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Tuesday's Historic Takeaways

America's midterm election results defied conventional political wisdom.
Tuesday's Historic Takeaways

There's an old axiom that "all politics is local" and although the 2022 midterm elections had national implications, it's clear that candidate quality, campaign messaging, and state politics certainly influenced the outcome of individual races across the country. However, taken as a whole, there were some remarkable trends that emerged, resulting in a historic and consequential election cycle.

In the era of modern politics post-World War II, conventional wisdom dictates that the party in the White House will typically lose seats in Congress during the president's first term. They usually fare better during a second term in office, but history indicates that these first midterm elections are overwhelmingly negative for an incumbent.

Because Senators serve six year terms, only a portion of the Senate is up for reelection during a midterm cycle. Therefore, many commentators point to the House of Representatives, where all 435 members are elected every two years, as a bellwether for the mood of the country.

As a result, sitting presidents have lost seats in the House in every election since 1932, with two notable exceptions - FDR in 1934 and George W. Bush in 2002. For example, Truman lost 45 House seats in 1946 and Eisenhower lost 48 in 1958. More recently, 1994 saw a loss of 52 seats for Clinton, Obama lost 63 in 2010, and 40 House seats went to the Democrats in 2018 while Trump was in office.

Here's an interesting chart showing all historical results from 1934-2018, courtesy of the American Presidency Project.

According to the American Presidency Project, in the 22 midterm elections from 1934 -2018, the President's party has averaged a loss of 28 House seats and four Senate seats. The president’s party gained seats in the House only three times, but gained seats in the Senate on six occasions. The president’s party has gained seats in both houses only twice. With this historical precedent as its basis, the Project predicted Democratic seat losses of around 30 in the House and 3 in the Senate.

That will not happen. Democrats exceeded their midterm expectations. If the current trend holds, Biden and the Democratic party will lose the House of Representatives by a very small margin and limit Republican gains. It will take some time to finish counting the ballots and finalizing the election results across the multiple races and longer still to fully analyze what exactly happened. But one thing is clear: this midterm election was historic.

Here's why.

The Winner of the Night: Democracy

The comedian Bill Maher famously said on his show last week that "democracy was on the ballot, and it's going to lose."

Based on two years of lies and conspiracy theories, the sheer number of election skeptics who were running for state and national office was astounding. Of the 370 across the nation, about half were elected to various seats in the House or Senate. However, several high-profile governor's races that would have a direct impact on the certification of election results in all-important swing states, was not so friendly to election deniers.

Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania, Lee Zeldin in New York, Tudor Dixon in Michigan, and Tim Michels in Wisconsin were all defeated. And if Kari Lake loses in Arizona, it will be a huge blow to candidates who embraced election denialism as a central part of their campaign. Misinformation and doubt about the 2020 election did prove a winning strategy for many Republicans so election skepticism will remain an ongoing threat going into 2024. But the electorate was decisive: they want their votes to matter beyond this election, and that's a victory for all of us.

Read my article on the greatest threat to American democracy.

America’s Last Election
This may be the final election in which our votes matter.

Lisa Lerer, the national political correspondent for the New York Times, writes "So America leaves these midterms much as it entered: a fiercely divided country that remains anchored in a narrow range of the political spectrum, unhappy enough with President Biden to embrace divided government but unwilling to turn fully to the divisive, grievance-driven politics promoted by former President Trump."

Lerer notes that Democrats cast the election as a referendum not on Mr. Biden’s record but as a verdict on the state of American democracy and an opportunity to reject the lie that the 2020 election had been stolen. Americans overwhelmingly agreed.

The Driver of Voter Enthusiasm: Women's Rights  

The controversial Supreme Court decision over the summer to overturn 50 years of precedent and take away the long-established right to abortion probably had the most far-reaching implication in terms of voter turnout. New women voters were registering en masse before the election and early vote turnout heavily favored Democrats. Although the media had moved on from the outrage over the abortion decision, it was a top issue in exit polls, especially in the swing states.

Although the pro-life movement had been active since the 1970s when Roe v. Wade was decided, Republicans had to quickly modulate their draconian stance on the issue as it became apparent the majority of Americans now viewed abortion as a woman's Constitutional right or at the very least believed in practical exceptions. Further, voters under 50 had only ever lived in a world where abortion was a woman's choice, and the Supreme Court had suddenly taken away a fundamental right from half the population.

Republican pundits reasoned that inflation and the state of the economy would be top of mind for voters because of its daily impact on their lives. What they hadn't realized were the healthcare considerations and family dynamics of a woman's right to choose, inextricably linked to their economic circumstances. The focus on traditional "kitchen table" issues could simply not outweigh the more consequential decisions - or right to make those decisions - for a woman or a family.

Reproductive freedom may have also been an animating issue for young voters, another group with an extremely high turnout in this election. Combined with gun violence in classrooms and the climate crisis, these three issues inspired Americans ages 18-29 to overwhelmingly vote for Democrats.

These election results clearly demonstrate that women, and the male voters who support their rights, sent a powerful message.

The Red Flag: Trump's Drag on the Republican Party

Historically, a midterm election is a referendum on the party in power. The Democrats controlled the Presidency, Senate, and House, so they would have to answer for the state of the nation, regardless of the fault they deserved or the solutions they offered. With inflation at a 40-year high, it was thought that Republicans would have a very good night. A "red wave" had been predicted by conservative media, especially in the last few weeks leading up to the election.

That referendum became a choice when the Republicans' standard bearer was in the news. A lot. Whether it was the stolen classified documents case from the DOJ or the fraudulent business practices lawsuit in New York or the 2020 election fraud investigation in Georgia, Trump's alleged crimes were front and center for everyone to see. As the former president made more and more appearances with his chosen candidates while also reciting QAnon conspiracy theories at his own rallies, voters got a very negative view of the alternative.

As a result, the red wave never materialized and hopeful Republican upsets simply never came to pass. It was crystal clear, just like in 2020, that MAGA's extreme and violent brand of politics may work well with a base of voters, but does not translate to a broad electorate. Moderates and independents had seen enough.

One bright spot for Republicans was Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis won by a landslide of almost 20 points and gifted the House of Representatives some additional Republican seats through redistricting. More traditional Republicans, uncomfortable with the stranglehold of Trumpism, view DeSantis as the future of the party. His resounding gubernatorial win coupled with his effectiveness in turning Florida into a Republican bastion will go a long way in inflating his bona fides for that role.

Interestingly enough, in a rally just before the midterms, Trump compared himself to other Republican challengers and directly called out DeSantis for his weak standing with base voters. The backlash from right-wing media – wondering aloud why he would attack one of their own right before the election  – was swift, but the misstep unveils Trump's fear of the Florida governor.

DeSantis's star is now on the rise and with even the most ardent of Republican strategists admitting they have a "Trump problem", the party's next move could decide its future.  

And Finally, the History-Makers

Several candidates made history on Tuesday. The Washington Post summarizes all of these candidates' achievements in the article below with the following five as perhaps the most significant.

Wes Moore, 44, a Democrat and a political newcomer, will become the first Black governor in Maryland’s history. Moore will be the only Black governor in the country and the third elected since Reconstruction (the other two were Deval Patrick in Massachusetts and Douglas Wilder in Virginia).

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a Republican, won her race and will become the first female governor of Arkansas. Sanders, 40, was press secretary for President Donald Trump and is the daughter of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee.

Maura Healey, a 51-year-old Democrat who is the attorney general of Massachusetts, became the first openly lesbian woman to be elected governor in the country. She is also the first woman to be elected governor in the state’s history.

Markwayne Mullin, 45, a Republican member of Congress and a tribal citizen of the Cherokee Nation, won election to the Senate. He is the first Native American senator in nearly two decades and the first Native American senator from Oklahoma in a century.

Maxwell Frost, 25, is a liberal Democrat and the first member of Gen Z — those born after 1996 — to win a seat in Congress. Frost, an activist, will represent Florida’s 10th Congressional District, a deep-blue constituency.

Here are the candidates who made history in Tuesday’s midterms (Washington Post)

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