Julia Azari, an associate processor of political science at Marquette University in Milwaukee, speak Thursday about the midterm elections, at the Great Falls Forum at the Lewiston Public Library. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

LEWISTON — The 2018 midterm elections are over, and while many are enjoying a respite from political signs and attack ads, a few dozen people eagerly gathered Thursday to break down what it all means.

Political scientist Julia Azari told the audience at Thursday’s Great Falls Forum the election represented a country that is “deeply and closely divided,” as Democrats took back the U.S. House of Representatives by a large margin while Republicans gained seats in the Senate.

Beyond the wide assessment that the results could be represented as a repudiation of President Trump, she said they more accurately represent a redistribution of power, historic firsts and a “Trumpier” GOP.

She also said individual state voting rights were an important factor in 2018.

Azari is an associate professor of political science at Marquette University in Milwaukee. She is also an author and contributor to various political publications.

She said Thursday’s talk was meant to delve deeper into the results, as both major political parties can point to losses on either side.

Broadly, the results showed a 40-seat pickup by Democrats in the House, and at least a two-seat gain by Republicans in the Senate. But the results also showed a number of historic wins for women, LGBTQ and Muslim candidates, mostly on the Democratic side.

Maine elected its first woman governor, Janet Mills.

Azari said the president’s party often loses seats during midterms, but said it is a relatively new phenomenon for a president to dominate the political landscape during midterms.

She pointed to 2014, when President Barack Obama said his policies were on the ballot, while in 2018 Trump told voters to pretend he was on the ballot.

According to Gallup, even “popular” presidents with an approval rating of more than 50 percent still see a 14-seat loss on average. For “unpopular” presidents under 50 percent, the average is a 37-seat loss. The latter is just about even with the GOP performance this year.

“There’s something there for everybody,” Azari said. “If you’re invested in the idea that this is not that much of a repudiation of Trump, you could say it’s about average for a president with low levels of popularity.

“If you’re invested in the idea that it was a repudiation of Trump, you could say: ‘Look. Unpopular president, big seat loss.'”

Azari noted the GOP lost members who were Trump critics during the election, either through losses to Democrats or retirements. Trump recently blamed the candidates’ losses on a lack of support for him.

Republican Ron DeSantis, who won the Florida governorship in a tight race, famously filmed a TV ad where he was shown “building a wall” out of blocks with his daughter.

The midterms also saw geographical divides deepen, Azari said. The GOP won Senate seats in Indiana, Missouri and Florida, states that typically swing red, but saw deeper losses for House seats and governorships in urban, coastal and suburban areas.

The American suburbs, she said, played a distinct role. Democrats won the suburbs in every region except the south.

A separate topic from the election’s winners and losers, she said, is voting rules, which she said “really came to the forefront” during races in Georgia, Florida, North Dakota and Maine.

There are voter registration lawsuits in Georgia, where the secretary of state, Brian Kemp, won an election he oversaw. There was voter ID controversy in North Dakota over a law that proved problematic for Native Americans.

“It’s not just the rules, but rules that tap into very old racial conflicts and racial inequality,” Azari said. “I think what we should demand to see from those covering our elections is a little less horse race and more about the rules.”

Then, Azari added, “Whatever is going on here in Maine.”

In Maine, it also does not seem the election has officially ended, as U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, a Republican, is continuing his legal challenge to the state’s ranked-choice voting law, while a recount takes place. Meanwhile, a lawyer for Democrat Jared Golden, who won the election, is calling Poliquin’s lawsuit “sour grapes.”

During a question-and-answer session following her talk, Azari was asked about her views on ranked-choice voting.

“I’m a little on the fence,” she said. “My political science friends love it. … I think if it makes people feel like their vote counts more, that they can express more about what they really think, then that strikes me as a good thing, particularly as our institutions are distrusted.”

Azari earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a master’s degree and doctorate in political science from Yale University.

She is the author of “Delivering the People’s Message: The Changing Politics of the Presidential Mandate,” and is a regular contributor at the political science blog “The Mischiefs of Faction.”

Her work has also appeared on The Washington Post’s “Monkey Cage” blog and Politico.

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