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The midterms showed American democracy won’t go down without a fight

Election deniers performed surprisingly poorly at the ballot box in 2022. That’s a good sign for democracy.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer attends a campaign rally with former President Barack Obama on October 29.
Jeff Kowalsky/AFP/Getty Images

2022 was supposed to be the beginning of a new crisis for American democracy. Republicans seemed poised for a “red tsunami,” one that would sweep election deniers and conspiracy theorists into governor’s mansions and election administration posts in swing states across the country. The worry was that they would then be in position to hand the 2024 election to their patron, Donald Trump, regardless of the will of the voters.

But there was no red tsunami — and Republicans who denied the legitimacy of the 2020 election seem to have performed particularly poorly. At the state level, where the actual power to disrupt future elections lies, Democrats are very close to running the table.

Consider the key swing states from 2020:

When you combine these results with Georgia, where Republican Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger held on despite resisting Trump’s attempt to alter the vote total in 2020, the picture for 2024 suddenly looks far rosier for small-d democracy than expected. It appears plausible, if not likely, that all six of the most important swing states will elect governors and secretaries of state who believe in the legitimacy of the American electoral system.

It’s not all good news. Arizona in particular is looking dicey, with leading election denier Kari Lake within a whisper of taking the lead in the gubernatorial race. And nationwide, plenty of deniers and election skeptics — nearly 200, per a New York Times count — have succeeded in House races and red states.

But there’s no question that the forecast for American democracy is looking better today than it was heading into the election. The big question now: why?

Part of the story is purely national. Democrats did better across the board, most likely due to a backlash against the Supreme Court’s decision this summer overturning Roe v. Wade. The election denial boat sank thanks to an ebbing red tide.

But the fact that high-profile election deniers did poorly in competitive races, often worse than comparable non-denier Republicans, suggests there may be something else going on here: that maybe, just maybe, a significant swath of the American public is punishing the Republican Party for running candidates who sought to turn against democracy itself.

Are Republicans really paying a price for election denial?

Another way to look at whether election denial cost Republicans is to look at states where they ran an election denier for Senate and a less extreme candidate for governor. By that metric, there’s at least some evidence of Republicans paying a democracy tax.

In Georgia, Gov. Kemp defeated Democrat Stacey Abrams by a 53-46 margin. By contrast, election-denying Republican Senate candidate Hershel Walker is losing to Democrat Raphael Warnock by roughly a point.

In Ohio, Republican Gov. Mike DeWine, who explicitly rejected Trump’s claims of fraud in 2020, defeated challenger Nan Whaley by a whopping 63-37 margin. By contrast, Senate candidate J.D. Vance, who took the Trumpist line, won 53-47 — underperforming DeWine by 10 points.

In New Hampshire, moderate Republican Gov. Chris Sununu comfortably won reelection, 57-42. By contrast, fire0breathing election denier Don Bolduc lost to Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan by a 54-44 margin.

Obviously, there are lots of differences between these races. Democrats invested more heavily in the Senate races in these three states, rightly seeing them as more competitive, and the Republican candidates had problems other than being election deniers. But when you combine these results with the near-total defeat of election deniers in key election-related posts in swing states — the races where the issue of the 2020 election’s legitimacy were most directly on the table — it starts to look a bit like a pattern.

Republican Candidate For Senator Don Bolduc Holds Election Night Gathering In Manchester
New Hampshire Senate candidate Don Bolduc delivers a concession speech on November 8, 2022.
Scott Eisen/Getty Images

This is consistent with a longstanding finding in political science literature: that candidates pay a price for perceived ideological extremism. A typical 2019 paper, studying elections for five different types of office, found that “in every office, ideologically moderate candidates are rewarded at the ballot, and extremists are punished.” While some research has found that the extremism penalty has eroded over time in US House elections, it’s plausible that going so far as to reject the rules of the democratic game altogether may have helped strengthen it.

In this sense, the backlash to election denial might be of a piece with the backlash to the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs. In both cases, Republicans defended positions that put them at odds with most Americans’ views on high-profile topics — the right to an abortion and the legitimacy of American democracy itself. On this theory, election deniers would be especially visible symbols of GOP extremism, costing them among persuadable voters.

“[Republican] election denialism was part of their overall extremism that swing voters hate,” Sarah Longwell, a Never Trump Republican pollster, tells me.

Longwell’s interpretation is backed by an intriguing finding in NBC’s exit poll: that Democrats actually won voters who “somewhat disapproved” of Joe Biden’s performance as president by a 49-45 margin. Exit polls are always iffy, but multiple pre-election polls delivered similar findings — suggesting NBC may be picking up on something real.

Somehow, it appears that Democrats have convinced a plurality of people who don’t especially like their party’s leader to get on board with their candidates for Congress and state-level posts. A plausible explanation is that those voters thought the Republicans were worse — and that the widespread embrace of election denial is at least part of the reason why.

American democracy isn’t out of the woods yet, but this is a good sign

Despite these promising signs, it’s far too early for small-d democrats to declare victory.

“We don’t have many data points, but one take is that short-term anti-democratic forces in the US are on the decline. A mistake would be to pivot toward the take that those who spoke out against anti-democratic forces were alarmist,” writes Ryan Enos, a political scientist at Harvard.

For one thing, several key races where democracy was on the ballot — most notably in Arizona and Nevada — remain outstanding. If even one election denier gains power over the electoral system in those important states, the risk of catastrophe in 2024 goes up.

For another, there’s still plenty of evidence that the American public doesn’t care enough about democracy. David Shor, a leading Democratic poll analyst, is skeptical that the issue made much of a difference in 2022, telling me that “basically no ads were about [democracy]” and those that voters saw “tested pretty poorly.” (That said, Shor thinks that Democratic messaging about democracy may have affected the outcome “indirectly” by driving up the party’s fundraising numbers.)

And despite the setbacks his endorsees saw in the midterms, Donald Trump is still the leading figure in the Republican Party, commanding the support of a majority of the party faithful and crushing all opponents in 2024 polling. When you combine Trump’s chokehold on the GOP with the party’s preexisting anti-democratic drift, it’s clear that American democracy is still facing an existential threat from within — one that has not been cowed by electoral defeat in the past.

But based on the information we have right now, it’s fair to let a little bit of cautious optimism color our thinking. In 2022, voters were presented with at least a dozen opportunities to elevate some of the most extreme anti-democratic voices in the country to positions of power over US elections in key states — and, on the whole, they opted to step back from the brink.

While the problem of democratic decline in America certainly has not been solved, there are preliminary signs that the public may be starting to face up to its severity. If those are borne out in the coming days and months, then 2022 could end up looming large in a future history of America’s democratic revival.