Editor’s Note: John Avlon is a CNN senior political analyst and anchor. He is the author of “Lincoln and the Fight for Peace.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
All expectations of a red wave election crashed upon the rocky shoals of reality Tuesday night.
Instead, the 2022 midterms seem to be a repudiation of former President Donald Trump’s election lies and at least many of the top-ticket candidates who parroted them.
Yes, the economy matters – but so does democracy. And, in 2022, the message many voters were sending was “it’s the extremism, stupid.”
Consider the benchmarks for success in a typical midterm election: the opposition party gains an average of 46 seats in the House when the president is below 50% approval rating, as President Joe Biden is. While the final number is still being determined, GOP House gains will be far less than that
Independent voters also bucked the typical midterm election trend, big time. The pattern has been clear in recent years, as I detailed in a recent CNN column – independent voters provide the crucial swing vote in midterm elections, usually moving toward the opposition party by double digits. But that didn’t happen this year.
Instead, Democrats narrowly won independent voters, 49-47, according to CNN exit polls. That’s unheard of in midterm elections.
It’s evidence that Republicans were unable to sell themselves as a moderating force to one-party control of Washington. No wonder the GOP also lost moderate voters by a 56 to 41 margin. Taken together, it implicates the Trumpist election lies that have become a litmus test in many GOP primaries. The lies don’t fly as high in general elections.
Candidate quality also matters – and Trump’s hand-picked candidates seemed just too extreme, with substantial losses in states like Michigan, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania – while the results for Arizona and Nevada are still too close to call – and Herschel Walker is now headed to a run-off in Georgia against Raphael Warnock, who shared more than 100,000 cross-over votes with GOP incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp. The governor had the courage to stand up to Trump’s attempts to overturn the election.
There’s also the issue of reproductive freedom – i.e., abortion rights. Some partisan pundits predicted that the sting of the Supreme Court’s overturning of a half-century precedent would fade five months later. That doesn’t seem to have been the case. In fact, 4 of 5 of the states that had abortion amendments on the ballots chose to protect abortion rights – including dependably red Kentucky.
On the flipside, Republicans exceeded expectations in the New York suburbs – mirroring their 52-46 win in suburbs nationally. That’s partly due to concerns about crime and inflation but also the result of a Democratic over-reach on redistricting.
In New York, they tried to push through the kind of lopsided map that Republicans have done in Texas, Ohio and Florida – but a state judge rejected the partisan maps and got an independent arbiter to do the job. The result was fair maps that gave Republicans a fighting shot – and they made the most of it by nominating comparatively moderate candidates who did not back Trump’s election lies (unlike GOP gubernatorial nominee Lee Zeldin) and many of those folks now look like they’ll be heading to Congress.
This midterm election was in many ways a test of the pendulum politics that moves toward the opposition party. The big question was whether the GOP nominating outright election deniers would matter to voters faced with more immediate issues, like inflation and concerns about crime. Those are real and urgent concerns.
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But it turns out that defending democracy matters as well – because it’s foundational. Yes, Democrats have their own problems, particularly perceptions of being too extreme on cultural issues, as exit polls showed. But the extremism of the election deniers is a unique threat because it undercuts democracy’s assumption of goodwill among fellow citizens as well as our dependence on a common set of facts so we can reason together in a self-governing society. And it turns out that at least some of the fear and instability voters feel is a result of the extremist election denial we’ve seen since January 6.
In retrospect, the massive early voting numbers were evidence of popular enthusiasm to stand up to that extremism – and they should have been analyzed with as much intensity as the polls. Whatever the final tallies, Joe Biden and the Democrats seem to have outpaced the pendulum swing opposition wipeouts we’ve become accustomed to in midterm elections. It’s just more evidence of how Trump is uniquely divisive, destructive and a general election loser for the Republican Party.