Centrists Were Wrong: Left-Wing Candidates Won

It’s hard to look at Tuesday’s election results and still take seriously the centrist attack line claiming that left-wing candidates aren’t electable. We won plenty of big races to be proud of.

John Fetterman speaking during a campaign event in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, on April 30, 2022. (Michelle Gustafson / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

As the dust settles on the midterms and the data pours in, there’s no shortage of lessons from some of the oddest election results in recent memory. Here are just a few of the most significant.

1.) The centrist case against left-wing electability has been shattered.

It’s hard to look at these results and still take seriously the standard centrist attack on left-wing candidates. That usually goes something like: the Left can only win in coastal areas filled with liberal voters, and their supposedly radical ideas ― like making sure everyone has health care, is paid a decent wage, and doesn’t suffer from climate catastrophe ― are a turnoff to voters anywhere else.

Just look at Pennsylvania, a formerly reliably blue Rust Belt state that’s effectively been purple the last two election cycles. While victorious Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman moved to the center on some issues, he ran on a broadly progressive platform of a $15 minimum wage, legalizing marijuana, enacting criminal justice reform, and making it easier to unionize, as well as moving toward universal health care by, among other things, lowering the Medicare eligibility age. He enthusiastically backed Joe Biden’s student debt cancellation, attacked corporate profiteering for inflation, and ran a campaign shaming his opponent for being an out-of-touch rich guy with ten houses, an opponent who continually attacked him for being endorsed by socialist Bernie Sanders. Despite a stroke that left him temporarily disabled for the entire general campaign, Fetterman still won.

Elsewhere in the state, democratic socialist Summer Lee ran on a more radical platform that included the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and abolishing cash bail and life sentences without parole. This in theory should’ve been a liability, since the redrawn district she was running in contained parts of Westmoreland County, a deep red area where Biden had only won 35 percent, where the GOP controlled every level of elected office, and where physical threats to Democrats had become increasingly common, not to mention her Republican opponent confusingly having the exact same name as the retiring Democratic incumbent. Instead, she did vastly better in the general election than she did in her squeaker of a primary. Besides that, the state’s winning gubernatorial candidate, Josh Shapiro, had run in part on his record of holding opioid makers, pharmaceuticals, and predatory lenders to account.

Likewise, democratic socialist councilman Greg Casar’s win in Texas’s 35th district, Illinois state representative Delia Ramirez’s win in Illinois’s 3rd district, and Maxwell Frost’s win in Florida’s 10th district — with all three running on similar platforms to Lee ― expands the electoral map for the Left. This is particularly the case in light of the GOP’s sweep over Florida, and the fact that Casar and Ramirez won handily in majority Latino districts at a time when commentators claim that demographic is moving rightward. In fact, Ramirez won in a district with traditionally GOP-voting suburbs, where the primary returns show she fared better than in Chicago proper.

Even unsuccessful bids show evidence for this. While far from a progressive firebrand — he opposed Biden’s student debt cancellation, for one ― Ohio representative and Senate candidate Tim Ryan borrowed somewhat from the Left’s playbook, running a workerist campaign that often stressed his opposition to his own party’s leadership. While he still lost in the Rust Belt state, he fared far better than the president had in the state, and was likely sunk by Ohio’s Republican tilt in voter registration. Similarly, in Wisconsin, Mandela Barnes came the closest yet to beating incumbent Ron Johnson, falling short by just one point after running a (mostly) union- (and worker-) focused campaign, and in a race that, unlike Johnson’s two previous runs, featured no conservative third-party candidates.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that a progressive platform means an automatic win regardless of a candidate’s quality, the political conditions, or the countless other factors that influence a race. But it’s implausible at this point to claim, if it wasn’t already, that it guarantees defeat.

2.) The Dobbs decision mattered.

Many observers, this author included, had looked at polling over the last few months and assumed the popular fury unleashed by the Dobbs Supreme Court decision, which struck down abortion rights, had dissipated after the summer. That clearly wasn’t true.

Looking at the election results, the voter surge that saw an antiabortion measure drive up turnout and go down in flames in Kansas in August was clearly not a one-off. Besides the winning ballot measures in Michigan, Vermont, and California enshrining abortion rights in their respective state constitutions, the clearest measure of this might’ve been the 52 percent defeat of Kentucky’s Amendment 2, which would have rejected that right in its constitution — in a state where as recently as 2014, nearly two-thirds of voters thought abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.

Exit polling clearly shows that abortion, while generally not as important for voters as the economy and inflation, was a top issue, with roughly a third of voters overall considering it their top priority, and around 60 percent saying the court ruling made them “dissatisfied or angry.” In Pennsylvania — where Dr Oz infamously said the decision should be between “women, doctors, and local political leaders” — 36 percent said it was their most important issue when going to vote, compared to 27 percent for inflation, as did 14 percent Georgians, 17 percent Arizonans, 20 percent of New Hampshirites, and 13 percent of Wisconsinites — all states where the Senate races were either closer than expected, or where Democrats ended up winning.

This might help explain why Democrats, whose preelection campaign messaging almost exclusively focused on the issue, proved so resilient in this election, even as 70 percent reported thinking the country was going in the wrong direction, and even as Biden was a historically unpopular president, usually a bellwether for a party’s poor performance in midterms. It also suggests that, had the Democrats listened to voices like that of Bernie Sanders and had an actual message on the economy and inflation — which in both exit polls and preelection surveys sat above abortion as voters’ concern, particularly among Republican voters. Speaking of which…

3.) The go-big economic strategy pushed by the Left saved the party.

Commentators are already noting the stark difference between the Democratic “shellacking” of 2010, when a too-small stimulus kept unemployment at persistently close to 10 percent going into the midterms, and this result, which comes after the Democrats jump-started the economy with a far bigger stimulus that put money directly into people’s pockets, and has kept unemployment at just under 4 percent. Economist and author Zach Carter has argued this suggests voters may be more inclined to punish unemployment more severely than inflation.

This is certainly possible, though it’s hard to say for sure, given all the other factors that didn’t exist twelve years ago, most notably the Dobbs decision. But what we can say with some certainty is that Democrats would’ve fared far worse had they listened to neoliberal voices like Larry Summers and passed a smaller fiscal stimulus, held back on the spending that followed, or even just not continued the extended unemployment insurance that gave workers ever so briefly the bargaining power to demand better wages and benefits.

For all the talk of an overheated economy, even the same Federal Reserve currently trying to throw the country into a recession to curb inflation admits the problem is largely the result of external factors, like pandemic-driven prolonged supply chain disruptions and the war in Ukraine. Had Biden gone small, there’s a good chance his party would’ve been going into these elections with both higher-than-average unemployment and stubborn inflation, which may have led to a very different outcome. On that note…

4.) Trump was the big loser.

It wasn’t a great night for Republicans, but it was especially not great for one Republican in particular: former president Donald Trump, many of whose endorsed candidates either underperformed or lost.

Trump’s endorsement was key to getting Dr Oz over the line in his GOP primary, to the rest of the party’s chagrin, before Oz lost to a man absent from much of the campaign due to a stroke. Trump’s gubernatorial candidates lost in the winnable states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania — where Capitol rioter Doug Mastriano ran behind Oz — and his similarly election-denying endorsee in Arizona is also currently running behind.

Other key Senate race endorsees likewise underwhelmed. In Georgia, football star and political novice Herschel Walker took the GOP nomination largely on the back of Trump’s support, but his raft of personal scandals saw him perform worse than the state’s governor and end up in a runoff. In Arizona, Blake Masters, another right-wing extremist boosted by Trump in the primary, looks to have lost his Senate bid, though it has not been officially called. Trump ally Ron Johnson struggled in Wisconsin, eking out a win.

As it stands, by Politico’s count, seven of Trump’s “riskiest” picks have lost (not counting Masters), while seven have won, with the former president faring especially poorly in House races so far. An Axios tally of key races gives Trump a win-loss ratio of thirteen to ten, with fourteen races still to go, a count somewhat padded by the fact that a number of endorsees were running in safe seats. While not disastrous, Trump made a big, public show of taking credit in advance for the coming outcome, which he thought would be a Republican landslide.

Whatever the final count, the result has already dented Trump’s standing within the GOP. Originally planning to announce his presidential run shortly after the results, he’s now being urged to delay it for fear of costing the Republicans the Georgia Senate seat. You’ve got Fox News hosts more or less openly rebuking Trump. Laura Ingraham said the conservative movement isn’t “about any one person” while denouncing nameless Republicans “putting your own ego or your own grudges ahead of what’s good for the country.” Marc Thiessen called the (nominally) more moderate Republican governors who won on Tuesday “the path to the future” while complaining about the “radical candidates who ran far behind them.”

Most ominously for Trump, his leading rival for the presidential nomination, Florida governor Ron DeSantis, won big in the key Republican state, way outperforming Trump’s result in 2020 by flipping the normally blue Miami-Dade County and winning big among the key demographics of Latinos and women, as well as pretty much every other group. Already the knives are out among the more Trump-skeptical parts of the Right, who are already turning to the victorious DeSantis.

5.) Hard-right candidates struggled.

It’s tricky to talk about extremism in regards to today’s Republican Party, whose “centrist” establishment is wildly to the right of the country on everything from social issues to economic and tax policy. But the results seem to reflect serious ambivalence among the electorate toward some of the loopier elements that have entered the party with Trump’s rise.

An Axios tally of 2020 election deniers so far shows more losses than wins for this faction. This is particularly significant in secretary of state races, given their key roles in elections, where election deniers have gone down in Michigan, Minnesota, and New Mexico, one is currently trailing in Arizona, and another is in a dead heat in Nevada.

Maine’s former hard-right governor Paul LePage was easily beaten. Sarah Palin, once the darling of the Republican Party, crashed and burned. Colorado’s Lauren Boebert, a QAnon adherent who opposes the separation of church and state, is fighting for her political life, sitting on the slimmest of slim leads of a little more than a thousand votes, clearly driven by substantial backlash from voters of her own party. Add on to that the way some of the Trump endorsees outlined above have struggled, some of them having to flirt with, then awkwardly distance themselves from, Trump’s election fraud nonsense.

6.) So did centrists.

Republicans’ struggles shouldn’t lead to triumphalism for the Democratic establishment, though, whose corporate-backed centrists didn’t have a sterling night either, for all their claims to electability.

Florida was ground zero for their failure. To compete in the increasingly red state, Democrats ran a set of uninspiring centrists, like Val Demings, who reminded voters constantly that she had been a police chief, and Charlie Crist, a former GOP congressman and three-time election loser who once described himself as “an anti-tax, pro-life, pro-gun Republican.” Both went down in flames.

In Nevada, which has voted blue in the last four presidential cycles, Catherine Cortez Masto has been hanging on for dear life against a Trump ally who tried to overturn the 2020 election. Among the highlights of her recent career are her lack of enthusiasm for raising the minimum wage, her high-profile opposition to canceling student debt, and serving as a well-known and loyal servant for the hard-rock mining industry, on whose behalf she stripped from her party’s major spending bill a provision imposing royalties to pay for their cleanup.

Maybe the most shocking loss was Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Sean Patrick Maloney, a five-term incumbent who had effectively squeezed progressive Mondaire Jones out of his House seat. After boasting that his primary win against a progressive insurgent was a win for the “mainstream” and “common sense,” Maloney lost to the Republican in a district that Biden had won by ten points.

In fact, the Democratic establishment in New York as a whole had a disastrous night, with New York governor Kathy Hochul beating her hard-right opponent by the smallest lead in decades, and Democrats collapsing throughout the state. The party’s disastrous showing in what’s typically the bluest of blue states may single-handedly cost Democrats continued control of the House, itself partly the legacy of corporate centrist and former governor Andrew Cuomo’s stranglehold on the state’s politics, as well as Maloney himself and former state party chair Jay Jacobs, whom one Democratic consultant blamed.

7.) A lot of money was wasted.

Core to the Democrats’ own underperformance was the diversion and siphoning of massive sums of money and fundraising energy into high-profile but failing candidates at the expense of more winnable races ignored by the party establishment.

Perennial loser Beto O’Rourke lost his Texas gubernatorial bid by nine points, despite raising a whopping $76 million and outraising his opponent in the final few months of the race. Stacey Abrams failed to beat Republican governor Brian Kemp in Georgia for a second time — this time by nearly eight points, running well behind Raphael Warnock — even though she raised a record-breaking $105 million, more than $20 million more than the incumbent.

Both candidates have uninspiring neoliberal records, but have been kept in national prominence for years by pro-Democratic media for, somewhat absurdly, losing major races. Other centrist candidates we can add to this list are: Demings, who outraised and outspent Marco Rubio to the tune of $65 million; Crist, who had one of the highest Democratic gubernatorial fundraising hauls this cycle ($31 million); and Marcus Flowers, who raised more than $15 million only to lose by thirty points in Georgia.

Meanwhile, Tim Ryan’s surprisingly strong Ohio campaign was left high and dry by the party’s national leadership. So was Jamie McLeod-Skinner, currently locked in a too-close-to-call race for a red-leaning Republican district where she had beaten corporate-backed saboteur Kurt Schrader for the primary, while Working Families Party national director Maurice Mitchell complained to Jacobin that Barnes could have been put over the top in Wisconsin if he had gotten some added late-hour financial support in the already expensive race.

8.) The party can’t take young people for granted.

If previous election results hadn’t already made it clear, then this election should set it in stone: young people are an integral part of the Democratic coalition and the party can’t keep taking them for granted if it wants to keep winning.

Young voters showed up in higher numbers in six key battleground states, and overall turnout of under-thirties is estimated to be the second-highest in thirty years, after 2018. There are multiple polls that show voters aged eighteen to twenty-nine voting for Democrats at a rate upward of 50 and even 60 percent. In fact, a comparison of CNN’s exit polls this year and 2020 shows the Democrats’ voter share increased among voters aged eighteen to twenty-nine ― jumping significantly, in fact, among the twenty-five to twenty-nine range ― while forty-five continues to be the cutoff age for majority Democratic support. In light of this, Biden’s decision to ignore conservative naysayers and sign his (admittedly limited) student debt cancellation executive order ― which sent his approval ratings among this previously unenthusiastic cohort soaring in the immediate aftermath — looks particularly wise.

The GOP is clearly paying attention too, with Ingraham telling Fox viewers the party needed to “win over voters outside our traditional base — that means young people too.” But if Republicans are serious about this, they’ll need to make some major and, for them, uncomfortable changes, if they’re going to attract votes from a generation that’s far more socially liberal, and overwhelmingly concerned with the accelerating threat of climate change, on which the GOP policy is to do everything possible to make the crisis worse.

With all this in mind, there are at least two big questions the results leave us with:

1.) Will the Democrats learn the right lessons?

Already, the Democratic Party is reacting to this less-bad-than-expected result with self-congratulatory back-slapping.

MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell said Biden was “on the verge of being the most successful Democratic president in a midterm election that we have seen in quite some time.” A Democratic official texted the Washington Post’s Jeff Stein that it showed that “Team Biden was right and actually the economy is good and people love it.” An entire regiment of partisan commentators aren’t just breathing a sigh of relief, but actively celebrating the outcome as a triumph. We’ll have to wait and see what exactly happens with the final tally, but bear in mind that all these responses had come when it was looking like the GOP was headed for a reduced House majority.

This is, to say the least, a bizarre way to react to what was the party’s projected loss of the House and highly uncertain continued control of the Senate. While a smaller House majority — as projected at this stage, anyway — would make it harder for Republicans to enact their agenda, a loss of either chamber, let alone both, will also make it much harder for Biden to govern.

Meanwhile, the GOP and its more extremist elements may have struggled, but it’s been far from a decisive rebuke by the electorate. A fair amount of Trump allies and election deniers have still won, like Johnson in Wisconsin and J. D. Vance in Ohio, while others — like Republican gubernatorial candidates in Arizona and Oregon — are either within striking distance of winning, have mounted the stiffest Republican challenges in some time, or are even leading their races. The “Christian nationalism” movement is alive and well within the GOP, and at least at this stage, the party’s QAnon Caucus, which includes Boebert, looks like it will be returned to Congress. Clearly, under the right economic conditions, it remains entirely possible for the US electorate to send a wave of extreme, antidemocratic candidates to the highest levels of power.

The demographic trends that should be worrying the Democratic Party have continued with this election. If we compare AP VoteCast polling this year and 2020, Democrats’ share of voters earning under $50,000 has declined six points, their share of voters earning between that and $100,000 had fallen four points, and even their share of earners making more than $100,000 has dropped four points. The party is still bleeding voters without college degrees, and saw its support fall among college graduates, too. The GOP, meanwhile, continues to make inroads among black (+6), Latino (+3), Asian (+5), and even Native American (+4) voters. The same trends are evident in CNN’s exit polls from the same year.

There seems to be little introspection around the party’s failure to deliver on its agenda, nor over how overruling the Senate parliamentarian to raise the minimum wage and cap insulin — or simply not having the president sabotage his own agenda for the sake of handshake photo-ops with Republicans ― might have shifted this result. If anti-Republican backlash let Democrats survive this election under such challenging economic conditions, with no real economic message and with voters overwhelmingly concerned with the economy, it’s not out of the question that Biden and the Democrats could’ve done far better this cycle if they’d delivered what they’d promised.

Instead, there’s a real likelihood Democrats will simply take away from this that they can continue to coast on the educated, affluent suburban vote while drumming up fear about the GOP. Ditto for the party’s risky gambit of deliberately promoting seemingly unelectable hard-right candidates in Republican primaries, which seemed to work out this year, but backfired spectacularly in 2016.

2.) Is this the new normal or just this election?

Finally, it’s an open question to what extent these unexpected results are a one-off or herald some kind of new political era. These elections saw unusually high turnout among young voters, a return to ticket-splitting, wild regional variations, an overall surprisingly strong showing for an unpopular president, and results that defy challenging economic conditions. How much of this points to a new normal, and how much of it is specific to the unique conditions of this election, which come in the wake of the Supreme Court’s unpopular gutting of abortion rights, in the midst of a strange mixed bag of an economy, and with the polarizing figure of Trump looming over everything?

These questions will only be answered in the years ahead. What’s certainly true is that with the strong performance of populists like Fetterman, Ryan, the new crop of socialist candidates who are entering Congress next year, and even with Michigan Democrats’ plans to use their new majorities to end “right to work,” we’re getting a preview of one possible future of progressive politics in the United States. It remains to be seen if the Democratic Party as a whole seizes it.