Democrats went into last week’s election convinced that there were millions of untapped liberal voters who, with the right motivation, could be pushed to turn out and vote, creating the blue wave.
They found them, in places such as Florida, where a charismatic black Democrat managed to send midterm turnout soaring. Gubernatorial nominee Andrew Gillum received 1.2 million more votes than his predecessor on the Democratic ticket, 2014 nominee Charlie Crist.
The problem for Democrats was that Republicans kept pace, finding 1.2 million new voters in Florida as well.
Nearly the same thing happened in Georgia, where another high-profile Democrat, Stacey Abrams, bidding to be the nation’s first black female governor, found some 750,000 more votes than her predecessor in 2014. That would have been enough to win easily — except Brian Kemp boosted the Republican total by more than 620,000 votes compared with four years ago, putting him just over the automatic runoff threshold as of Sunday afternoon.
“This was a base election,” said Jay Williams, a Georgia-based Republican Party strategist. “They turned their folks out, and so did we. And our base is just a little bigger right now.”
The past few presidential elections have come down to candidates bringing out voters who had been ignored or forgotten.
In 2004, President George W. Bush targeted church-going evangelical voters in Ohio, using the state’s same-sex marriage referendum to entice them to the polls where they also voted for — and made the difference in — his re-election bid.
President Obama, of course, surged black voter turnout, and President Trump focused on rural white voters who felt disenfranchised by politics in Washington.
This year, Democrats were intent on converting some Republican voters fed up with Mr. Trump into support. Their main strategy, though, was centered on bringing out their base — including Democrats who may have stayed home in 2016 rather than vote for Hillary Clinton.
Speaking to reporters at a breakfast sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez said the party’s investments in a well-oiled ground game paid off.
“Our goal was to expand the electorate,” Mr. Perez said. “Our goal was to reshape the electorate, and that’s exactly what we have done.”
Democrats rode those new voters to wins in suburban districts across the country, capturing control of the U.S. House, at least a half-dozen governorships and hundreds of state legislative offices.
One of those governor’s flips was in Nevada, where Democrats nearly quadrupled their vote total from 2014 to 2018 by adding 345,000 votes and easily outdistancing Republicans, who added about 50,000 votes.
But top Democratic targets such as Ohio, Georgia and Florida slipped from the party’s hands.
The Republican National Committee and Republican Party of Florida attributed the apparent victories of Ron DeSantis over Mr. Gillum and Gov. Rick Scott over Sen. Bill Nelson to the combination of Mr. Trump’s popularity and an aggressive get-out-the-vote operation.
“Our superior ground game is a testament to our dedication, enthusiasm and investment in securing Republican victories,” the RNC said in a memo. “Clearly, Democrats can’t match our efforts.”
Despite watching his candidates falter in Florida and Georgia, Charles Chamberlain, executive director at Democracy for America, said liberals have provided a blueprint for candidates heading into the 2020 elections.
“While the Gillum race appears ready for a recount and Abrams is still fighting for the votes necessary to secure a runoff, the work these two campaigns put into transforming and expanding midterm election turnout undoubtedly got them closer to victory in states that have never elected a black governor and haven’t seen a Democratic gubernatorial victory in at least 15 years,” Mr. Chamberlain said.
He said the diverse coalition Democrats tapped will outdistance the “ever-dwindling number of right-leaning, overwhelmingly white, regularly voting so-called ‘swing voters’” on whom he said Republicans rely.
David Johnson, a Republican Party strategist, said Democrats had immense advantages this time, including money and star power, and they still fell short in places such as Georgia.
“The silver lining for Republicans is [Democrats] threw everything in from the amount of money they raised to the people that came in for Abrams — Oprah, Will Ferrell and Barack Obama,” he said. “If that is the best they can do, even with Trump’s approval at less than 50 percent in the polls, they have to be questioning what went wrong.”
Yet he said Georgia Republicans should be concerned about how two once reliably red Atlanta-area counties — Cobb and Gwinnett — turned more blue.
“It is a warning sign,” Mr. Johnson said.