Five Potential Takeaways of the 2022 Midterm Elections

Somehow, campaigns always seem to end in Philadelphia for the Democrats. On the eve of the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton staged a rally on Independence Mall with the Obamas, Bruce Springsteen, and Jon Bon Jovi; a hopeful line filled with pairs of mothers and daughters snaked through the cobblestoned streets of Society Hill. In 2020, Joe Biden held a socially distanced drive-in rally at F.D.R. Park in South Philly, which featured a performance by John Legend. This year, the celebrity wattage was turned down a bit—just a midterm, after all—and Biden and Barack Obama finished the campaign, this weekend, with a rally on Temple University’s campus. But, even if the city hasn’t changed, the Democratic mood in the final hours of these three elections has grown tenser. “This ain’t your father’s Republican Party—this is a different breed of cat,” Biden said in Philadelphia. Obama was even starker. “I understand that democracy might not seem like a top priority right now, especially when you’re worried about paying the bills,” he said. “But when true democracy goes away—we’ve seen throughout history, we’ve seen around the world—when true democracy goes away, people get hurt.”

Nearly two years into the Biden Administration, with reports that Donald Trump will launch a 2024 Presidential bid next week, the dark and pessimistic era in American politics has not broken yet. The midterm elections on Tuesday will be decided in quantitative terms: Democrats need to just about sweep the tossup seats in the House to keep control of it—which seems very unlikely, and probably need to win three of the four most closely contested Senate races (in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and Pennsylvania) to retain a majority in the upper chamber. But, as the past six years have demonstrated, partisan politics is always evolving, developing new fixations and themes. At stake in Tuesday’s vote—and in any runoffs or fights over the legitimacy of those votes that follow—is not just the balance of power between now and the 2024 Presidential election but what the politics to come will be about.

Will the Democratic Retrenchment Work?

It’s hard to remember such a radical shift in political tone from one election to the next. In 2018 and 2020, Democratic politicians were offering expansive visions for how to overhaul the relationship between government and citizens; this year, the campaign rhetoric has tended to be much more guarded, the policies more incremental. Democrats don’t talk about imminent political transformation anymore, and they don’t really talk much, either, about the structural imbalances of American life—economic and racial inequality. Few candidates have been willing to campaign with President Biden, but the Party has adopted his ethos. Its candidates talk up the tangible investments they’ve made in the future, both through checks cut to Americans during the COVID crisis and through Biden’s infrastructure and recovery programs, and contrast their own commonsensical approach to politics with the radicalism of the Trump-era Republicans. If they sound a little tense, it is because they have taken a fundamentally defensive position.

Like so much with the Biden-era Democrats, this is born of pragmatism: they have the narrowest of majorities, and their fear of what will happen to politics should Republicans regain power is deep. One big question for the Democrats on Tuesday is whether this centrist retrenchment—in which they cast themselves as the practical establishment and the Republicans as the wild-eyed revolutionaries—will work if Trump is not on the ballot. Governor Tony Evers, of Wisconsin, and the incumbent senators Mark Kelly, of Arizona; Catherine Cortez Masto, of Nevada; and Raphael Warnock, of Georgia, have all, in different ways, followed the playbook. If they win, then the Party will likely become more clearly Bidenist for the next two years. If they lose, then it may no longer be clear what political plan the President has for his party, or whether he remains a good fit for it.

Can the Republicans Sweep the Sun Belt?

Speaking to the National Conservatism Conference in September, the right-wing billionaire mega-donor Peter Thiel sketched an image of the California that he and other Republicans saw. “It is just such an ugly picture,” Thiel said. “The homeless poop, people pooping all over the place—it’s the ridiculous rat-infested apartments that don’t work anymore, it’s the woke insanities—there’s so much that it feels like shooting fish in a barrel. It’s so easy, so ridiculous to denounce.” Thiel noted, “DeSantis in Florida is probably the best of the governors in terms of offering a real alternative to California.”

During Trump’s Presidential campaigns, MAGA conservatism had a Midwestern tone, in the former President’s denunciations of an “American carnage” that had afflicted postindustrial places. But the younger Republicans who have followed Trump would love a chance to contrast the booming economies of a conservative Sun Belt with the allegedly sclerotic politics and culture of the Democratic coasts—to argue that MAGA-ism isn’t just about the past but the future. The incumbent Republican governors Greg Abbott, of Texas; Ron DeSantis, of Florida; and Brian Kemp, of Georgia, look almost certain to win reëlection, and Kari Lake is the favorite to become the governor of Arizona; each is likely to be a major national figure in the years to come. (DeSantis, most prominent of all, has raised an astonishing hundred and seventy-seven million for his political war chest.) How big are their margins, how many Hispanic voters will back them, how many Republican senators and Congress members can they help sweep into office behind them? The outcomes of these races look mostly set, but the margin and manner will help determine what form conservatism takes in the next two years and who will lead it.

Have the Parties Permanently Changed?

U.S. politics has reorganized in two ways during the past decade. The first change has already played out: education polarization, in which more-educated voters move to the Democratic Party and less-educated ones to the Republicans. The second, related change is still embryonic: racial depolarization—the possibility that race might become a less powerful predictor of voting behavior, which in turn might open up some Hispanic, Black, and Asian votes for Republicans. Are these changes specific to the particular chaos of the past decade—of the generational wave that turned into right-wing populism here and in many other places—or will they become permanent?

The place to look for tidal changes in U.S. politics—those that have little to do with personality—is in the House of Representatives, whose members are low-profile enough that in elections they often become proxies for the general opinion of their parties. The indispensable House-elections analyst Dave Wasserman, of the Cook Political Report, has rated two hundred and twelve races as leaning toward the Republicans, a hundred and eighty-seven toward the Democrats, and thirty-six as tossups: Republicans would need to win just five of the tossups for a majority, and so the range of plausible outcomes is pretty broad. If Democrats are to keep the House close, they will need to hold their suburban seats: Representative Angie Craig’s district, in the south suburbs of Minneapolis; Representative Jahana Hayes’s district, in Connecticut’s Fairfield and Litchfield Counties and points farther north; Representative Katie Porter’s district, in Orange County, California; and Representative Abigail Spanberger’s, in the northern suburbs of Richmond, Virginia. If the movement of Hispanic voters toward the Republicans is truly gaining strength, the G.O.P. would expect to make gains in south Texas, where Representative Mayra Flores, a conservative Republican who won a seat long held by Democrats in a special election earlier this year, is up for reëlection, and where the longtime pro-life Democrat Representative Henry Cuellar is facing a challenge from a Republican, Cassy Garcia, in the Twenty-eighth Congressional District. In these places, you might catch a glimpse of the partisan change continuing to accelerate—or finding a new resting place.

How Does the Pennsylvania Story End?

No place has so embodied the turmoil of the past decade in American politics as Pennsylvania, which has been central to both the working-class defection to Trump’s Republicans and Scranton-born Biden’s success at stabilizing politics, at least for a time. In two statewide races this fall, for governor and for Senate, Pennsylvania has also encapsulated the 2022 election. Doug Mastriano, an election denier running for governor under the MAGA banner, looks likely to come up short against the moderate Democrat Josh Shapiro. But the other race, on which control of the Senate may hinge, is very close. The celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz, handpicked by Trump, may defeat John Fetterman, the rough-hewn, progressive lieutenant governor of the state, who suffered a stroke during the campaign, from which he has only partly recovered. At every stage, Fetterman’s candidacy has had an outsized symbolic importance. In recent weeks, it has suggested how much depends upon a few Democratic candidates—their talent, their health, and their ability to defy the basic political atmosphere. In its final stage, on Tuesday, it carries the question of which party can lay claim to the political “heartland.”

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