Don’t Deny It: Democracy Was on the Ballot, and It Won
Low-quality candidates had a bad night, which says good things about American voters
One of the key arguments made by Democrats in the closing days of the election was that democracy itself was on the ballot.
This message was widely mocked as evidence that Democratic Party leadership was out of touch with the real concerns of voters. Surely, the American people were going to cast their ballots based on immediate anxieties about inflation and crime, not some airy-fairy abstract speculation about democracy and authoritarianism. This was why Republicans were set for a major victory with a “red wave” that would give them control of the House, the Senate, and several key governorships.
We will have to wait for more analysis of exit polls to parse out the specific thoughts and motivations of voters, but it looks like many of them did, in fact, cast their votes for democracy.
Democracy Over Party
This election result has to be viewed as a victory for democracy rather than a victory for any party.
To be sure, the Democratic Party will view this as something of a triumph, but only because they exceeded some rather dismal expectations. The party that controls the White House usually loses seats in Congress in the next midterm election, and this time they were expected to lose more than usual, particularly in the closing weeks, when all of that “red wave” speculation rose to fever pitch. In this context, it might seem like a major win simply to hold the line and maintain the status quo, or something close to it.
But remember that this is all the Democrats did: minimize their losses. In the Senate, with The New York Times predicting 49 Democratic seats and two more seats as tossups, Democrats will likely end up back at their current count of 50 votes plus the vice-president. In the House of Representatives, Democrats are likely to lose the majority—it will be a while yet before all the races are decided—but probably by just 13 seats or so, not the 20 to 25 that some were predicting. This gain will not be enough to do anything beyond holding some petty, harassing hearings.
So as far as the two major parties are concerned, this election is not a big win for either side.
Denying the Election Deniers
But from another perspective, this is a major victory, because there is one faction—and one issue—that clearly and consistently lost. Voters denied the high-profile election deniers.
Of seven Republican candidates for governor who questioned the validity of President Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory, all are defeated or trailing as of this writing. That includes four candidates in crucial swing states that were carried by Donald Trump in 2016 and flipped toward Biden in 2020: Tudor Dixon in Michigan, Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania, Kari Lake in Arizona (based on results so far) and Tim Michels in Wisconsin.
The Wisconsin race is particularly delicious because Michels had pledged, “Republicans will never lose another election in Wisconsin after I’m elected governor.” He lost.
The fifth swing state that flipped against Trump in 2020 was Georgia, where Republican Brian Kemp has been reelected. Kemp has stood firm against election denial, as has Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who was also reelected.
Meanwhile, Republican election deniers also lost or were losing a string of other important races: Don Bolduc for the U.S. Senate in New Hampshire, Blake Masters for the U.S. Senate in Arizona (if current trends hold), and several other candidates for secretary of state, including Arizona’s Mark Finchem.
It’s Not About This Election; It’s About the Next One
These secretary of state races are particularly important, because these are the officials who are directly in charge of organizing state elections and certifying the results. This is why the 2022 election is not just some sleepy, off-year midterm election. It puts in place the officials who will oversee the next election in 2024.
It seems like a legitimately ambitious request to ask voters to make such a long-term projection at the ballot box. Most people do not follow politics closely and tend not to know the mechanisms of election procedures. Claims that democracy is at stake may very well seem to them to be speculative compared to concrete and immediate problems like inflation. Yet somehow, the voters saw this and consistently rejected candidates who sought to undermine those election procedures.
The practical impact is stark. If Republicans were hoping to use stolen-election conspiracy theories to overturn the results in 2024, they simply will not have the people in office who can actually do it. They won’t have them as governors and secretaries of state. They won’t have them in key legislatures: Both chambers of the Michigan Legislature flipped back to Democrats for the first time in 40 years, and Pennsylvania’s house may also tip, scuppering hopes for the “independent state legislature theory.” And Republicans probably won’t have a majority to challenge the election results in the U.S. Senate.
So this election will have an immediate, direct and practical effect in securing the next one. But it also will have an effect by its example. In politics, nothing succeeds like success, and nothing fails like failure. If key election deniers get wiped out this year, fewer Republicans will be willing to emulate them.
I don’t want to get carried away by optimism, which has had a spotty track record in recent years, but it sure does seem that “stolen election” claims from the right are now a moot issue. They have no practical hope of succeeding and will be viewed as a fast track to irrelevance.
Even stolen election claims from the left, which have been persistent if less serious, will now be firmly discouraged for a while. Look how quickly Stacey Abrams conceded to Brian Kemp in Georgia, having spent much of the past four years denying her previous loss to him.
This is what it looks like when democracy wins.
The Lunatic Fringe Loses
The telling rejection of election deniers is just part of a wider pattern: Voters generally rejected the lunatic fringe of both parties. If this had a more noticeable effect on Republicans, it is merely because they had a larger and more prominent lunatic fringe this year.
Notice that the most mega-MAGA candidates, particularly the ones who rose to prominence from Trump endorsements, did the most poorly. There are reports that Lauren Boebert is unexpectedly trailing in her Colorado congressional district; another young MAGA favorite, North Carolina Congressman Madison Cawthorn, didn’t even make it out of the primaries. Kari Lake found that she could have a lot of fun partying with the nuttiest portion of the Republican base while still failing to gain the clear support of the people of Arizona. The national careers of a lot of hyperambitious lunatics were killed in their infancy in this election.
But the more radical Democrats didn’t do so well, either. Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson has certainly flirted with election denial and conspiracy theories. But we shouldn’t be upset at the failure of his Democratic challenger, Mandela Barnes, who is known for such progressive causes as praising a tweet by Ayatollah Khamenei, appearing on Russian state-owned TV and running interference for Syria’s murderous Assad regime.
Democrats tend to live in a bubble and fail to realize how they undercut the fight against the right’s lunatic fringe because voters find the Democrats’ own far-left fringe equally bizarre and absurd. That Democrats did not do even better in this year’s election should prompt them to consider this, though they will probably be too giddy with their narrow reprieve to do so.
The big news is that the American people were able to draw these distinctions. Much to my amazement and delight, what strikes me most about this election result is how downright sensible it is. Wisconsinites voted against Barnes, for example, while also voting against the election denier Michels. They rejected the lunatic fringe of both parties.
Much of the turmoil we’ve seen overseas recently is a reminder of how difficult it can be to rein in an undemocratic regime once it gains a hold. If you don’t vote against them early, the authoritarians will make it much harder for you to vote them out later. Americans just showed the wisdom and levelheadedness to vote against them relatively early.
When we said democracy was on the ballot, we meant that this election put to the test the integrity of elections—the willingness of government officials to count the votes and abide by them. In that immediate sense, democracy won, but it also won in a much larger and more important sense: by showing that the American people are able to use their votes wisely and act to preserve their system of representative government.