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5 Ways the Midterms Were a Win for Democracy
The threat isn't over, but it's better than it could've been
Except for a few close races still counting votes, and a December runoff in Georgia for a U.S. Senate seat that can’t change which party has the majority, the 2022 midterms are over. It was a high-stakes election, one in which, as President Joe Biden put it, “democracy [was] on the ballot.” Not literally—there wasn't a yes-or-no referendum—but effectively, as America held its first national vote since former president Donald Trump’s unconstitutional attempt to stay in power incited the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
The danger isn’t over, but the electoral results were good for American democracy in at least five ways.
1 – Election Deniers Lost Key Races
Many Republican candidates lied about, or at least refused to acknowledge, the results of the 2020 election, undermining public confidence in democratic institutions. The Brookings Institute identified at least 345 of these “election deniers” on the ballot in 2022 at various levels. While their lies about 2020 aren’t good, the bigger concern is how they use those lies to rationalize their preparation to subvert future elections.
After Trump’s coup attempt failed, Republicans could have shunned it, but instead the party chose to rally around defending—or at least excusing—it, and worked to remove barriers that thwarted it. Most concerningly, a hardcore subset of deniers aimed to get state posts overseeing elections. They won GOP primaries for governor in swing states Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Arizona. Eight nominees for secretary of state, the top election administration position, formed the “America First Secretary of State Coalition,” openly promising to overrule voters if they don’t pick Donald Trump in 2024, and justifying it with lies about fraud. One, Arizona Republican nominee Marc Finchem, participated in Jan. 6 and says he’s part of the Oath Keepers, a militia that has seen multiple members convicted of seditious conspiracy for planning and executing the violent assault on Congress.
Every one running in a swing state lost. The only America First Secretary of State candidate to win was Diego Morales in Indiana, a solidly Republican state. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger—a Republican who earned MAGA ire by resisting Trump’s demand to “find 11,780 votes” after Biden won the state by 11,779—got reelected by almost 10 points, having defeated an election denier in the Republican primary. Gubernatorial nominees Doug Mastriano (Pennsylvania) and Tudor Dixon (Michigan) got crushed, and supposedly rising star Kari Lake (Arizona) lost a close race against an opponent who refused to debate.
And they didn’t just lose; they did worse than other Republicans in their state. That not only decreased the chances Trumpists can steal the 2024 election, it also showed that anti-democracy stances are an electoral loser. Republicans who don’t care about democracy but crave power surely noticed.
2 – Talking about Threats to Democracy Didn’t Hurt
It’s hard to say what decided an election (though that won’t stop pundits). There are many factors at once. Abortion rights likely played a more significant role in Democrats’ strong showing than democracy. But voters apparently did not see Biden’s speeches, Congress’s Jan. 6 hearings, and various expressions of concern about the Trumpist threat to American democracy as an out-of-touch distraction from pressing economic problems, as some fretted.
As a result, Democrats held control of the Senate, cutting off opportunities for MAGA Republicans to abuse its power.
The election also increased the chances Congress uses the lame duck session to reform the Electoral Count Act (the poorly-written 1887 law whose ambiguities Team Trump tried to exploit on Jan. 6). The bill currently has 16 Republican cosponsors in the Senate, and they’ll be less afraid to cross Trump after seeing many candidates the former president endorsed lose.
3 – Republicans Won the House
Because the threat to American democracy emanates from the Trumpified Republican Party, some treat “good for democracy” and “good for the Democrats” as interchangeable. But democracy is nonpartisan, and the pro-democracy American majority is bipartisan. It includes some GOP officials, such as Senator Mitt Romney, who voted to convict Trump in both impeachments, and conservatives, like outgoing Representative Liz Cheney, who the GOP exiled because she refused to sweep Jan. 6 under a rug.
Democracy is more than just voting—rule of law and individual rights are essential features—but it’s supposed to produce governments that represent the people. America is politically divided, but for the last two years, Democrats have held the White House, House, and Senate. Republicans have an ideologically aligned Supreme Court majority, so it’s not as drastic as when Democrats were shut out in 2017-18. But still, U.S. democracy is a system of checks and balances, and millions of Americans who oppose the president got an institutional check on his agenda thanks to an election. Democracy worked.
It also appears Republicans won the House popular vote (though we won’t know final totals for some time). The national popular vote doesn’t matter under electoral rules, but it’s not good for democracy if the party that gets more votes has no control of the elected branches of government. The Senate and Electoral College are disproportionate by design, for better or worse, but the House is supposed to represent the whims of a simple majority. The party that got the most votes will control the House next year, which will undermine the anti-democracy passion on the American right, at least a little.
4 – The Republican House Margin is Narrow
Because democracy is more than just voting, it’s absurd to argue, as Shadi Hamid of the Atlantic does, that American officials do not have to honor Constitutional principles, as if anything they do in office is inherently democratic simply because they were elected. Officials can abuse power in undemocratic ways, such as by using their office to give themselves unfair advantages in future elections. That’s what Nixon did in Watergate.
As president, Donald Trump similarly abused power to boost his reelection chances, contravening U.S. law to try to extort Ukraine into manufacturing investigations into Joe Biden. Later, Trump tried one of the most anti-democracy abuses of power in American history, conspiring to stay in office despite losing reelection. Even after their building was attacked by a Trumpist mob on Jan. 6, 147 Republican members of Congress voted to stick with Trump’s lies and reject state-certified Electoral College votes.
They could attempt similar bad faith manipulations in the future, but a narrow majority makes that harder. A few pro-democracy Republicans could thwart it. And the party’s electoral underperformance in 2022 could discourage them from trying.
5 – Russia-Ukraine
Democracy isn’t under threat just in America. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine aims to snuff out Ukrainian democracy, and poses a test for the world’s democratic countries. It will go down in history either as a Russian failure or as a model for other aggressive authoritarians. The geopolitical order spins on the outcome.
Most Republicans backed Ukraine at the start, but, influenced by prominent Putin sympathizers—including Donald Trump, Fox News host Tucker Carlson, and Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene—a majority now want U.S. aid to stop. The likely next Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy, signaled before the election that Republicans may cut off American support.
Now we know Republicans’ House majority will be smaller than McCarthy expected, which makes the end of Ukraine aid less likely. Some influential Republicans, such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, support Ukraine’s war effort, and there are almost certainly enough votes in the incoming House and Senate to authorize more aid if needed. The risk was that McCarthy or an alternative Speaker would be so afraid of crossing Rep. Greene and the rest of the MAGA caucus that he’d prevent any aid bill from coming up for a vote.
But with the narrow margin, McCarthy’s Speakership will be tenuous. A few Republicans could work with Democrats to temporarily oust him to pass a bill supporting Ukraine, giving him reason to let it come up for a vote. And he’ll have to work more with Democrats to pass essential legislation that keeps the government functioning and big Republican donors happy, which means a bipartisan Ukraine bill won’t stand out.
Russia’s war effort is going poorly, and the Kremlin has put a lot of its remaining hopes in the West cutting off support to Ukraine. The U.S. midterm results were not only bad for Trump, they were bad for Putin too.
The danger isn’t over. This is about national power, especially the presidency, which means 2024 was always more important than 2022.
But whether or not Americans prioritized it when voting, the midterms shaped the strength of the anti-democracy movement in advance of the next presidential election. It’s not done, it may rebound, but it’s weaker now than it easily could have been. For America, U.S. allies, democracy, and the world, that’s good.