Days after the American midterm elections, we still do not have the full results. But one thing is clear: Republicans performed poorly in ways that portend future problems for the party.
Republicans had everything going for them this election. The president’s party almost always loses the midterms, President Biden’s approval rating is a very low 41 per cent, and the country is suffering from the worldwide economic uncertainty reflected in near double-digit inflation. Under these conditions, the Republicans should have made significant gains. Instead, it appears that they made only modest gains in the House of Representatives, failed to gain control of the Senate, and lost countless competitive races at the state level.
Voters under the age of 30 supported Democratic candidates by a two-to-one margin and turned out in near record numbers; they are the future
The Republicans’ underperformance may be a sign of long-term decline. Its base of support is older white people, particularly men. It loses in every other demographic category. We may be seeing the effects of its reliance on a group that gradually makes up less of the population. And it’s not simply that the nation is growing more ethno-racially diverse. Voters under the age of 30 supported Democratic candidates by a two-to-one margin and turned out in near record numbers; they are the future.
Republicans have been aware of their demographic problem for years. But instead of trying to court Latinx voters, the party doubled down on nativism and racism to enthuse its base. For years, the Republicans have been a minority party that no longer attempts to win a majority of votes. It relies instead on the structural advantages of the constitution, which gives white rural voters greater weight. Only once this century has a Republican candidate won the popular vote for president, and that was back in 2004. To maintain a grip on power, Republicans have pursued increasingly undemocratic means such as gerrymandering and voter suppression, not to mention election denial.
The right-wing extremism that increasingly characterises the Republicans generated a backlash this election. The Supreme Court’s monumental June decision to revoke a woman’s constitutional right to abortion motivated millions to vote Democratic. And there are enough voters who care about democratic norms to swing close races. Republican candidates who pushed Donald Trump’s denial of the 2020 election or indicated sympathy with the January 6th insurrection fared poorly.
Though he wasn’t on the ballot, Trump was the election’s biggest loser. This was not only because voters rejected Trumpism, but also because Trump’s handpicked candidates performed poorly. They likely caused the party to lose key Senate races in Arizona, Pennsylvania, and maybe Georgia, which is headed for a run-off in December in which Republicans are cursed with the inept and scandal-ridden Herschel Walker as their candidate.
The one thing that could most damage Trump’s standing within the Republican Party has happened: he is a loser. Republican elites now clearly wish that their 2024 presidential candidate could be anyone but Trump. Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida who had a very good election, would be a preferred alternative. He is a far more disciplined politician who could offer the electorate Trumpist policies without the defects of Trump himself.
Were Trump to lose the [presidential] primary, there’s no guarantee he would support the party’s candidate, which could lead to electoral disaster
Yet Trump almost certainly will run in the 2024 primary. The infighting will get acrimonious pretty fast if he faces any serious opposition, damaging the party’s image even further. And were Trump to lose the primary, there’s no guarantee he would support the party’s candidate, which could lead to electoral disaster. Like it or not, Republicans are still beholden to Trump, who is increasingly becoming an electoral liability.
Republicans appear to have won control of the House of Representatives, which is a significant gain. But even here there are pitfalls for the party. Kevin McCarthy, the presumptive speaker of the house, will struggle to control his fractious caucus. Ironically, his slim majority means that extremists within the party will be more emboldened since McCarthy will be reliant on their support. That may push house Republicans to advance unpopular positions that will damage the party’s chances in 2024.
Republicans may have been big losers this election, but Democrats were not big winners. Democrats’ likely hold of the Senate is significant, because it would allow Joe Biden to appoint federal judges and because the senators elected this year do not face re-election until 2028. But Republican control of the house will obstruct any Democratic legislation.
Because the Senate map is unfavourable to Democrats in 2024, it may be some years before Democrats control both houses of Congress with sufficient majorities needed to pass necessary legislation to (among other things) protect voting rights, redress gross economic inequality, and address the climate emergency. Democrats also risk complacency in relying on the unpopularity of Trumpist Republicans to win elections. They instead need to formulate a clear and ambitious agenda that can energise Bernie Sanders supporters without alienating Joe Biden backers.
With Republicans in control of the house, American government will be marked by a familiar dysfunctional paralysis for the next two years and likely beyond. But the still considerable threat of right-wing extremism has lessened having again been rejected at the ballot box. With Republicans struggling to win close elections under very favourable conditions, 2022 may indicate the possibility of a sustained Democratic majority if only the party is bold and organised enough to seize it.
Daniel Geary is Mark Pigott Associate Professor in American History at TCD.