The day after the midterm election of 2022 that both parties had agreed was the most consequential ever—except for the previous election, and the next one, of course—one thing was clear: the Democrats had defied both history and expectations. There had been no red wave, never mind Donald Trump’s promised “great red wave.” Was it a red ripple or merely a red drizzle? A blue escape? Purple rain? Even Fox News decreed the results to be no more than a pro-Republican “trickle.” Whatever it was called, President Biden and his Democrats, by limiting their losses in the House to less than the average for such elections and likely keeping the Senate as well, scored an against-the-odds political upset that suggests the country remains deeply skeptical of handing too much national power to the Trumpified Republican Party.
From his exile at Mar-a-Lago, the sore loser of an ex-President had envisioned the election as both a revenge play and a prelude to his triumphal return to the campaign trail next week as an official 2024 candidate. He spent the days and hours leading up to the vote threatening his main presumptive rival for the Republican nomination, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, and claiming that, should the Republicans win midterm contests, the glory should be his and his alone. “If they win, I should get all the credit, and if they lose, I should not be blamed at all,” Trump said. “But it will probably be just the opposite.” His son Don, Jr., suggested where the family thought things were headed when he tweeted, soon after 8 P.M., “Bloodbath!!!”
That bloodbath was not to be, and the surprise remains that the Trumps—and the Party in their thrall—ever thought it could have been otherwise. Americans, historically speaking, do not like losers, and Trump has amassed what, in a different political era, could only be considered a big loser of a record: twice defeated in the national popular vote, Trump became the first incumbent President since Herbert Hoover to see his party lose the White House, Senate, and House in just four years. He remains the subject of multiple criminal investigations by the Justice Department. A House select committee will soon make public a scathing report, likely putting the blame on him personally for the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol. Many of the preëlection pundits who leaned hard into predictions of Republican victory focussed too much on President Biden’s poor approval ratings—and not enough on Trump’s even higher unfavorable ratings. The national exit polls on Tuesday showed that was a mistake.
Trump’s refusal to accept his forced retirement in 2020 was hardly surprising. The most narcissistic politician of our lifetimes was never going to just walk away gracefully. The political aberration was that Republicans, faced with what should have been the easy choice to abandon Trump, chose to stick with him. That they did so, even after he became the only President in American history to seek to overturn the election results and remain in power, turns out, two years later, to have been one of the decisive political factors of the 2022 midterms. In seeking to play the role of Republican kingmaker this year, Trump succeeded in proving that the country did not want more outsider, extremist candidates in his own image. Voters from Pennsylvania to Michigan to New Hampshire rejected high-profile Trump endorsees who had won primaries on the strength of the former President’s word. His tainted brand was magic to the Republican base, and proved to be toxic to everyone else.
“Candidate quality” became the political euphemism of the year, a polite designation for the band of television hucksters, election deniers, and rank hypocrites—Mehmet Oz, Kari Lake, and Herschel Walker—that Trump insisted his party bet its future on. And he demanded that Republicans not only support ridiculously unqualified candidates but also that they adhere to a platform of his own backward-looking obsession with the 2020 results. Now it looks as though many if not all of the Republican gubernatorial nominees who went along with Trump’s 2020 election lies and refused to say that Biden was legitimately elected will end up defeated.
No wonder Trump was quickly designated the election’s biggest loser, even as DeSantis, his only major rival for the 2024 Republican Presidential nomination, was winning another term as Florida’s governor in a landslide so big that it made him the first Republican governor in decades to win Miami-Dade County. “A nightmare for Trump if Republicans underperform almost everywhere but in DeSantis’ Florida,” Joe Scarborough—MSNBC’s “Morning Joe”—tweeted. By 11 P.M. on Election Night, this had become a new piece of conventional wisdom—rapidly replacing the old conventional wisdom, of a few hours earlier, that DeSantis, still young and wary of upsetting the Trump-besotted base, might not run against the former President. By Wednesday, the inevitable reports emerged of Trump raging at the results, even blaming his wife, Melania, for pushing him to back the carpetbagging TV doctor in Pennsylvania, as the Times’ Maggie Haberman reported. “Toxic Trump in MAGA meltdown,” the anti-Trump Drudge Report crowed. Of course he was.
Maybe the day after the election is not yet the time for caveats and quibbles. There’s no question that Democrats had a much better outcome than might have been the case. This year’s midterms look to be the best showing for a President’s party in such a midterm since 2002, when the Republicans actually gained seats in both chambers in the rally-round-the-flag election following the shock of the 9/11 attacks.
And yet it’s still entirely possible that the initial Election Night jubilation from Democrats and Trump-skeptical Republicans might prove to be just as short-lived as all the other times when the end of Trump seemed to be at hand—and wasn’t. Trump remains the unquestionable front-runner for his party’s nomination should he announce it next week, as planned. And whether or not he runs and wins again, it’s indisputable that he has succeeded in radicalizing the Republican Party and remaking it to suit his disruptive, divisive persona. Prodded by Trump, hundreds of Republican election deniers were on the ballot—not just those in high-profile statewide contests—and many, many of them have won election to Congress in safe Republican seats. The Washington Post reported that, as of early Wednesday afternoon, more than a hundred and sixty out of two hundred and ninety-one major Republican nominees had won. In contrast, there remain few Republicans in Congress who have been willing to defy the former President regarding his 2020 election lies; most were either purged, like the former House Republican conference chair Liz Cheney, or chose not to run again.
Republicans have scored successes throughout the Trump years, meanwhile, that may endure long after Trump is gone. Florida, as DeSantis’s huge win shows, is not only no longer a swing state, it has become a deep-red bastion. So is Ohio, which for so many years was the nation’s top political bellwether. Hispanic voters in these last few years have become less staunchly Democratic, and if the House falls to the Republicans as expected, it will be in part because of Democrats’ poor performance in territory that they considered safe, places such as deep-blue New York. Sean Patrick Maloney of New York, the House Democrats’ campaign chief, was the first in decades to hold that office and lose his own race.
The biggest immediate problem for Biden and the Democrats, however, is that a win for the Republicans, even if it’s not a wave, is still a win. A one-vote margin in the House would still give subpoena power to Jim Jordan as the chair of the House Judiciary Committee. It would still mean the difference between Biden being able to advance his legislative agenda with a Democratic Speaker or the impossibility of doing so with a Republican one. A narrow Republican majority in the House might even further empower the crazies in the chamber, making a Speaker Kevin McCarthy beholden to the Trumpian extremists’ every whim if he does not want to be deposed by them—if, that is, McCarthy is even able to win the Speakership.
So yes, there’s a real risk of irrational exuberance from the folks who insisted in 2021 that Biden, governing with a fifty-fifty Senate and a single-digit majority in the House, could somehow legislate his way into the progressive pantheon with the likes of F.D.R. and L.B.J. What we learned once again on Tuesday night is that America’s divisions are still America’s divisions. Democrats avoided a wipeout. But there was no knockout punch that would finally prove the folly of the Republicans’ Trumpian turn. Which means that democracy, as Biden would put it, is still very much on the line. ♦