Midterms show America remains a deeply divided nation

Democrats won the expectations game as a red wave didn’t materialize. But the results mean divided government and a worsening political tribal culture war.

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U.S. President Donald Trump and former U.S. Vice President/Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden at the first debate on Sept. 29, 2020. Source: Screenshot.

By Jonathan S. Tobin, JNS

(JNS) If Americans thought that the midterm elections would provide a clear picture of their country’s future political direction, they woke up the next morning as confused as ever. The Democrats may have won the expectations game as the “red wave” that Republicans hoped would sweep them into control of both Houses of Congress didn’t materialize. But the stalemate the election seemingly produced is likely to only deepen the already stark partisan divide separating Americans into two warring camps that neither understands nor trusts one another.

Some key races were still undecided the following day, but it appears as if the Republicans have won control of the House of Representatives by a slim margin rather than the large majority they expected. The Democrats may well have held onto control of the Senate, though it’s possible the outcome won’t be decided until a Georgia runoff is held in December.

Strategists on both sides will likely spend the next two years pondering why Democrats did better than expected despite the handicap of a deeply unpopular incumbent president and a faltering economy accompanied by raging inflation.

The explanations will include the Republicans having nominated, in winnable contests, a great many unpopular candidates who were perceived as either too extreme or too close to former President Donald Trump. The Supreme Court ruling that overturned the Roe v. Wade decision guaranteeing a right to abortion will also be credited with energizing Democratic voters and some independents.

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In some cases, the outcome may have turned on factors that were specific to individual races, such as in the Pennsylvania Senate faceoff, where Democrat John Fetterman’s victory could be credited as much to the fact that 700,000 votes were cast before his disastrous debate performance as to his opponent Dr. Mehmet Oz’s unpopularity or ties with Trump.

Moreover, a national narrative about Republican mistakes can’t explain the victories that the GOP did achieve, such as the landslides won by Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sen. Marco Rubio in Florida. Similarly, Republican gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin came closer to victory than any member of his party had done in 20 years in that deep blue state.

This points to the problems that Democrats face in terms of their failures on issues like crime and the economy. DeSantis—like Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, the big winner of the 2021 off-year election—ran a campaign that was focused more on such topics as opposition to critical race theory and gender indoctrination in schools as it was on more traditional concerns. His showing undermines any neat narrative about voters preferring Republicans who eschewed culture war issues.

Moreover, claims that American’s changing demographics would bring victory to Democrats—a “great replacement theory” that both exultant liberals and fearful conservatives have pointed to in the last two decades—are also being proven false. That’s because Republicans are making huge inroads among Hispanic voters, who care about a lot of the same issues as members of other ethnic groups, including their concerns about illegal immigration.

Partisan stalemate

Taken as a whole, the one incontestable conclusion one can draw from the results is that partisan loyalties seem to be the most important factor for many, if not most, voters.

Democrats should have lost more ground in a year in which they held control of Congress and the White House and the economy was terrible. But they didn’t, because Americans who identify as Democrats held their noses and voted for most of their party’s candidates whether they liked them or not.

The victories of most incumbents illustrated that Republicans largely did the same. Though exit polling indicates that the GOP did make inroads among independents, the pull of partisanship in this hyper-partisan era seems to have predominated.

This, as well as the frustration that will be the inevitable consequence of a government no longer completely controlled by the Democrats, is bound only to increase the anger that both sides of the partisan divide feel toward one another.

Democrats ran this year mainly on a platform that proclaimed their opponents to be “semi-fascists” bent on the end of democracy. Republicans characterized the Biden administration in ways that depicted it as a captive to the woke left.

Historically, some administrations that suffered midterm setbacks moderated their policies in order to govern with their newly empowered opponents. This isn’t likely to happen today. The respective Democratic and Republican caucuses that will be sworn in next January will each be more ideologically charged than their predecessors.

Room for compromise already barely existed. It may now have evaporated with the presence of greater numbers than before of conservative Republicans and progressive Democrats, all of whom are convinced that their mandate is to represent their voters’ beliefs, not to govern effectively.

That ought to stand as a warning to those groups—like the Anti-Defamation League—which have done the most to stoke the fires of the culture war. By endorsing the Democrats’ talking points about the alleged Republican assault on democracy, they continue to contribute to a situation in which supporters of both parties have bought into the notion that opponents are evil rather than mistaken. And it’s hardly surprising that many on the other side of the equation feel the same way.

Under the circumstances, we should expect that sort of thinking to continue to predominate, as the political stalemate creates even more frustration across the spectrum. This leaves both liberals and conservatives more vulnerable to the purveyors of conspiracy theories, as each side—not without reason—believes the worst about the other.

Given that the 2024 presidential race is about to begin in earnest once all the midterm results are finally tabulated, this destructive mindset is likely to color much of American political discourse for the next two years.

Winners and losers

The results of the congressional midterms will have an impact on the 2024 race.

On the Democratic side, the ability of the party to hold its own will strengthen President Joe Biden’s position. Had it

suffered the kind of shellacking that most observers anticipated, it’s likely that party leaders would have done their best to force him to announce he wouldn’t seek re-election.

Considering the way he appears to be diminished with his erratic and consistently false statements becoming a regular feature of his presidency, this would almost certainly be the best thing for the Democrats and the nation.

Yet, having worked his whole life to achieve the presidency, Biden is unlikely to give it up without a fight, no matter how badly he comes across. And since he can claim that his last-minute appeals to smear Republicans as fascists worked, the results will encourage him to dig in and defy younger Democrats to oppose an incumbent president in the 2024 race.

Though Biden has largely governed to please the left wing of his party, Jewish Democrats who embraced him in 2020 as preferable to more radical alternatives are similarly stuck with him as the candidate.

By contrast, the results did not help Trump.

Some of the candidates he endorsed, such as J.D. Vance in Ohio, won. But others seen as closely aligned with him, such as Blake Masters in Arizona, Don Bolduc in New Hampshire and Oz, did not. Though Herschel Walker still has a chance to win in a Georgia runoff, he, too, can be seen as a Trump-imposed choice who fell short of expectations.

Even worse for Trump was the fact that DeSantis must be seen as the big GOP winner of 2022.

The Florida governor’s triumph came only days after Trump took a swipe at him, trying out a derogatory nickname—“DeSanctimonious”—to put him down as he did his GOP rivals in 2016. Trump fears and loathes DeSantis as much as he does his left-wing opponents, because he sees him as the most plausible contender as Republican presidential nominee.

Trump was planning on announcing another presidential run soon, so as to intimidate potential challengers to stay out of it. Still, DeSantis’s landslide victory gives him even more of a reason to consider a 2024 run.

While Trump remains the favorite choice of most Republicans, his decision to insult the Florida governor went over like a lead balloon, and seems even more foolish in light of DeSantis’s triumph.

It also may encourage other Republicans to try their luck in 2024, though a crowded primary field will help the former president.

This sets up an interesting contest for the affections of Jewish Republicans. Trump retains the loyalty of the GOP grassroots, which increases with each attempt by the Democrats to take him down by what Republicans believe are unfair means.

Trump’s record as the most pro-Israel president in history means he can count on many, if not most, Jewish conservatives to back him, even if, as he constantly laments, liberals give him no credit for it.

But DeSantis, who was the head of the Middle East Forum’s Israel Victory Caucus when he was in Congress, is likely to get a lot of Jewish-Republican support, as well. Some in the party think it’s time to leave Trump’s grudges about 2020 behind and get a younger face at the head of the GOP.

If so, it’s easy to imagine Trump reacting with rage at what he will claim is a betrayal. That sets up a primary battle that could get messy, and with the Jews right in the middle of it.

So, while many Americans will regard the end of the elections with relief and hope for some political peace, it’s not what they’re likely to get. If the 2020 results promised more years of political strife to follow, the same is almost certainly true with respect to what happened in 2022.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.