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The Most Important Midterm Election
The 2024 presidential election may well be decided this Tuesday.
That’s not a typo. The midterm elections this year are about a lot of things—abortion rights, inflation, preserving (or cutting) Social Security and Medicare—but behind all of them is whether or not U.S. democracy is going to continue to operate as it has.
That’s not because there are so many anti-democracy initiatives on the ballots, though there are a small number of states considering voter-restriction measures. The main reason is that a huge number of Republican candidates for key statewide offices, including those overseeing elections, are “election deniers” who deny that President Joe Biden won the 2020 election, or insist without evidence that he won only because of fraud.
Many of them want to ensure a different outcome in 2024.
Democracy, however, seems to be taking a back seat to other issues in many voters’ minds. And the races are tightening as we draw closer to Nov. 8. That’s a perfectly natural phenomenon, as more voters who earlier couldn’t make up their minds or hadn’t been paying much attention start to do so.
This is on top of the fact that the party in power typically loses in the midterm elections—not always, but most of the time. Since 1934, the president’s party has lost an average of 28 House seats and four Senate seats in midterm elections, which would be enough to hand control of both houses of Congress to Republicans this year, though spread of those historic election results is quite wide.
The Washington Post has counted 291 Republican election deniers running for office across the country this year, more than half of the party’s total number of candidates. Among them, 171 are favored to win, in large part because congressional and state legislative electoral districts have become so gerrymandered that most are considered relatively safe for one party. According to The Cook Political Report, only 35 House seats nationwide are considered a toss-up race, and 25 of them are currently held by Democrats.
There are some signs, mostly in early voting numbers, that Democrats are doing better than expected. As of Nov. 2, more than 28 million Americans had already cast a ballot in 46 states, according to the U.S. Elections Project at the University of Florida, far higher than in previous midterm elections. That trend is likely to yield another record turnout—in 2018, a record 122 million people voted, a rate of 49.4% of eligible voters, and the highest rate for a midterm since 1914.
Those voter numbers are up in both parties, but the fact that more people are voting or intending to shows a growing awareness that even the usually overlooked midterms are important to the future of the country.
Even a Republican sweep of both houses of Congress won’t spell an immediate end of democracy in the U.S. The party will be unable to govern with the majorities to pass its most polarizing legislation over President Biden’s inevitable veto—and, in fact, the party hasn’t shown much inclination in recent years to do any governing, aside from cutting taxes on the wealthy and trying to thwart any Democratic administration goals.
There’s every reason to expect the MAGA-fied GOP would dive headlong into this circus. But until 2024, it’d mostly be for show. The GOP will try to pass a national abortion ban, for example. We can also expect blocking of judicial appointments, including of Supreme Court seats if there are any openings, plus numerous investigations of fictitious scandals, trying to cut or privatize Social Security and Medicare, impeach President Biden (reason to be determined), and using the debt ceiling to hold the world economy hostage to extract legislative concessions they couldn’t pass on their own. Plus, any number of other policies that will be bad for the economy, individual rights, the environment, and global peace, but will likely make their wealthy donors even wealthier.
Most of those proposals won’t survive, so long as a Democrat occupies the White House. But some of them might, especially if the Republicans’ tactics win concessions in must-pass legislation, such as future omnibus bills that give the government its budget authority.
The real danger is at the often-overlooked state level, where government officials have more power over elections. Some Republican candidates for state governor or the U.S. Senate are taking a card from former President Donald Trump’s playbook, and refuse to promise they will accept the results of the 2022 midterms if they lose.
But the odds are favoring many of them to win, and not just in safely Republican states. Polling in Arizona, for example, shows a tight race for governor. According to The Post, of the 12 candidates running for statewide office or Congress, eight are election deniers, including GOP candidate Kari Lake, who has become a standard-bearer for the Trumpist right and made nonexistent election fraud the centerpiece of her campaign.
That list also includes the secretary of state candidate, Mark Finchem, who was at Trump’s Jan. 6, 2021, rally in Washington, D.C., prior to the violent insurrection at the Capitol building, and who issued a resolution in the Arizona legislature calling 11 “alternate” electors to be assigned to Trump. Finchem leads his Democratic opponent Adrian Fontes despite being hugely outspent and running a low-key campaign.
We’re seeing a similar pattern in other states, as election deniers target local offices that oversee elections, presumably so they can eliminate whatever “fraud” they believe to be there. (In this context, “fraud” usually means “people voting for Democrats” generally, and “Black people voting” specifically.)
It’s pretty clear we haven’t seen any significant diminishing of Trump’s toxic stew of racism, corruption, cult of personality, and politicization of the government to pursue his political enemies and reward his friends. That stew has boiled over into fascism (there’s nothing “semi-” about it), and it’s the antithesis of what a free democratic system should be.
With all that on the line, the prospect of a victorious GOP fatally undermining fair elections for decades to come is quite real, especially as the Supreme Court weighs two cases this term that may undermine voting rights even further.
Once again, it’s come down to voters deciding whether the long-term future of the U.S. is outweighed by this year’s inflation rate, or if they lost their job, or if their preacher sermonizes against abortion or health care for transgender people, or if they get their news exclusively from Fox or other right-wing propaganda networks.
Focus on abortion was supposed to counter those other kitchen-table issues. Indeed, a special Kansas election in August, the first election after the Supreme Court eliminated the constitutional right to abortion, turned into a rout. On the ballot was a measure that would have rescinded a part of the state constitution that recognizes abortion as a right. Nearly 60% of voters rejected the measure, and many Democrats assumed that fear of a national ban enacted by Republicans would drive voters to the polls. That win was followed by six Democratic victories in special House elections, including flipping Alaska’s only Congressional seat blue.
People don’t like having their rights stripped away, it seems. But it also seems that an environment of persistent disinformation is muddying the waters where we desperately need more clarity.
For example: Inflation is high, but it is also a global phenomenon. The annual U.S. rate of 8.2% in September is lower than that in many other countries, and well below the average rate of large and industrialized nations, 10.73%. It’s also well below the U.S.’s most recent peak of 13.5% in 1980.
Domestic spending, especially the COVID-19 relief packages signed by President Biden, could have added anywhere from less than 1% to 4% to the total rate, and probably somewhere in between, according to most economists. You’d never know this listening to Republicans.
Or, consider a perceived rise in violent crime. Again, this is true, but it isn’t the whole story, in that the rise is comparatively small, and levels are nowhere near as high as they were in the 1990s, let alone in earlier decades.
Meanwhile, unemployment is still near record lows, job creation is up (especially when compared with the disastrous Trump administration), and even worker pay is rising across the board.
At the state level, too, abortion has taken a back seat to many other issues. Ballot measures have traditionally been seen as a tool to increase turnout. But this election, the first national election since not just the Dobbs ruling but also since the Jan. 6 insurrection, a grand total of five states have abortion-related measures on their ballots this fall. And four of them—California, Vermont, Montana and Kentucky—have measures that will likely reinforce the expected electoral outcome: Californians and Vermonters will vote on preserving a right to an abortion in their constitutions, while Montanans and Kentuckians will vote on enacting more restrictions. The only nationally competitive state with a measure to protect abortion rights on the ballot is Michigan. Compared with other initiatives on ballots across the country, abortion seems like just another issue on the table.
We may still be surprised as the votes are tallied over the coming days and weeks. Trump’s win in 2016 was shocking because his political views were so far outside the norm that most pundits assumed he simply couldn’t win. The fact that he did win, even with a narrow Electoral College–only victory, forced a lot of people to recognize that norms weren’t what we thought they were.
Six years after that fateful night, fascism is still in vogue in the Republican Party. And the movement is sure to outlive Trump. Inflation definitely hurts. But in the long run, fascism will hurt more. That’s why we can’t lose sight of the big picture.
Chris Winters is a senior editor at YES!, where he specializes in covering democracy and the economy. Chris has been a journalist for more than 20 years, writing for newspapers and magazines in the Seattle area. He’s covered everything from city council meetings to natural disasters, local to national news, and won numerous awards for his work. He is based in Seattle, and speaks English and Hungarian.