Big Truth Beats Big Lie
How the midterms are a prophylactic for the future of democracy
I don’t know about you, but I’ve been sleeping better this month. In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro, who was rapidly destroying the lungs of the planet (the Amazon rainforest), was defeated for re-election and has agreed to leave office. In Ukraine, Russian forces are fleeing Kherson, an important blow for freedom. And in the United States, disgust with Donald Trump and his lying cult followers and the shocking removal of a constitutional right by the Supreme Court determined the midterm elections. Voters defied the political physics that almost always bring steep losses in midterm elections for the party controlling the White House.
You could almost hear the collective sigh of relief on Election Night. Beyond accumulating Democratic victories, there were few reports of irregularities and none of violence, and exit polls showed continued confidence that elections are run fairly. But I nonetheless worried that when it came to the future of democracy, all the exhaling was premature. So I decided to wait until I learned the fate of Mark Finchem before celebrating.
Because of delays in counting votes in Maricopa County, it wasn’t until Friday that we learned that the fascist Oath Keeper and anti-Semite had lost to Adrian Fontes for Arizona secretary of state, though of course Finchem won’t actually concede.
Remember the late Tim Russert’s reprise of “Florida, Florida, Florida” on Election Night 2000? With Florida now solidly red — the only bright spot for Republicans — Election Night 2024 could easily see anchors chanting “Arizona, Arizona, Arizona.”
Thus my obsession with Finchem, who earlier this year told my daughter, Charlotte Alter, a senior correspondent for TIME, that Joe Biden couldn’t possibly have won Arizona in 2020 (despite a rightwing audit confirming he did) because “I can’t find anyone who will admit that they voted for Joe Biden.”
That’s the way election deniers think. If elected, Finchem would have almost certainly refused to certify the victory of a Democratic presidential candidate in Arizona in 2024. This would have created chaos and quite possibly taken Arizona off the board, throwing the election into the House of Representatives, where under the Constitution (where each state gets one vote) the Republican candidate would have almost certainly prevailed.
That’s less of a concern now, in Arizona and elsewhere, which means we should think of the midterms as a series of prophylactic elections. The results offer welcome protection for 2024 without suggesting that the authoritarian Republican Party is no longer a danger to democracy.
In the six critical battleground states for 2024 — Arizona, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Nevada — the good guys won and will have control of the election machinery. There were close shaves. Wisconsin re-elected Democrat Tony Evers as governor and caught a break in the heavily-gerrymandered races for state legislature, avoiding a veto-proof GOP majority by a mere 2,500 votes. Something similar happened in North Carolina, where Republicans fell one seat short of a super-majority in the House, which would have hamstrung efforts by Democratic Governor Roy Cooper (a possible candidate for president) to protect democracy. And in Nevada, Jim Marchant, an election denier and conspiracy theorist who still claims voting machines were extensively hacked in 2020, lost to Democrat Cisco Aguilar for secretary of state.
The news for democracy almost everywhere else has also been good. Election deniers lost for secretary of state every place they reared their ugly heads except in bright red Indiana, Wyoming and Alabama. And in 12 states, anti-democratic creeps lost for governor.
In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer beat Tudor Dixon by ten points in part because an abortion referendum was on the ballot and Dixon had locked herself into a position of opposing choice even in cases of rape and incest. But what caught my attention was that Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson thrashed election denier Kristina Karamo by 14 points. That means more than 100,000 very conservative Michiganders voted for Dixon but not for Karamo. They didn’t want biased referees, even if they would help their team. The same thing happened in Nevada, where voters turned en masse against Marchant for secretary of state while electing a Republican governor who was focused on other issues.
Did I see this coming? Sort of. Regular readers know that I have been posting for 10 months with headlines like “How Democrats Can Win In November,” “Why Roe Reversal Will Fuel Democrats” and “Forget the Red Wave.”
I explained why polling was broken and predicted that while Democrats would narrowly lose the House (I had no idea of how narrowly), they would hold the Senate and do better than expected overall.
Over the course of the year, I came to trust an old source, Simon Rosenberg of the New Democrat Network. He and Tom Bonier of TargetEarly are the only two Democratic strategists who got it right this time. Beyond his prescience in his July interview with me, check out part of his post-mortem interview with Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo:
My mistake was to go wobbly on Simon’s analysis just before the election, the only period when in the past I have found polls reliable. I was shocked to hear the day before the election that the Democrats’ own private polls showed them losing at least two major races they ended up winning. These polls were off by as much as nine points. I was snookered by a New York Times-Siena poll (backed up by two others) that showed suburban women trending heavily Republican, and by an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll indicating that independents would vote for the GOP. While the generic congressional polling was accurate enough, these and many other polls were way off on many specific races and in cross tabs.
Another mistake: I didn’t view protecting democracy — essential as it is — as a major voting issue. I saw it mostly as a mobilization tool — a matter of passionate interest to Democratic activists and therefore a good way to get the early-voting base to drag reluctant Democrats to the polls on Election Day. It turned out this was a good issue for both the base and for swing voters, whom polls had wrongly showed backing Republicans. Joe Biden was right and smarty pants Democratic strategists were wrong: Closing with a strong democracy message was the way to go.
I wrote last week that decency should also be on the ballot but didn’t predict that it would be. There’s no way to know for sure, but my guess is that Trump going full Alex Jones by joining Elon Musk in peddling insane stories about Paul Pelosi and a gay prostitute hurt Republican candidates with independents and undecideds. Nor did Kari Lake laughing at an 82-year-old man in intensive care (and dissing John McCain) enhance her prospects. (Most polls showed her winning but she appears to have lost). Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin sent a handwritten note of apology to Nancy Pelosi for joking about her but he didn’t disclose having done so until a day after the midterms — after performative nastiness had been rejected by the voters. This was a sign that Republicans might not be so quick to revert to its usual mean.
It quickly became clear that Trump’s meanness toward Ron DeSantis (calling him “Ron DeSanctimonious” and claiming to have other dirt) didn’t play well with the GOP, whose donor base is now moving quickly toward DeSantis. For all his Trumpiness, he has seemed to understand that 2020 election denial is a bad look. Even before the midterms, focus groups found a large number of seemingly hardcore Trump supporters who say their man is damaged goods and are ready to make the switch now to DeSantis that they have another option. I could be wrong, but my guess is these garden variety Republicans aren’t as likely as they once were to rally around Trump if (I’d say, when) he’s indicted. And they can be excused for getting confused over which “steal” they’re now “stopping” — the one of the 2020 election or Kari Lake’s inevitable descent into sore loser land.
Whatever DeSantis’ fate (and he may have a glass jaw), his new standing could affect the Democrats, too. Trump and Biden are running about even in polls at this point. But it seems to me inevitable that when the White House hits a speed bump next year, these head-to-head polls — however premature — will show the 44-year-old DeSantis with a significant lead over the 80-year-old president, whom two thirds of Democrats believe is too long in the tooth for the job. Then pressure will mount for generational change in both parties at the same time. That, too, will be good for democracy. Sweet dreams.