The red wave that wasn't
Despite months of doom and gloom, Biden and Democrats actually overperformed.
By Noah Berlatsky
In the wee hours of Wednesday morning, the results of the 2022 midterms were still uncertain. Control of both the House and the Senate remained up for grabs; the latter may ultimately be determined by a run-off in Georgia in December.
We do know one thing though. Joe Biden has had the most successful midterm of any president in 20 years. The Democrats in disarray narrative looks a lot more like Republicans in disarray. The American people, it turns out, did care about inflation. But they cared about democracy too.
As this is written, Senate seats in Georgia, Arizona, and Nevada still hadn’t been called, though the Democratic candidates are solidly ahead in the latter two states. Democrats would need two of three to retain a 50 seat majority with the vice president’s tie-breaker.
Steve Kornacki at MSNBC said the House was still up in the air as well. The network projected the GOP with 219 seats — one more than needed for control, but with a margin of error of plus or minus 13 seats.
The Democrats currently have 50 seats in the Senate and a narrow majority of 224-213 in the House. Holding that, or losing a handful of seats in the House, may not seem like an impressive outcome. Usually, though, the president’s party gets clobbered in the midterms. Donald Trump in the 2018 midterms lost 40 seats in the House. Barack Obama lost a whopping 63 seats in 2010. In comparison, his 13 seat loss in 2014 seems relatively mild, even though it shifted control to the Republicans again. George W. Bush lost 31 seats in his 2006 midterm.
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You have to go back to the 2002 midterm, in the rally around the flag aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, to find a midterm in which the president’s party made any gains. The Republicans that year picked up eight seats, solidifying their hold on the House. Before that, the president’s party lost control of the House in every other midterm election since 1978.
Biden’s achievement — even if he ends up losing a handful of House seats — is all the more remarkable because his popularity remains in the doldrums. Poll aggregator FiveThirtyEight has his approval at around 41.4 percent. That’s lower than Trump’s (42.2 percent) and or Obama’s (44.8 percent) at the same point in their presidencies, when they experienced catastrophic losses.
Biden’s low approval ratings and high inflation nationally led many pundits to believe that there would be a red wave in line with most midterms. Pundits said that New York governor Kathy Hochul could be in danger of losing her blue state to challenger Lee Zeldin. Analysts also suggested Democrats could lose a Rhode Island House seat they’d held since 1991, as Republican Allen Fung looked prepared to unseat Democrat Seth Magaziner. Colorado Democratic Senator Michale Bennett was supposed to be in trouble. So was Washington state’s senator Patty Murray.
In anticipation of a big Democratic electoral loss, pundits also began to dust off the usual Dems in disarray narratives. Fox of course has been telling their viewers that a Republican tsunami was inevitable.
But mainstream sites also started to circle Ds like buzzards.
The pundits were very wrong
Democrats are “out of touch with American voters,” CNN declared. The American Prospect informed its readers about “how Democrats mishandled crime.” Democrats “face their nightmare scenario on election eve,” CNN said again, “as economic concerns overshadow abortion and democracy.” Graeme Wood at the Atlantic criticized Biden for making a last-minute pitch to voters to cast their ballots against GOP authoritarians and election deniers.
“Saving democracy shouldn’t be the Democrats’ main pitch to voters,” he fulminated.
Somewhat lost amidst all this finger-wagging and knife-sharpening was the fact that the polls didn’t exactly indicate a red wave. The Economist’s House Forecast (which was more careful to weed out partisan polls than FiveThirtyEight) gave the Democrat’s about a 1 in 4 chance of holding the House, and a 43 out of 100 chance of holding the Senate. The Economist’s analyst, G. Elliott Morris, concluded just before the election, “A Republican ripple is more likely than a red wave.” He added that “the Senate is a true toss-up.”
Morris’s prediction turned out to be on the money. There was no red wave. Instead, Democrats wildly overperformed the usual midterm expectations. They did not lose key races in blue states like New York, Colorado, or Washington. Nor did they drop that long-held Democratic seat in Rhode Island.
But more than that, Democrats had unexpectedly strong performances in a range of high-and-low-profile races. John Fetterman won the Senate seat in purple Pennsylvania, which had been held by a retired Republican incumbent, with a small but decisive victory. Abigail Spanberger, in a Virginia district considered a bellwether, retained her seat, edging out Republican challenger Yesli Vega. In Ohio, Democratic Senate candidate Tim Ryan went down to defeat. But Democrats won two shocking House victories in seats that had been thought to be easy Republican wins. And Representative Lauren Boebert, a rabid Republican election denier and transphobe in a deep red Colorado seat, was in a too-close-to-call race past midnight. Her Democratic challenger Adam Frisch was narrowly ahead with 79 percent of the votes counted.
Shoddy candidate quality came back to bite the GOP
So, the question, it turns out, is not, “What did Democrats do wrong?” It’s “What did Democrats do right?” Or, if we allow that the GOP may also have agency, maybe the question is “What did Republicans do wrong?”
That last question isn’t hard to answer. Republicans nominated a phalanx of inexperienced clowns, bounders, grifters, cads, and fascists. In Pennsylvania, they put up Mehmet Oz for Senate, a TV doctor with no principles and no political experience who literally killed puppies. In Georgia they nominated Herschel Walker, a former football player with, again, no political experience, who it turned out had fathered a number of children secretly, paid other women to have abortions, and also was credibly accused of domestic abuse. For the Pennsylvania governor’s race, they nominated Doug Mastriano, a Christian nationalist who compulsively spewed antisemitic bilge on the campaign trail in his run against Jewish governor Josh Shapiro. (Shapiro won his race easily.)
In addition to selecting poor candidates, Republicans alienated voters with their extreme rhetoric and unpopular policies. The biggest issue here was abortion rights. The christofascist Republican Supreme Court gutted women’s right to privacy and bodily autonomy in June. The decision was very unpopular; 57 percent of Americans disapproved to only 41 percent who approve.
Voters have rebuked the court with votes for abortion rights in a number of states. Reliably red Kansas voted to protect abortion rights in August. Kentucky — another red state — rejected an anti-abortion amendment in this election. Purple Michigan also approved an amendment to protect reproductive rights. Dobbs is unpopular even in Republican strongholds; that has to have helped Democrats who have been campaigning consistently this year on abortion rights.
In addition, maybe people noticed that there hasn’t actually been a massive crime wave, contrary to Republican lies. Maybe they complain about inflation, but also have noticed that jobs are expanding. Maybe they appreciate Biden’s effort to forgive student loan debt, lower prescription drug prices, and confront climate change. Maybe they prefer a party that tries to solve real problems, rather than a party committed to scapegoating marginalized people for phantom ills. Maybe voters even actually do care about democracy, and decided to vote against a GOP that has embraced authoritarianism and election denial.
Democratic overperformance in one midterm election isn’t going to solve all our problems, or even most of them. Biden struggled to pass many of his priorities over the last two years. He’ll struggle even more if Republicans manage to squeeze out a House majority, or a Senate majority, or, God forbid, both.
But this has been, in context, a major victory for Democrats. Republicans should have crushed their opponents. But they didn’t, because their party is a bigoted, fascistic mess that alienates most Americans. Journalists who failed to see that should maybe think about why they missed it, and adjust their future reporting accordingly.
It was a very bad night for Trump
By Aaron Rupar
While it was a good night for Biden and Ron DeSantis, who cruised to a reelection victory in Florida, it was one that Trump would rather forget.
A number of Trump’s favorites — including the aforementioned Mastriano, Oz, Ohio congressional candidates JR Majewski and Steve Chabot, and Blake Masters (though his race hasn’t been called as I type this) — got spanked. Trump took to Truth Social to lie about it, but the fact is his endorsement doesn’t seem to mean much in general election contests. And that led to a brutal headline in Fox News, of all places.
Trump will never acknowledge this — hilariously, he claimed during an interview earlier Tuesday that “if they [Republicans] win, I should get all the credit. If they lose, I should not be blamed at all” — but Tuesday’s results suggest it’s not a foregone conclusion he’ll win another Republican presidential primary, let alone return to the White House. And it’s not just libs like me who are saying this.
If you’re counting at home, this is now three straight election cycles that Trump has been a big loser. The 2018 midterms were a bloodbath for Republicans as Democrats took control of the House, in 2020 he lost the presidency and Republicans lost the Senate, and 2022 will be remembered for the red wave that wasn’t. Trump’s 2016 promises about his supporters getting “tired of winning” seem more and more like a distant memory.
Aaron’s clip room
Delicious Fox News tears
Fox News hosts spent months hyping an inevitable “red wave.” The comedown from that notion proved to be a tough one.
From the standpoint of schadenfreude, one of the most enjoyable moments Tuesday was watching Fox anchors mope through calling the Pennsylvania race for John Fetterman — a call that did major damage to GOP hopes to flip the Senate.