"The Republicans won seats in the Senate, but the House was a bloodbath for them," the Roosevelt University political scientist said in an interview Wednesday morning. "It was very clearly a wave in the House; it happened to wash over a Senate map that was extremely unfriendly to Democrats."
When you total up the votes in all 438 contests for the House of Representatives, "the Democrats received somewhere between 7 and 9 percent more votes than Republicans," he notes. "That's an 8- or 9-point swing away from 2016, when the Republicans had a one-point victory in the national House vote. That's larger than average for a mid-term loss. The Democrats will probably end up with a bigger margin in the House than the Republicans had in either 2010 or 2014, which were considered enormous waves. So it's a huge repudiation of Trump."
Faris, author of the book It's Time to Fight Dirty: How Democrats Can Build a Lasting Majority in American Politics, believes that winning the Senate is increasingly difficult for Democrats. But he reminds progressives that the high-profile losses of Andrew Gillum in Florida and Beto O'Rourke in Texas—both Democrats competing in Republican-leaning states—shouldn't obscure the larger story of Democratic resurgence. He spoke from his Chicago-area home.
How do Tuesday's results alter the political landscape?
From the results I'm seeing now, it looks like the Democrats may have erased their structural disadvantage in the House. They did this by making inroads with white suburban voters in some critical states like Illinois and Virginia.
Here in Illinois, a young Democratic African-American candidate named Lauren Underwood beat longtime Republican incumbent Randy Hultgren in an extremely white, mostly exurban district. If Democrats are winning in those kinds of seats moving forward, it puts them at parity. That's huge.
But Democrats still have problems winning on a statewide level, especially in states with large rural populations. Given that our politics seem to be breaking down as rural vs. urban, and the Senate disproportionately represents rural voters, is a Republican Senate and Democratic House the new normal?
Democrats have a structural disadvantage in the Senate. That has never been clearer than it was last night. Democrats did great in the suburbs, and better than expected in some Democrat-leaning states, but they also did worse than expected in states that were reasonably competitive a few years ago, like Missouri.
What we saw last night was an acceleration of trends that have been developing for four to six years. Suburban areas moved away from Republicans, which is huge; Republicans are deeply dependent on the suburbs for their power. But rural areas are moving away from the Democrats even faster and more decisively. That puts 20 states out of reach, and they can't win the Senate that way.
In the long run, Democrats are not going to hold the Senate very often unless they make inroads in some of these smaller states—or they somehow miracle their way back into power in 2020 and create new states (in the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico). The Catch-22 here is Democrats have to get the Senate back in order to reform it.
Nancy Pelosi insisted last night that House Democrats' emphasis will be on addressing issues voters care about, such as health care. But there will be tremendous pressure on them to investigate the many scandals of the Trump administration. Are they skillful enough to pull off that balancing act?
Yes. They can walk and chew gum at the same time. You can pass off investigations to a handful of committees, and then focus on policy. I think they need to put down markers of what Democrats would do if they are given more power the next time around. That's not just a signal to voters; it means that, if the Democrats get unified power in 2021, they won't have to start from scratch.
I think that was one of the biggest mistakes the Republicans made in the run-up to 2016. They spent eight years assailing the Affordable Care Act, but when they got into power, they had no plan to fix it. If the Democrats get into power in 2021, will they spend 12 months debating the details of Medicare expansion, or will a plan already be in place? They need to think about these big-picture items that poll well, get them passed in the House and have them ready to roll.
How important is it that Democrats made major gains on the state level, electing governors and state legislators? Congressional districts will be redrawn following the 2020 census, and those maps are created by state legislatures and signed by governors.
Getting the governors' mansions back in Wisconsin and Michigan is very important. I think Democrats can net six [Congressional] seats by creating fairer maps in those two states alone. That said, Florida and Georgia are pretty heavily gerrymandered, and the Democrats will not be able to make any inroads there, with their new Republican governors. But, overall, Democrats flipped multiple state legislatures and picked up over 300 state legislative seats.
Lawrence O'Donnell said on MSNBC last night that he doesn't think Trump can fire special counsel Robert Mueller now, since doing so would almost certainly mean impeachment hearings. Do you agree?
I do think firing Mueller would be an impeachment trigger. Whether that would work for or against the president, I don't know. He could talk himself into thinking that getting impeached in the House would work for him, as it did for President [Bill] Clinton in 1998.
At the same time, he has to think about what the point of firing Mueller would be. I think the report is probably nearing completion. It will get out one way or the other. At the end of the day, people will find out what Bob Mueller knows.
But even if evidence of malfeasance emerges, will enough people take it seriously to hurt his chances of re-election?
Even if 95 percent of his supporters stick with him, it will affect his supporters on the margin. Given the closeness of some of these races, such as this year's contests in Florida and Arizona, picking off just a little piece of that coalition can mean the difference between winning and losing.
I think independent voters will be very important in 2020, and I don't think they'll ignore findings that suggest the president obstructed justice, or engaged in other criminal wrongdoing. In a very real sense, the president's attempts at narrative control have not worked—at least with the broader public.
Also remember that an economic downturn is likely between now and 2020. Trump could bleed out a lot of popularity when the economy dips. For the president and his party's fortunes, this could be the top of the mountain.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.