Today’s Republican Party is controlled by politicians who hold opinions that are unpopular with the general public. Republicans want to cut Social Security and Medicare, ban all abortions, destroy the public school system, persecute transgender children, stoke a suicidal war with China, escalate the climate catastrophe rather than addressing it, worsen inequality through further tax cuts for the rich, annihilate nature through unchecked development, curtail the right to vote and mercilessly prosecute anyone who accidentally violates the tangle of bureaucratic requirements, let police freely abuse people without consequence, and destroy what remains of the labor movement. (This is just the start.) They have gone into fits of frothing rage over basic public health measures like requiring health providers to be vaccinated for a deadly virus. And of course many of them still deny that Joe Biden is the duly elected president of the United States.
The American people are not, on the whole, right-wing extremists. They want higher, not lower, taxes on the rich. They want quality public schools and quality publicly-provided healthcare. The majority do not think the constitutional right to an abortion should have been eliminated, and they do not think the government is doing enough to address climate change. (Given the dire recent warnings from the National Climate Assessment and the United Nations, they are clearly right about that.)
Nevertheless, even though their platform is dystopian and unpopular, and Americans are more concerned about affording their health insurance premiums than stopping the scourge of Critical Race Theory, Republicans went into this week’s midterm elections optimistic. “Red wave doesn’t even begin to describe what’s happening,” said far-right pundit Mike Cernovich. Mayra Flores, a Republican representative in South Texas, posted a picture of a giant red tsunami on Twitter—and then promptly lost her reelection bid. Joe Rogan predicted that “the Red Wave that’s coming is going to be like the elevator doors opening up in ‘The Shining.’” Matt Walsh prematurely declared that “there’s no doubt that the Democrat Party was partly doomed by its decision to go all in on gender ideology. We successfully made this a losing political issue for them.”
There was good reason for GOP optimism. Joe Biden is an unpopular president, and voters seemed more concerned about inflation than abortion. Plus, far more charismatic and successful Democratic presidents like Barack Obama and Bill Clinton have seen their parties’ hold on power wiped out in midterm elections before. Conventional political science wisdom is that the president in power can expect their party to fare poorly in the first midterm election.
Yet no Red Tsunami washed over the country. Sure, in Florida, culture warrior governor Ron DeSantis easily won reelection (even winning Miami-Dade county, which voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton), and the state of New York shifted Republican compared to previous elections—although even there, hopes that Republicans could capture the New York governorship were dashed. In Ohio, Thiel-funded hedge fund manager, neoreactionary, and groveling toady J.D. Vance defeated Democrat Tim Ryan, further exposing the American “meritocracy” as a hideous fraud that gives the greatest rewards to whoever is most shameless and unprincipled.
Nationwide, however, Republicans underperformed. Lauren Boebert, the “right-wing AOC,” is (as of this writing) behind her Democratic challenger. Republicans who continued to deny the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election consistently lost their races, suggesting that the politically prudent course of action for the GOP is to shut up about this now. (And making it somewhat less likely that the right will be able to throw wrenches into the 2024 election process, because “if things break right in Nevada and Arizona, there won’t be a die-hard Trumpist in charge of overseeing elections in any of the top-six battleground states.”) There were even cases of Republican seats turning Democratic, though as of this writing it is still possible that Republicans could narrowly win control of the House and Senate.
Most astoundingly, in Pennsylvania, Democrat John Fetterman defeated Republican Dr. Mehmet Oz. It’s true that Oz was a quack who had spent little time in the state and had no political experience. But Oz was wealthy and nationally famous, and Fetterman had suffered a debilitating stroke that kept him off the campaign trail for months and made it difficult for him to speak coherently. Fetterman was also something of an unconventional candidate, a tattooed Bernie Sanders supporter who had upset the party establishment in his primary. Fetterman’s victory should be very scary to Republicans. He had a deliberate strategy of trying to appeal to Trump voters through populist branding, and it worked. As we all know, the key to Donald Trump’s 2016 victory was flipping the Rust Belt states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Ohio from blue to red. In a year when Democrats faced formidable political obstacles, Fetterman has shown how Pennsylvania can be kept in Democratic hands. If he hadn’t been suffering from a severe impairment, it’s safe to bet that he would have utterly crushed Dr. Oz.
I have been critical of Fetterman during this campaign—I felt his messaging lacked substance, his stance on Israel was appalling, and he has waffled on key issues that matter to me. His worst moment in the debate with Dr. Oz did not come from the effects of his stroke, but his flip-flop on fracking, which he opposed before he supported. I don’t trust him to be a reliable progressive, though I hope to be proven wrong. But his victory has got to be one of the most remarkable feats in recent American politics.
The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) had a good night. DSA has struggled a bit to retain members over the last couple of years, with the pandemic putting major obstacles in the way of organizing campaigns. But DSA candidates succeeded around the country, winning far more than they lost. Greg Casar, a democratic socialist in Texas, is heading to the House of Representatives (although Casar was un-endorsed by his local DSA over his support for weapons aid to Israel). So is Summer Lee, a DSA member in Pennsylvania who was previously the first Black woman in the state legislature. All six members of the Squad won reelection easily, as did several other promising progressive candidates.
There were other notable results that defied the predicted “red wave”:
- Democrats won full control of four state governments: Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, and Minnesota. Republicans couldn’t even win the governorship of Kansas
- Pennsylvania’s state house flipped from Republican to Democratic control, and populist Josh Shapiro, who has crusaded against pharmaceutical companies for their role in the opioid crisis, became the state’s governor
- Kentucky rejected an anti-abortion amendment to its state constitution, and an anti-abortion candidate for the state supreme court lost.
- In Washington D.C., a wage hike for restaurant workers won in a landslide
- LGBTQ candidates had a historic night, including Maura Healy of Massachusetts becoming the nation’s first openly lesbian governor and Zooey Zephyr of Montana and Leigh Finke of Minnesota becoming the first transgender women elected to each state’s legislature
- Portland, Maine passed strong new tenant protections
- Massachusetts voters ousted the “Joe Arpaio of the East,” the infamous sheriff of Bristol County
- Multiple states eliminated slavery as a punishment for a crime. It’s extraordinary that this was on the ballot at all, but such is America. (Louisiana, sadly, rejected the proposal that would have banned slavery, although the story is a little complicated, because the amendment was so mushily worded that even its original author disavowed it.)
- In Missouri and Maryland, marijuana was legalized, and psychedelic mushrooms were made legal in Colorado. (Marijuana legalization failed in several other states.)
Even in New York and Florida, the states with the biggest “red waves,” the story was more complicated than “voters turning conservative.” As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pointed out, the New York Democratic Party’s leadership bears a lot of the blame. She noted that the party “was gutted under Cuomo, stuffed with lobbyists, works to boost GOP, and failed to pass a basic state ballot measure to protect NY redistricting.” A better organized party might have seen more impressive results. And in Florida, it’s easy to assume that the state is now dominated by right-wing voters, but this simply isn’t true. In the past few years, Florida has voted to ban offshore drilling, let felons vote, and raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. In 2018, Ron DeSantis barely defeated a progressive Democrat who supported Medicare for All and a $15 minimum wage. This year, Democrats ran Charlie Crist, a former Republican who was known early in his career as “chain gang Charlie” because he wanted inmates to be shackled while they worked. In the Senate race, Republican Marco Rubio easily defeated Democrat Val Demings, but Demings was hardly an inspirational choice for the Democratic base, being a former police officer infamous for defending police accused of misconduct. It would be defeatism to simply write off Florida as “a red state” now, even though the Democratic Party was trounced in every statewide race this time. Instead, Florida needs to be the focus of an organizing effort by young progressives determined to save the state from right-wing rule. Fortunately, such progressives do exist in Florida, like Maxwell Alejandro Frost, a 25-year old Medicare For All supporter who is about to become the youngest member of Congress and Richie Floyd, a DSA member who won a seat on the St. Petersburg City Council last year.
Of course, everyone will spin the election results to suit their preexisting narratives. Matt Walsh says Republicans should have turned the “trans agenda” into more of a campaign issue. Lee Fang, an Intercept journalist critical of progressives’ stances on police, says that the night was a victory for “moderates” who want to maintain police funding, who “crushed the far left [and] far right in a ton of elections tonight.” But this is selective: in fact, despite voters’ fear of crime, reformist prosecutors won several prominent races, and in Los Angeles a City Controller candidate critical of excess police funding won his election. Matt Cartwright, a progressive M4A-supporting Democrat, held his seat in a Trump-supporting part of Pennsylvania. It would be a mistake to view this election as proof that Democrats need to be a “moderate” contrast to Republican “extremism.” Republicans are extreme, but as even conservative David Frum noted, helping people with their student loans seems to have paid off in improving the turnout of young voters. The success of democratic socialist candidates suggests that what we need is not moderation, but good organizing around a popular agenda that will actually transform people’s lives. Democratic strategists had warned that party progressives were making the party “too extreme” and that as a result it would lose badly. Surely they will now concede that “extremism” was actually good, since it resulted in the best midterm performance for a first-term Democratic president in recent memory.
Some of the lessons from this election are pretty obvious: Voters appear to like freedom, and do not appreciate Republicans’ effort to take away fundamental constitutional rights like the right to an abortion. Even in Kentucky, “We want to police your uterus” was not a winning message. Denying that Joe Biden is really the president does not turn out to be a very popular position nationwide, and the right might well learn that it needs to keep quiet about its more toxic policy plans. My major worry is that Democrats will conclude from the fact that they didn’t lose as many Congressional races as they expected to that Joe Biden is doing just fine and they should continue with “business as usual.” They may have a rude awakening in 2024 when Ron DeSantis tries to do to the country what he has done to Florida.
Most importantly, what we should remember is that nothing is inevitable and that we should be cautious about narratives and polls. The idea that one party has to lose in certain places at certain times is wrong. Whether one wins or loses depends on whether one is running good candidates with an appealing message. Democrats should not get complacent, but they should also stop making excuses for their failures, because we can see that there is no reason why the right cannot be defeated and robust progressive politics cannot triumph.
Photo: Summer Lee, John Fetterman, Maxwell Alejandro Frost, and Greg Casar / Via AP