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The Red Wave Crashes on the Rocks of Voter Rejection

In a contradictory result, voters have rejected the Republican hopes of a “red wave,” instead choosing to protect abortion at the state level and deliver a likely split government.

Sybil Davis

November 9, 2022
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Image: Getty Images

While many races remain too close to call — with recounts, run-offs, and challenges on the horizon — the 2022 midterms have delivered one clear message: the so-called red wave that many were expecting did not come to pass. While the GOP may still take the House, the party’s dreams of capturing commanding majorities in both the House and Senate are out of reach as the Democrats hold on to many seats and even flip some important races, such as the Pennsylvania Senate race.

The 2022 midterms took place at a more right-wing moment than several past elections. Unlike the anti-Trump wave of 2018 and the 2020 election in the wake of BLM, the 2022 midterms have shown the right wing on the advance, most notably at the state level. State Republicans, increasingly in alliance with sectors of the Far Right, have unleashed horrific attacks on basic democratic rights to bodily autonomy, self-identification, and voting. All indicators show that they will continue to do so. Meanwhile, the Democrats, even while holding the entire national government, have failed to defend against these attacks, instead using them to turn fear into votes while moderating their discourse against the Right to appeal to sectors of GOP voters who are not necessarily enthralled by Trumpism.

The election was initially framed by the Democrats as a referendum on abortion rights — their main pitch to voters was that they would protect abortion at the state and federal level. The Republicans countered this by framing the election as a referendum on the economy (though sectors also sought to make it another battle of the culture war). As it became clear that the economy was at the top of voters’ minds and even abortion access might not be enough to fully keep control of Congress, the Democrats sounded the alarm and tried to shift their campaigning away from promising abortion rights at the federal level to protecting abortion in the states and differentiating their own vision of how to combat inflation from that of the GOP.

The initial results suggest that though Democrats changed course and bet that too narrow a focus on reproductive rights would alienate voters, abortion was crucial for their electoral gains this week. That said, fears about the economy still drive many voters’ decisions. That the twin issues of abortion and the economy were central was born out by exit polling. In the NBC national exit poll, 31 percent of voters said their most important issue was inflation, while 27 percent (the next highest number) said it was abortion.

In this more right-wing context, the result is positive in the short term for the Democrats, who saved many seats that, at one time, seemed lost. The support for abortion was also seen in every single ballot measure around abortion, which universally, from Kentucky to Michigan, went in favor of protecting abortion. This underlines yet again that the base is to the left of the political establishment and overwhelmingly supports the continued protection of abortion. There is popular support across the country not only to codify Roe v. Wade but to make abortion on demand a federal law. But the Democrats won’t do this. Instead, they favor a state-by-state approach, keeping the abortion question (which is their most valuable electoral asset) on the table for longer and also using state ballot measures as a get-out-the-vote tactic to boost their chances in those states.

Indeed, the success of these ballot measures and the rejection of many (but not all) of the most socially conservative Republicans flies in the face of the line that was being trotted out by sectors of the populist wing of the Democratic Party — and even echoed by social democratic website Jacobin — that the Democrats were setting themselves up for failure by focusing too much on abortion. These results fly in the face of the argument that the working class doesn’t care about abortion and cares only about the economy. With the economy still at the top of people’s concerns, however, this temporary reprieve for the Democrats may not last long.

Yet broad sectors are to the left of either party’s campaigning. This can be seen in the ballot measures, even outside abortion. Maryland and Missouri legalized cannabis (even though Missouri went solidly red); Tennessee and Alabama closed horrific Thirteenth Amendment loopholes; Illinois voted to enshrine collective bargaining in its constitution; South Dakota (one of the reddest states this election) voted to expand Medicaid; and Nebraska and Nevada voted to raise the minimum wage. These are political demands that aren’t taken up fully by either party. 

The fact that so many of the races this election season were so close, even if Democrats eke out more wins than losses, is evidence of continued polarization and instability at the national level. In this sense, the election results can be taken as, in limited ways, a partial rejection of the right. But the results should not be taken as an embrace of the Democrats. Put another way: the Democrats didn’t win as much as the Republicans lost. It’s clear that many voters are more afraid of the other party taking power than they have enthusiasm for the actual candidates on the ballots. The results of many of the ballot initiatives are a small example of this. They reflect shifting consciousness among broad sectors of the population that point towards the common interests of our class in the fight against both exploitation and oppression, on issues from racism to healthcare — interests that could be organized and fought for by a party of our own that does not rely on the capitalist parties.

DeSantis Insurgent, Trump Bruised

Given that Trump is — apparently — prepping an to announce a 2024 presidential campaign, the 2022 midterms can be seen in the context of the Republican Party’s internecine fights. In many ways, these midterms were a test of Trump’s power. He, by and large, won the primary battles between his wing and the establishment and got several of his handpicked candidates over the line in tough primary fights. While the results are (of course) contradictory, it does seem clear that several of the most painful Republican losses were suffered by Trump-backed candidates: Oz and Mastriano in Pennsylvania, Cox in Maryland, several House races, etc. Trump may thus have won the battle of the primaries but lost the war of the midterms — though Trumpist candidates did win important victories in Senate races in North Carolina and Ohio.

This opens up space for the Republican establishment to hit back on Trump — paint him as responsible for the lack of midterm success, paint him and his candidates as unserious and unable to win general elections, and generally try to marginalize him heading into 2024. This attempt was helped by one of the only bright spots for Republicans all night: Ron DeSantis’s win in the Florida governors’ race.

DeSantis is an interesting figure within the Republican Party. On the one hand, he is closely tied in with Trumpism and, rhetorically, has taken many lessons from Trump. As just one example, his victory speech on Tuesday night was taken right out of the Trump playbook. He strongly condemned the “woke mob” and said that “Florida is where woke goes to die.” But unlike Trump, DeSantis plays much nicer with the Republican establishment, holds the mainstream Republican line on foreign policy, and has a more combative relationship with the working class than Trump does. While Trump tries to paint himself as a right-wing man of the people to attract a sector of the white working class, DeSantis relies on culture war rhetoric targeted at the middle class, which is concerned about shifting cultural conceptions. This, added to the fact that DeSantis is a much more stable political figure than Trump, makes DeSantis a much more appealing candidate to the Republican establishment than Trump.

DeSantis’s strong victory in his race and the strong performance of Republicans across Florida (which many attribute to DeSantis’s leadership in that state), combined with Trumpism’s stumbles, puts him in a very strong position to vie for leadership of the party. As the 2024 election kicks off in the next few weeks — for the forever election can never be halted — it is clear that DeSantis will be a central figure — though he still has important weaknesses, such as his unclear level of support from Trump’s MAGA base, a base that is essential for Republican candidates to tap into.

The Dems Hang On

In some ways, the Dobbs decision, which undid the Roe decision, was the best thing that could have happened for the Democrats and Biden. It allowed them to shift focus away from their legislative impotence and failure to deliver on the vast majority of their programmatic promises and play their favorite tune: “Your rights are on the ballot.” This familiar fearmongering allowed the Democrats to obscure their lack of results in fighting for any of the rights that are apparently on the ballot.

For his part, Biden had one of the best nights possible. He can say he suffered some of the lightest midterm losses of any sitting president in the modern age and that he held many sectors of his coalition together. In reality, abortion and problems among the Republican candidates are much more responsible for the Democratic success than Biden’s leadership, but it is undeniable that these results strengthen Biden as the leader of the party.

In the likely event of a split government, however, it is an open question how Biden will govern over the next few years. Will he try to pass his agenda through Congress, in the hopes that Republican stonewalling in the House will damage them politically? Will he govern through executive order? Either option is risky. Add to this the question of how the Democrats will hold together and address their complex tasks in the coming period. The Democrats couldn’t find consensus within their ranks to pass more ambitious legislation while they had control over both houses of Congress, so can they find consensus to effectively push an agenda with split control over Congress? What role will the Democratic right, all powerful in the first two years of Biden’s term, play in the coming period? Will the progressive wing continue to hold the line, or will they feel pressure from their base to cause more trouble for Biden? All these open questions will have a great impact on Biden’s next two years.

What is certain, and shouldn’t be glossed over, is that neither party has any solutions to the growing crisis. Despite their focus on inflation, the Republicans’ only means of getting it under control is to plunge us into a recession and force the working class to pay for the crisis — the same response that the Biden administration is currently undertaking. For all their speeches on abortion, the Democrats don’t have a plan (or an interest) in actually protecting it at the federal level. There is some element of playing hot potato in government right now. Neither party wants to take responsibility for the coming crisis, and both are looking for ways to shift the blame. Given this, the (likely) split Congress benefits both parties, since neither has to take full responsibility for the crisis.

What this election shows is that right-wing populism — be it organized as Trumpism or something else — is here to stay. As the economic crisis and attacks on democratic rights worsen, the need for the working class to have a party of our own only becomes more clear. We must build a working-class party with a socialist strategy, a party that will take up and organize a working-class response to the attacks we on us and fight the bipartisan regime, which is united in its desire to force us to pay for their crisis while the bourgeoise goes on untouched. 

Our livelihoods, our right to our bodily autonomy, and our right to vote shouldn’t be under constant attack. But they will be as long as we are trapped under the bipartisan regime of capitalism. Both the Democrats and the Republicans are dead-end reactionaries. We must build something of our own. A party to represent the newly unionizing workers, trans youth, abortion advocates, and every other worker who realizes that this system holds nothing for us but pain, misery, and exploitation.

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Sybil Davis

Sybil is a trans activist, artist, and education worker in New York City.

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