Republicans may yet score very consequential victories in absolute terms—they could still win one or both chambers of Congress — but undeniably had a terrible showing in relative terms. That is, when measured against historical patterns for midterm elections and their own preelection boasts and bombast.
Let’s try this one on for size in the simplify/exaggerate category: The midterm elections showed an electorate eager to reward normality and impose a penalty on eccentricity.
Or at least the results showed a return to patterns of politics that not so long ago were recognized as normal. This conclusion seems intuitively true and is perhaps the only one so far supported by evidence from multiple arenas.
A long roster of races, all influenced by important local factors, collectively created what seems like a national thought bubble: Can’t we just exhale and take a knee for a moment?
To hell with candidates who offer themselves as radical disruptors, especially in the modern context when disruptive is often a synonym for demagogic, rude, egomaniacal or just plain weird.
At the same time, one squints to find a clear pattern that decisive blocs of voters agreed with President Joe Biden’s exhortation that “democracy itself” was on the ballot. Or the progressive argument that the Jan. 6 committee revelations, combined with the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, made this is the most important midterm election in generations.
Georgia, for instance, still on balance has a center of gravity that favors the GOP — no matter Biden’s narrow 2020 victory and two Democratic senators. So, a conventional Republican like Gov. Brian Kemp, who has crossed swords with Donald Trump, won easily over an appealing challenger like Stacey Abrams. But a political neophyte like Herschel Walker, bleeding from self-inflicted wounds, ran slightly behind incumbent Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, with a runoff on the horizon.
Wisconsin, despite the strong appeal Trump showed by narrowly winning there in 2016 and narrowly losing in 2020, is basically still a stolid, moderate Midwestern state. So incumbent Democratic Gov. Tony Evers ran several points ahead of his Republican challenger to win a second term. “Boring wins,” Evers said, making fun of what he called his unglamourous but reliable personality and governing record. On the other hand, progressive favorite Mandela Barnes was apparently a bit out of step with this state, losing narrowly to incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson, despite Johnson’s support for Trump’s election denialism and what polls showed was his personal unpopularity.
Here was the view from Monday: Arizona Republican gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake is the next-generation Trump, and her natural fluency and personal presence could make her an even more effective advocate for that style of raucous, confrontational populism. Here is the view from Wednesday: This may have just been a bit too much for Arizonans. Katie Hobbs was sometimes described as a turgid campaigner, but she held her own in a race that is still too close to call. Meanwhile, incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly holds a more comfortable lead against Trump-embracing challenger Blake Masters.
Pennsylvania featured two unconventional candidates in Democrat John Fetterman, with his hoodie and jeans and progressive populist message, and Trump-backed TV celebrity Mehmet Oz. Fetterman won narrowly. But note that both candidates ran far behind winning Democratic gubernatorial nominee Josh Shapiro, who won 55 percent of the vote and effectively tattooed Republican Doug Mastriano as an extremist right-wing weirdo.
Colorado was a more vivid example of the staying power of normal. The view from Monday: Incumbent Democrat Michael Bennet, among the purest distillations of steady centrism on the ballot this year, was in danger of being swamped by a “red wave” of backlash against Biden, and a Democratic brand damaged by rising crime and inflation. The view from Wednesday: No problems for Bennet, who is returning to the Senate with what in returns so far show nearly 55 percent of the vote.
The pattern held in Ohio. Republicans ultimately won both the gubernatorial and Senate races. But incumbent Gov. Mike DeWine, another face of steady conventionality, won with 62 percent. Trump-endorsed Senate candidate J.D. Vance, author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” had far more celebrity but far fewer votes, winning with 53 percent.
In retrospect, it’s clear in many cases the view from Monday was distorted or even simply wrong, as presented by prognostications from operatives and election analysts and as amplified by political media. That ought to give the analysis industry some pause in interpreting the still-fragmentary results.
Reporters often write something called “B matter.” This is copy written in advance, so it is ready to be published amid very tight election-night time pressures. Once we know that Smith, or Jones, or whoever has won, we can write a quick paragraph with the news at the top and then slap a lot of vaguely plausible analysis at the bottom to present readers with a full story. We can be sure that a lot of B matter got thrown out as unusable on Tuesday night.
But it is worth pondering what all those jewels of insight might have said. A shift of a few percentage points would have had Oz, Walker, and Lake in possession of clear victories. “Trump remains the undisputed leader of his party, and it is now clear that his movement is not a transient phenomenon but one that will have echoes in American politics for decades to come.” The same modest shift would have yielded lots of this: “President Biden was already facing deep doubts from Democratic insiders about his 2024 prospects, and these results now will thrust all the private speculation about whether he can be nudged out of a reelection bid into open public debate.”
There’s obviously scant market today for this kind of day-after B.S. But it’s worth remembering that it may not be total B.S.
Democrats who are celebrating some unambiguous wins — Michigan now has a reelected Democratic governor and control of both chambers in the state legislature — should remind themselves that the absence of a red wave hardly indicates the presence of a blue wave. The normal rules of politics suggest that incumbent GOP governors in Florida and Texas should win reelection unless there is some important anomalous factor to toss them out. As it happens, Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott did indeed win second and third terms, respectively, and the outcome hasn’t really been in doubt for many months. That’s what normal looks like.
You got a better theory? Have at it. Maybe the evidence emerging over coming hours and days will illuminate new possibilities. For now, though, it’s worth reflecting that election night surprises — and even murky, inconclusive results—are themselves a vindication of democratic culture. Operatives, journalists, the politicians themselves — they are all frauds when they profess with any confidence that they know what’s going to happen. Here was a confusing result that suggests a country searching for a new normal after years of bizarre upheavals. That is politics working the way it is supposed to.