Yesterday’s Peter Wehner’s Atlantic column seems to have started out with the title “More MAGA Than Ever” but when I went back to re-read it, the title had changed to A Republic and Most Americans Want To Keep It. Nothing else changed. It was a column about how awful Trump is and how he prevented the GOP from having their much-anticipated tsunami. They’re still going to win the House and probably be just one seat down in the Senate. My calculations are that the Democrats will probably win 211 House seats of the 218 they need to keep the majority. If everything breaks their way, I guess they could wind up with 214— but that’s still not enough and, if I had to bet, I’d say there’s a better chance that they’ll wind up with just 209 than 214.
Still, no tsunami or wave— just a ripple, but enough for them to take control of the House. “Democrats,” he wrote, “did far better than many political experts predicted and then most Democrats expected… And Democrats appear to have made gains among governorships and in state legislatures. ‘This may prove the best midterm performance by the sitting president’s party since 2002,’ my colleague David Graham wrote… [T]he fear of Republicans prevented the governing party’s normal turnout decline from happening… The Democratic base showed up, and its coalition held together quite well. Democrats did better among independents than did Republicans.”
[T]he main reason Democrats did well is Donald Trump.
Many of Trump’s handpicked choices— in New Hampshire, in Georgia, in Arizona, in Pennsylvania, in Maryland— were unimaginably bad candidates. Trump kept enough attention on himself to prevent the election from being a clear-cut referendum on the unpopular incumbent. (As unpopular as Biden is, Trump is even more unpopular.) And Trump’s main imprint on the GOP— crazed conspiracy theories, dehumanizing policies, lawlessness and chaos— freaked out a lot of Americans who would otherwise have voted Republican.
…[I]t’s hard to overstate how radicalized and anarchic the base of the Republican Party remains. Donald Trump may have endorsed candidates such as Herschel Walker, Doug Mastriano, Kari Lake, and Mehmet Oz, but it was primary voters who chose them. The lesson primary voters usually learn after several disappointing elections, which is to make changes so their party wins more races, isn’t likely to gain much purchase within MAGA world. And the fact that Trump’s endorsements don’t translate into election victories isn’t news.
Those who inhabit MAGA world are deeply alienated from institutions, including political ones, and therefore a good deal less loyal to the Republican Party than they are to Donald Trump. They view themselves as “anti-establishment” and “anti-elitist”; they have contempt for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. I’m not sure right-wing pundits declaring that the Republican Party needs to move on from Trump will sway those voters, any more than it did in 2015 and 2016, when virtually the entire GOP establishment opposed Trump.
To complicate matters further, the Republican Party today has fewer, not more, MAGA figures in it than in the past. Marjorie Taylor Greene won reelection; Liz Cheney did not. J.D. Vance is entering the Senate; Ben Sasse is leaving it. Meanwhile, more than 200 election deniers will take office at the national and state level in January.
…The Republican Party remains diseased. There are a few exceptions, such as Senator Mitt Romney, but Americans should consider the GOP a threat to liberal democracy until we see evidence of dramatic changes. The most encouraging news from the midterms was that just enough Americans understood this; an election that should have been a Republican tsunami produced barely a trickle. As Lisa Lerer of The New York Times put it, voters “showed a limited appetite for the burn-down-the-house approach that Trump has spread throughout the Republican Party.”
The past half-dozen years have not been easy ones for American democracy. The stress test is hardly over, and the struggle will intensify. But Tuesday was a good day. Voters seemed to understand the nature of the threat; they stepped up rather than succumb to apathy or despair. Americans still have a republic, and most of them still want to keep it.
Wehner's colleague at The Atlantic, Tim Alberta, was basically singing from pretty much the same hymnal yesterday: Trump Is Toxic. He offered up four crucial lessons that he believes the Republican Party must learn before the next election in 2024.
1. Democratic turnout is going to boom in the post-Dobbs era.
…More than a quarter of all voters named abortion as their top priority in this election. That number would be astonishing in any cycle, much less in a midterm campaign being waged against a backdrop of historic inflation and a looming recession. (The only issue of greater salience to voters overall— and not by much— was the economy, which 31 percent named as their top priority.) Even more surprising was the gap in partisan enthusiasm: Among the 27 percent of voters who prioritized abortion in this election, 76 percent supported Democratic candidates, according to exit polling, while just 23 percent backed Republicans.
This is a direct result of the Dobbs ruling, which left individual states scrambling to figure out their own abortion regulations. With Republicans pushing a menu of restrictive measures across the nation, Democrats running for office at every level— Congress, state legislature, governor, attorney general— suddenly had ammunition to mobilize a party base that was, until that time, looking complacent.
…By every metric available— turnout, exit polling, individual races, and referendum results— abortion was the dominant motivator for Democrats, particularly younger Democrats, who have historically skipped midterm elections. It was also the dominant motivator for moderates and independents to stick with an unpopular president. The story of this election was that millions of voters who registered dissatisfaction with Biden and his economic policies voted for his party anyway. Why? Because they were more concerned about Republicans’ approach to abortion than Democrats’ approach to inflation.
This is very bad news for the GOP. Democrats now have a blueprint for turning out the vote in a punishing political environment… Politics is a copycat business. Now that Democrats have found a winning formula, you can expect to see entire field programs, messaging campaigns, microtargeting exercises, and ballot-initiative drives built around abortion access…
2. Bad candidates are an incurable (and fast-spreading) cancer.
In Michigan, “Prop 3,” the ballot proposal enshrining abortion rights into the state constitution, drove enormous voter participation. Democrats were the clear beneficiary: They won all three statewide campaigns as well as the state’s most competitive congressional races. But Democrats did even more damage at the local level, ambushing Republicans in a number of off-the-radar local contests and winning back control of both state legislative chambers for the first time since 1983.
But if you ask Republicans in the state, Prop 3 wasn’t the biggest contributor to the down-ballot massacre. Instead, they blame the terrible GOP candidates at the top of the ticket.
Whereas Republicans in other states nominated one or perhaps even two far-right candidates to run in marquee statewide races, Michigan Republicans went for the trifecta. Tudor Dixon, the gubernatorial nominee, was a political novice who had made extreme statements about abortion and gun control in addition to casting doubts on Trump’s 2020 defeat. Matt DePerno, the nominee for attorney general, was best known for leading a crusade to investigate and overturn Biden’s 2020 victory in the state. Kristen Karamo, the nominee for secretary of state, was a like-minded conspiracy theorist who manifestly knew nothing about the way Michigan’s elections are administered, and even less about the other duties of the job she was seeking.
“You just can’t ignore the question of candidate quality,” Jason Roe, who ran Republican Tom Barrett’s campaign against Elissa Slotkin, one of the nation’s premier congressional contests, in Michigan’s Seventh District, told me. “We had a fundraising disadvantage, we had Prop 3 to overcome, but candidate quality— that was our biggest headwind. Tom ran about seven points ahead of the statewide ticket. I’m not sure what else he’s supposed to do.”
The same pattern was visible in different parts of the country. In Pennsylvania, Democrats seized back control of the state House chamber for the first time in more than a decade. How? Two words: Doug Mastriano.
In the campaign to become Pennsylvania’s next governor— what was once expected to be one of the nation’s tightest races— Mastriano, the GOP nominee, proved particularly unpalatable. It wasn’t just Mehmet Oz, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in that state, who stayed away; most GOP state lawmakers, even those who shared some of Mastriano’s fringe worldview as it pertains to election legitimacy or Christian nationalism, kept their distance.
But it hardly mattered. The smoldering crater left by Mastriano’s implosion (he trailed by nearly 14 points as of yesterday evening) swallowed up Republicans all around him. Not only did Democrats improbably win back control of the state House; they also won all three of the state’s contested congressional races.
Time and again on Tuesday, bad candidates sabotaged both their own chances of victory and also the electoral prospects of their fellow partisans on the ticket. And for most of these bad candidates, a common quality stood out: their views on the legitimacy of our elections.
3. Voters prefer “out of touch” to “out of their mind.”
For Republicans, a central charge against Democrats throughout 2022 has been that Biden and his party are out of touch with ordinary Americans. A distilled version of the argument went like this: Democrats, the party of social and cultural elites, can’t relate to the economic pain being felt by millions of working people.
That message penetrated— to a point.
According to exit polls, 20 percent of voters said inflation has caused their families “severe hardship” over the past year. Among those respondents, 71 percent supported Republicans, and 28 percent supported Democrats. This is broadly consistent with other findings in the exit polling, as well as public-opinion research we saw throughout the summer and fall, showing disapproval of Biden and his stewardship of the economy. This would seem damning for Democrats— that is, until you consider the numbers in reverse and ask the obvious question: Why did three in 10 people who said they’ve experienced “severe hardship” decide to vote for the party that controls Congress and the White House?
The simplest explanation is that although many of these voters think Democrats are out of touch, they also think Republicans are out of their minds. And it seems they prefer the former to the latter.
… For many voters, the one position that rendered a candidate unacceptable was the continued crusade against our elections system. In Pennsylvania, for instance, 34 percent of voters supported Democrats despite experiencing “severe hardship,” significantly higher than the national average. The reason: 57 percent of Pennsylvanians said they did not “trust” Mastriano to oversee the state’s elections.
Another strategy Republicans used to portray Democrats as “out of touch” was to focus on rising crime rates in Democratic-governed cities and states. This was an unqualified success: Exit polling, both nationally and in key states, showed that clear majorities of voters believe Republicans are better suited to handle crime. In Michigan, 53 percent of voters said they trusted Dixon to deal with crime, as opposed to just 42 percent for Whitmer. But it barely made a difference in the outcome: Despite trailing by 11 points on that question, Whitmer actually won the race by 11 points. To understand why, consider that 56 percent of Michigan voters characterized Dixon as “too extreme.” Only 38 percent said the same about Whitmer.
…Plenty of voters are worried about unchecked progressivism on the left, but they’re even more worried about unchecked extremism on the right.
That extremism takes many forms: delegitimizing our elections system, endorsing the January 6 assault on the Capitol, cracking jokes and spreading lies about the assault on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband. And all of this extremism, which so many swing voters spurned on Tuesday, is embodied by one person: Donald Trump.
4. Trumpism is toxic to the middle of the electorate.
…The reason that practically every first-term president in modern history has gotten pummeled in the midterms is that the opposition party typically cedes the stage and makes it all about him. The idea is to force the party in power to own everything that’s unsatisfactory about the country— its economic performance, military failures, policy misfires. It’s a time-honored tradition: Make the election a referendum on the new guy in charge.
In each of the three states that saw major Democratic victories— Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin— 25 to 30 percent of voters said they had cast their vote in opposition to Trump. To reiterate: This is a quarter of the total electorate, consistently across three of the nation’s most polarized battleground states, acknowledging that they were motivated by the idea of defeating someone who wasn’t on the ballot, and who currently holds no office. It’s easy to see why they succeeded: In these states, as well as nationally, the only thing worse than Biden’s approval rating was Trump’s. In state after state, congressional district after congressional district, voters rejected the Trump-approved candidate, for many of the same reasons they rejected Trump himself two years ago.
Looking to 2024, GOP leaders will attempt to address the missed opportunities of this election. They will, no doubt, redouble their efforts to recruit strong candidates for statewide races; they will prioritize proven winners with mainstream views on abortion and democratic norms and the other issues by which moderates and independents will assess them. Whatever success party officials might find on a case-by-case basis, they will be treating the symptoms and ignoring the sickness. The manifest reality is that Trumpism has become toxic— not just to the Never Trumpers or the RINOs or the members of the Resistance, but to the immense, restless middle of the American electorate.
…Trump’s intraparty critics have long complained that his brutally effective takeover of the GOP obscures his win-loss record. This is someone, after all, who earned the 2016 nomination by securing a string of plurality victories against a huge and fragmented field; who lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by nearly 3 million; who gave away the House in 2018 and the Senate in 2020; who lost the popular vote to Biden by 7 million and handed over the White House; and who just sabotaged the party’s chances of winning key contests in a number of battleground states.
Earlier this week, Trump pushed back the expected launch of his 2024 presidential campaign. This was done, in part, so that he could appropriate the narrative of a grand Republican victory against Biden and the Democrats. Given his humiliating defeats, and how they’re being juxtaposed against the victories of his emerging young rival from Florida, Trump might want to move the announcement back up before a very different narrative begins to take hold.
I was hoping he'd mention something about this in his list of things the Republican Party need to learn before 2024:
Last night Señor Trumpanzee, fuming and frustrated over the media narrative, was absolutely freaking out over DeSantis on his make-believe twitter site: “Ron came to me in desperate shape in 2017— he was politically dead, losing in a landslide… And now, Ron DeSanctimonious is playing games! The Fake News asks him if he’s going to run if President Trump runs, and he says, ‘I’m only focused on the Governor’s race, I’m not looking into the future.’ Well, in terms of loyalty and class, that’s really not the right answer.” Imagine Trump complaining about "loyalty" and "class!"