Democrats win the optics

Yesterday’s mid-term elections in the United States have played out pretty much in accordance with what the polls were saying. But because most of the media had convinced themselves that there was going to be a big Republican victory, the outcome so far – with a number of crucial seats still in doubt – gives the impression of a Democrat triumph.

Consider first the Senate. It has indeed come down, as I said in Tuesday’s preview, to four very close states – Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and Pennsylvania – of which the Democrats needed to win three to retain control. (Of the others, none of which changed hands, Wisconsin was the closest, with its Republican incumbent just holding on. The winner in Alaska is still uncertain, but the contenders are both Republicans.)

They have won Pennsylvania reasonably comfortably, and have almost certainly held Arizona: Nate Cohn at the New York Times says “there is no hard evidence that a [Republican] victory is impossible,” which is a roundabout way of saying that it’s extremely unlikely. That would bring the Senate numbers to 49-all (counting, as always, the two independents with the Democrats).

The Democrats also have a clear lead in Georgia, but state law requires the winner to have more than 50% of the vote, and with a Libertarian candidate taking 2.1% neither of the major parties is within reach of that. It will therefore go to a runoff in four weeks time, on 6 December: echoing the 2020 result, when two Democrat victories in Georgia runoffs ultimately gave the party control of the Senate.

But if the Democrats can hold on to Nevada, they won’t need Georgia for control – and if they do win the runoff as well, that would bring them to 51-49, having held all their own seats and picked up Pennsylvania. Nevada is extremely close; the Republicans currently lead by about 22,000 votes (49.9% to 47.2%), but most of the remaining votes to be counted are from Democrat-leaning Las Vegas. There might just be enough of them to do the trick, but there might not.

The House of Representatives is a bit more straightforward. Although the Republicans have not yet strictly speaking won a majority, there is no serious doubt that they will. But it will be much smaller than they, and most pundits, were expecting.

Last time around the Democrats won a majority of nine seats in the House, 222 to 213, so the Republicans needed to pick up just five for a majority. So far they have picked up net 11 seats; with between twenty and thirty seats still in some doubt, that number could change, but it is more likely to rise than fall. Counting is proceeding slowly in many places (especially California, as always) so it will be a couple of days before we can be confident, but a Republican majority in the neighborhood of 15 seats is to be expected.

That’s easily enough for Republicans to control the House and do everything within its powers to make life difficult for Joe Biden, provided they stay united. But it will leave them vulnerable to even a small number of defectors, whether Trumpists or anti-Trumpists, on particular issues. The fact that they have underperformed relative to expectations may also put something of a dampener on their adventurism.

With the mid-terms over, however, all eyes turn towards 2024, and yesterday’s big story is the apparent turn against Trumpist candidates. This was not surprising to anyone who actually follows the data, but far too many people in the media had convinced themselves that Donald Trump was a vote-winner and that his endorsement would be a positive. The reality turned out to be different.

The biggest winner on the Republican side was Florida governor Ron DeSantis, re-elected with a big swing in his favor and a margin of one and a half million votes. He has clearly signalled that he will seek the presidential nomination even if it means running against Trump. Nothing really separates them ideologically, but neither Trump nor his supporters care much for ideology, and a race between them could get quite nasty.

For Biden and the Democrats that would be a mixed blessing. There’s no doubt that, taken on his own, DeSantis would be a more dangerous opponent, although his appeal outside of Florida is yet to be tested. But if he has to fight a bruising primary battle against Trump, and possibly even (assuming he wins it) a Trump independent candidacy, the threat would be greatly diminished.

It’s also likely that, although it would be too much to describe him as committed to democracy, DeSantis does not have quite the same ambition to play an American führer that Trump does. A DeSantis presidency would probably be a lot more efficient at whatever harmful things it did, but at least the US constitution would have a better chance of surviving more or less intact.


7 thoughts on “Democrats win the optics

  1. The big winner is indeed Ron DeSantis, who won easily in Florida and is obviously planning to run for President. If DeSantis is the Republican nominee, Biden should definitely retire. DeSantis will be 46 and will run rings around Biden at 82.

    On the Democratic side, Stacey Abrams and Beto O’Rourke are now two-time losers, and Val Demings failed in the Florida Senate race. That leaves Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who had a big win in a swing state, very nicely placed if Biden decides not to run.

    There is no doubt that DeSantis may prove more dangerous than Trump because he has greater ability to turn vindictiveness, cruelty and authoritarianism into actual policy results.

    On the other hand, it’s hard to know how much Trumpist crap he actually believes. Once elected he may be more pragmatic. But he will have to pitch to the far right to win the nomination, so he would certainly be beatable by a good Democratic nominee. But not by Biden, and I fear not by Harris either.


    1. Thanks Paul – Yes, that’s basically how I see it. The big potential obstacle for DeSantis, though, is what Trump would do. If he loses in the primaries, would he run as an independent? Or mount some other sort of wrecking campaign?


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