepared for a tough race year, like Reps. John Culberson (R-Texas), Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) and Dan Donovan (R-N.Y.).
Farther down the ballot, the GOP bloodletting was worse: Democrats won five Texas state House seats in Dallas County, and several more legislative seats in suburban Denver, where the party won control of the state Senate.
In Chester County, outside Philadelphia, Republicans held eight of nine state House seats before the midterm elections. On Tuesday, Democrats won six of those nine.
“The suburbs were really good for us,” said Jessica Post, the executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. “We still have to compete and win in small towns across America.”
The results exacerbate a divide between booming urban centers and struggling rural communities that has been growing since the recession a decade ago.
In some states like Florida, that divide has bedeviled Democrats, who have hit their vote targets but lost elections as swarms of rural voters turn out to vote Republican.
In others, like Nevada, where Sen. Dean Heller (R) lost his reelection bid on Tuesday, it has doomed Republicans as growing cities come to dominate once-influential rural areas.
Both Republicans and Democrats said the schisms between two regions at political loggerheads will challenge each side moving forward.
“Urban, suburban America is a growing part of the country. From a Republican standpoint, you have to figure out how to get back a lot of what you lost,” Cole said. “That depends on the president as much as it does on us. I’ll be very interested in the lessons the White House takes from this, because the president is always the face of the party.”
Democrats said their party should be encouraged by the number of seats the party won in states like Oklahoma, Iowa and Kansas — places where the party has failed to mount serious candidates in recent years, but where their candidates this year ousted Republican incumbents.
“I think Dems have finally heard loud and clear that you have to fight to win, you have to organize to win,” said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti (D), a potential presidential contender who spent the midterms stumping for Democrats around the country.
“There’s no question that Dems need to be everywhere,” Garcetti said. “You’ve got to show up in these small towns, you’ve got to show up in rural areas, and you’ve got to listen.”