By Will Bellaimey:
It's the end of 2022, and Will Bellaimey is back to talk about the state of democracy in the USA, the political implications of the midterm elections, and what we can look forward to in politics for the year to come.
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Historically Speaking: December 2022 - Part 1
Today is Tuesday, November 29, 2022, and we're here for another round of Historically Speaking, which is the series where we're talking about what's happening in the world and comparing it to things that have happened in the past.
Just over three weeks ago, we had a midterm election, and a lot of people expected this midterm to follow the basic rule of political science, which is that the president's party loses seats in the midterms. And the reason that that has happened over and over again is mainly that when people are upset about the direction the country's going, or at least about who's in charge of the country, they show up to vote. Whereas if you're happy with how things are going, maybe you stay home. And you can look at 1992, Bill Clinton's elected in 1994, Newt Gingrich and the Republicans take over the house. In 2008, Barack Obama's elected, in 2010
the Tea Party takes over, or Donald Trump in 2016 leads to the 2018 blue wave election. So all of those kind of basic ideas would've suggested a red wave this time around, with all the people who are still upset about Joe Biden winning the election, or people who believe that the election was stolen, turning out to vote, whereas Democrats being less enthusiastic didn't show up. And that's not really what happened. The Republicans did manage to take back the House, but only by a pretty slim margin, and they didn't manage to take back the Senate. In fact, they lost a seat in Pennsylvania. And if the Georgia runoff election ends in a victory for the incumbent Raphael Warnock [Ed. Note: Warnock did win], then the Democrats have actually picked up a seat. So I guess the big political science question right now is like, why did this occur? Why didn't the trend continue? And there's a couple different explanations.
First, let's talk about the idea of enthusiasm. Enthusiasm isn't exactly the right word when we're talking about people being really concerned about the direction of the country, but several things have made it so that perhaps Democrats are less complacent than they would normally be when they control both houses of Congress and the presidency. And obviously the huge news story related to that is the overturning of Roe v. Wade this summer. There were already signs, even just a few weeks after that Supreme Court decision officially came down, that this would have an effect on the electoral outcomes. In Kansas, there was election that saw a huge turnout among female voters that swung it in the Democratic direction and also on a number of ballot initiatives that ended up basically limiting the effect of this Roe v. Wade decision. Although there's still so many states in the country that today have really restrictive abortion laws that weren't there just a few months ago.
But when you're in that state of being concerned, you're maybe more likely to show up to vote. And so if you look at some of the states where the Democrats did better than expected, some of it was about voter turnout, especially among female voters but also among men and other people who are just concerned about the direction the country's going.
And I guess this is where it's worth reminding ourselves what powers the people in Congress actually have when it comes to the right to choose. The biggest one is that if a federal law were to be passed, either restricting abortion further or protecting the right to choose an abortion, that would override all of the state laws; that's how the Constitution is set up, right? If there's no federal law, then it's left to the states. And so when the Supreme Court said that states are allowed to make their own decisions, that doesn't preclude Congress from saying, "Up to this point, you have an absolute right to an abortion." And so I think the Democrats, you know, running for office mostly were promising some law that would be similar to Roe v. Wade, which would protect the right to an abortion up to the first trimester. And Republicans, at least some of them, were running saying that they would pass a law that would restrict abortion even in the blue states that currently have protections for it.
But in a lot of close races, Republicans basically found that this was not a winning issue for them. And that, in fact, trying to seem more moderate on the question of abortion laws was the best route to try to win the kind of independent or middle-of-the-road voters who you need in a close race.
And that's interesting because for so many years, abortion (and particularly pro-life votes) have been the key to Republican voter turnout, getting huge evangelical groups of voters to turn out and vote and also to winning the primary. But like a lot of things that have happened to the Republican Party in the last few years, you're seeing a gap between what the activist base is hoping and what actually wins you a general election. And so a lot of people who to win the Republican primary had to really show their pro-life bona fides ended up losing in the general election.
I guess the other theory about what happened in the midterm elections isn't about the specific issue of abortion but is more about the personalities of Joe Biden and Donald Trump.
And like I was saying earlier, often voters feel that the midterm elections are a referendum on the person in the White House—but the person who left the White House is also still looming largely over our politics.
And so one of the reasons why a lot of Democrats felt motivated to turn out to vote was because they were doing this as a repudiation to the previous president, Donald Trump. The former president has had a pretty big hand in picking the candidates who ended up running in the midterms. And so there was a lot of news stories right after the election about what effect Trump endorsements had on the success of candidates in the general election. And so obviously the big Senate race that people paid attention to was John Fetterman versus Dr. Oz. And Dr. Oz was in a very close primary with a number of different Republican options, and he was probably the most Trumpian in the sense of being a celebrity who is somebody that people are familiar with from television and may not have traditional political experience, though perhaps Dr. Oz's style is a little less bombastic than Trump's.
Trump ended up endorsing him. And so when Oz ends up losing a race to John Fetterman, who had a stroke, you know, a few weeks before the election and had some bad debate performances that made people think, Oh, this guy's not gonna do well, there was immediately a kind of postmortem both in the media at large and within Republican Party circles about, okay, does this mean that, you know, Trump-endorsed candidates aren't actually the best option? And Oz isn't the only example of that. Carrie Lake in Arizona, another celebrity candidate who really strongly embraced the kind of "stop the steal" energy. And a number of other Trump-endorsed candidates around the country ended up not winning, although they did get pretty close. And so I think the question of whether Trump's control on the Republican Party is being loosened by the events of the midterms is still very much an open question.
So that's kind of the overall narrative of the midterms—the non-existent red wave turning into a red trickle.
But as with any election that's not just about two people but about a bunch of different offices in a bunch of different states, there's also more stories to be had there.
One exception to the narrative is Florida, where you saw Ron DeSantis winning the governorship not by the tiny margin that he did, you know, back in 2018 but by an enormous margin, including in cities like Miami, where traditionally Republicans did not have much of a chance. And so trying to read the tea leaves of that is another piece of trying to understand what's going on in the country right now. So certainly that result made a lot of people wonder if Ron DeSantis might be the best option if Republicans are looking to go with someone besides Trump in the 2024 election.
And it remains to be seen whether he's actually going to attempt that or not. I've certainly read reports that he would seriously consider doing it and others that he doesn't want to get into a fight with the most popular member of the Republican Party, which is still former-president Trump. But it also speaks to different demographic changes and political changes within Florida itself, which was a state whose identity during the pandemic was very much shaped by Ron DeSantis, who refused to go along with a lot of the COVID restrictions, whether it was masks or vaccine mandates that other states put in place. And that did lead to people moving there who wanted to get out of the pandemic rules, which can shift the demographics. You also have an aging population that has consistently been more conservative than a younger population. And the turnout of Gen Z in a lot of states that may have also had an effect on the outcome was not as big of a deal in retirement-based Florida.
And, of course, everyone's continuing to talk about the question of where Latino voters fall on the American political spectrum, because there were signs in the 2020 election that even though Trump lost that he was doing better than a lot had expected in some places like South Texas. And certainly, in Florida, the Latino vote has gone strongly for people like Ron DeSantis, who are unabashedly conservative. And I guess the first obvious thing to say is that Latinos are not a monolith when it comes to voting. And it particularly in a place like Florida where a large portion of the population is Cuban American or Venezuelan and have been under leftist horrifying regimes, there's an openness to the kind of criticism of socialism that has been part of the Republican Party brand for a long time but has been particularly pointed in the last few years with people like DeSantis and even Trump.
There were signs in this election that the kind of shift in Texas that people were seeing in 2020 was not as pronounced in 2022. Greg Abbott still won the governor's election pretty convincingly, but Beto as the standard bearer of the Democrats, did better in some of those counties than Biden had two years earlier. So I think that remains to be seen as a question about the future of the Latino votes. And I think that also is something that we're seeing here in California.
Will Bellaimey teaches U.S. Government and Politics at Flintridge Prep School outside Los Angeles where he is also the director of the Los Angeles Museum of Geography, which is staffed entirely by seventh graders. His podcast, All the Presidents, Man, is available here.