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Politics experts explore implications of midterm elections

Political science faculty discuss polarization in American politics, lack of expected red wave at event

<p>Jonathan Collins, senior assistant professor of political science, public policy and education, noted that rhetoric within both the Republican and Democratic parties portrays democracy as under threat, increasing attention around the elections.</p>

Jonathan Collins, senior assistant professor of political science, public policy and education, noted that rhetoric within both the Republican and Democratic parties portrays democracy as under threat, increasing attention around the elections.

Four political science faculty experts spent Wednesday night unpacking the complicated results of Tuesday’s midterm elections at a panel hosted by the Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy. Reactions varied from cautious optimism about increased diversity and the failure of the predicted “red wave” to come to fruition and pessimism about the likely gridlock that will result from a Republican takeover of the House of Representatives. 

Most of the panelists agreed that the midterms served as a forecast of what is to come in the 2024 presidential election, with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis emerging as a likely opponent to former President Donald Trump for the Republican candidacy.

2022 might indicate move away from “Trumpism”

Katherine Tate, professor of political science, opened the panel with a quote from Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson: an assertion that the 2022 midterm elections would be among the most important elections in our lifetime. This claim was closely linked to Democratic fears of a “red wave” of Republican victories that would flip control of Congress.

Yet this red wave was nowhere to be found Tuesday night, something Tate addressed in her opening. “This looked more alarming a week ago” for Democrats, Tate said.

Nonetheless, she noted that Democrats will feel the consequences of the midterm elections in the House in particular, where the Republican party is likely to capture a narrow majority. 

“We’re looking at the midterm results, and they’re putting us on track for more extremism from both parties, it seems, but especially from the Republican Party,” Tate predicted. 

She noted that Trump himself is expected to announce his presidential bid for the 2024 election Nov. 15. 

Tate pointed to the continuing racial diversity within Congress as a bright spot of the midterms, citing an increase in Black Republican candidates. 

“I think that these elections are going to help direct the (Republican) party away from its anti-Black politics, although these Black Republicans are not necessarily more pro-women, pro-LGBTQ or pro-immigrant than regular Republicans,” Tate said, adding that greater diversity within the party would “move us away from Trumpism.” 

She also predicted that “Republicans will have an advantage with the Latinx community today because of their new diversity.”

Unusual times, usual results

Jonathan Collins, senior assistant professor of political science, public policy and education, addressed two central paradoxes arising from the midterms. For one, in distinctly unusual post-pandemic times, the midterm results were fairly par for the course, he said.

“Remember the pandemic?” he asked. “This is the first midterm election since the world ended.”

And in another paradox, despite the fact that the economy is doing well by many standard measures, such as gross domestic product, unemployment and new jobs, “to a lot of people, the economy doesn’t feel as the indicators suggest,” Collins said. This is particularly important in the context of elections, as Collins noted that the economy is a crucial topic for voters. Collins said people are experiencing a labor shortage, high costs and “sky-high interest rates.”

Bipartisan agreement, Collins said, could be found on one subject: democracy. Both parties were split down the middle on whether they viewed democracy as secure or whether they viewed it as under threat. Collins remarked that there appears to be “bipartisan agreement that the other party is ruining democracy.”

Collins cited racism, election denial and abortion as critical election issues. 

“We’ve been through a lot with abortion in a very small time,” Collins said. He noted that when Roe v. Wade was struck down, there was immense political pressure among some Republicans to institute a federal abortion ban. “This was a firm possibility — (and) still is — with the House being under threat,” he added.

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Collins drew attention to the fact that, among Republican voters, there is still limited support for protecting abortion rights to varying degrees, adding that there seems to be more support for abortion among Republican voters than Republican leadership.

Addressing lingering questions that remain after the midterms, Collins asked, “Is this a time to breathe a sigh of relief, or renew our appetite for more transformative governance and policy reform? How should we feel about this particular moment?” 

“There are real reasons for us as a campus community to monitor what’s next,” Collins said.

Good night for Democrats, polling and Ron DeSantis

Paul Testa, assistant professor of political science, echoed his colleagues' remarks that, given the expectations, Tuesday was a “good night for Democrats and a roughly bad night for Republicans.” 

Testa provided two reasons why the red wave failed to materialize: “Candidates matter” and “issues matter,” he said. He asserted that with the rise of Trump and “MAGA politics,” there has been a concurrent rise in candidates who appeal to the Republican primary base but who don’t necessarily appeal to a general electorate. Testa said that Democratic candidates performed better against the more “extreme Republican outliers.” 

Testa also referenced the issue of abortion and a general dissatisfaction with “Trump-style politics” as critical advantages for Democrats. He recalled Biden’s messaging that “democracy is on the ballot” and believed Americans took this claim to heart.

Testa also called Tuesday a victory for traditional polling, which follows dwindling confidence in the practice after inaccuracies in 2016 and 2020 elections.

As for implications for Congress and the Senate, Testa warned the audience not to expect much productivity out of the 118th Congress.

“I would expect a lot of gridlock,” Testa said. He noted that gridlock isn’t necessarily all bad for Democrats: It could preserve the legislative achievements of the first half of Biden’s administration. Testa argued that repeals of Biden’s climate change policies and anti-inflation measures are unlikely to occur, and the gridlock could also prevent a national ban on abortion from passing. 

Control of the Senate matters considerably for judicial appointments, Testa said, so a divided Congress will likely jeopardize any Biden appointments to higher courts. “If Republicans can gain a majority, I don’t suspect that Mitch McConnell will help any of Biden’s appointments or speed those through,” Testa said.

He closed by noting that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis was a big winner of the midterms. Given his 20 point win in Florida, Testa said, “I am almost certain that he will run (for president, and) I am almost certain that Trump will run.”

“That primary will be vicious, and I don’t know who wins, and I don’t know the consequence of that,” Testa said.

Victory for democracy

“I think this was a very remarkable election,” opened Richard Arenberg, senior fellow in international and public affairs and visiting professor of the practice of political science. “I think James Madison’s probably giving out a sigh of relief today; I think this election can be characterized as a victory for democracy. I think that it’s pretty clear that if you were an election denier, you probably got beat last night.”

Arenberg found the results of Tuesday’s races particularly remarkable given that this is an off-year election, that America is experiencing high levels of inflation and that Biden is a first-term president — traditionally, Arenberg said, the incumbent party of such a president loses a significant number of seats in midterm elections. 

In addition to being a victory for democracy, Arenberg called the midterms a “loss for Donald Trump (and a) victory for Biden, even though everybody's been quick to point out how anemic his approval ratings are.”

Arenberg echoed Testa’s belief that the midterms are a triumph for DeSantis and asserted that they also show a definitive loss of Florida for the Democrats.

“We can no longer consider Florida a worthwhile battleground state in the 2024 election. You’ve got to face up to the fact that it’s ruby red,” Arenberg said.

Similar to his colleagues, Arenberg also forecasted “a kind of slow down, and maybe even a stoppage, of the Biden agenda for the next two years.”



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