1. No red wave
The US held midterm elections on 8 November 2022. Going into them, it was anticipated that the Republicans would make major gains due to voters’ concerns about the difficult economic conditions in the country and the trend of midterm results polling against the ruling party.
However, the expected large Republican gains did not materialise. Despite winning control of the House of Representatives, they failed to win the Senate, which the Democrats will narrowly hold. President Biden called the result a “good day for democracy”.
So, what went wrong for the Grand Old Party? Writing for the Week, Harold Maass summarised four possible reasons that have been put forward by commentators.
First, Maass argued that the Republican party chose “too many extremists”. Quoting the Wall Street Journal on this point, he stated that although many voters had expressed concern about the direction of the country (citing inflation and crime levels) independent voters saw GOP candidates as too extreme and not a viable alternative.
Second, Maass believed the Republicans were hurt by their position on abortion rights. He notes claims from the New York Times that the recent supreme court decision on abortion, along with subsequent developments, had unleased “furious political energy” that manifested in increased voter engagement among those who were opposed to it.
Third, Harold Maass considered the impact of Donald Trump’s appearances leading up to the midterms. He believed his involvement was counterproductive, taking attention away from the main party, and also highlighted analysis from the Washington Post that Trump-approved candidates did not fare well in contested races. The Post claimed he promoted “weak candidates”.
Finally, Maass believed the biggest issue was the GOP’s selection of “election deniers”, asserting that many people voted against these candidates to protect US democracy. This issue is discussed further below.
2. Election deniers and democracy
Fear about ‘election deniers’, a term used to describe those who refused to accept Donald Trump lost the 2020 presidential election, had been raised in advance of the midterms. It was estimated by the political polling website FiveThirtyEight that around 60% of Americans may have an election denier on their ballot, with over 200 such candidates identified.
Writing in advance of the midterms, the Washington Post stated that, “if elected, these officials could make it harder to vote, allow endless audits of election results or even refuse to sign off on them”.
The Post also reported of a “brain drain” among election officers. It said that many were leaving the profession due to under-funding and, now, the threats being made against them. The Post said that experienced election officials were needed more than ever right now, and that their absence could leave the system vulnerable:
We’ve seen how just one partisan local election official can leave elections systems vulnerable to bad actors. After the 2020 election, Trump allies and supporters allegedly attempted to access or copy data from voting machines in multiple states, according to a Washington Post investigation. Some experts worry that if that data fell into the wrong hands, hackers could use it to look for voting machines’ weaknesses.
In addition, the Washington Post expressed concern about the supreme court considering the “independent state legislature doctrine”. It explained the doctrine had:
[…] traditionally been interpreted to mean that all of state government—so, state legislatures, but also governors and state constitutions and state courts—has a role in determining how to run federal elections. But taken to its extreme, [a] conservative reading of the Constitution could allow state legislatures to overturn the popular vote in their state.
The Post stated that this could give state legislatures more powers to change how elections are run, and with “very little oversight”. It claimed that state legislatures were already becoming less democratic and that they were a “key part” of Trump’s strategy to overturn the 2020 results: “He and his allies pressured Republican state lawmakers to override the popular vote in swing states he lost”.
However, it has been reported that overall the most “devoted” election deniers underperformed at the midterms. Commenting on this, the Hill said that their losses, and the fact they were accepting them, were positive signs for US democracy during a time of concern:
The 2022 elections have shown us that there is a wide gap between what elites want and what the public supports. American voters just sent a loud message that openly violating democratic norms is not a winning campaign strategy. Candidates who want to win elections should pay attention. American elected officials have put democracy on a knife’s edge, but the American public overwhelmingly supports democracy and rejects democratic subversions.