Heading into Tuesday, the conditions that traditionally shape midterm elections strongly favored Republicans. The party of the incumbent president usually does poorly, especially in the incumbent president’s first term. Republicans picked up 54 seats in the House of Representatives midway through Bill Clinton’s first term, and 63 seats two years into Barack Obama’s.
This year Republicans had the added advantage of President Biden’s 42 percent approval rating. Voters also expressed profound unhappiness with the direction of the country. Their views on the economy were overwhelmingly negative, reflecting inflation at the highest level in four decades and real wages declining. People were worried about crime and the failure to secure the southern border. As John McCormick of The Wall Street Journal put it, “Voters on Tuesday cast ballots with overwhelming angst about the economy and little faith in President Biden’s abilities to fix the nation’s ills.”
Yet Democrats did far better than many political experts predicted and than most Democrats expected. As of this writing, control of the Senate is undetermined but leaning Democratic. Republicans are likely to take control of the House by a razor-thin margin, the result of picking up a dozen or so seats. And Democrats appear to have made gains among governorships and in state legislatures.
“This may prove the best midterm performance by the sitting president’s party since 2002,” my colleague David A. Graham wrote.
Part of the reason was the Dobbs decision, which elevated abortion as an issue and energized abortion-rights voters. The New York Times’ Ezra Klein speculated that “negative polarization” helped Democrats; the fear of Republicans prevented the governing party’s normal turnout decline from happening. Preliminary data indicate that he’s correct. The Democratic base showed up, and its coalition held together quite well. Democrats did better among independents than did Republicans. Because of gerrymandering, fewer seats were in play than in the past. And politically, America is fiercely divided. Neither party can dominate the other.
But the main reason Democrats did well is Donald Trump.
Many of Trump’s handpicked choices—in New Hampshire, in Georgia, in Arizona, in Pennsylvania, in Maryland—were unimaginably bad candidates. Trump kept enough attention on himself to prevent the election from being a clear-cut referendum on the unpopular incumbent. (As unpopular as Biden is, Trump is even more unpopular.) And Trump’s main imprint on the GOP—crazed conspiracy theories, dehumanizing policies, lawlessness and chaos—freaked out a lot of Americans who would otherwise have voted Republican.
The conventional wisdom is that Republicans will finally break with Trump, perhaps rallying around an alternative like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who won a decisive reelection victory. And they might. DeSantis is a skilled culture warrior, aware of what appeals to MAGA world.
But bear in mind that since the summer of 2015, Republicans have had countless opportunities to move on from Trump, most conspicuously after the violent attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021, part of Trump’s unprecedented effort to overthrow a presidential election. Republicans have always passed. In fact, the party is more MAGA friendly after his defeat in 2020 than it was during his presidency. A bad midterm election is unlikely to break Trump’s grip on the party.
Why? Because it’s hard to overstate how radicalized and anarchic the base of the Republican Party remains. Donald Trump may have endorsed candidates such as Herschel Walker, Doug Mastriano, Kari Lake, and Mehmet Oz, but it was primary voters who chose them. The lesson primary voters usually learn after several disappointing elections, which is to make changes so their party wins more races, isn’t likely to gain much purchase within MAGA world. And the fact that Trump’s endorsements don’t translate into election victories isn’t news.
Those who inhabit MAGA world are deeply alienated from institutions, including political ones, and therefore a good deal less loyal to the Republican Party than they are to Donald Trump. They view themselves as “anti-establishment” and “anti-elitist”; they have contempt for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. I’m not sure right-wing pundits declaring that the Republican Party needs to move on from Trump will sway those voters, any more than it did in 2015 and 2016, when virtually the entire GOP establishment opposed Trump.
To complicate matters further, the Republican Party today has more, not fewer, MAGA figures in it than in the past. Marjorie Taylor Greene won reelection; Liz Cheney did not. J. D. Vance is entering the Senate; Ben Sasse is leaving it. Meanwhile, more than 200 election deniers will take office at the national and state level in January.
Trump is hardly invincible, nor does he have a lock on the 2024 nomination. Polls indicate that younger Republicans and those with college degrees are becoming disenchanted with him. Trump’s descent into an ever darker, ever more deranged world is creating unease even among some who voted for him. Events can intervene, including health and indictments. And DeSantis has, at this early stage, shown the ability to excite MAGA world.
Nevertheless, Trump is still the dominant figure in the Republican Party. His imprint is all over it. And DeSantis is untested in a presidential campaign. My hunch is that many people who are excited by the idea of his candidacy haven’t actually seen all that much of him. If DeSantis runs, we’ll see just how talented (or not) he is. Running for governor and running for president are two very different things.
This also needs to be said: If the Republican Party does break with Trump now, it will be for only one reason, which is that he’s costing it power. Everything else he did—the relentless assault on truth, the unlimited corruption, the cruelty and incitements to violence, the lawlessness, his sheer depravity—was tolerable and even celebrated, so long as he was in power and viewed by Republicans as the path to more power.
The Republican Party remains diseased. There are a few exceptions, such as Senator Mitt Romney, but Americans should consider the GOP a threat to liberal democracy until we see evidence of dramatic changes. The most encouraging news from the midterms was that just enough Americans understood this; an election that should have been a Republican tsunami produced barely a trickle. As Lisa Lerer of The New York Times put it, voters “showed a limited appetite for the burn-down-the-house approach that Mr. Trump has spread throughout the Republican Party.”
The past half-dozen years have not been easy ones for American democracy. The stress test is hardly over, and the struggle will intensify. But Tuesday was a good day. Voters seemed to understand the nature of the threat; they stepped up rather than succumb to apathy or despair. Americans still have a republic, and most of them still want to keep it.