Even as Republicans take narrow control of the House of Representatives, Democrats are still aglow over their political gravity-defying performance in the midterm elections. More gratifying than the partisan scorecard, however, is the big civic takeaway: Anti-democratic extremism mattered to America’s voters.
They can’t abide it and they voted against candidates who embraced it. This despite the punditocracy’s herd-like certitude that Americans can’t see beyond their kitchen table and would mainly vote their pocketbooks.
Many did – inflation was the top issued cited by voters, and those who gave it priority voted overwhelmingly for Republicans. But many didn’t, turning what would normally be big off-year election gains by the out party into a rebuke of Trumpism.
Consequently, U.S. democracy dodged a bullet this month, giving Americans something else to be grateful for this Thanksgiving.
Predictions of a “red wave” weren’t just partisan hype. The fundamentals – both 40-year-high inflation and President Biden’s abysmal job approval (42 percent), favored Republicans. The last time Democrats bucked the midterm trend – in 1998, when they gained five House seats and suffered no net losses in the Senate – President Bill Clinton’s job approval stood at 65 percent.
In fact, Republicans did win the national vote handily (50.9 to 47.6 percent at last count). What they didn’t do was win where it really counted — in the familiar set of battleground states that have tipped the partisan balance of power in the last four U.S. elections.
Republican hopes for a sweeping repudiation of Biden and the Democrats crashed on two rocks. One was the push by GOP governors and legislators to outlaw or severely restrict reproductive rights in red states. The other was voter rejection of a raft of amateurish and crackpot candidates handpicked by former President Trump.
In exit polls, 58 percent of voters said the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe vs. Wade had an impact on their vote. Just 37 percent of voters support the ruling, while 59 percent believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases. The GOP’s attempt to foist the anti-abortion minority’s views on Americans provoked a strong reaction, especially among young voters, women and independents.
Voters in California, Michigan and Vermont passed amendments to their state’s constitutions affirming reproductive rights. Kentucky and Montana voters rejected ballot measures pushed by abortion foes. Including last summer’s vote in Kansas, Republicans are now 0-6 in state referenda on abortion.
The GOP’s radical stance on abortion, alongside MAGA-style candidates parroting Trump’s stolen election myth, gave off a strong whiff of extremism that repelled swing state voters. “The Democrats relatively good night is attributable, above all to their secret weapon: Donald Trump,” says Ruy Teixeira, a liberal political analyst.
Throughout 2022, Trump intervened in Republican primaries to tip races toward MAGA loyalists and celebrity candidates such as TV doctor Mehmet Oz and former running back Hershel Walker. The result was a weak crop of neophytes and fringe candidates who lost races that “normie” Republican candidates might have won.
Trump’s interference undoubtedly cost his party the Senate as well as governors’ races in pivotal battleground states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Arizona. According to the American Enterprise Institute’s Philip Wallach, the “Trump penalty” likely squandered Republican chances in five House races as well.
The resounding defeat of many high-profile election deniers (including those running for state offices that oversee elections) is a healthy sign that our political system’s antibodies are working to contain the anti-democratic virus.
Had they won, the midterm message would have been that the Trump cult is ascendant in the GOP, and election deniers would be poised to put a thumb on the scale for Trump and other Republican candidates in 2024. It also was telling that none of the Trump-endorsed losers – except Arizona’s Kari Lake – cried foul, despite their backing for Trump’s attempts to overturn his 2020 loss to Biden.
The midterm fiasco has convinced many top Republicans that’s Trump is an electoral albatross around the party’s neck, and that it’s time to make way for a new crop of candidates. Says former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, “We lost in ’18. We lost in ’20. We lost in ’21 in Georgia. And now in ’22 we’re going to net lose governorships. There’s only person to blame for that, and that’s Donald Trump.”
Trump, of course, accepts no responsibility for the losing streak. The characteristically self-absorbed lesson he drew from the midterms is that he is a “victim” who must run for president again to wreak vengeance on his political enemies. GOP leaders, however, steered clear of his listless announcement last week, and Georgia Republicans are pleading with Trump not to stump for Herschel Walker in the Dec. 5 runoff.
Does all this mean that the U.S. political system has survived the first attempt ever to sabotage a national election and block the peaceful transfer of presidential power?
Perhaps, but let’s not breath too easily. Trump has formed a powerful bond with working-class voters. No one channels their cultural and economic resentments more effectively — or more destructively. In a crowded primary field, it’s certainly conceivable that Trump could wrest the GOP nomination for a third time.
Harder to see is how a diminished Trump wins the White House. In his previous two runs, he hasn’t exceeded 47 percent of the vote. He’s always had a low ceiling of political support, and his unhinged behavior over the last two years has made it lower.
With Republicans increasingly unwilling to follow the Pied Piper of Mar-a-Lago down a twisted path of delusion and sedition, American democracy seems less fragile after this month’s vote. That’s a win for the whole country.
Will Marshall is president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI).