The dangers of an election wave MAGA
If polls are to be believed, Democrats are poised to defy history by blunting the normal loss of congressional seats in a midterm election when they hold the presidency. Bill Clinton in 1994 and Barack Obama in 2010 both oversaw significant losses for Democrats midterm, which significantly reduced their ability to pursue a legislative agenda. Earlier this year, it looked like Joe Biden was destined for the same fate, with a struggling economy and plummeting presidential approval ratings threatening to create a third red wave. But right now, thanks to new abortion salience, an array of incompetent GOP candidates and improving economic conditions, things look better for the Democrat.
In late September, respected pollster Stan Greenberg, who founded Democracy Corps, argued in The American perspective“Democrats have the momentum in the 2022 midterm elections, shows our new Democracy Corps survey. Democrats have taken a 3-point lead with registered voters and 2 points in the likely electorate. Surprisingly, Democratic supporters are no longer less enthusiastic and engaged.If Greenberg and other pollsters read the political mood correctly, Democrats have a good chance of retaining the Senate and only losing the House by a handful of seats.
But can we trust the polls? In recent years, polls in the United States and around the world have become less reliable, particularly underestimating the strength of right-wing populists. Voters who embrace conspiracy theories about a corrupt system tend to be wary of talking to pollsters, which explains why Donald Trump outperformed the polls in 2016 and 2020 and Jair Bolsonaro did much better than expected (although he either always second) in the first round of this Brazilian presidential election of the year.
Given these recurring failures in the polls, the inevitable question is: what if there are hidden reserves of timid Trump supporters who hang up on pollsters but are willing to speak loudly come Election Day? There are enough close elections that a pattern of small enough polling errors can still be the difference between a modest Democratic victory and a decisive rout. Even if a GOP victory falls short of the magnitude of the 1994 Gingrich Revolution or the 2010 Tea Party triumph, it could still be big enough to derail Biden’s presidency and endanger American democracy.
Election waves have a knack for littering the shore with all sorts of weird political beasts. The 1994 election is a case in point, with the winning GOP caucus including a sizable faction of conspiracy theorists and anti-government zealots well to the right of incoming House Speaker Newt Gingrich, himself an unmoderate. Notably, there was a whole crew of congressmen who aligned themselves with right-wing militias and helped embed sinister fantasies of UN conspiracies and mysterious black helicopters: figures like Idaho’s Helen Chenoweth , Linda Smith of Washington, Jack Metcalf of Washington and Steve Stockman of Texas.
Beyond the militia faction were dozens of new representatives who were so anti-government that they rejected the normal negotiations that make government possible. As historian Nicole Hemmer notes in her new book Supporters: The conservative revolutionaries who reshaped American politics in the 1990s, this right-wing faction, which it calls the True Believers, has caused problems not only for President Bill Clinton, but also for their party’s nominal leader in the House, Gingrich. “In early 1995, just weeks after Gingrich took the floor, a congressional aide told the National review about a faction of thirty to forty conservative representatives who were already suspicious of Gingrich,” Hemmer records. “Tension ravaged the Republican Party throughout Gingrich’s presidency, helping to fuel tactics such as the government shutdown in 1995 and 1996 (which True Believers fought to continue even as it destroyed the public opinion of their party) and ultimately Clinton’s impeachment.”
If the GOP divide of 1994 was between moderate Republicans and anti-government hardliners, the divide of 2022 is much more serious: between conventionally right-wing Republicans like Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger and nihilistic MAGA supporters who refuse to accept the legitimacy of the elections they lose. The most conventional Republicans are already on the verge of extinction, either defeated in the primaries (like Cheney) or reluctant to run (like Kinzinger). In other words, even before the election, it is clear that MAGA will be in charge of the GOP. This will be even more true if the GOP sweeps the midterms.
The Republican class of 2022 already promises to be much more extreme than the wave of 1994 or 2010. Write in The Washington Post, Dana Milbank notes the “exotic” nature of many of the candidates the GOP is fielding. Milbank describes them as “a motley assortment of election deniers, climate change deniers, QAnon enthusiasts, and January 6th participants who propose abolishing the FBI and banning abortion without exception, among other things. Some have won nominations despite efforts by the party leadership to stop them and continue without financial support from the Republican National Committee of Congress. »
Many of these candidates who flourished in the MAGA era have neither the temperament nor the personal history to make judicious elected officials. Mehmet Oz, Doug Mastriano and Herschel Walker grabbed headlines with their sordid antics.
And there are many more of their ilk. Milbank provides a partial list of this savage menagerie: “the Texas woman accused by her ex-husband of cruelty to her teenage daughter; the Colorado woman who backed an effort to secede from her state; the Virginia woman who speculated that rape victims wouldn’t get pregnant; and the Wisconsin man who used campaign funds from his failed 2020 run to come to Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, where he apparently breached the Capitol barricades.
At a political rally on Saturday, Jim Marchant, the Republican candidate for secretary of state in Nevada, said“Whether [we] get all our secretaries of state elected across the country like this, we’re taking our country back. Marchant, like more than half of Republicans running in 2022, is an election denier. His words should be read as a threat that if the GOP controls the levers of power, it won’t allow a Democratic victory, no matter what the votes say.
Imagine an entire Congress dominated by this faction. It’s a recipe for more government shutdowns, more meaningless investigations like the Benghazi hearings, more bogus impeachments like the 1999 war against Bill Clinton. He also promises that in 2024, Secretaries of State like Marchant (if he wins) will thwart the will of the people.
Joe Biden correctly spoke out against MAGA Republicans. But that argument needs to be bolstered by specific narratives about how the GOP, if it gains power in the medium term, will make the United States ungovernable. The most effective way to mitigate the threat is to make sure voters realize what is at stake.