What Will Republicans Learn from the Midterms?

It is axiomatic that, in war, the losers learn more than the winners. Given how much reckless talk of actual civil war is in the air, I am hesitant to resort to martial metaphors, especially in this case, where the Republicans—who were very clearly the losers Tuesday night—are unlikely to learn much. Leave it to them to defy the cliché in the worst possible way.

As of this writing, we don’t yet know which party will control Congress. What we do know is that whatever the outcome, the ensuing majorities in both houses will be razor thin. That is because of the other thing we know, which is that Joe Biden and the Democrats held on to seats up and down the ballot in historic proportions in defiance of the usual midterm pattern. That victory was especially sweet amid all the pre-Election Day Republican arrogance about a “red wave,” and eleventh hour gaslighting by the party and its allies, from Fox to Musk to the Kremlin, abetted by the reliably useful idiots in the MSM, that it was already a done deal. 

Luckily, John and Jane Q. Voter didn’t listen. 

It is obviously very cheering that we saw stark evidence that sanity is still alive in the USA, if only barely. A slim majority of Americans firmly repudiated Trumpism, making it clear they don’t want election deniers and insurrectionists and hatemongers running the government…that they want us to be “a normal country” again, as I heard one pundit say. By “normal,” I presume they mean one where extremists don’t hold the levers of power, where every election is not an existential crisis, where the losers don’t reflexively howl that they wuz rubbed, where every day is not a nerve-rattling shitshow to which we awake wondering “What fresh hell?” 

Still, it is alarming is how close it was, and how many of our fellow citizens are fully onboard with the Big Lie and budding right wing autocracy, or at least not sufficiently bothered by it to run the Republican Party out of business for good. But I will take what I can get. Like many, I thought it would be worse. A lot worse. 

So, returning to our opening premise, can we correctly say that the GOP “lost” when it might still wind up controlling the House and maybe the Senate as well? Yes, in terms of underperforming relative to lofty expectations. Yes also, in terms of political capital, and tailwinds, and public opinion, and other intangibles in the Democrats’ favor. 

But in terms of explicit power, a win is a win, whether it’s a squeaker or a blowout, as Susan Glasser noted in The New Yorker. If the Republican Party gets control of either or both houses, you can count on it to act like it has a sweeping, landslide-driven mandate, humility and optics and even pragmatic long term self-interest be damned. As Glasser writes: “A one-vote margin in the House would still give subpoena power to Jim Jordan as the chair of the House Judiciary Committee. It would still mean the difference between Biden being able to advance his legislative agenda with a Democratic Speaker or the impossibility of doing so with a Republican one.”

Preach. If Kevin McCarthy gets the gavel—let alone, God forbid, Mitch McConnell over in the Senate—he will do all the things that have been predicted in these pages and elsewhere—impeach Biden, shield Trump from prosecution, cut off aid to Ukraine, try to pass a nationwide abortion ban—just as if the GOP had won the midterms in a 2010-style “shellacking.” 

Then again, Kev might not become Speaker at all. But if he does, it will be Marjorie Taylor Greene acting as his puppetmaster. 

McCarthy may be smart enough to know that many of these actions will be vastly unpopular with a general public that just announced that it’s tired of the politics of grievance and obstructionism. But Kevin will not be able to resist the pressure from his party’s Hamas wing (to cop a phrase from Barney Frank in reference to an earlier generation of the Republican lunatic fringe). As former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe noted the other night, Speaker McCarthy, should he ascend to that role, is in for years of misery, in a glorious case of “careful what you wish for.”

Or it might just be months. Boehner and Ryan await you on the golf course, Kev.

Because here’s the thing, dear reader: 

How many people out there think that this epic thumping that the GOP just took will cause it to come to its senses? How many of you believe that, as my friend Tom Hall at the Back Row Manifesto says, Republicans will be “chastened into good governance and policies and will tack to the center”? (Note: Withering Sarcasm™.)

Of course they won’t. They will look at the results and say, “We weren’t extreme enough!” They will conclude that they have to re-double their current efforts to control the electoral process in order to award themselves victories and secure power, as they clearly cannot do so fair and square. (Luckily, that does not bother them.) Even as it was made abundantly clear that the American public by and large does not want Trumpist candidates, that faction of the GOP will exert even more power going forward, because the so-called “normie” branch of the party made a Faustian bargain with them from which it cannot extricate itself.

I realize that that is not the consensus of the punditocracy. I know that the left, and the Never Trump right, are both justifiably celebrating this rebuke of Trump. (There was so much glee on “Morning Joe” the day after the election that even I got embarrassed.) I know how good that feels and how satisfying it is. But I am not yet prepared to say that this midterm marks the end of the radical right turn of the Republican Party that began, uh, in 1964 but truly accelerated in 2016. It may mark nothing more than the passing of the right wing torch from Trump to DeSantis, if that, and that frankly, is a lateral move. (More on that in a moment.)

In The Atlantic, Peter Wehner notes that the contemporary GOP has grown more, not less Trumpy in its composition of late: Cheney and Kinzinger are out, MTG, Boebert, Gosar, Biggs, and Gaetz are in. And these people are not known for their savvy electoral politics.

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…. 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 that point: it was noteworthy that voters turned away Big Lie Republicans in governor and secretary state races in particular, positions crucial to who controls and certifies the vote in 2024. Even so, some 150 election deniers did manage to win seats in Congress across 45 states, an increase from the 143 who on January 6, 2021 voted not to certify Joe Biden’s victory, even after a violent attempt at a self-coup earlier that day. 

(Guess how many of those deniers are saying their own elections were fraudulent? I’ll give you a hint: it’s a number that was first used by the ancient Mesopotamians in the year 3 BCE.)

So rumors of the Big Lie’s death are greatly exaggerated. 

Of course, I could be wrong. It may yet prove that this is—finally—the thing that breaks Trump’s grip on the Republican Party: quite simply, that he is undeniably costing them elections. What could be more prosaic? But if the GOP didn’t follow the advice of its famous “autopsy” after Romney’s beatdown in 2012, at a time when the party was still controlled by semi-rational grownups, what makes us think it will do so now that it is much more deeply in the grip of the lunatics?

So yes, a modicum of sanity was cited in America on Tuesday night, like a rare bird thought to be extinct. But guard lowering is not advised. Far from it.


A brief round-the-horn survey of some other noteworthy aspects of the midterms:

Biden and others—like DNC Chairman Jaime Harrison, and White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain—came in for heavy pre-Election Day criticism over strategy, especially the decision to focus on the threat to democracy, and on abortion rights, and not so-called kitchen sink issues. But “Dobbs, Deniers, and Donald,” as one chryon put it, proved to be a winning combo. 

Many people wanted us to believe that the outrage over Dobbs had cooled and would not help Democrats. But it turned out that a lot of American women—and men, too, those who believe that Margaret Atwood’s vision of the future is not something we should aspire to—have memories that last longer than a few months. In addition to widespread victories by pro-choice candidates over advocates of forced birth, referendums codifying the right to an abortion passed not only in California and Michigan but even in Kentucky and Montana, following the model of Kansas last August. 

Some of the other big Democratic wins: Josh Shapiro over the monstrous Doug Mastriano in the Pennsylvania governor’s race, which could prove pivotal in that swing state in ‘24, especially now that Florida is no longer in play; also in PA, Fetterman over Oz, along with wins in every other competitive House race in that state. Gretchen Whitmer was re-elected as governor and Jocelyn Benson as secretary of state in Michigan, also a crucial state, both of whom were targeted for murder by Trumpist domestic terrorists in ’20. Wes Moore became the first Black governor of Maryland and only the third Black governor elected in US history. (Can you fucking believe that?) Then there was Max Frost of Florida, winning Val Demings’ old district, the gay Afro-Cuban who will be the youngest member of the new Congress and first ever representative from Gen Z. And we now have two “out” lesbian governors, up from zero, as the New York Times’ Michelle Goldberg reports, Tina Hotek of Oregon and Maura Healey of Massachusetts.

In Wisconsin, Tony Evers won re-election as governor, and Republicans failed to obtain the legislative supermajority that would have allowed them to neuter him, even as that state remains a terrifying laboratory for experimentation in right wing autocracy. As of this writing, Lauren Boebert may lose her race in Colorado and Katie Hobbs may yet triumph over the despicable Kari Lake in Arizona. (Lake—Trump in a dress, but with a similar haircut—is already crying “fraud” even before the race is called.)

But there were some tough losses too: in Senate races in Ohio and North Carolina, and longer shots in Iowa and Florida and the governor’s races in Georgia and Texas. Not to criticize the DNC, having just praised it, but with a little money, Tim Ryan might have beat that toxic poseur J.D. Vance in the Buckeye State. Despite the loss, his campaign was an impressive model, and his concession speech—a paean to the privilege of being able to congratulate his opponent in a peaceful transfer of power—was a thing of beauty, not to mention a pointed rebuke to the opposing party that would do away with such quaint traditions.

Another loss, and a brutal one, was in New York, where cosmetics billionaire Ronald Lauder pumped $11 million into trying to put former Congressman Lee Zeldin, another election denier, into the governor’s chair. He failed, but Zeldin did well enough in right wing bastions like Long Island, Staten Island, and upstate to boost several Republican candidates for the House. Republicans were further aided by a new electoral map, drawn up by a court-ordered special master last spring, that leveled the playing field for them in that heavily Democratic state. 

Now, one may say that insisting upon less partisan redistricting is a good thing, and it is….but it is not being applied evenly across the national board. Along with New York, blue states like Colorado and New Jersey threw out gerrymandered to favor Democrats. But in Wisconsin, Tennessee, North Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Ohio, and Texas, to name just a few, maps that had been heavily gerrymandered to favor Republicans were allowed to stand—often by Republican-dominated courts—resulting in a pickup of several House seats for the GOP with a mere finger snap. 

You can’t win when you are made to play the fair and the other side isn’t. For that very reason, Republicans are sure to ramp up their efforts to rig the game even further next time. 

But the real sin was that the dysfunctional NY state Democratic Party made it worse by pitting its own incumbents against each other, like stalwarts Jerry Nadler and Caroline Maloney (Maloney lost and left Congress after thirty years there), or Sean Patrick Maloney, the national chairman of the DCCC, who chose to run in Mondaire Jones’s old district. In a bitter irony, Maloney then lost in that district, the first time that has happened to a conference chairman of either party in thirty years. 

The consequences of such incompetence are gutting. The old map would have put just four New York Republicans in the House; the new one put eleven, which is outrageous in a state that went for Biden by 24 points in 2020, and might be the critical difference that winds up costing the Democrats that chamber. As a New Yorker, that really hurts, and we only have our own party’s infighting to blame.


The midterm results weren’t even in yet when the GOP began citing the record turnout as evidence that the new laws it put in place in numerous states following their 2020 loss were not draconian, as Democrats had argued—let alone Jim Crow 2.0—and had not in fact made it harder for Americans—certain Americans, that is—to vote. 

But just because the American people overcame the obstacles that had been put in their way and got to the polls regardless does not mean that those obstacles were any less egregious. Moreover, there’s no way of knowing how much greater the Democrats’ turnout would have been—and therefore their wins—if such suppression had not taken place.

Depending on what happens in Nevada and Arizona, control of the Senate, and therefore the contours of the next two years, may come down yet again to a runoff in Georgia, a place where that kind of voter suppression has been rife under Governor Brian Kemp, pre-dating Trump in fact. It is mind-boggling to me that the voters of that state, of which I am an adopted son, are so evenly split between two candidates who could not be more opposite in every possible way. One wonders if those numbers would still be so, and if Warnock might have cleared the 50% threshold to avoid a runoff, without that suppression.

Elsewhere in the former Confederacy, Florida is now undeniably a solid red state, taking its 29 electoral votes with it. That is a strategic reality with which the Democratic Party will have to reckon going forward. 

Having accomplished that admittedly impressive feat, DeSantis—“Boring Trump,” as Ari Melber calls him—is being touted more than ever as the future of his party, and rational Republican strategists will no doubt be longing for him to assume that position formally. I, for one, question whether he can export his particular brand of charmless Nixonian autocracy, and how well it will work—and play—outside the uniquely weird Sunshine State. Can he replicate his success nationwide? Will he even be given the chance, or will the party continue to stick with Trump? 

Either way, it’s very likely that in the process Trump will burn the party to the ground in an internecine gangland-style war. Couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch of guys. 

But let’s be clear: DeSantis does not represent a repudiation of Trumpism. He is more like the “smarter Trump“ that many of us have long feared, one who pursues the same odious policies, and with the same Donald-like cruelty, but via a more disciplined approach (and minus the carnival freak show), making him even more dangerous in some ways. 

Trump has now lost the popular vote in two presidential races and the electoral vote in one; cost his party the Senate in the Georgia runoff in January 2021; backed dozens of losing candidates in multiple elections; and been the cause of terrible beatings in two successive midterms. Writing in The New York Post (!), John Podhoretz calls Trump “perhaps the most profound vote-repellent in modern American history.” How much pressure will now be on the GOP to dump Donald—an “electoral boat anchor,” as Charlie Sykes calls him—for Ronald, who, for all his own awfulness, has proven that he can deliver wins? 

If they do, it won’t be because they suddenly grew a conscience. Peter Wehner again: 

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.


Just before Election Day, Graeme Wood, a writer I generally admire, had a condescending piece in The Atlantic that pooh-poohed the idea that American democracy is under serious threat. In particular, he took issue with Biden casting the current crisis in Gettysburg-like terms during a recent speech at Union Station in Washington. Wood writes:

Many Republicans running for office are either real threats to democracy, or pretending to be threats to democracy because they think their base finds those threats arousing. In either case they are unfit for office, and I hope residents of Arizona, for example, vote accordingly. 

Biden listed various attempts to intimidate voters and election officials. But the suggestion that these crimes have reached a magnitude that might threaten the American constitutional system is simply not borne out by facts or the experience of voters themselves—almost all of whom have more vivid personal experience of high gas prices than of being prevented from voting.

With all due respect, I find this position hopelessly naïve and privileged. It’s true that we are not at a Ft. Sumter-level of crisis—not yet, and I hope we never get there. But do we have to be at that stage of emergency before we take action? I don’t know what cosseted world Mr. Wood lives in, but it must be nice there.

He was even more nakedly wrong—and cynical—in arguing that “democracy is in danger” was a weak closing argument for the Democrats in this election, and that Americans care more about inflation and gas prices. (“The decision to make the preservation of democracy the core of Democrats’ pitch to voters strikes me as a choice of the lofty over the effective,” he wrote. “Voters simply do not care in large numbers about democratic norms.”) 

Some fit that description, certainly. But the evidence suggests that enough people did respond to Biden’s cri de coeur, and I would submit that it is precisely because they can feel how real the threat is. I am quite sure Paul Pelosi feels it. 

You never get credit for the disasters you avoid, but that public response at the polls helped beat back the wave of autocracy a little bit the other night. And we will surely have to do so again, and soon. 

So let’s not get complacent or overconfident or fool ourselves that the danger has passed. It has not. We ought to have learned by now that the modern GOP will stop at nothing in its quest for raw power, and one midterm setback is not going to deter it. On the contrary, it will only make Republicans more radical, and ferocious, and willing to fight dirty to gain the kind of political chokehold that means they’ll never have to face the nuisance of a free election ever again.

Tuesday night was a welcome sign that the light of democracy is still flickering in America, but there are chilly winds still blowing. We ignore them at our own peril.


Photo: President Biden speaking in Philadelphia on September 1, 2022 warning of the threat to democracy posed by the Republican Party. Credit: Doug Mills/The New York Times.

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