Executive Branch

Democracy After the Midterms

Quinta Jurecic
Wednesday, November 16, 2022, 12:18 PM

The midterms represent an unexpected step back from the brink—and an opportunity to reflect on the health of American democracy going forward.

Voters in Des Moines during the 2022 midterm elections. (Phil Roeder, https://bit.ly/3UFYnHP; CC BY 2.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)

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On Nov. 15, Donald Trump announced his third campaign for president of the United States. Over the course of a listless, rambling speech, he lied repeatedly about his record as president, proposed instituting the death penalty for drug dealers, and promised to put an American flag on Mars. Surprisingly, he did not argue that the 2020 election had been stolen from him—but he did hint falsely that China had interfered to help Joe Biden, and announced that as president he would implement voter ID requirements and mandate the use of paper ballots in order to “eliminate cheating” during elections.

Trump’s announcement comes at a strange moment for representative government in America. Going into the midterms, democracy, as President Biden warned, was “on the ballot.” The authoritarian turn of the Republican Party provided ample reason to worry about what GOP victories in Congress and on the state level might mean for the health of the republic going forward. Across the country, state candidates who denied the results of the 2020 election were running for key positions of trust involving election administration. Election deniers campaigned for Congress under the GOP banner. A “red wave” could have further strengthened the former president’s grip on a party already reshaped in his image. 

But a red wave this was not. By almost any metric, the 2022 midterms were an astonishing success for the Democratic Party. The president’s party almost always fares poorly in midterm elections as voters register their dissatisfaction with those in power. While Democrats seem likely to lose the House by a narrow margin, they held the Senate and will pick up a net gain of governor’s seats across the country. Only three times since 1922 has the party in control of the White House lost fewer than 10 House seats and held its ground in the Senate during a midterm.

The midterms therefore represent an unexpected step back from the brink and an opportunity to reflect on the health of American democracy going forward. But the country is still far too close to the precipice for comfort. In some ways, Trump appeared a diminished figure during his announcement speech, doing his best to spin his party’s massive midterm underperformance as a victory. Still, he remains a malignant, illiberal force in American life—and no matter where his presidential campaign winds up, his influence will not be easy for the Republican Party to break away from. 

The 2022 midterms did not offer a total rejection of Trump-style politics. Senate candidate J.D. Vance, who closely aligned himself with the former president, won his race in Ohio, and over 200 state and national candidates who embraced some form of election denialism secured victories. The 118th Congress will include two freshman members of the House of Representatives who were present for D.C. rallies on Jan. 6, 2021. Overall, though, the worst-case scenario was avoided—by far. 

The biggest risk going into the midterms had less to do with control of Congress and more to do with the slate of election deniers running for key positions in battleground states. Had they won, these GOP candidates would have been well positioned to meddle with the integrity of the 2024 election—for example, by throwing the election process into chaos or refusing to certify the 2024 vote for the Democratic candidate. But every “big lie” supporter who ran for secretary of state in a swing state lost, in many cases by large margins. In Pennsylvania, where the secretary of state is appointed by the governor rather than elected directly, Democrat Josh Shapiro’s victory over GOP nominee Doug Mastriano represents a major bullet dodged. 

Elsewhere, Republican candidates who backed the big lie in governors’ races have fared similarly poorly. According to the Washington Post, “Election deniers appear to have lost all 12 races in which they were either challengers or running for an open seat,” including in the swing states of Michigan and Wisconsin. In Arizona, Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake—the subject of many a newspaper profile deeming her a breakout Republican star—lost to Democrat Katie Hobbs. Lake, an unusually extreme candidate even by MAGA standards, had said she would have refused to certify Arizona’s 2020 slate of electors for Joe Biden.

According to a tally by the publication Bolts, election deniers did secure secretary of state offices in four red states: Alabama, Indiana, South Dakota, and Wyoming. But if Trump, or a Trump-like candidate, tries to disrupt the 2024 election just as Trump did in 2020, losses by election deniers in key states make success far less likely. To put it another way, Trump will have fewer secretaries of state he can call up to ask if they can “find” more votes for him, like he unsuccessfully did to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in 2020. (Raffensperger, who defeated a primary challenger who attacked him for refusing to go along with Trump’s scheme, won another term as secretary of state on Nov. 8.)

Election law expert Rick Hasen of UCLA wrote after the elections, “We will now be going into 2024 in much better shape than I expected at this point.” That is something to cheer for. 

It’s also significant that the 2020 election deniers who lost their races have, so far, by and large conceded defeat rather than insisting elections were rigged. In Nevada, losing GOP Senate candidate Adam Laxalt—who played a key role in Trump’s 2020 push to overturn that state’s popular vote for Joe Biden—acknowledged, “I am confident that any challenge of this election would not alter the ultimate outcome.” This is a step back from the brink, too: Going into the midterms, there was a risk that unsuccessful candidates would refuse to accept their losses and foment distrust and violence along the lines of Trump’s schemes in 2020. Jocelyn Benson, who secured a second term as Michigan’s Democratic secretary of state on Tuesday, told the Washington Post that she “choked up with relief” when the state’s Republican candidate for governor conceded her loss to Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Nov. 9.

Again, however, this story is not a complete victory for democracy. A small number of losing Republicans have refused to concede, though they have largely suggested that late-counted ballots might propel them to victory rather than arguing explicitly that their elections were rigged. The most high-profile failure to concede is in Arizona, where Lake has failed to acknowledge her loss to Hobbs since the race was called the night of Nov. 14. It’s not yet clear what approach Lake might take going forward: So far, her only public comment is a tweet reading, “Arizonans know BS when they see it.” Lake’s strategy will be important to watch, especially given misinformation and conspiracy theories circulating on the far right about difficulties administering elections in Arizona’s Maricopa County. Will she aim to squelch those theories, as candidates like Laxalt did, or feed them?

The danger of Lake and other candidates like her was not just in what chaos they might create, but what their victories would say about American voters. Trump’s unexpected victory in 2016 created a widespread perception among political commentators that the Republican candidate represented a heretofore silent majority of Americans eager for Trump’s brand of brutish politics. This was always a questionable assertion; among other things, Trump did not secure a majority of the popular vote. But the presence of a bloc of anti-democratic voters, positioned across the country in such a way that they could potentially secure lasting political power, presented a serious threat to the ongoing health of American democracy. Now, in the three subsequent elections following Trump’s 2016 victory—the 2018 midterms, the 2020 general election, and the 2022 midterms—this bloc has failed to gain significant ground on the national stage. 

There is not an electoral magic to authoritarian Trumpism. In fact, the opposite may be true. Analysis by Philip Wallach in the Washington Post shows that 2022 House Republican candidates endorsed by Trump in competitive races generally performed worse than candidates whom Trump hadn’t weighed in on. Many Senate and gubernatorial candidates who lashed themselves closely to Trump, like Lake in Arizona and Mastriano in Pennsylvania, lost. The Never Trump political strategist Sarah Longwell, speaking with the New York Times, described voters as rejecting a general “extremism” in the Republican Party—a “catchall word,” in the Times’s description, “that encompassed the Republican drive to ban abortions, violence in American politics, the denial of election results and what felt to some voters … like a drift away from fundamental rights and democracy itself.” 

Before the midterms, the accepted wisdom was generally that voters would not go to the polls with “saving democracy” at the forefront of their mind: In a representative article in the Atlantic, Graeme Wood argued that “[v]oters simply do not care in large numbers about democratic norms.” I will confess to a certain pessimism on this point myself. But the midterm results have made me wonder if I’ve been too cynical. New York Times numbers guru Nate Cohn has argued that “[t]he races where democracy was plainly at stake were much better for Democrats than those where it was not.” Republicans did worse, in other words, in purple states like Arizona or Pennsylvania, where election deniers were running for positions of real influence. The “Democratic messaging on democracy at a national level fell really flat,” Cohn said. “But in the cases where voters were confronted by … the reality of elements of that message, they responded.”

That said, if writing off pro-democracy campaign rhetoric entirely was too cynical, ascribing Democratic victories solely to a surge in civic feeling among voters would also be overly simplistic. Democrats performed particularly well in states where abortion was on the ballot, as Cohn noted, and it’s difficult to disentangle the effects of pro-democracy sentiment from voters motivated to support abortion rights after the Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling. What’s more, many of the election deniers rejected at the polls were simply bad candidates along other metrics. In Pennsylvania, Mastriano barely campaigned (though he did spend $5,000 in an effort to recruit followers on the far-right social media platform Gab). In Ohio, Trump-endorsed House candidate J.R. Majewski, who lost his race for the House by double digits, may have had trouble attracting voters because of both his presence at the Capitol on Jan. 6 and his apparent lies about his military record.

These losses by Trump-aligned candidates offer Republicans a chance to turn away from Trump’s authoritarian politics—if the GOP wants to take it. The story of Trump’s threat to democracy is in significant part the story of the institutional Republican Party’s accession to the former president’s whims. The party repeatedly failed to check him when it had the opportunity and remodeled itself in his image. A Republican Party that managed to purge itself of Trump and recommitted itself to basic democratic principles would be a major safeguard against authoritarianism, at the very least because free and fair elections would not be at risk every two years. A democracy that might crumble if one party loses is not a democracy in particularly good shape. To paraphrase the famous line from the Irish Republican Army: the illiberal party only has to get lucky once.

Perhaps the fact that Trump restrained himself from declaring the 2020 election stolen during his Tuesday speech speaks to some level of understanding among his aides that election denialism is not a winning strategy. Otherwise, though, he did not seem particularly contrite—and there is clearly some appetite within the GOP for cutting Trump loose following the midterms. The editorial pages of media outlets owned by the conservative magnate Rupert Murdoch, including the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal, have been sharply critical of Trump, blaming him for the party’s underperformance. Virginia Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears, a Republican and Trump supporter, said that the former president had “become a liability to the mission.” 

But the discontent of the party elite is a very different thing than the sentiment of the Republican voter base, which still largely supports Trump. Again and again in recent years, GOP leaders have failed to rid themselves of Trump out of fear of how the base might react. 

And a post-Trump Republican Party would not necessarily be friendlier to democracy than it is now. The most obvious Trump challenger for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who cruised easily to a second term on Election Day and around whom Republicans seeking an alternative from Trump are already coalescing. DeSantis, though, is not exactly an obvious ally for pro-democracy forces. In Vox, Zack Beauchamp has made the case that DeSantis “represents an evolution of Trumpism” rather than a rejection of it. Likewise, Jonathan Chait, who has closely chronicled the Florida politician’s rise in New York Magazine, notes that the governor “has consolidated the support of the conservative movement by courting its most right-wing elements,” including “insurrectionists, QAnon enthusiasts, and anti-vaxxers.” DeSantis has often been compared to Hungary’s authoritarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, for his willingness to use state power as a tool to attack his enemies and help his friends. Both critics and enthusiastic supporters of DeSantis see Orbán’s fingerprints in the governor’s efforts to constrain the rights of LGBTQ people in his state. 

As is probably clear, I agree with Beauchamp’s and Chait’s view of the matter: Both Trump and DeSantis, in my view, embody illiberal visions of what the Republican Party can and should be. But many on the right would disagree, even those who dislike Trump and believe him to be a threat to democracy. National Review senior political correspondent Jim Geraghty, for example, argued recently that DeSantis would be a “normal-range Republican leader” whose 2024 presidential nomination “would be a beneficial reset for the entire country.” 

Trump has cemented his legacy as a uniquely malignant force in American life. The danger he poses, at this point, is easily identifiable. As the Republican Party struggles to determine which route it will take forward, the gradations between illiberal politicians and those committed to some baseline of democracy may become more difficult to determine in the absence of markers like Trump’s crudeness and flamboyance. 

The post-Trump project of identifying politicians as outside the democratic norm will be a question of refusing to be swayed by authoritarianism with better branding. But the work of deciding who is and is not unacceptably illiberal will also touch on genuine differences within the broad coalition of pro-democracy voters. How any person evaluates the threat to democracy posed by a candidate will depend on ideological commitments that may not be shared from one voter to another, even if both voters are small-d democrats: One person might consider access to abortion to be a core liberal-democratic value enabling women’s full participation in civic life, while another might not. Likewise, DeSantis appears far more threatening if one understands his policies on LGBTQ people as populist scapegoating of a vulnerable minority group or as within the scope of acceptable policymaking. Even among those who would identify themselves as supporters of democracy and opponents of Trumpism, we may be in for a difficult few years of disagreement over just what a threat to democracy looks like.

In one sense, part of what was striking about the midterm elections was just how normal they seemed. Voters rejected candidates they viewed as too extreme; losers generally conceded; no one, so far, has whipped up violent falsehoods about the results. But Trump’s declaration of his 2024 candidacy, lethargic though it was, made clear how aberrant and dangerous this political moment remains. The Washington Post’s headline put it cleanly: “Trump, who as president fomented an insurrection, says he is running again.”

Quinta Jurecic is a fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution and a senior editor at Lawfare. She previously served as Lawfare's managing editor and as an editorial writer for the Washington Post.

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