Many, if not most political analysts are painting a daunting picture for Democrats retaining their House or Senate majorities in 2022. Even those who acknowledge that the U.S. economy will be in a state of overdrive by the time of the midterms point to the conventional wisdom that dictates the party in power will inevitably lose seats to the opposition, as the glow of the prior national election fades, and the tides of partisan resentment rush back in. They remind us that Democrats in 2022 will also be facing a variety of structural and institutional headwinds, including GOP voter suppression tactics and newly redistricted and gerrymandered Republican seats.
But, as a few have pointed out, the “conventional wisdom” is the byproduct of conventional times. And these are not—by any stretch of the imagination—conventional times. While Democrats are understandably focused now on how Joe Biden’s presidency is faring (and thus far it seems to be faring quite well), it may be more instructive to focus on how Republicans are doing, and more importantly, how well they’ll be doing as those midterm elections approach in 2022.
Imagine the United States in October 2022. The COVID-19 pandemic, for all intents and purposes, is behind us, insofar as our lives have mostly returned to normal. Not every person is vaccinated but the great majority are, and indoor and outdoor activities are largely mask-free. Travel flows unimpeded. The economy is booming, with most Americans enjoying the fruits of an unprecedented and massive global spending spree that propelled the economy to such heights that the main worry has been fear of inflation, but even that is only a remote concern. Employment is plentiful and young people are back in school and college.
But for Democrats, a nagging feeling of dread still looms. Over the past year there have been dire pronouncements of a surge of latent anger by Trump voters still furious about an election they are constantly told was stolen from them. The chatter that dominates the political pundit class is filled with dark scenarios in which gridlock returns in the form of a Republican-dominated Senate and House, thanks to gerrymandering and voter suppression.
Those former Trump voters, we are told, are impervious to the improvement in their economic outlook and livelihoods, because they, like their representatives in the Congress and Senate, remain wedded to the specter of Donald Trump, who has been popping in and out of the public eye (between court appearances) all summer long, churning up his base. The palpable fear is that the voters who propelled Democratic majorities in 2018, and to a lesser extent in 2020, will not turn out in the numbers needed to repel this inevitable GOP tide.
With that scenario in mind, former New York Mayoral candidate Mark Green, writing for The Nation, acknowledges how dispiriting the picture appears to be on paper for Democrats right now.
[T]he [GOP] and conventional wisdom assume it can return to minority rule by leveraging several antidemocratic legacies: the Electoral College bequeathed from 1789, extreme gerrymandering, oceans of special-interest money, the Senate filibuster, an upper chamber based more on acreage than population, and an outbreak of recent state voter suppression bills. Then throw in two bonuses: that this week’s Census allocation will likely shift three to five seats from blue to red and that the party out of power has gained an average of 28 House seats in every first midterm election since 1974.
And yet, as he points out, we all may be missing something crucial.
We can start by acknowledging some basic truths. Forget about any major shift in polls showing Republicans clinging to their self-serving narrative about what caused the insurrection of Jan. 6; the fact that the majority of Republicans have chosen to embrace self-delusion isn’t going to change by late 2022, and neither are their votes. Likewise, no single-issue, anti-choice Republican is going to ever vote for a Democrat; neither are any so-called “Christian” voters or “guns” voters. We know that already.
But as Green points out, no gerrymandering or voter suppression laws can counter a relatively small electoral shift by so-called “swing” voters or independents. In fact, that shift need not be more than an eighth of the entire “swing vote” portion of the electorate.
Biden beat Trump in the popular vote 51.4 percent to 46.9 percent. If Democrats can convince even an eighth of swing blue-collar white voters to care more about the well-being of their families than Dr. Seuss, the result would be 55-45 percent landslides that no Republican legislature, local election official or voter-suppression law could reverse. Small shifts can yield big differences.
It’s critical to remember that the violence of Jan. 6 occurred two months after the election in which Biden soundly defeated Donald Trump, even as Republicans made gains in the House. While many—perhaps most—Republicans have convinced themselves the election was stolen from them, a not unsubstantial portion of them were horrified enough by this highly visible act of seditious violence to deep-six their party identification. Of course, they did not become Democrats, but re-registered as independents, as a way of demonstrating their disgust. As Green points out, party identification among Republicans is at the lowest levels in nearly ten years. The reason? Donald Trump and the insurrection he incited on Jan. 6.
The GOP is doing exactly nothing to attract these voters back into the fold. In fact, it’s doubling down on Trumpism in every conceivable way.
Instead of delivering one big shock to the status quo, accumulating Republican crises will likely put them on the defensive in the 2022 and ’24 elections: e.g., mask and vaccine denialism that allowed Covid-19 to spread, an economy that produced zero net jobs under 45, a first-ever decline in life-expectancy, periodic right-wing domestic violence retriggering memories of January 6, the freakiness of the Marjorie Taylor Green/Matt Gaetz contingent, and the party’s continuing genuflection to Trump. Several presidential aspirants are already vying to out-wing and out-Fox each other in a race to the bottom to be the most extreme, not mainstream (see DeSantis, Hawley, Cruz et al.).
For those Republicans who feel disaffected by their party’s embrace of hard-core, nihilistic and nasty Trumpism, nothing has been done to coax back their support, nor does a dramatic turnabout seem likely over the next eighteen months. Meanwhile, the Biden administration, assuming it continues on its present trajectory, will be delivering tangible, undeniable economic benefits to many of these same Americans that are going to be difficult to ignore or bury in stale propaganda about “AOC” the “squad” or “antifa,”which is what Republicans did in 2020. At the same time, Republican elected officials have all but ensured that Donald Trump will essentially be their message. He is, in effect, a proxy for nearly every Republican on the ballot in 2022.
Republicans have already wagered their future on Trumpism. But a fair question is: do voters want that? More specifically, in the wake of Jan. 6, do all Republican voters want that?
Consider the positive images Democrats can convey based on the Biden administration’s actions, juxtaposed with a blanket 24/7 barrage of images from the Jan. 6 insurrection: images of unwashed, screaming, angry Trump supporters beating police officers and smashing windows, being hauled into court to try to justify their social media history and terroristic trail of text messages. There is no “Antifa” footage that compares to the violence so vividly and wantonly displayed on Jan. 6, which (not to belabor the point), occurred after the November 2020 election. As Green says, the “negative ads write themselves:” This is who Republicans now represent. This is what you get by voting Republican: mayhem, murder, Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene.
Political strategist James Carville, interviewed last week for Vox, makes a similar point.
[The Democrats can’t fuck it up. They have to make the Republicans own that insurrection every day. They have to pound it. They have to call bookers on cable news shows. They have to get people to write op-eds. There will be all kinds of investigations and stories dripping out for god knows how long, and the Democrats should spend every day tying all of it to the Republican Party. They can’t sit back and wait for it to happen.
Hell, just imagine if it was a bunch of nonwhite people who stormed the Capitol. Imagine how Republicans would exploit that and make every news cycle about how the Dems are responsible for it. Every political debate would be about that. The Republicans would bludgeon the Democrats with it forever.
Not only would an incessant, unrelenting focus on this “new” GOP violent radicalism and depraved craziness de-motivate GOP-leaning “Independent” voters from voting Republican, it would also motivate Democrats to turn out, because no one but die-hard Republicans want to see that happen again. Again, we’re only talking about chipping away at the margins here. That’s all we’re likely to get, but that’s all we need.
Green discusses the historical context of political “realignments” which usually owe themselves to a sudden shock to the status quo, such as the Democratic realignment after the Great Depression. In the polarized propaganda-infested environment we live in today, Green is clear-eyed enough to recognize such a profound re-ordering is unlikely to ever occur again. And in fact, he sees two possibilities in 2022, either a resurgence in Trumpism (“MAGA again”) or a slow, steady disintegration of the GOP from the edges, bleeding first into those new “independents.”
Green doubts that the MAGA line will hold sway with the Republicans’ current strategy of “performative farce posing as policy,’ particularly in the face of an economic resurgence: ”Indeed, lacking any positive agenda, the GOP seems content merely to demonize Democrats and ascribe sinister motives to them to ‘own the liberals’ … then hope that tribal loyalty and confirmation bias will close the deal with credulous voters.” Likewise, Ron Brownstein, writing for The Atlantic, believes the key for Democrats in 2022 will be “showing Democratic voters what Republicans will do to them if they regain power in Congress next year.”
As the stunning Senate victories of Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in Georgia showed, a small decrease in Republican turnout, coupled with a concerted GOTV drive by Democrats, can literally alter the balance of power in Washington, and thus determine the future of the country.
The Republicans insist they won the last election. The attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and their actions thereafter showcased how they intended to impose that lie on the rest of the country. If they want to win in 2022, Democrats must ensure that the American people—Democrats, Republicans and Independents alike —are vividly reminded of that infamous day, over and over again.
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