Defying almost universal expectations and well established historical patterns, the Democratic Party retained its control of the U.S. Senate in last week’s midterm elections. The opposing Republicans wrested back power in the U.S. House of Representatives, but will have won only a very narrow majority after several outstanding races are called—and when all is said and done, will likely have an advantage in the House of fewer than 10 seats. This result is so pervasively surprising, given that parties out of power usually rebound in U.S. midterm contests, that it’s prompted an unusual emerging consensus across the American ideological spectrum—that Republicans’ current brand of politics, particularly its association with Donald Trump and his effort to deny and overturn President Joe Biden’s electoral victory in 2020, is becoming toxic to voters. Yet meanwhile, on Tuesday, Trump declared his own intentions for the 2024 presidential campaign from his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida: “In order to make America great and glorious again, I am tonight announcing my candidacy for president of the United States.” What’s happening here?
Bill Scher is a U.S. journalist and a contributor to The Washington Monthly and Politico Magazine. As Scher sees it, the Democrats over-performed against the expectations in American media coverage for a number of reasons—not least a growing concern among voters about the threat to democracy represented by extremist conspiratorial rhetoric among Republican candidates. As Scher notes, many of the Republican candidates running for governor or secretary of state—offices that specifically oversee election administration—lost pivotal races in competitive states such as Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. To Scher, this election is far from a broad validation of the Democratic Party’s priorities and performance; but it does demonstrate the resilience of a left-of-center political coalition in the United States against Trump’s coalition over the last three election cycles. The Democrats face uncertainties and intra-party disputes that will continue to affect them, Scher says, but at the moment, they’re more unified and sure-footed than the Republicans—who may be on the verge of a brutal internal battle over the question of whether Trump continues to lead them.
Graham Vyse: What do you see as the most important implications of the U.S. midterm elections?
Bill Scher: The single most important implication is that Donald Trump’s style of politics generally and election denialism specifically are not appealing to most Americans. That doesn’t mean they’re necessarily supportive of the Democratic Party’s platform—in fact, exit polls showed that many U.S. voters have misgivings about where Democrats stand—but if the choice is between Democrats and Republicans directly associated with a threat to democracy, those voters will tend to favor the Democrats. We’ve now had three election cycles in a row—2018, 2020, and 2022—in which Donald Trump’s influence on the Republican Party has been limiting its voter appeal. This latest cycle has shown that most definitively.
Vyse: What were the most important issues at stake in this election, and how would you say they affected the outcome?
Scher: The entire campaign was a clash of narratives: Republicans said the U.S. was facing big crises with inflation and crime. Democrats said America was facing big crises with threats to democracy and abortion access—following the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, which ended a national right to abortion earlier this year.
To be clear, both parties made arguments that resonated. It’s not as if voters said, We don’t care about inflation or crime. But understanding that exit-poll data is imperfect, it showed abortion was nearly as important to voters as inflation, so Democrats benefited from making that issue central to their argument. It doesn’t completely explain how well they did, but it certainly kept the Democratic base engaged and probably helped attract some college-educated moderates. The closing argument that Joe Biden and Barack Obama made emphasized that “democracy is on the ballot.” That evidently resonated.
Vyse: This emphasis was controversial. Critics argued that Democrats were wasting their time—and maybe even hurting their cause—by talking about threats to democracy, which could have been seen as less pressing concerns than inflation, crime, and the like. In retrospect, it appears Democrats made the right decision.
Scher: Democratic politicians and political groups also made a last-minute effort to warn voters that Republicans would try to cut Medicare and Social Security, so that was in the mix too. But they absolutely made the right decision to talk about democracy. All the election deniers running for secretary of state in swing states lost their races. It seems like it’s not just Democrats but also independents and some Republicans who thought election denial was a bridge too far.
The most heartwarming aspect of this midterm was that democracy was on the ballot in America, and it won. In recent years, both the country’s political parties have embraced flawed narratives about the state of U.S. democracy, and these narratives keep being disproven by election results. On the left, the flawed narrative has been that Democrats couldn’t win elections unless they pass a bunch of expansive voting-rights measures. On the right, the narrative—led by Trump—has been that Republicans couldn’t win elections unless they denied that Joe Biden was rightfully elected president in 2020. What we’ve learned is that American voters care about democracy—and are willing to vote to protect it.
What we’ve learned is that American voters care about democracy—and are willing to vote to protect it.
This isn’t to say that new voting-rights measures are unnecessary; but these measures will be much easier to pass, and gain much broader public legitimacy, if both parties do it together, realizing—and publicly communicating—that it won’t give one side or the other an advantage, as the evidence shows it doesn’t.
Vyse: So you see a growing aversion to Trump’s political style and the salience of a number of substantive issues behind the election results. Were there any other major factors?
Scher: There was much more party unity among Democrats in these midterm elections than usual. This time, they weren’t forming a “circular firing squad,” as they say. If anything, there was a circular firing squad among Republicans, who struggled to maintain their focus on Democrats’ weaknesses. The Republicans got there toward the end, on the issues of inflation and crime—but a lot of their candidates were unsure about what to say on the issue of abortion rights, for instance. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina endorsed a 15-week federal ban, and Republicans didn’t have a unified position on whether to support that—or even take a position on it.
To see how significant all of this is, it’s helpful to look at an academic analysis of U.S. midterm elections from 2010—by the political-science professors Joseph Bafumi of Dartmouth, Robert S. Erikson of Columbia, and Christopher Wlezien of Temple. They noted that an American president’s job-approval rating doesn’t necessarily correlate with how well his party does in midterms. And they concluded that these elections tend not to be referendums on the president and his party but rather about “balancing” governance in Washington—moving it back toward the political center. The most obvious and typical way to “balance” governance is to give the opposition party more power. But if the opposition party seems like a source of further imbalance, you get a different dynamic. Voters may have felt as though Republicans didn’t know what they were doing or what they wanted to do in office—that they talked about inflation, for example, but didn’t have a plan to address it.
Vyse: How do you see the two U.S. parties’ voter coalitions changing now?
Scher: In 2020, Republicans made some inroads with non-white working-class voters, but those were offset by inroads Democrats made among white college-educated voters. There’s a Democratic coalition that’s held up pretty well in 2018, 2020, and 2022—young voters, non-white voters, and white college-educated voters. It’s not such a dominant coalition that it could never be divided, but it is holding together against the politics of Trumpism in the Republican coalition. The Republicans might be able to win back some moderate college-educated voters if Trumpism were to die—but for now, the party still appears stuck, because it’s still so reliant on the style of politics that Trump has shaped it to.
The most obvious and typical way to “balance” governance is to give the opposition party more power—but if the opposition party seems like a source of further imbalance, you get a different dynamic.
Vyse: Leading up to this election, Republicans were planning a legislative agenda for next year that included investigating Biden’s administration—along with his son, Hunter—as well as potentially trying to cut social programs like Social Security and Medicare. How do you see the implications of the midterm-election results for what Republicans will be able to do in Congress?
Scher: I really don’t know that anyone in the new Congress will be able to do anything. Democrats will control the Senate—either with 51 members or with 50 members and Vice-President Kamala Harris able to cast a tie-breaking vote. [This year’s last outstanding Senate race, in Georgia, will be decided in a runoff election next month.] Republicans will control the House, but it will be a very narrow margin of control. So I’m not sure how much this Congress can do beyond keeping the government running and confirming judges. It would be difficult to be any more divided than this legislature will be. People who were hoping for significant legislative accomplishments in the U.S. Congress over the next two years should, I would say, lower their expectations.
Vyse: Trump’s announcement this week means the 2024 presidential campaign is technically underway, and it’s likely there will be multiple candidates in the Republican primary. How do you see that race developing in its early stages?
Scher: It seems Republicans are heading toward a fight for their party’s nomination between Trump and Ron DeSantis. I don’t expect anyone can predict what that would do to either of them—or to the party. It’s possible that someone less abrasive could try to win the nomination by running in the relative middle, including former Vice-President Mike Pence or Virginia’s Governor Glenn Youngkin. After all, you don’t need a majority of votes to win the Republican nomination; Trump won it in 2016 with only a plurality.
I really can’t think of a historical parallel to this situation, where one of the two major American political parties is in thrall to an unelectable fringe—as that fringe is divided within itself. It’s singular.
Vyse: Early this month, Trump attacked DeSantis—or at least derided him—with one of his trademark epithets, calling him “Ron De-Sanctimonious.” What does that move tell you?
Scher: Trump has always been a brawler. He certainly doesn’t subscribe to Ronald Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment, “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Trump won the nomination in 2016 by fighting everybody and being the alpha dog. It took work to consolidate the party for the general election, but he did it, and as far as he would be concerned, he has every reason to believe that what worked for him before can work for him again. DeSantis is a brawler, too, but he’s never had to deal with fighting Trump, who is very good at insulting people.
It would be difficult to be any more divided than this legislature will be. People who were hoping for significant legislative accomplishments in the U.S. Congress over the next two years should, I would say, lower their expectations.
With voters, DeSantis may be smarter and more interested in public policy, but he has some of the same authoritarian-style impulses and idioms that Trump does. So there’s reason to think he may end up having many of the same electoral problems that Trump’s had. Yet Republicans still seem to believe they need someone pugnacious to keep their base engaged and get themselves over the electoral finish line—even if that’s not the obvious lesson of the past three elections.
Trump just barely won the presidency in 2016; he didn’t win the popular vote. And he didn’t expand his base of support after his election; he only shrunk it. There are independent voters and even some Republican voters who don’t like what he’s done to the party. Keep in mind, too, that the politics of Florida, where DeSantis has succeeded, aren’t like the politics of the rest of the country. Florida keeps getting more and more Republican. That’s important to consider when assessing whether and how Ron DeSantis can help the Republicans nationally.
Vyse: Having listened to Trump’s speech this week, how do you see him positioning himself to win the nomination?
Scher: His entry into the race is driven by internal party tensions. He knows that some Republicans are ready to move on from him. He knows that there’s an appetite among them for DeSantis. He didn’t want the public debate to continue about whether he felt strong enough to launch another campaign. By announcing before any other candidates, he’s effectively saying, This is still mine. You’re going to have to come take it from me.
His speech was focused on making the case that he’s great and Biden is terrible—that everything Trump did as president was awesome, and America should go back to being awesome again. There’ve been plenty of times recently when he’s criticized other Republicans, but that wasn’t how he wanted to start a new campaign. He wanted to be seen as the party leader. Based on the speech he just gave, his inner circle seems to think that he shouldn’t make this race about the 2020 election. And you could see him trying to stick to a script along those lines and appear more traditionally presidential. But if historical patterns hold here, Trump’s going to be Trump; he doesn’t stick to a script for very long.
How broad is the faction in the Republican Party that’s unshakably loyal to Trump? That’s the real question, which we can’t answer based on polls or the public reaction to one speech. How this primary will play out is completely unknown. We do know that this 2024 contest is beginning with Republicans in much more disarray than Democrats are in.
Vyse: In the meantime, there’s growing evidence that some of America’s right-wing media outlets want to move on from Trump—or at least to encourage openness to alternative Republican candidates. The New York Post belittled Trump’s launch by running a small headline at the very bottom of their Wednesday front page, which read, “FLORIDA MAN MAKES ANNOUNCEMENT.” Their story talked about “conservatives and liberals alike expressing dismay.” Meanwhile, the conservative magazine National Review published an editorial simply titled “No,” rejecting Trump’s candidacy for the nomination at the start. How do you anticipate this sort of media coverage will affect Trump’s prospects?
Scher: National Review opposed Trump in 2016, but then fell in line behind him when he won. When Republicans perceive Fox News as going soft, some of them go watch Newsmax or One America News Network. What elites say about Trump isn’t going to determine what voters do.