When I was a kid in small-town Oregon, my family would occasionally go to King’s Table, and my sister and I would get free rein at the buffet.
I became famous in my own family for my condiment salad — an impressive collection of bacon bits, croutons, shredded cheese, sunflower seeds and plenty of ranch dressing. Essentially, my strategy involved choosing what looked and tasted good and avoiding anything of nutritional value.
These midterm elections were a buffet for both parties. Yes, there are more delicious morsels for Democrats, but there are enough results for Republicans to make their own condiment salad, ignoring losses that might otherwise cause the party to make some changes.
The Democratic plate includes gaining as much as 40 seats in the House coupled with a new majority, taking over at least seven governorships and more than 300 state legislative seats, winning a U.S. Senate seat in a Trump state (Arizona), and holding down their total losses in the Senate while defending a difficult map.
The less savory results for Democrats include Ohio, where they lost the governorship to a 35-year politician and failed to take over any House seats. After losing the 12th District special election in suburban Columbus by less than a percentage point, Democrat Danny O’Connor lost to Republican Troy Balderson by nearly 5 points in last week’s rematch. Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown won re-election, but by just 6 points against an underwhelming GOP opponent in a race that never received much national attention. Democrats will have to decide whether Ohio is politically salvageable.
Florida also has to leave a bitter taste for Democrats. The party is poised to lose two marquee statewide races to polarizing GOP nominees. And even if Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson or Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum pulls ahead in the final vote counting, their party has to wonder how they did so poorly in a state President Donald Trump carried only narrowly in 2016.
There are fewer attractive choices at the buffet for Republicans. Expanding their Senate majority, picking up a governorship (albeit in Alaska), and winning statewide contests in Florida would almost certainly make their plate.
But even if Republicans want to ignore the losses now, at some point, they will have to face the realities of being the minority in the House and suffering some significant talent and diversity drain after losing Reps. Carlos Curbelo, Erik Paulsen, Ryan Costello, Mike Coffman, Scott Taylor, Barbara Comstock, and potentially Mia Love. They’ll have to come to grips with a collapse in the suburbs, missed opportunities to gain more Senate seats, and the loss of some key governorships in advance of redistricting. (Republicans lost the governorship in Wisconsin, where they had deemed the state GOP to be infallible and unbeatable.)
But what happened in the elections is less important than what the parties think happened in the elections because the latter will drive future behavior.
For example, it’s clear that Trump believes his immigration message and tone was the reason Republicans “won,” and he publicly blamed the House losses on a failure to embrace him. Even though Republicans suffered heavy House losses because of the president’s unpopularity, Trump will continue to act, talk and tweet in the way that he thinks has proved successful.
It’s still unclear how Democrats will react to the election results, particularly losses by some higher-profile progressive candidates. They could interpret them as reasons to moderate, or they could double down on a shift to the left as a contrast to the Republicans. Listen for the clues in the coming weeks to understand where Democrats are headed.
But the biggest takeaway from this story is to remember to always use a clean plate and to please wash your hands before going through the buffet line.
Watch: Democrats Divided on Pelosi as Speaker After First Post-Election Caucus Meeting