early and often

One Worrying Sign for Democrats in the Midterm Results

Photo: Megan Varner/Getty Images

This month’s midterm results gave Democrats plenty of reasons for optimism about their prospects for keeping the White House in 2024.

Despite presiding over 8 percent inflation, the party managed to muster one of the best midterm performances for a presidential party in history, retaining control of the Senate and keeping the GOP’s new House majority exceptionally slim.

What’s more, the Democrats beat expectations in key Electoral College battlegrounds. In 2022, Michigan and Pennsylvania behaved less like swing states than solid-blue ones. Michiganders reelected Democratic governor Gretchen Whitmer by a double-digit margin while giving her party full control of the state legislature. Pennsylvanians, meanwhile, elected Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro by a nearly 15-point margin and backed John Fetterman over Mehmet Oz by nearly five points.

And Democratic strength wasn’t limited to the Wolverine or Keystone states. Across the five states that flipped from the red to blue column between 2016 and 2020 — Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin — Democrats went six for eight in their combined Senate and gubernatorial elections and are favored to notch a seventh victory in Georgia’s impending Senate runoff.

With Michigan and Pennsylvania looking more blue than purple, Democrats are poised to enter 2024 as the favorites in states boasting a collective 260 Electoral College votes. That would put the party in position to retain the White House if they merely won one of the three remaining large “toss-up” states — Wisconsin, Georgia, or Arizona.

Nevertheless, November’s results still offer blue America’s worrywarts some cause for maintaining their strategic Xanax reserves.

Since 2016, the Democratic coalition has grown increasingly dependent on the support of college-educated white voters who were once reliably Republican. The party’s resilient strength with that demographic powered the 2018 “blue wave” and enabled it to survive a significant erosion in support among nonwhite voters in general — and Hispanic voters in particular — in 2020. Democrats didn’t lose much additional ground with the latter constituencies in 2022. But at the national level, they didn’t regain much support with Hispanic voters either.

Thus, the party can’t comfortably forfeit many votes from white middle-class suburbanites who favored the GOP before Trump conquered it. And the gubernatorial elections in Ohio and Georgia suggest that Republicans might be able to claw back some such swing voters without moderating much ideologically.

Consider Brian Kemp. Georgia’s recently reelected governor is profoundly right wing by any reasonable metric. In 2019, Kemp enacted one of the nation’s most draconian abortion bans, restricting legal abortion to the period before a fetus has a detectable heartbeat, which generally occurs within six weeks of pregnancy. He has also doggedly refused to accept federal funds for expanding Medicaid in his state, despite the fact that doing so would help keep many financially embattled rural hospitals — which serve the GOP’s base — afloat. In other words, on multiple highly salient issues, Kemp has flouted both public opinion and sympathetic interest groups in his state in favor of upholding conservative orthodoxy.

And yet, on November 8, Georgia voters backed Kemp over Democrat Stacey Abrams by 7.5 points, even as they gave Democrat Raphael Warnock a plurality in his race against Republican challenger Herschel Walker. Ticket splitters — which is to say, voters who supported both Warnock and Kemp — were concentrated in the vicinity of Atlanta and its suburbs. Which suggests that many college-educated white voters who backed Biden in 2020 and a Democratic Senate candidate in 2022 nevertheless cast a ballot for a radically right-wing Republican governor.

Photo: New York Times

One can tell a similar story about Mike DeWine in Ohio. The Buckeye State’s governor is not quite as reliably reactionary as Kemp. But he signed into law an abortion ban even more aggressive than Georgia’s, prohibiting the termination of a pregnancy after six weeks even in cases of rape and incest (Georgia’s law provides exceptions in those cases, provided that victims filed a police report). He also opposes same-sex marriage and backs tax cuts for the rich. And yet, DeWine won reelection by more than 25 points. In 2020, Biden lost the state by just eight points, while Democratic Senate candidate Tim Ryan lost his race against J.D. Vance this year by just 6.6 points. Thus, a large number of Ohio voters backed Biden over Trump, and Ryan over his Trumpist opponent, while still supporting a proponent of forcing rape victims to give birth and slashing the tax burdens of millionaires.

DeWine and Kemp have several things in common. But one of the most conspicuous is that both stumbled into public conflicts with Donald Trump as a result of their refusal to back his denial of the 2020 election results. After Kemp certified his state’s vote count, Trump cast him as one of the MAGA movement’s great betrayers, and recruited a primary challenger to oust the GOP incumbent. DeWine, meanwhile, went on CNN shortly after the 2020 race was called and said that Biden had “clearly” won, and that Trump should begin preparing for a peaceful transition. In response, Trump attempted (though ultimately failed) to find a credible primary challenger to back against DeWine.

In 2022, Republican candidates with strong ties to Donald Trump — and, more specifically, his attempts at election subversion — tended to dramatically underperform other GOP candidates. Given that pattern, it seems plausible that Kemp and DeWine owed some of their success to the aura of “moderation” they secured merely by being (1) objects of Trump’s ire, and (2) opponents of coups.

Which is a concerning precedent for 2024. If all GOP candidates must do to appear “moderate” in the eyes of suburban swing voters is to get into a high-profile fight with Donald Trump, then any Republican who manages to defeat Trump in the 2024 primary would look moderate to that constituency by default.

To be sure, there are plenty of other explanations for Kemp and DeWine’s ability to simultaneously win Biden voters and champion far-right policies. Incumbent governors tend to outperform other candidates. And in 2022, incumbent governors had the benefit of the American Rescue Plan’s largesse: Biden’s COVID stimulus showered state governments with funds, which made it possible for Republican state officials to slash taxes without significantly paring back spending on education or other social programs dear to the middle class. Indeed, both Kemp and DeWine increased funding for public schools with the former implementing a $5,000-a-year salary increase for Georgia teachers. It is possible that these substantive acts of moderation on high-salience state-level issues helped the governors persuade swing voters to look past their extremism on abortion.

Separately, it is also the case that many college-educated voters who reliably support Democrats in presidential elections nevertheless are willing to back Republicans at the gubernatorial level, where doing so can safeguard their property-tax rates (hence, half the governors in blue New England are Republicans). It is possible then that Biden voters’ willingness to back Kemp and DeWine does not signify an openness to supporting ideologically similar politicians for president in 2024.

And yet, given that many of the Democratic Party’s college-educated supporters did not reside in blue America before Trump’s nomination, there is reason to worry about such voters’ willingness to support very right-wing politicians who had public feuds with the ex-president in 2022.

Therefore, Democrats should do everything they can to ensure that Ron DeSantis (or some other conservative rising star) doesn’t get to claim the mantle of “moderation” in 2024, should they emerge as the Republican nominee. Democrats appear to have gotten some mileage out of denouncing “MAGA” Republicans and warning of the threat Trump poses to democracy. But in the coming years, they would be well advised to also mount a more conventional, ideological indictment of the Republican Party writ large. The GOP is locked into positions on reproductive rights and tax policy that are as unpopular today as they were in 2012 (if not even more so). If a GOP politician wants to force people to give birth, slash taxes on the rich, and “reform” Social Security, their willingness to honor the results of democratic elections shouldn’t count for much.

In 2022, swing voters proved adept at recognizing Republican extremism when it took the form of buffoonish apologists for insurrection. It is possible that the GOP’s standard-bearer will boast that same profile in 2024. But in the event that Trump loses the nomination, Democrats must be ready to help moderates see the radicalism lurking beneath country-club Republican respectability.

One Worrying Sign for Democrats in the Midterm Results