What the midterm elections mean for US democracy

Voters often rejected election-denying candidates

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As the results of the US midterm elections come into focus, one thing is already clear: many of the candidates who parroted Donald Trump’s unfounded claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him fared poorly.

Mr Trump’s false narrative that Joe Biden only beat him in 2020 through a shadowy nationwide voting conspiracy has been embraced by many Republicans, even though no evidence has surfaced to support the claims.

The former president endorsed hundreds of election-denying loyalists in the midterms, including some who were running for secretary of state, a position responsible for the administration of elections.

Republicans had predicted a “red wave” of support at Tuesday’s polls, leading Democratic observers including Mr Biden to be fearful that the very fabric of American democracy was about to come undone.

But the “red wave” was smaller than expected and, while some election deniers won or are ahead as counts continue, many failed.

Pollsters have credited this in large part to the high turnout among voters aged 30 or under, who are less likely to embrace Mr Trump's claims than older voters, particularly baby boomers.

“One could go down the ballots in each state and actually find candidates that Trump endorsed and then you could look at how those candidates fared vis-a-vis, say, other candidates in the state or the region,” said Thomas Balcerski, a presidential historian and visiting professor at Occidental College.

“The pattern is already clear that those candidates fared worse relatively.”

A campaign sign for Arizona Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake is posted in front of a Church's Chicken restaurant in Phoenix, Arizona. Getty Images / AFP

Historically, the midterms serve as a referendum on the presidency and the party in power. But this year, it felt to many observers like democracy itself was on the ballot.

The midterms have “abated, but not extinguished, concerns about ongoing democratic stability”, said Aziz Huq, a professor of law at the University of Chicago.

For two years, Mr Trump crisscrossed the country telling his followers that he won the 2020 election and this has been blamed for fuelling the anger that led to the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol.

But in the critical battleground states Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, election deniers lost.

The former president has already suggested there were issues in these midterms, questioning how his desired Senate candidate in Pennsylvania, Mehmet Oz, could have lost.

"How does Oz (smart guy!) lose to a guy who can’t string together two sentences?" Mr Trump wrote on his social media platform Truth Social, referring to victor John Fetterman, who this year suffered a stroke.

"They don’t want to check, because they don’t want to make me right."

In Georgia and Michigan, incumbent candidates who strongly defended the integrity of their states’ voting system in 2020 won handily.

Arizona and Nevada are still too close to call, though election-denying gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake is almost neck and neck with Democrat Katie Hobbs.

Most of the election-denying candidates, “when they ran in a competitive venue, they were rejected”, said Thom Reilly, a professor at Arizona State University, describing the prospects for the US democratic process as “a bit encouraging”.

The fact that people who actively campaigned on the 2020 election being stolen did not get their hands on some of the levers that help hold up the US democratic system came as a relief for some.

“That reduces the risk of the 2024 election going off the rails the way that the 2020 election almost did,” Dr Huq told The National.

Updated: November 11, 2022, 12:41 AM
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