Why people worried about the fate of democracy see hope in the midterms
Correction: An earlier version of this report misidentified States United Action.
Concerns over the future of American democracy rivaled the economy as a driving force for many voters who cast a ballot in the midterms, a sign that the Jan. 6 insurrection — and the response to it — remain fresh on voters’ minds.
Voters expressed high confidence in Tuesday’s election processes even amid early complaints from former President Trump relaying baseless claims of fraud.
But for all their faith in a free and fair election this year, an Associated Press poll of those exiting the voting booth found that 44 percent said the future of democracy was one of their primary voting considerations.
“This is the first national election following a violent attempt to overthrow the government,” said Donald Sherman, chief counsel at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).
“So it shouldn’t shock anyone that voters came out to express support for protecting our democracy because we were very close to losing it.”
The picture is more complex, however, when it comes to a sea of GOP candidates echoing former President Trump’s false claim the 2020 election was stolen by widespread fraud.
Voters largely rejected election bids from some of the most vocal election deniers running for office — avoiding a worst case scenario feared by those tracking such campaigns.
But voters also elected to the U.S. House nearly 150 people who have at least questioned the legitimacy of the 2020 election, according to a count from The Washington Post.
And some could still clinch victories to major offices, like Kari Lake, a Republican seeking the governorship in Arizona; Mark Finchem, a GOP candidate for Arizona’s secretary of state; and Adam Laxalt, the GOP candidate running to represent Nevada in the U.S. Senate.
Still, the overall dynamic is one that voting rights’ groups see as largely heartening.
“While officials across the country are still counting the votes, we know that in many of the most competitive, high-profile races, the American people rejected candidates who lie about our elections and seek to undermine the rule of law,” said Nick Penniman, founder of Issue One, a democracy group focused on campaign finance issues.
“It should now be clear to all that the highest level of election administration in the states is no place for election conspiracy theories.”
Democrats bolstered far-right candidates in the primaries in the hopes of creating a clear choice for voters — a much criticized strategy that appears to have worked.
JR Majewski, who was a January 6 rally participant and subscriber to the QAnon conspiracy theory, lost his race to Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio). Dan Bolduc, who pushed Trump’s claims the 2020 election was stolen, lost to Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.). Yesli Vega lost to Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.).
At the state level, election deniers did score key wins, with 14 candidates set to assume roles in overseeing elections as either a secretary of state, attorney general or governor. That includes attorney general candidates in Florida and Ohio.
Joanna Lydgate, president of States United Action, a bipartisan election protection group, said election deniers won just a fraction of races for secretary of state, but election deniers in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — all key states won by President Biden in 2020 — rejected candidates with such views.
“It’s just a very clear sign that to the extent that a democracy was on people’s minds it was a fear of our democracy being hijacked, being attacked,” she said.
Lydgate said the dynamic was most clear in secretary of state races.
“Where the messaging was most focused on the fact that this is the person who’s going to control your vote, people voted really differently in those races. Voters pretty resoundingly rejected election deniers,” she said.
“To me that really shows voters understand the stakes. They refuse to let election deniers take their votes away. They said ‘no’ to those lies, and it’s really just such a strong validation of the fact that democracy in America is alive and well.”
Sherman said one factor was simply the extent to which candidates made election denialism a central part of their platform.
“What seemed clear is that election denial was not something that could be scaled,” he said.
Sherman pointed to differences in candidates like Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Doug Mastriano, the Republican gubernatorial candidate in Pennsylvania.
While Sherman described Johnson as “absolutely an election denier” — his office at one point tried to aid in submitting a false election certificate for his state — the issue wasn’t as front and center to his campaign as it was for Mastriano, who was subpoenaed by the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack after he communicated with Trump about plans to send a false slate of electors to the certification of votes.
“I think the Mastriano and the Johnson results speak to sort of how some failed miserably by centering election denialism as the basis for their candidacy, versus some that have tried to delicately skate around [the topic] and eked out a victory,” he said.
In polling leading up to the election, concerns over democracy paled in comparison to rising inflation and other economic anxieties.
But its presence in polling at all reflects growing fears around an issue that hasn’t been a central focus of prior elections.
President Biden gave two speeches ahead of the midterms focused on the threats to democracy, which he described as “under assault.”
“Here, in my view, is what is true: MAGA Republicans do not respect the Constitution. They do not believe in the rule of law. They do not recognize the will of the people,” Biden said in a September speech from Independence Hall in Philadelphia, the site of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
“They refuse to accept the results of a free election. And they’re working right now, as I speak, in state after state to give power to decide elections in America to partisans and cronies, empowering election deniers to undermine democracy itself.”
In a second speech less than a week before the midterms, Biden again addressed democracy concerns, this time opening by pointing to the attack on Paul Pelosi, the husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
“We must vote knowing what’s at stake. And not just the policy of the moment but institutions that have held us together as we’ve sought a more perfect union are also at stake. We must vote knowing who we have been, what we’re at risk of becoming,” he said.
Biden got heat for his September speech, with some concerned he might energize the MAGA base at a time when Democrats could ill afford any snafus going into the 2022 elections. But he appears to have tapped into an issue of importance for many voters, even if the economy was the top priority for most.
Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (N.Y.), the head of the Democrats’ campaign arm who lost his own reelection bid on Tuesday, said it’s too early to determine what issues drove voters in different contests this cycle.
But Maloney also argued that the midterm results, more broadly, are living proof that the country’s democratic traditions remain intact, even despite the forces trying to tear them down.
“I don’t think the American people have given up on democracy. And I think that with all of the headwinds, and all of the damage from the pandemic and the Trump years, there’s still a beating heart to American democracy. And I think you saw it last night,” he said at a press conference the day after the election.
Lydgate, though herself reassured by Tuesday’s results, warned that narratives about stolen elections continue to resonate with some, while election deniers themselves still hold some key positions.
“We also can’t ignore that a number of election deniers did secure seats, and that’s the predictable result of more than two years of really dangerous lies about our elections,” she said.
“This is still going to be a huge fight for our democracy.”
Mike Lillis contributed to this report, which was updated on Nov. 23 at 12:32 p.m.