On Wednesday, America woke up to a redrawn political map, a divided government, and of course countless tweets, soundbites and stories that declared the “blue wave” that had been promised in the midterm elections was little more than a trickle. That’s just not true.
For starters, Democrats will now command the House of Representatives, drawing (at last!) to a close 24 months of unmitigated powerlessness in Washington. This, THIS is the result we organized and door-knocked and raised small-dollar donations for. Politicians with a conscience (example: those who think immigrant children shouldn’t be housed in cages) can now function as the legislative branch is supposed to, conducting real oversight on an executive branch that has, until now, faced none. I know we’ve gotten used to that sense that haha #nothingmatters, but the real world isn’t Twitter and this wasn’t a game. Power was divvied up. For the first time in what feels like centuries, we got some of it.
So let’s recap: Over 100 women are now bound for D.C. That happened because thousands of women rallied for them—domestic workers and stay-at-home moms and teachers and nurses. Together, those women built a new political infrastructure run by—and accountable to—them.
Also notable is that women of color eked out some of the nail-biter victories that control of the House of Representatives depended on. These are the women whom Democrats have relied on to turn out the vote for decades, but have never quite empowered to lead. Well, Lucy McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis, who was shot and killed at 17; Ilhan Omar, a Somali refugee and Muslim woman; and Ayanna Pressley, who will soon become the first black congresswoman ever from Massachusetts, didn’t ask for seat at the table. They demanded it.
In Florida, a state that bitterly disappointed progressives on Tuesday night—with Bill Nelson heading into a recount in the Senate race and Andrew Gillum losing his gubernatorial bid—almost 1.5 million people convicted of felonies will have their right to vote restored. To put that in perspective: Nelson is just 34,000 votes from a dead tie. In 2020, when a Democrat will need Florida to have a shot at the Oval Office, this population, whom Democrats have fought for, could decide the race.
We elected some of the best shots we have to battle evil. We put people in office when we could have thrown up our hands.
Meanwhile, Massachusetts enshrined transgender rights. Three blood-red states voted to expand Medicaid, giving hundreds of thousands of people access to health care that will save their lives. Some in the media like to treat politics like a horserace, but the people who cried out at town halls and protested the NRA knew better. It’s not about a point here or there. It’s about survival.
Each loss is a heartbreak. Of course, we wanted Beto O’Rourke to win in Texas. We wanted a decisive triumph for Stacey Abrams, whose opponent in Georgia expelled close to 700,000 voters from the polls in 2017 and is at the moment ahead by a mere 70,000. Alabama approved a ballot measure that will extend full legal rights to fertilized eggs (and thus rescind them for women).
It’s OK to grieve. Gerrymandering and voter suppression are real, and their costs are greater than we can bear.
But how do we build political power? How does that happen?
It happens when Democrats can help draw district lines. (Hello to the seven legislative chambers nationwide that Democrats flipped, with over 300 seats changing from red to blue. Welcome to people like Gretchen Whitmer and Laura Kelly, new governors in Michigan and Kansas.) It happens when people like Beto O’Rourke convince voters in Texas who’ve never bothered to vote that it’s worth it to come out. Democrats picked up at least two GOP-held congressional seats in the Lone Star State. O’Rourke deserves a serious portion of the credit for that. His exuberance and relentless ground game drove some of the unlikeliest people to the polls.
Blind optimism won’t fuel a revolution. But neither will blind despair. Because of the work that women in particular did, a grassroots movement grows in Texas. A lesbian Native American MMA fighter will represent a district in Kansas. In New York, that supposed bastion of coastal elitism, Democrats took control of the state senate, which it hasn’t had for almost two decades, and Andrea Stewart-Cousins will now become the first woman ever to lead a legislative chamber in the state.
It’s fine if this all sounds delusional. I have no doubt that the racism and homophobia and sexism and antisemitism and xenophobia that fueled the GOP in these elections (and won them, in several cases) have made their mark. But on Tuesday, we elected some of the best shots we have to battle those evils. We put people in office when we could have thrown up our hands. No one knows what impact that’ll have—not the New York Times election needle, not Nate Silver, not Wolf Blitzer. No one.
Here is what I know: 990 miles and a million headlines apart, two 29-year-old women were elected to the House of Representatives last night.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was one of them; a progressive powerhouse who rose to national attention after she beat Democratic incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley in June. The political newcomer launched and led a pitch-perfect race over the summer. She’s one of a thousand reasons I’m not just pleased, but (what is this emotion; I hardly remember it?) hopeful in the aftermath of the midterm elections.
But allow me to introduce another cause for celebration, and one with whom some are less familiar: Meet Abby Finkenauer, the other woman under 30 who won last night. Finkenauer was elected in Dubuque, Iowa, defeating Republican incumbent Rep. Rod Blum. She is only the third Democrat since 1973 to hold this seat. And when she decided to run for the Iowa State House of Representatives (a chamber in which she then served two terms), she was just 24, saddled with student debt and up against three men in their 40s. She flattened them.
Ocasio-Cortez and Finkenauer have their political differences—but both are about to launch careers in federal politics that could last decades. While pundits on Twitter root around for and both are women who’ve decided to dedicate their considerable skills and political prowess to the creation of better opportunities for more people. When’s the last time it felt like that happened?
These two women triumphed, not to mention the victories of Deb Haaland and Sharice Davids, the first Native American women ever elected to the House, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, the first Muslim women ever elected to the House, Lucy McBath, Ayanna Pressley, Abigail Spanberger, Mikie Sherrill, Lauren Underwood…
Should I continue?
Because I could find 10,000 more words. I could quote Pressley, who insisted that representation mattered. I could narrate the ascendence McBath, who poured her sorrow into this race and gained the respect of her constituents. I could go on and on.
And that’s the point. That’s the win. There is so much more of this story to write.