By most metrics, the midterm elections were good for Democrats and for American democracy in general. With the reelection of Senator Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, Democrats will retain control of the Senate. They can also break the 50-50 deadlock there if Senator Raphael Warnock wins his runoff against Herschel Walker, allowing Democrats to control committees and end the need for discharge petitions. Democrats also avoided the traditional huge midterm losses in the House. Republicans are projected to end up with about 219 seats, giving them a narrow three-seat advantage.
At a state level, the news was also generally good. For the
first time since 1934, the party in the White House did not lose any state
legislative chambers during the midterms. Democrats made gains in the
Minnesota, Vermont, Maryland, and Massachusetts legislatures. They also flipped
three governors’ seats and lost one (Nevada).
But all this doesn’t change the fact that the situation continues to deteriorate, albeit at a slower pace than might otherwise be the case. Behind Democrats outperforming incredibly low expectations by preventing a red wave, there’s another story: Our government remains dysfunctional, the Republican Party is putting increasingly unqualified authoritarian candidates in office, and more states have fallen into near permanent single-party autocratic rule. We also see that those permanent single-party GOP states intend to make cruelty and culture war the centerpiece of their policy decisions.
However you want to spin it, losing the House is still a loss. Whether Republicans control the House by three votes or 50, it is effectively the end of the Biden legislative agenda. It is also effectively the end of any hope of securing voting rights, limiting gerrymandering, or preventing electoral shenanigans before the 2024 election. The irony is that gerrymandering made the GOP takeover possible. While Democrats in New York acceded to rulings by the state Supreme Court striking down gerrymandered districts favoring Democrats, Republicans in Ohio, North Carolina, Alabama, and Louisiana went to the election with maps struck down by state courts still in place.
The results of House elections will bring America’s dysfunctional government into sharp focus over the next two years. For the GOP, a three-seat majority is far too small to manage the fractious Freedom Caucus. These Republican hard-liners aren’t interested in governance; they will insist on making everything a life-or-death showdown with no room for compromise. This includes funding the government and raising the debt ceiling. Whoever the speaker is will face the same ugly choices that John Boehner and Paul Ryan did: Cater to the radicals, or work with Democrats to pass needed legislation and be labeled a Republican in Name Only. Former Republican insiders assure me that they will choose the former.
Instead of keeping the government running or servicing the national debt, the GOP-led House will make investigations and potential impeachment of President Biden the centerpiece of their reign. Imagine the repetitive overkill of Benghazi with the conspiracy-laden nuttiness of anti-vaccine diatribes against Anthony Fauci, and obsession with Hunter Biden’s laptop.
While there is some debate whether Republicans in the House will have the stomach for impeachment hearings, it seems likely that the Freedom Caucus will be larger, louder, and more powerful than a tiny handful of new representatives elected from tight districts. This is another side effect of partisan gerrymandering, which causes less than 14 percent of congressional districts to be competitive. Hesitant Republicans will also be pushed hard by Fox News and other conservative media outlets to go along with aggressive investigations in order to avoid the “RINO” label and a potential primary challenge.
The quality of Republicans going to Congress isn’t improving either. It appears Lauren Boebert is going to squeak out a win in Colorado. Soon-to-be Senator J.D. Vance of Ohio, who embraced Donald Trump when he saw him as a ticket to power, is both openly Christian nationalist and completely unqualified. While prominent election deniers such as Mark Finchem in Arizona and Marchant in Nevada lost their races, on the whole they did well nationally. The Washington Post notes that about 60 percent of election-denying Republicans nominees on the November ballot won their races. On top of that, about 70 percent of Republicans in the House are election deniers who will happily work to overturn the 2024 election given the chance.
At the same time, voters in Ohio and North Carolina have decided they’ve had enough of democracy, and put partisan supreme courts in place. These courts will allow gerrymandered borders and voter suppression in those states to ensure that elections there hold all the suspense and drama of finding out whether Putin’s United Russia Party retains control of the Duma.
The consequences of this can be seen in Wisconsin, where Republicans won control of the legislature in 2010, and promptly gerrymandered democracy out of existence. Despite Democratic incumbent Tony Evers winning the governor’s race in Wisconsin by 3.6 percent, voters in Wisconsin barely prevented the GOP from having veto-proof supermajorities in the Wisconsin House and Senate. There is no conceivable way for the people of Wisconsin to put Democrats in charge of the legislature. As a consequence, there is no way for them to repeal an 1849 law banning abortion, since there is no mechanism for a statewide ballot initiative, despite strong voter support for it.
It is also highly concerning that the big winners in the election were the red state politicians who have gerrymandered, suppressed, and run their campaigns on culture-war issues such as abortion, race, and LGBTQ issues. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis won his reelection by a wide margin, and Florida Republicans expanded their control of both houses of the legislature despite running on poll taxes, “don’t say gay” laws, and a promise of a near-total ban on abortion.
Likewise in Texas, Governor Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton won handily after making culture war issues like abortion, book bans, and transgender children their top legislative, legal, and policy issues.* There is every reason to believe that Republicans, particularly in red to deep-red states, will take away the message that there is no penalty to be paid for targeting vulnerable people in the name of battling “wokeness.” Nor was there any consequence in Texas for governing poorly in the wake of a collapsing electrical grid or the botched handing of another mass school shooting in Uvalde.
So while Tuesday’s election result were better than expected, the slow decline into neofascism continues, just perhaps a bit less quickly. The House is gone, now run by ideologues uninterested in governing. Two states voted in supreme courts for themselves that cut off the last possible escape from single-party Christian nationalist rule. Wisconsin demonstrated the hopelessness of recovering from autocracy, as it does every two years. And in supposedly “moderate” red-leaning states, voters have had a chance to experience both the incompetence and hatred of neofascism and found that they like it.
Texas has had decades of Republican rule. Its electrical grid is falling apart, and people died en masse during a cold snap two years ago. Nothing has been done to fix it. The attorney general is under indictment, and no one seems to care. Police stood around for an hour during one of the worst school shootings in U.S. history, and the governor didn’t bother with either funerals for the children or calls to do something to prevent future mass murders. Instead of addressing real problems, the state’s leaders focused on tax breaks for the wealthy, making guns more readily available, and calling three special sessions of the legislature to ban mostly nonexistent transgender student athletes from competing in sports.
And Texans overwhelmingly rewarded them all with another four years in power. Because the cruelty was always the point. Some election deniers lost, and Donald Trump took a whipping, and that’s great. But it didn’t reverse the overall democratic decline that has been happening since the 2010 elections.
* This article originally misidentified Paxton’s office.