Democrats face tough 2020 battle after blowing chance at blue wave

If there’s one thing that the left is consistently poor at, it’s managing expectations. Since President TrumpDonald John TrumpBroward County official Brenda Snipes submits resignation after criticism Retired lieutenant general tears into Trump over attacks against Navy SEAL: 'Disgusting' Senate barrels toward showdown over Trump's court picks MORE’s inauguration, his opponents hung their fortunes on the idea of a massive blue wave to sweep away congressional Republicans in the midterms. Instead, we saw a modest Democratic gain in the House of Representatives and a strong Republican gain in the Senate. Democrats lost crucial races where they ran candidates too far left to carry moderate or conservative districts; it was moderate Democrats who had the best shots, while most of the hardcore leftists lost race after race Tuesday.

The left believed that the midterms would be a bellwether for 2020. In many ways, it is — if the party can tack towards the middle instead of pushing for ideological purity.

Just about every pollster and op-ed predicted a massive sweep for blue candidates across the nation. In states where Democrats needed a commanding majority, they actually lost ground. Gains in some parts of the Rust Belt, like Pennsylvania, were matched by losses in Ohio and Indiana.

Democrats lost many of these tight races because they nominated candidates well outside of the mainstream. Democrats tried to run the table and found fewer wins in states that were not already left-leaning. The party won impressive victories in New Mexico, Virginia and Colorado. However, this base-only effort largely failed to reach out to independent and moderate voters that Democrats won over in 2006 and 2008. In several notable examples, candidates who aligned themselves with the progressive Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersDems wonder if Sherrod Brown could be their magic man My fellow Democrats should watch their language: Economic equality is not a rational societal goal As Democrats gear up to challenge Trump in 2020, the key political divide will be metropolitan versus rural MORE wing of the party lost winnable races.

Florida was, again, the ultimate bellwether. Andrew Gillum led the final RealClearPolitics average by 3.6 percent and was practically inaugurated in national press coverage. Instead, he lost by a slim but still shocking 1 percent. Gillum turned out to be a far more underwhelming candidate than originally advertised. The major reason for Gillum’s loss? His politics were well to the left of the traditionally pink state. Most notably, he called for a 41 percent increase in the state’s corporate tax. Yet even this $1 billion tax increase wasn’t enough to pay for his radical agenda — Gillum’s plan would have cost taxpayers an extra $2.6 billion per year.

Overlooked in most of the coverage of the two Florida gubernatorial candidates was a stealth issue that cost Gillum thousands of votes. He had been leading consistently in the polls but it is likely that a ballot initiative made a key difference in how people voted for the top of the ticket. Florida voted on Amendment 5, which changed the state constitution to only allow tax increases with a supermajority vote in the legislature. It passed with almost 65 percent of the vote.

The Democrats lost in races where reputed moderates voted hard left when it counted. Sens. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillWhy Democratic policies outperform Democratic politicians in rural America Josh Hawley will defend the First Amendment and religious liberty Missouri New Members 2019 MORE of Missouri, Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterBanking panel showcases 2020 Dems Cortez Masto poised to become DSCC chair Mellman: The triumph of partisanship MORE of Montana and Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyBanking panel showcases 2020 Dems Trump to nominate former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler as next EPA administrator Indiana New Members 2019 MORE of Indiana all cut independent images in their previous campaigns but voted sharply left on the Affordable Care Act, taxes and the Supreme Court. Of the three, only Tester survived.

Democrats left a number of high-profile races on the table because its base wouldn’t (or couldn’t) stop nominating candidates too left for their districts. In cases where Democrats nominated candidates appropriate for their districts, they won! Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinSotomayor: Kavanaugh now part of the Supreme Court ‘family’ Trump to nominate former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler as next EPA administrator Schumer reelected as Senate Democratic Leader MORE eked out a victory largely due to his moderate image as West Virginia’s former governor and on the back of his “yes” vote to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughSenate barrels toward showdown over Trump's court picks Trump set to have close ally Graham in powerful chairmanship Sotomayor: Kavanaugh now part of the Supreme Court ‘family’ MORE. Rep. Conor Lamb won a convincing 56 percent victory in western Pennsylvania’s redrawn 17th District. Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownSherrod Brown says he has 'no real timetable' for deciding on 2020 presidential run Banking panel showcases 2020 Dems Dems wonder if Sherrod Brown could be their magic man MORE won another term in Ohio.

While each of these candidates spans the traditional Democratic Party’s political spectrum, they carry two main commonalities. First, they are not socialists. Second, they are tailor-made to run in their districts.

Democrats had a unique shot at both the House and Senate in this year’s elections. Despite the strong economy, many voters — especially in richer suburban areas — have a deep dislike of Donald Trump. A coalition of hardcore progressives in cities and moderates elsewhere would have been a winning strategy. As much as voters dislike Trump, when they had a choice between “sending a message” to Washington and how their states were run they voted with their wallets. Jamming in any candidate’s nomination just because they support single-payer is just not enough to win the general. Now that the thin blue “wave” is receding, the job for Democrats will only get harder.

One of the clearest examples is in deep-blue New England. The region sent Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenSenate barrels toward showdown over Trump's court picks Sherrod Brown says he has 'no real timetable' for deciding on 2020 presidential run Banking panel showcases 2020 Dems MORE of Massachusetts, Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseSenators introduce Trump-backed criminal justice bill 3 ways House Dems can fight climate change when sweeping policy is off the table Hillicon Valley: Trump eyes staff shake-up | Amazon taps NYC, Northern Virginia for new offices | What it will mean for DC | Tech firms buck Trump on cyber pact | Defense official warns against hacking back MORE of Rhode Island and Bernie Sanders of Vermont back to the U.S. Senate; its House delegations are nearly all Democratic. However, Republicans carried governorships in Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts; Bay State voters were willing to pick Warren while keeping Republican Gov. Charlie Baker by an even larger margin. It hearkens back to one of Robert Conquest’s three laws of politics: “Everyone is conservative about what he knows best.” Voters in New England wanted to show the nation their anti-Trump cred while bringing in local leaders who will keep their state taxes and fees lower: Socialism for thee, but not for me.

Now that the 2020 election cycle is started, Democrats should move toward the center if they want to have a chance to win both chambers of Congress and the White House. Excessive investigations and a hard-left agenda will severely harm their chances of winning. Seeking out a candidate between the left and hard-left constituencies, like Joe BidenJoseph (Joe) Robinette BidenDems wonder if Sherrod Brown could be their magic man Biden family adopts a dog Entrepreneur touts big solutions, endorsements in discussing presidential bid MORE (or even Beto O’Rourke), may give the party a shot at the White House. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisSome of us Midwesterners think maybe Amy Klobuchar would do OK as president Banking panel showcases 2020 Dems Gorka: John F. Kennedy wouldn't be allowed in Democratic Party MORE and Elizabeth Warren are incompatible with most of the nation and, this week, showed that.

Most of all, Donald Trump still has the bully pulpit — and used it very effectively in 2018’s midterms.

Kristin Tate is a libertarian writer and author of “How Do I Tax Thee? A Field Guide to the Great American Rip-Off.” Follow her on Twitter @KristinBTate.