How the 2022 midterm results will change the US political conversation

Although Tuesday’s US midterm results are not yet finalized, Republicans underperformed in a year that many experts were predicting a “red wave.” Odds suggest that Republicans will regain control of the House by a smaller margin than anticipated, while the race for the Senate remains a toss-up. In this Q&A, Thomas Gift discusses key take-aways from the election, including why the results turned out as they did and what they mean for American politics and policy over the next two years. 

Why do you think Republicans underperformed on Tuesday?

Republicans certainly didn’t get what they wanted on Tuesday: a “red wave” like 1994 under Bill Clinton or 2010 under Barack Obama, where there was a clear repudiation of the Democratic majority in Congress. To my mind, the Republicans’ underperformance has to be attributable to one of two factors: either it’s a tacit endorsement by voters of Democratic policies, or it’s an indictment of the GOP. Given Biden’s approval ratings in the low 40s, it’s hard to make the case that voters were enamored by the progressive agenda. So in their post-mortem, Republicans will need to seriously reflect on why the midterms didn’t translate into more success. After all, this was a perfect storm: inflation at its highest rate in four decades, surging violence, a crisis at the US-Mexico border, a raging opioid epidemic. Republicans should have won easily They didn’t, in my view, because candidate quality still matters. Ultra-MAGA figures who made it through the primaries turned off lots of moderate voters through embracing fringe policy positions and claims of election rigging.

What happened with Trump-endorsed candidates? 

Even before the election, we knew that Trump was going to take credit for anyone he endorsed who won. And he was going to blame, or distance himself from, anyone he backed who lost. The record is somewhat mixed on MAGA candidates in the midterms, including in Congress and state-level races. For example, JD Vance won a crucial Senate seat in Ohio, but celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz lost his bid in Pennsylvania’s Senate contest. Ultimately, it’s doubtful that anything will deter Trump from running in 2024, and he’s already promised a “big announcement” next week. Still, there were some hopeful signs from the midterms when it comes respect for democracy and the rule of law. Many of the most extreme election deniers — including in governor and secretary of state races — not only lost, but lost substantially (and then conceded). That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be concerned about heading into 2024. But it was encouraging to see a degree of self-moderation from the electorate on Tuesday that may have been absent in previous cycles.

Photo by Ernie Journeys on Unsplash

What did you make of Ron DeSantis’s convincing win in the Florida governor race? 

Trump’s still the favorite to win the GOP nomination in 2024. But DeSantis’s performance on Tuesday made a strong impression. He captured large swaths of Florida’s Latino vote. He flipped a number of Democratic stronghold districts. Compared to his 2018 run for governor, he eclipsed his state-wide margin of victory by almost 20 percentage points. So it was a very decisive win. If it wasn’t clear before, it is now: DeSantis is the consensus choice to rival Trump in 2024. That’s not saying he can beat him. But DeSantis has a lot going for him politically. He’s very effective at leaning into the culture wars. Most Democrats often don’t appreciate how effective he is—but they’ll find out. DeSantis is aggressive. He doesn’t apologize. All of that’s prized by the current iteration of the Republican Party. But relative to Trump, DeSantis is packaged in a way that’s much more palatable to swing voters. In that way, he’s not totally unlike Glenn Youngkin, the Virginia governor. The difference is that DeSantis comes off as much more combative, which is an asset if you’re challenging Trump.

How will the midterms affect Biden’s plans? 

The trajectory for Democrats, and Biden’s own plans for running in 2024, will be heavily dictated by how they navigate the new Congress. Even a small legislative majority by Republicans in the House would be able to paralyze the administration. That’s true in a couple of ways: procedurally, by blocking votes; and politically, though investigations and consuming time. If Republicans hold the House, one of their main priorities will be to rein in federal spending by forcing a showdown over the “debt ceiling” next year. They’ll try to compel Democrats to agree to reductions in Medicare and Social Security in exchange for raising the borrowing limit of the Treasury. Republicans will also trigger a litany of federal probes: into Hunter Biden’s laptop, COVID-19, accusations of a politicized Department of Justice, the Afghanistan withdrawal, and so on. Whether these efforts derail the administration, and whether any explosive information emerges, is to be determined. But in the next six to twelve months, the results could dramatically change the conversation in Washington.

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