Now that the dreaded Republican tsunami has turned out to be the size of a mud puddle, Democrats need to face up to their own problems. They—along with many members of the media—need to look in the mirror and admit, “I suffer from political PTSD.”
The stress is real. Election night 2016 was one of the worst days for American democracy since the Civil War. Joe Biden’s 2020 victory was not the easy win that the polls had suggested in the weeks prior but a squeaker that wasn’t called until the Saturday after the election.
This time around, Democrats kept being reminded that Bill Clinton lost 52 House seats in his first off-year election and Barack Obama did even worse as the Democrats dropped 63 seats in 2010. With Joe Biden’s popularity stuck in the low 40s for over a year, all the fundamentals seemingly pointed to a massive GOP sweep.
Although Senate polls in key states were knotted, the widespread assumption across the political landscape was that the GOP would pick up 20 to 30 House seats. A prominent House Democrat told me a few days before the election that he would be pleased if the Democrats managed to survive with 200 House seats. (The Democrats hold 220 seats in the current House, with three vacancies.) Reflecting the dominant red-wave mood, Kevin McCarthy, the House GOP leader, planned a gala election night party with the logo “Take Back the House.”
Early on Tuesday night, the returns from fast-reporting Florida were the stuff of Democratic nightmares. Not only had would-be presidential candidate Ron DeSantis romped to reelection as governor, but the Latino vote in the Miami area went Republican by record margins. Overreacting to Florida and a few other early calls, The New York Times headlined its early-to-press print edition, “G.O.P. Collects Early Wins in Pivotal Vote.” It wasn’t quite “Dewey Defeats Truman,” but it certainly was on par with “Dewey Takes Huge Lead Over Truman.”
We now have learned that the popular Democrats-are-doomed storyline collapsed before midnight. A day later, we still don’t know for sure which party will control either chamber of Congress. Just like in 2020, the Senate majority may come down to a runoff election in Georgia pitting incumbent Raphael Warnock against—this time—Herschel Walker. (If the Democrats win the two still-knotted Senate races in Nevada and Arizona, they will preserve their majority even without Georgia.) As for the House, there’s a slight chance Democrats hold on, though the odds are high that the Republicans will eke out a narrow and unmanageable majority. But Democrats are poised to likely hold their overall losses to fewer than 10 seats, many of which were lost primarily thanks to GOP-dominated redistricting.
A major lesson from 2022: Fundamentals such as historical precedents and presidential approval ratings don’t turn out to be very fundamental after a pandemic, an insurrection, and a runaway Supreme Court overturns abortion rights. The election also reminds Democrats and those of us in the press that it is time to go back to trusting the American people.
Yes, democracy will still be in peril as long as Donald Trump and his worshipful acolytes ballyhoo bogus conspiracy theories about stolen elections. But in 2022, many prominent election deniers—particularly candidates for governor and secretary of state—will now have to explain away their own defeats. In particular, Democrats will continue to control the governorships of the pivotal states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, staving off the worst fears of swing states being controlled by election deniers when the 2024 presidential campaign results roll in. Before the election, Arizona GOP gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, a former TV anchor turned Trumpian conspiracy theorist, was widely hailed as—in the words of a Time magazine headline—“The New Face of the MAGA Right.” Even though she was modestly favored in the polls, on Wednesday afternoon Lake was trailing Democrat Katie Hobbs by 12,000 votes in a too-close-to-call race.
Ever since 2016, Democrats and the media have clung to the destructive fantasy that Trump and his GOP imitators would always end up bamboozling the voters with their antics and scare tactics. This mystique continued despite the Democrats’ 2018 off-year sweep and Trump’s 2020 defeat.
But Trump-anointed candidates, for all their power in GOP primaries, had a miserable night Tuesday. In Pennsylvania, Mehmet Oz proved not to be what the doctor ordered as a he lost a GOP-held Senate seat to John Fetterman. Don Bolduc, a MAGA retired general who hawked bizarro theories about students identifying as cats and using litter boxes, lost his New Hampshire Senate race to Democratic incumbent Maggie Hassan by double digits. And even though the ill-prepared Walker has stumbled into a Senate runoff in Georgia, he could end up being the underdog, especially if Trump dominates the headlines by declaring for president before Georgia votes on December 6.
On the surface, the 2022 elections can also be seen as a repudiation of House members who risked their careers to serve on the January 6 committee. Liz Cheney resoundingly lost her August GOP primary in Wyoming—and two-term Democratic incumbent Elaine Luria fell short Tuesday in her bid for reelection in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, while other Democrats in Virginia held onto swing seats.
But the totting up of the political fates of individual committee members (including Republican Adam Kinzinger who retired from the House because he saw no road to reelection) tells only part of the story. An argument can be made that the January 6 hearings played an important role in reminding voters of the dangers of Trumpian extremism. While there were no questions about the January 6 insurrection on the exit polls, more than three-fifths of the electorate believes that Biden was legitimately elected in 2020. The Democrats also won the allegiance of independent voters by a 49-to-47-percent margin.
Since John Kennedy held his own in 1962, Democratic presidents have had only one successful off-year election. That was in 1998, when the Republicans went too far in trying to impeach the popular Bill Clinton. When the final votes are tallied, 2022 under Joe Biden will probably prove to be the second-best result in six decades.
Maybe that isn’t enough to break out the champagne, especially if the Democrats lose the House or Senate. But it is certainly a powerful reason for liberals to climb down from the window ledge and realize that the future does not automatically belong to Trump and his MAGA minions.