A worrying sign for Democrats in the 2020 interim results

Photo: Megan Varner/Getty Images

This month’s interim results gave Democrats plenty of reasons for optimism about their prospects of retaining the White House in 2024.

Despite an inflation rate of over 8 percent, the party managed to post one of the best midterm performances for a presidential party in history, retaining control of the Senate and keeping the GOP’s new House of Representatives exceptionally small majority.

Additionally, Democrats exceeded expectations in key Electoral College battlegrounds. In 2022, Michigan and Pennsylvania behaved less like swing states and more like blue ones. The Michiganders re-elected Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer by a double-digit margin, giving her party full control of the state legislature. Pennsylvanians, meanwhile, picked Democratic gubernatorial nominee Josh Shapiro by nearly 15 points and endorsed John Fetterman by nearly five points over Mehmet Oz.

And Democrat strength wasn’t limited to Wolverine or Keystone states. In the five states that transitioned from the red column to the blue column between 2016 and 2020 — Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — Democrats went six to eight in their combined Senate and gubernatorial elections, and Georgia is favored for a seventh win forthcoming runoff in the Senate.

With Michigan and Pennsylvania looking blue rather than purple, Democrats are poised to enter 2024 as favorites in states that boast 260 combined electoral college votes. That would put the party in a position to keep the White House if only they could win one of the three remaining big “toss-up” states – Wisconsin, Georgia or Arizona.

Nonetheless, November’s results still offer blue America’s problem children reason to maintain their strategic Xanax reserves.

Since 2016, the Democratic coalition has become increasingly dependent on the support of white college-educated voters who were once staunchly Republican. The party’s resilient strength with this demographic fueled the “blue wave” of 2018, enabling it to weather a significant erosion of support among nonwhite voters in general – and among Hispanic voters in particular – in 2020. The Democrats didn’t lose much additional ground with the latter constituencies in 2022. But they didn’t regain much support among Hispanic voters nationally either.

As such, the party cannot comfortably lose many of the votes from middle-class white suburbanites who favored the GOP before Trump conquered them. And the gubernatorial elections in Ohio and Georgia suggest that Republicans could be able to win back some such swing voters without much ideological moderation.

Think Brian Kemp. The recently re-elected governor of Georgia is, by any reasonable measure, deeply right-wing. In 2019, Kemp enacted one of the country’s most draconian abortion bans, limiting legal abortion to the period before a fetus has a detectable heartbeat, which generally occurs within six weeks of pregnancy. He has also adamantly refused to accept federal funding to expand Medicaid in his state, even though doing so would help keep many cash-strapped rural hospitals — which serve the GOP grassroots — afloat. In other words, Kemp has defied both public opinion and well-meaning interest groups in his state on several high-level issues in order to uphold conservative orthodoxy.

And yet on November 8, Georgia voters backed Kemp by 7.5 points over Democrat Stacey Abrams, despite giving Democrat Raphael Warnock a majority in his race against Republican challenger Herschel Walker. Ticket splitters — that is, voters supporting both Warnock and Kemp — were concentrated near Atlanta and its suburbs. Suggesting that many white college-educated voters who supported Biden in 2020 and a Democratic Senate nominee in 2022 nevertheless voted for a far-right Republican governor.

Photo: New York Times

A similar story can be told about Mike DeWine in Ohio. Buckeye State’s governor isn’t quite as reliably reactionary as Kemp. But he signed an even more aggressive abortion ban than Georgia’s, which bans abortion at six weeks even in cases of rape and incest (Georgian law allows for exceptions in these cases, provided the victims make a police report). He is also opposed to same-sex marriage and supports tax cuts for the rich. And yet DeWine won re-election by more than 25 points. In 2020, Biden lost the state by just eight points, while Democratic Senate nominee Tim Ryan lost his race to JD Vance that year by just 6.6 points. For example, a large number of Ohio voters supported Biden over Trump and Ryan over his Trumpist opponent, while still supporting a proponent of forcing rape victims to give birth and lowering the tax burden on millionaires.

DeWine and Kemp have a few things in common. One of the most notable, however, is that both have come into public conflict with Donald Trump for refusing to support his denial of the 2020 election results. After Kemp confirmed his state’s vote count, Trump cast him out as one of the MAGA movement’s great traitors and recruited a key challenger to oust the incumbent GOP. DeWine, meanwhile, took to CNN shortly after the 2020 race was announced and said that Biden had “clearly won” and that Trump should start preparing for a peaceful transition. In response, Trump attempted (although he ultimately failed) to find a credible main challenger to stand up to DeWine.

In 2022, Republican candidates with strong ties to Donald Trump — and his attempts to subvert the election in particular — tended to dramatically outperform other GOP candidates. Given this pattern, it seems plausible that Kemp and DeWine owed part of their success to the aura of “moderation” they secured only by being (1) objects of Trump’s wrath and (2) opponents of coups.

Which is a worrying precedent for 2024. If all GOP candidates have to do to appear “moderate” in the eyes of suburban swing voters, they have to get into a high-profile battle with Donald Trump, then any Republican who manages to defeat Trump in 2024 in The Elementary School would look moderate for this constituency by default.

Of course, there are many other explanations for Kemp and DeWine’s ability to simultaneously win Biden voters and champion far-right politics. Incumbent governors tend to outperform other candidates. And in 2022, incumbent governors benefited from the generosity of America’s bailout plan: Biden’s COVID stimulus showered state governments with funds that allowed Republican state officials to cut taxes without compromising spending on education or other social programs they needed at heart, significantly cut back middle class. In fact, both Kemp and DeWine increased public school funding, with the former implementing a $5,000 annual raise for Georgia teachers. It is possible that these substantial measures of moderation on high-level issues at the state level have helped governors persuade swing voters to overlook their pro-abortion extremism.

Separately, it’s also true that many college-educated voters who reliably support the Democrats in the presidential election are nonetheless willing to support the Republicans at the gubernatorial level if it can secure their property tax rates (hence half of the blue New England governors are Republicans). It’s possible, therefore, that Biden voters’ willingness to back Kemp and DeWine does not mean openness to backing ideologically similar politicians for the presidency in 2024.

Given that many college-educated Democratic Party supporters did not live in blue America prior to Trump’s nomination, there is concern about these voters’ willingness to support far-right politicians who had public feuds with the ex-president in 2022 .

As such, Democrats should do everything they can to ensure Ron DeSantis (or any other conservative rising star) doesn’t claim the mantle of “moderation” in 2024 should he emerge as the Republican nominee. Democrats appear to have made miles of denouncing “MAGA” Republicans and warning of the threat Trump poses to democracy. But they would do well to launch a more conventional, ideological charge against the Republican Party in a big way in the years to come. The GOP is bound by positions on reproductive rights and tax policies that are as unpopular today as they were in 2012 (if not more so). If a GOP politician wants to force people to give birth, cut taxes on the rich, and “reform” Social Security, their willingness to honor the results of democratic elections shouldn’t count for much.

In 2022, swing voters proved adept at spotting Republican extremism as it took the form of goofy apologists for the insurgency. It’s possible that the GOP’s flag bearer will sport the same profile in 2024. But in the event Trump loses the nomination, Democrats must be ready to help moderates see the radicalism that lurks behind the country club’s Republican seriousness.