Americans went to the polls on 8 November in the first midterm elections during the administration of Democratic Party President Joe Biden.
A few days before election day, Biden warned his countrymen that US democracy was in danger. What he probably had in mind was the 500 plus election-deniers on the Republican Party side who believe that the US presidential elections of 2020 were stolen from former US president Donald Trump, a Democrat turned Republican, to the benefit of Biden.
US midterm elections are usually referendums on the incumbent president. In the previous midterms in 2018, the Democrats gained a majority of the House of Representatives and elected Nancy Pelosi as speaker, results that indicated that a majority of voters were not satisfied with the way Trump and his MAGA (Make America Great Again) crowd had managed affairs of state.
Leading up to the 8 November elections, the Republicans, mostly Trump believers, had talked about a “red tsunami” in which the Republican Party would regain the majority of the House and perhaps the Senate, the upper chamber of the US Congress, as well. In the Republican primaries that preceded the elections, pro-Trump candidates, most of them election-deniers, had come out top as candidates for state-level secretaries of state, the officials who officially certify the election results in their respective states.
One of them proclaimed before the midterms that if he won, this would be a sure signal that Trump would be the next US president after the 2024 presidential elections. The prevailing mood in the US prior to the midterms was one of uncertainty as to the direction democracy in the country was taking, an uncertainty that was deepened by the spectre of another Trump run for the presidency in 2024.
The pollsters, as well as many editorials, observers of the US political scene, Republicans and even Democrats alike, had thought that bread-and-butter issues would determine the outcome of the midterms this year. Inflation rates have been going up in the US, a first in four decades, and these have been coupled with a rise in petrol prices due to the war in Ukraine.
The Republicans did their best in their campaign to lay the blame for the high inflation rate on the economic policies of the Biden administration. The successive rises in interest rates by the US Federal Reserve, the US central bank, this year to tame inflation had led people to think that the midterms would be a rebuff for the Biden administration and would prepare the ground for Trump retaking the White House in 2024.
Then came the repudiation by the US Supreme Court of the abortion rights enshrined in the Roe vs Wade ruling five decades ago. Conservatives hailed the court decision, while the Democrats banked on it in their campaign as an attack on women’s rights and their freedom of choice. Another unknown in the equation was Generation Z – those born between 1996 and the first two decades of the third millennium – and its political leanings.
On 9 November after many races were called, the picture was not as anticipated, however. The “red tsunami” had not materialised, and on the contrary the results were a repudiation of Trumpism and of most of the candidates supported by Trump personally.
On 9 November, Biden took a victory lap, and with a humility that contrasted with the style of Trump told a hastily arranged meeting of Democrats in Washington that “regardless of what the final tally in these elections shows… I am prepared to work with my Republican colleagues. And the American people have made clear… that they expect the Republicans to be prepared to work with me as well.”
He added that he intended to run for a second term in 2024 but cautioned that this would be a family decision and that he was in no rush to make a final decision. On the other hand, Trump is expected to announce his candidacy for the White House two years from now on 15 November despite some Republicans advising him to postpone it until the dust settles on the disappointing performance of the Republican candidates, especially those that he had endorsed in the primaries, in the midterm elections.
On 13 November, Democratic Senator Catherine Cortez Masto narrowly defeated Republican Adam Laxalt in the midterm elections, ensuring a Democratic majority in the Senate. However, there is still a run-off in the elections in Georgia scheduled for 6 December.
If Biden and the Democratic Party were among the winners in the midterms, there was also a winner on the Republican side, however, one who has risen to national prominence and could seriously change the dynamics within the Republican Party in the battle for the White House in the Republican primaries next year to pick up the Republican nomination for the presidential elections in November 2023. His rise to national prominence would lead to deep divisions among the Republicans.
In Florida, this man, Governor Ron DeSantis, was re-elected by a 20 per cent margin against his Democratic opponent. His winning share of the vote in 2018 stood at 49.6 per cent, and this year his winning share rose to 59.4 per cent. According to a US opinion poll, 26 per cent of Republicans want DeSantis to be the Republican nominee in the next presidential elections.
DeSantis, thinking ahead and beyond the State of Florida, said after his victory that “we have got so much more to do. And I have only begun to fight.” But the question is fighting whom? The Democrats and whoever they pick as their presidential nominee at their national convention next year? Or Trump? I imagine that DeSantis had the latter in mind, and Trump has already sensed that his hold on the Republican Party is on the wane.
In his opening salvo against DeSantis, Trump said that “Ron DeSanctimonious [sic.] is playing games” and suggested that he would meet the same fate as “low-energy Jeb Bush,” a reference to a former Florida governor from the Bush family that has given the US two presidents. He added that “I easily knocked them out one by one. We are exactly in the same position now. They will keep coming after us, but ultimately we will win.”
It will thus not be a surprise if a fierce battle for the leadership of the Republican Party does not break out sooner rather than later. The New York Post, a publication owned by Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch, has declared DeSantis the “DeFuture,” for example. This headline captures something of the future battle for the soul of the US conservative movement after the Reagan-inspired “revolution” of the early 1980s.
Another winner that rose to national prominence in the gubernatorial races this year was Democratic Party Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who won a tough re-election fight in Michigan in a contest that centred on abortion, the economy, and democracy.
The results of the 2022 midterms in the US prove that independents, swing voters, ticket-splitters, moderate Republicans and Generation Z under-30s remain dissatisfied with the extremism of Trump and Trumpism. They have shown that while the US is still highly polarised and its cultural wars remain unsolved, US democracy is still resilient and deeply rooted in the collective will and consciousness of the “exhausted” majority of voters.
In the meantime, the Great Winner in America’s midterms is not only democracy in the United states but also the cause and the future of democracy around the world.
* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 November, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.