With a Democratic White House and Congress presiding over persistently high inflation, economic woes, and deep public dissatisfaction in the direction of the country, Americans turned in a muddled verdict at the ballot box.
While Republicans who offered a genuine alternative did well, the GOP put up a host of batty political cultists who struggled to attract votes. The victory in Pennsylvania of Democrat John Fetterman, the stroke-addled candidate who turned in a disastrous debate performance over Dr. Mehmet Oz, suggests that a potted plant could beat a Trump Republican.
Most forecasters didn't expect the midterm elections to go this way.
"A new CNN national poll paints a very grim portrait of the electorate for Democrats, with any number of warning signs that suggest the 2022 midterms are shaping up to be very tough for their side," Chris Cillizza wrote for CNN the week for the election.
"Independents, especially women, are swinging to the G.O.P. despite Democrats' focus on abortion rights. Disapproval of President Biden seems to be hurting his party," agreed the New York Times in assessing its polling.
On election day, some Republicans did perform well, including Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who crushed his Democratic opponent by almost 20 points and poised himself for a predicted presidential run in 2024. Likewise, Republicans in New York won congressional seats in what New York magazine called "the kind of sweep not seen in decades."
But the failure of New York's Trump-supporting GOP gubernatorial candidate, Lee Zeldin, foreshadowed similar disappointments for the party elsewhere. Despite abysmal approval numbers for Democrats and President Joe Biden, and sky-high dissatisfaction (79 percent according to Gallup) with the direction of the country, Trump-linked Republicans failed to gain much traction.
Fetterman's victory over Oz resulting in a Senate seat flipped for Democrats is a case in point. After a stroke in May, Fetterman had very obvious difficulty understanding what was said to him and in articulating his own thoughts. A debate performance described in terms such as "disastrous" and "shockingly bad" raised serious concerns about his ability to perform his duties, or to do anything other than try to recover. Yet voters still picked him over Trump-backed Dr. Mehmet Oz for the Senate.
Pennsylvania voters also nixed the gubernatorial aspirations of Doug Mastriano, who had Trump's backing and denied the legitimacy of the 2020 election. "Mastriano spent over $3,000 to bus over 100 Trump supporters to D.C. on Jan. 6," WHYY noted of the candidate who failed to gain traction beyond the party faithful.
The results were much the same elsewhere. In Arizona, Kari Lake, who closely aligned herself with former president Donald Trump and who led in polls through much of the state's gubernatorial race, is currently trailing in the vote count. She may well lose to her Democratic opponent, Katie Hobbs, an awkward non-entity who refused to debate and dodged the media. If Lake pulls it out, it will be by a squeaker over an opponent who ran a weak campaign. Right now, the only state-wide office Arizona Republicans appear likely to take is that of state treasurer.
Importantly, Trump-backed Blake Masters lost his race for the Senate to incumbent Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly, a performance echoed elsewhere as Democrats held on to bare control of the upper house of Congress. Republicans aren't even certain to claim a majority in the House of Representatives, despite basement-level approval for the Democrat-led Congress and Biden. Americans are remarkably unhappy with Democrats on issues including the economy and energy policy, and they were keen to support Republicans who ran actual campaigns based on ideas. But GOP candidates who kept up the tired drumbeat of election denialism and cultish fealty to Donald Trump drew minimal enthusiasm across the country.
Republican candidates "closely aligned with the past, those are the ones that underperformed," Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) summed up over the weekend. "We as a party need to have a debate about ideas. In that debate, we need to explain to the American people exactly where we think our country should go."
"I think Donald Trump gives us problems, politically," commented Republican former speaker of the House Paul Ryan, of Wisconsin. "We lost the House, the Senate and the White House in two years when Trump was on the ballot, or in office. I think we just have some Trump hangover. I think he's a drag on our office, on our races."
Ohio's J.D. Vance was among the few populist Trumpists to score big victories on Tuesday.
It's important to emphasize here, again, that Democrats didn't win the midterms so much as fail to completely lose them, despite Biden's reality-defying post-election claim that "the overwhelming majority of the American people support the elements of my economic agenda." Polls of Americans strongly suggest otherwise, and successes by Ron DeSantis, New York Republicans, and non-crazy GOP candidates elsewhere demonstrate that there is a national appetite for a serious alternative. But Trump-ish populists didn't satisfy that appetite. Given a choice between hubristic Democratic incompetence and culty Republican lunacy, voters pretty much split the difference, giving neither party a clear advantage.
With a little luck, Republicans will claim a razor-thin majority in the House, giving Americans the respite from bad policies—either party's bad policies—offered by gridlock. Two years of stalled legislation leading up to the next round of elections won't actually resolve anything, especially given the executive authority wielded by an unrepentant White House. But a hobbled Congress has to be an improvement over what we've seen in recent years.
That will also give the major political factions, Republicans in particular, some time for reflection. Does the GOP want to be a political party based around ideas or will it continue on its path as a nutty cult of personality? Will Democrats get that they barely eked out a non-drubbing for their unpopularity courtesy of the bizarre disarray of their opposition?
Even less certain is whether either Democrats or Republicans will ultimately make any effort to court Americans who want more freedom and less interference with their ability to run their own lives. Recent political history hasn't been encouraging.