By Neil Heriot | November 14, 2022
The midterm elections last Tuesday were supposed to be a disaster for the Democrats.
First, there was historical precedent; the president’s party always does poorly in midterms. Second, polling showed everything was going wrong for the Democrats; from Biden's low approval rating, to the widespread belief that the country was going in the wrong direction, and Republican advantages on more pressing issues such as crime and inflation. Everyone was talking about a red wave, with strong Republican majorities in the House and Senate, but that quickly turned into a red trickle. Republicans are still poised to take the House, but their majority is going to be very small. Even worse for them, the Senate may remain a Democratic hold. All of this is thanks to two major reasons: Donald Trump and abortion.
Much like in 2018 and 2020, Donald Trump accidently gave Democrats a much-needed boost of support in election season, though 2022 was in a more indirect way. Democrats took back the House in 2018 and ousted Trump in 2020 by successfully using Trump as a rallying point. Democrats were able to motivate people who wouldn’t have otherwise voted to vote against Trump, and it worked. Even though Trump was defeated in 2020, he still remained an influential force in politics in 2022, as many of his endorsements went on to win their primaries and compete in the general election. However, many of these candidates were of poor quality, pleasing Trump at the expense of the rest of the electorate. The electorate found these candidates’ positions to be too extreme and unacceptable for them, and therefore voted Democratic when they might have voted Republican in any other circumstance.
The other major reason Democrats have done as well as they did was due to abortion. Republicans had campaigned for 50 years to overturn Roe v. Wade, and in June, they finally won. Pro-life activists celebrated and rejoiced, but the rest of the electorate, even some conservatives, were horrified at the suddenly very real possibility that abortion rights would be stripped. Democrats seized the initiative on this, pivoting attention away from issues that they were disadvantaged on, such as the economy and crime, to abortion where Democrats had the clear advantage. Democratic voter enthusiasm shot up, and many voters went to the polls to support pro-choice, Democratic candidates – even when they might have voted Republican due to other issues just a few months prior.
Combine the Democratic surge in support from abortion with poor, Trump-endorsed candidates, and you get Tuesday as the result. Democrats have been celebrating the results, as they should, but it’s still important to note that the house is likely to flip to the Republicans; still a defeat even if it’s much smaller than it was originally supposed to be. A Republican house means it will be that much harder for Democrats to pass any significant legislation. Republicans will still have power and leverage to force concessions or obstruct any Democratic proposal. There is also a possibility that Republicans could win the senate as well. If that were to happen, it would be even harder to pass legislation, but Republicans will also be able to obstruct any judges or cabinet officials that Biden appoints. Democrats have to remain vigilant and not get overconfident from their stronger performance this election season. Republicans might have severe weaknesses, but they are not so weak and fractured to the point of being confined to the minority forever. Otherwise, 2016 and 2020 will repeat themselves.
Democrats hit the jackpot with abortion, and it seems like its here to stay. Democrats were smart to use abortion, and I expect it to continue to aid Democrats in the near future. However, the mood of the electorate is always changing, and abortion could lose the public’s attention in the future. When that happens, the electorate will shift their attention to Republican favored issues. This could erode the Democratic advantage that abortion has provided, and it could lead to an actual red wave. Republicans hammered Democrats relentlessly on the cost of living and crime, and polls showed it worked. Democrats should continue to emphasize abortion as long as it is on voter’s minds, but they also need to defend themselves from Republican attacks on other issues. There was concern that Democrats focused on abortion too much, and while it paid off in 2022, it might doom Democrats in 2024.
Democrats can’t also rely on weak Republican candidates forever. The Republican party has been struggling with how much of a role Trump should have in the party, but the 20-point victory of Ron DeSantis in Florida offers a pathway for Republicans to nominate stronger candidates without Trump’s baggage. Many voters who voted Democratic in 2022 didn’t do so because they are Democratic; they only did so because they found Republicans to be too extreme. If and when the Republican party is able to nominate strong candidates, Democrats will risk losing the anti-Trump/anti-extreme voting block that propelled them to victory in the past.
The 2022 midterms was not the Democratic party snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, it was the Republican party snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Democrats won 2022, and both sides have seen loud and clear the impact that abortion and weak candidates had. But Democrats cannot expect these two factors to remain forever; they could be gone by the next election in 2024. Other issues are still present, most notably inflation and Biden’s low approval rating, and they risk harming Democrats once Republicans find an opening. Democrats were lucky when Republicans shot themselves in the foot, but they will learn from their mistakes. If not 2024, then another day.