Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American
November 9, 2022
Yesterday was a good day for democracy. Americans turned out to defend our principles from those who denied our right to choose our own leaders. There was little violence, the election appears to have gone smoothly, and there are few claims of “fraud.” As I write tonight, control of the House and Senate is still not clear, but some outlines are now visible.
Usually, the party in power loses a significant number of congressional seats and state seats in the first midterm after it takes the presidency. Today, President Joe Biden spoke to reporters and noted that the Democrats had the best midterm elections for governors since 1986 and lost fewer House seats than they have in any Democratic president’s first midterm in 40 years.
That this election—the results of which are still coming in as I write—is so close is an endorsement of the nation’s current path, despite the shock of inflation. As Biden said: “the overwhelming majority of the American people support the elements of my economic agenda—from rebuilding America’s roads and bridges; to lowering prescription drug costs; to a historic investment in tackling the climate crisis; to making sure that large corporations begin to pay their fair share in taxes.”
Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) agreed with Biden on the Fox News Channel tonight, but for him it was a complaint: “Why did Democrats do better than expected? Because they have governed as liberals.” And people appear to like a government that works on their behalf.
Voters appear to have been far more motivated to protect abortion rights than many pundits thought. In Michigan, California, and Vermont, voters amended their state constitutions to protect abortion rights. In Kentucky, voters rejected a state constitutional amendment that would have restricted abortion rights.
Former president Trump and his loyalists had a bad day. Trump endorsed more than 330 candidates in yesterday’s races, including a number of high-profile people he had urged to run. They were extremist candidates whose key attraction was that they backed Trump’s allegations that President Joe Biden stole the 2020 election from him, and he remained bullish on their chances until the end, telling a host for NewsNation: “I think if they win, I should get all the credit. If they lose, I should not be blamed at all.”
But when many of Trump’s candidates lost yesterday, former supporters did indeed blame Trump. Former Breitbart editor Ben Shapiro tweeted: “Trump picked bad candidates, spent almost no money on his hand-picked candidates, and then proceeded to crap on the Republicans who lost and didn’t sufficiently bend the knee. This will have 2024 impact.”
It is not at all clear that the election results will, in fact, end Trump’s political career, but they do open up the possibility that Republican leaders will not be unhappy to see him moved offstage, particularly by events they can blame on opponents—events like indictments. In any case, Trump’s status as the party’s undisputed kingmaker is no longer secure.
This seems likely to bring the Republican Party’s simmering civil war into the open. Yesterday, Trump warned Florida governor Ron DeSantis not to run for president, hinting that he would tell reporters dirt about DeSantis if the governor did announce. (“I would tell you things about him that won’t be very flattering—I know more about him than anybody—other than, perhaps, his wife,” Trump said.)
But DeSantis came out of yesterday’s elections with a second term as Florida governor and looking strong indeed. He fared well with Hispanic voters and won his state with about 60% of the vote (it should not be overlooked that his new election security police clearly intimidated voters). If, in fact, the Republicans do end up taking control of the House of Representatives, presumptive speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) will have a delicate dance between MAGA Republicans who back Trump and those trying to move beyond Trump while keeping his voters.
But the biggest winner yesterday was democracy.
More than half of the Republican candidates on ballots were election deniers and either would not say that they would honor election results going forward or openly said they would not. That position appears to have hurt their chances of winning their elections. While some election deniers won their elections, more lost.
Most notably, the story in Michigan was that of democracy, as Democrats won control of the state legislature for the first time since 1984. Governor Gretchen Whitmer was heavily targeted by former president Trump and made abortion rights central to her reelection. Both factors appeared to have helped her win, hold onto a Democratic attorney general and secretary of state, and flip both chambers of the legislature.
There is a larger story here. For decades the Republicans who controlled the Michigan legislature had drawn heavily gerrymandered districts, the most recent so extreme that in 2019, federal judges called them a “political gerrymander of historical proportions.” Voters amended the state constitution to require an independent, nonpartisan panel of 13 citizens to redraw the maps. While political competitiveness was not central to the criteria they used, it was the result.
Michigan Republicans have challenged that new map through the courts, but on Monday the Supreme Court dismissed their appeal. The outcome of yesterday’s elections suggests that what scholars have been saying for years is true: Republicans have won by gaming the system.
The importance of that partisan gerrymandering—and the importance of today’s Supreme Court in upholding that gerrymandering—showed up yesterday in the cases of four states in which Republican lawmakers simply refused to change maps that state courts had determined were illegal. In Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Ohio, heavily gerrymandered maps stayed in place despite state court decisions that they were unconstitutional.
Those four states make up almost 10% of the seats in the House of Representatives. According to congressional redistricting specialist David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report, those illegal maps were likely to hand five to seven seats to the Republicans that they would not have won without them. At the same time, Florida governor Ron DeSantis put in place heavily gerrymandered districts—so extreme that the Republican legislature balked—that were expected to turn four seats Republican and create a House delegation more than 70% Republican from a state that Trump won with just over half the vote in 2020.
Gaming the system sets up a structural problem for democracy, of course, but also for the party in power. In safe districts, candidates don’t have to worry about attracting voters from the other party and so worry only about being challenged by those more extreme than they are in the primaries (which are always dominated by the most fervent partisans). The party becomes more and more extreme and can stay in power only by continuing to manipulate the system.
Eventually, though, they become so extreme they lose even members of their own party, as the Republican Party has done since Trump took it over. A new influx of voters—as we saw last night—can win elections, and then they will demand that the playing field be leveled back to fairness. Jack Lobel of Voters of Tomorrow, which is mobilizing Gen Z voters, told NPR’s Rachel Martin today: “The far right is trying to attack us, they’re trying to restrict our rights, and they’re trying to take us back in time. [Young people] want to go forward….”
Lobel mentioned abortion rights, economic rights, and building a better future, and he noted that the Democratic Party has stepped up for Gen Z. Certainly, organizers like strategy director of Voters of Tomorrow Victor Shi have been pounding the pavement to turn out their people.
Exit polls from last night show voters in the 18–29 age bracket making up about 12–13% of the vote and preferring Democrats by much larger margins than any other group: as much as 70%. In 25-year-old Maxwell Frost (D-FL), elected last night, Gen Z has its first member of Congress.