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FOR FREE PEOPLE

Ron DeSantis and his daughter Mamie during an election night watch party at the Convention Center in Tampa, Florida (Giorgio Viera via Getty Images)

2022 Midterms: Voters Prefer Sanity

Trump's reverse Midas touch. The rise of Ron DeSantis. Abortion and the new culture war. And other takeaways from a surprising night in American politics.

Early on Tuesday evening, The New York Times posted an item for its readers called Five Ways to Soothe Election Stress:

(Yes, we checked, and it is indeed real.) 

It urged anxious readers bracing for the widely predicted Republican romp to “plunge your face into a bowl with ice water for 15-30 seconds.” Or, if that didn’t work, perhaps “breathe like a baby.” Or maybe “try five finger breathing.” (I googled that last one.)

But by Wednesday morning, conservatives and Republicans were the ones huddled under their weighted blankets downloading meditation apps.

For weeks, pundits and pollsters on the left and right had predicted a red wave, even a red tsunami. Some were predicting Republicans would gain 30 to 35 House seats. But that red wave turned out to be little more than a ripple.

Why?

Think about the context as Americans headed to their polling places on Tuesday: A president, Joe Biden, with an approval rating of 41%. The worst crime wave in decades. The worst inflation in more than 40 years. Americans in poll after poll, expressing deep dissatisfaction with the direction of the country after a pandemic that crippled it.

And still, while neither the House nor the Senate has been called, Republicans are expected to pick up a total of seven seats in the House, giving them far weaker control than polls predicted. The Senate looks likely to come down to a December runoff in Georgia. And governor's mansions across the country are occupied by about as many Democrats as Republicans.  

So why did Republicans perform so badly?

Here’s one theory: Trump.

Trump is poison. Trump lost in 2020 and on Tuesday night he helped lose at least 23 elections.

Think of the candidates Trump endorsed:

Dr. Mehmet Oz. Oz was handpicked by Trump for the Pennsylvania Senate race over David McCormick, a West Point graduate who served in the Gulf War. It’s not as if McCormick, a hedge funder, was anti-Trump; his wife, Dina Powell, was Trump’s deputy national security adviser. But he did condemn the January 6 storming of the Capitol, so Trump endorsed Oz—who ran against John Fetterman, the lieutenant governor of the state who had a stroke in May and could barely make it through the single debate he agreed to. And still won. 

Doug Mastriano. The Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate was endorsed by Trump (and in league with the antisemites over at Gab). He lost his race for governor to the moderate Democrat Josh Shapiro by 13 percent and a whopping 600,000 votes. 

Don Bolduc. Bolduc—who claimed during the primary that Trump had won the 2020 election before later reversing his position—ran against incumbent Maggie Hassan for a New Hampshire Senate seat, but lost to Hassan 53 percent to 45 percent.

John Gibbs. Trump denounced the incumbent in Michigan’s 3rd congressional district, Peter Meijer, the only Republican freshman who voted to impeach him over January 6. Then, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee doubled down by funding John Gibbs, Meijer’s MAGA challenger, who lost on Tuesday by 13 points to Hillary Scholten—who turned the seat Democratic for the first time in nearly 50 years.

Tudor Dixon, who ran for governor of Michigan, was endorsed by Trump and said his election was stolen. She lost on Tuesday night to Gretchen Whitmer, the incumbent who called women “people with periods” in a recent TikTok video and had been roundly criticized for her handling of Covid.

Then there is Herschel Walker, who Trump endorsed, apparently unconcerned about Walker's history of domestic violence, child neglect, and the question of Walker’s basic competence. (Walker’s thoughts on the Green New Deal: “So what we do is we’re going to put, from the ‘Green New Deal,’ millions or billions of dollars cleaning our good air up. So all of a sudden China and India ain’t putting nothing in there—cleaning that situation up. So all with that bad air, it’s still there. But since we don’t control the air, our good air decide to float over to China, bad air.”) The race was so close—a difference of just over 35,000 votes—that it’s headed to a runoff.

Kari Lake was meant to be the new GOP star, and she sang right from Trump’s hymnal on the 2020 election. Her gubernatorial race in Arizona is also too close to call, but she’s 13,000 votes behind Katie Hobbs—the unpopular Democratic secretary of state, who refused to debate Lake—with 70 percent of ballots counted. (It’s impossible to say with certainty who’s going to win. But it’s noteworthy that Maricopa County—by far, the biggest county in Arizona, which Trump lost by two points in 2020—has yet to be counted. What technology does Florida have that Arizona lacks?)

The other big race in Arizona was the Senate contest, in which astronaut Mark Kelly leads Trump-endorsed Blake Masters by nearly 100,000 votes. Masters was backed by Peter Thiel and received assistance from Trump's super PAC—at least $1.8 million—after Mitch McConnell's Leadership Fund cut spending in Arizona to divert resources elsewhere.

Now, think about the candidates Trump trashed.

Brian Kemp ended his race for the governorship 300,000 votes ahead of his Democratic opponent Stacey Abrams despite the fact that Trump called Kemp, "a complete and total disaster" and  funneled millions to a Kemp primary challenger. Kemp had earned Trump's hatred by refusing Trump's entreaties to throw the 2020 election. So for good measure, the president insisted at a rally that Abrams would be a better governor.

Meanwhile, Chris Sununu, New Hampshire’s incumbent Republican governor—who Trump couldn’t stand—won by 16 points. At a Washington bash in April, Sununu said of Trump: “He’s fucking crazy!” 

Who can argue?

It appears that one of the lessons of this cycle is telling your voters not to vote and that our elections are “rigged” won't help your party at the polls.

In the runup to the midterms, the former president, as always, prioritized himself, teasing the press with the idea that he was about to announce his own candidacy. He raised some $100 million for his SuperPAC in 2020 but spent, according to NBC, a measly $16 million on candidates. Trump spent election night—shocker—focusing on himself. He unleashed on his social media site, Truth Social, celebrating the defeat of Joe O’Dea, a Senate candidate who criticized him, among other jewels.

By Wednesday, he had moved on to negging Ron DeSantis—the only Republican who actually delivered the promised red wave, winning Florida by a massive 20 points, and who is currently dealing with a hurricane. (And is the biggest stumbling block separating Trump from the GOP presidential nomination in 2024.)

Here’s a second lesson: When abortion is on the ballot, it matters. 

In the aftermath of the Dobbs decision in May, which repealed Roe v. Wade and rescinded national abortion rights, there were all kinds of predictions that abortion would drive this election—maybe even determine it. Then that narrative largely disappeared. Pollsters told us that abortion trailed voter concerns behind inflation, the economy, crime and immigration.

Tuesday proved that wrong. Exit polls showed that it ranked right up there with the economy for many voters. And abortion rights referendums—which were on the ballot in California, Kentucky, Vermont, and Michigan—won everywhere.

It’s hardly surprising that progressive Vermont and California have codified abortion rights.

It’s a little surprising that Michigan, which has wavered between Democratic and Republican control for years, has now enshrined abortion rights in its state constitution. But it’s very surprising that Kentucky—not exactly a liberal redoubt—rejected a No Abortion amendment, which held there is no right to abortion in the state constitution, by a 5 percent margin. (A few months back, Kansas pulled a similar move.)

When it comes to abortion, Americans tend to embrace the kind of compromise position that is the law in most European countries, where abortion is legal in the first trimester and outlawed after about 15 weeks. But if the choice is between being forced to carry a baby to term without exception—including cases of rape and incest, and cases in which the health of the mother is in danger or the baby is not expected to live for more than a few hours—voters will choose whatever else is on the ballot. 

That doesn’t mean the culture war is over. It is raging. And one man is winning it. 

The GOP has a definitive new star and his name is Ron DeSantis. The Florida governor beat Charlie Crist by 20 points. He carried blue counties, like Miami-Dade, by 10 points. Remember when Florida was a swing state?

What’s going on in Florida? A few things: DeSantis resisted the Covid lockdowns, championed legislation to keep “W.O.K.E.” indoctrination out of schools, competently handled a hurricane, and emphasized (here’s an idea) punishing criminals. There is a reason 61,728 New Yorkers and 27,081 Californians fled their be-masked states for Florida in 2021.

Those who believe in the MAGA agenda would be wise to embrace the populist politician who is competent enough to govern effectively. Those who care about the new culture war issues—parental rights, largely—should watch and learn from Florida’s governor.

Bye, bye, Beto.

This was a great election for moderate Democrats like Abigail Spanberger, in Virginia; Elissa Slotkin, in Michigan; Michael Bennet, who won his Senate race in Colorado by 11 points; and Jared Polis, who won the gubernatorial race in Colorado . (Polis’ GOP rival, Heidi Ganahl, had refused to say whether she thought the 2020 presidential election was fraudulent.)

It was a very bad one for press darlings Beto O’Rourke, who lost his race for the Texas governorship by 11 points, and Stacey Abrams, who was endorsed by Barack Obama and Oprah and lost to Brian Kemp by nearly eight points. (Abrams never conceded her 2018 loss to Kemp, making her an election denier before election denying was a thing.) 

Beto might look good on the cover of Vanity Fair, and it’s cool that Abrams got a cameo on Star Trek, but that’s not the gig. Perhaps the money spent on them should’ve gone to Ohio’s Tim Ryan, who lost to one of the few triumphant Trump-backed Republicans, J.D. Vance.


So what are the takeaways from the aftermath of the red wave that wasn’t?

One: Data and polls make for a good horse race, but, once again, they have proven to be incapable of capturing Americans’ voting preferences and mood. Maybe Americans simply don’t understand themselves. Or maybe they are as deeply dissatisfied as they say, but not dissatisfied enough to take a risk on many of the candidates Republicans had to offer. Here’s one thought: instead of poring over the numbers from their D.C. and New York newsrooms, more journalists should talk to . . . voters. 

Two: The untested and the extreme are unpopular. Voters rewarded normal candidates of both parties who want to work within the system, not burn it down.

Three: Democracy had a good day. And not just because a lot of truly kooky candidates were rejected, but because those who lost actually conceded their races—including, yes, Stacey Abrams. We’ll see if Kari Lake, if she fails to overcome Hobbs’s lead in Arizona, can summon her inner patriot and do the right thing.

We were also heartened to read that Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin—who had said, in a campaign stop, that voters would be sending Nancy Pelosi back to California to be with her husband, who had been attacked by an intruder looking for the Speaker of the House—sent Pelosi a handwritten note to apologize. 

Four: Maybe the energy in the Democratic Party isn’t squarely behind AOC, but instead in the hands of normie voters (to say nothing of normie strategists). We hate to admit it, but the cynical ploy of funding Republican extremists in primaries so Democrats could more easily win in the general election appeared to work in Illinois and Michigan and Maryland and Pennsylvania. It may gross us out, but there’s no denying it was smart politics.


You know there’s a vibe shift on the right when The New York Post puts Dumpty Trumpty on its cover and when pundits like Matt Walsh and Candace Owens are loudly criticizing the former president. And the president has noticed. Oh has he noticed.

Will GOP voters finally do what needs to be done and dump Trump?

For now, that’s unclear. 

Many Republicans remain loyal to the former president, who (say what you will, and I have said a lot) did more to transform American politics than any politician in decades. We would not be talking about the working class or China or immigration the way we are now without the 2016 election and Trump’s withering assault on the establishment. But if Republicans are serious about doing something about those things—if they actually care about jobs, national security and the future of the American idea—they have but one choice, and that is to shed the cult of Trump in service of the agenda he helped popularize. Ditch the golden calf and nominate more viable candidates. At a certain point, “the stupid party,” as John Stuart Mill once described conservatives, must molt its stupidity if it is to have any hope of being a serious party again.


Others things I’m reading and listening to:

  • My favorite new podcast is The Re-Education, hosted by history buff (and pop culture junkie) Eli Lake. His latest episode is about the virtue of divided government. 

  • Ross Barkan wrote this insightful piece about why Asian-Americans neighborhoods in New York are now Republican strongholds. 

  • A characteristically smart column from Michael Shellenberger: Democracy Wasn’t On the Ballot, Extremism Was. Read it here.

What a week. We’ll see you bright and early tomorrow for TGIF.

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