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Five takeaways from the red wave that didn’t make it to shore

Five takeaways from the red wave that didn’t make it to shore

Democrats tried to outdo history — and lead the charge for a wounded president who made his last political campaign appearance in deep-blue Maryland, a district he won by a wide margin two years ago.

They had help from a surprising quarter: Republican voters. A base still in thrall to Donald J. Trump picked candidates in primaries that threw out a lot of red meat, but on Election Day many failed to channel their frustrations into victory.

The results so far seem far from the “red tsunami” of Republican dreams. Republicans could still retake the House, but hardly in a commanding fashion, while the Senate remained too close to convene early Wednesday morning.

Across the East Coast, in the northern suburbs of Virginia and mixed areas of Rhode Island and New Hampshire, embattled Democrats managed to hold on. They even took down a few Republicans here and there. In many close races, abortion and the looming presence of Mr. Trump may have been the GOP’s undoing.

“The post-Trump Democratic Party is a much tougher, fighting party,” said Representative Jamie Raskin, D-Maryland, crediting the tremendous courage of the victory to colleagues like Abigail Spanberger of Virginia. “These are battle-hardened veterans who know exactly why they are in politics.”

Tuesday, however, was by no means a clear victory for either side. There were signs Republican gains in working-class communities of color. And some battleground states, like North Carolina, have moved further out of the Democrats’ reach. Gov. Ron DeSantis, Republican of Florida, even flipped the Democratic stronghold of Miami-Dade County en route to defeating Rep. Charlie Crist.

It will be days, and possibly weeks, before the results are clear. These are the lessons so far from the 2022 semester:

The biggest question hanging over Democrats all year was who exactly would show up to vote for them. In typical midterm elections, such as 2010 and 2014, turnout drops by about 20 percentage points compared to the presidential year.

But turnout broke all records in 2018, when voters rejected Mr. Trump and Democrats retook the House. so far, suggests preliminary research by the Democratic firm Catalist that this year looks a lot more like 2018 than the sleepy affairs that unfolded under former President Barack Obama. Many analysts now think the United States may have reached a new plateau of permanently high participation, fueled by each side’s fear of the other.

That might help explain why survey failed a widespread feeling among Democrats, which grew after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and the Jan. 6 hearings over the summer, that their basic democratic rights are increasingly under threat.

“I think experts sometimes project a crude materialism into the public, where all that matters is pocket money in the narrowest sense,” said Mr. Raskin. “People understand how precarious and precious a constitutional democracy is, and they don’t want to lose it.”

For much of 2021 and the first half of 2022, Republicans looked poised to shell out gains in Congress and beyond. Then he came the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organizationoverturning a 50-year precedent that many Americans had taken for granted.

Suddenly, the Democrats found a problem to rally their base. Two months later, when voters in conservative Kansas flatly rejected the abortion ban ballot measure, many saw a potential game changer in the making. Democratic governors like Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan have positioned themselves as bulwarks of abortion rights, while liberal groups have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into ads highlighting the far-right positions many Republicans have taken to win elections.

Some on the left side, especially Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, questioned whether Democrats have spent too much energy on abortion. The unintended effect, these critics argued, was to reinforce the impression that Democrats were ignoring voters’ most pressing concern: inflation.

Few Democratic strategists agree. “I think Dobbs has transformed this election,” said Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster. “There’s pretty good evidence that it shook things up.”

Democrats often got the opponents they wanted. And the leadership of the Republican Party was just as often confused and frustrated by the choices made by its constituents.

GOP leaders have aggressively courted centrist governors like Arizona’s Doug Ducey, Maryland’s Larry Hogan and New Hampshire’s Chris Sununu to run for the Senate — to little avail. Mr. Trump played the Mar-a-Lago kingmaker, demanding that candidates pay allegiance to his lies about a stolen 2020 election. Republican primary voters overwhelmingly sided with Mr. Trump, which led Mitch McConnell, the minority leader of the Senate, to worry about the “quality” of his party’s candidate.

In some races, Democrats even tried to turn Republican voters away from more moderate candidates and pulled conservatives with Trump who denied the legitimacy of Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s victory. in 2020. Once those candidates were cemented, Democrats bombarded voters with messages that portrayed Republicans as too extreme on issues like abortion rights or as opponents of democracy itself.

The Democrats’ scorched earth approach has worked in many cases. Josh Shapiro, Attorney General of Pennsylvania, ran ads endorsing state Sen. Doug Mastrian in the Republican primaryand then on Tuesday he took it to the polls.

Don Bolduc, the Republican challenger who also played on Trump’s lies about a stolen election, lost a Senate race in New Hampshire that Republicans in Washington once thought he had won. Gov. Tony Evers of Wisconsin, wryly assessing his victory over Tim Michels, a flame-throwing Republican who has allied with Mr. Trump, noted that they are “boring victories.”

Voters have repeatedly told pollsters that rising gas, grocery and housing prices are their No. 1 concern. And Democrats have been looking for a clear, consistent response to Republican attacks.

The White House initially tried to deny it: Administration officials argued that inflation was a “passing” phenomenon, a word that would haunt many Democrats months later. Then the blame: When Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sent oil prices soaring, Mr. Biden and other Democrats tried to label inflation as “Putin’s Price Hike.”

Acceptance proved more difficult. Some Democrats were more adept than others at feeling voters’ pain; in February, a group of vulnerable senators, for example, called on Mr. Biden to freeze the federal gas tax. But, on the whole, the public held Democrats accountable for their pinched wallets, regardless of what the party said or did.

Even the Inflation Reduction Act, the product of 18 months of messy talks on Capitol Hill, landed with a whisper. Relatively few Americans knew about the provisions capping the price of insulin and allowing Medicare to negotiate the price of prescription drugs, even though they were individually popular. As Sean McElwee of the progressive polling group Data for Progress said, “Voters don’t know a ton about the law or what’s in it.”

A major strength of American politics remains its deep partisan divide. There was indeed some ticket splitting on Tuesday, but overall, Democrats turned out in droves for Democrats and Republicans turned out for Republicans. In years past, Mr. Biden’s low approval ratings and inflation stuck at 40-year highs could have portended a landslide defeat for his party. Harry Truman lost 55 House seats in his first terms; Bill Clinton lost 53; Barack Obama lost 63.

That kind of rebuke didn’t happen to Mr. Biden. Rarely does American politics work anymore. There are fewer true swing voters than ever — and fewer and fewer races to swing.

Most of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives were not up for grabs anyway, leaving the two sides on the battlefield. gathered by gerrymandering and sorted into polarized geographic enclaves. Fewer than a third of this year’s Senate races have ever been competitive. Representative Tim Ryan he could not avoid the right march of the Ohio despite a campaign hailed by Democrats as “phenomenal”; nor could moderate Republicans like Joe O’Dea and Tiffany Smiley cause riots in Colorado and Washington state.

Voters re-elected Republican governors in Florida, Georgia and Texas. They returned Democrats to power in Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. And for all the record sums spent on campaigns and TV ads in the 2022 semesters — as much as $16.7 billion, according to one estimate — the country probably wakes up on November 9 the same way it wakes up on November 8: roughly split in two.

“Nothing has worked this cycle,” said Ms. Greenberg, the Democratic pollster. “There are much bigger issues at stake.”



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