Against a backdrop of rising inflation and declining presidential approval ratings, the incumbent Democratic Party expected big losses in the USA’s midterm elections. But predictions of a landslide Republican victory didn’t materialise: while Republicans took back the House, Democrats increased their paper-thin Senate majority and flipped several gubernatorial races. In the face of Republican attempts to focus the election on inflation, crime and immigration, Democrats rallied their base around defending democratic values, voting rights and abortion rights. The most extreme Trump-endorsed election denier candidates were defeated. But while the time of Trump may be passing, Trumpism is far from over.

Some feared these could well be the USA’s last free and fair elections for a long time to come. In the run-up to the 8 November midterms, multiple candidates made clear that if they won they would use their power to change the rules in their party’s favour. More than half of Republicans running for the House of Representatives, the Senate and various state-level offices were election deniers. They baselessly challenged and refused to accept President Joe Biden’s victory over former President Donald Trump in the 2020 election even after claims were investigated and dismissed.

Many election deniers were running for the key state-level position of secretary of state, the office in charge of overseeing federal elections and certifying their results. They made it abundantly clear that, had they held this role two years earlier, they would have used it to subvert the results of the 2020 presidential vote.

Against a backdrop of rising inflation and declining presidential approval ratings, Republicans were hoping to make big advances, giving extremists enormous power over future elections. Historical precedent was on their side: the president’s party has rarely escaped midterm defeat.

But the worst-case scenario hasn’t materialised. The predicted ‘red wave’ barely made a splash. It has taken weeks for the dust to settle, but the final scores offer a much more balanced distribution of power than expected. Congress, previously controlled by the Democratic Party, is now split, with Republicans narrowly taking control of the House and Democrats keeping their Senate majority. Overall, Republicans made a net gain of nine representatives while Democrats added an additional senator to their caucus. Races for governor flipped in four states: three for Democrats and one for Republicans.

Democracy was on the ballot and it emerged very much alive. But it would be a grave mistake to underestimate the continuing dangers.

The red wave that wasn’t

At stake were all 435 seats of the House of Representatives, 35 seats in the 100-member Senate, governor positions in 36 states and three territories, and countless local offices. In 36 states voters were also offered to have their say on around 130 ballot measures on a wide variety of issues, including abortion rights in five states.

The ruling Democratic Party went into the election with a paper-thin House majority and the Senate evenly split, which made it dependent on Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote and gave it limited control of key committees. It expected to lose its House majority, probably by a wide margin, and was uncertain whether it would keep its slim Senate advantage.

The ruling party has almost invariably lost congressional seats in midterm elections. Thirteen of the last 19 midterms brought losses in both chambers for the party in power. Only one saw gains for the president – Republican George W Bush – in both chambers, and that came in the wake of an exceptional event, the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Conventional wisdom dictates that midterms are a referendum on the incumbent president, held responsible for the state of the economy and other problems. The context of these midterms was one of economic uncertainty, rising inflation, growing public concern about crime and immigration and political polarisation. On top of this, the amount of US support for Ukraine in the context of the Russian invasion has become yet another divisive issue.

Plagued by consistently low approval ratings, Biden seemed particularly ill-equipped to navigate this storm. Republicans didn’t need much: five extra seats would do the trick in the House and just one additional seat would allow them to take control of the Senate.

But Republicans gained a much narrower advantage than expected: with the last couple of seats yet to be called, projections place their numbers in the House at 222 out of 435 – four above the 218 needed for a majority.

In the Senate, Democrats gained an additional seat by flipping Pennsylvania, thanks to an unconventional candidate, John Fetterman, who won back white working class Trump voters in the state’s rural areas.

The last Senate race, called in Georgia following the runoff held on 6 December, left the count at 51 to 49. This should make it easier for Democrats to move forward legislation even in the absence of party unanimity, protect them against party switches – such as that announced soon afterward by Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who decided to re-register as an independent to boost her re-election chances – and give them more control of Senate committees.

Spotlight on Georgia: latest attempts at voter suppression

Georgia and Louisiana are the only two US states that hold runoffs in general elections. Georgia’s system was created in 1964 in an attempt to suppress Black political representation: in an era that preceded early in-person voting and mail-in voting, runoffs made it harder for people with fewer resources to vote. Off-cycle elections typically see lower turnout overall, and even lower turnout among minorities.

In 1994 the threshold for runoffs was lowered to 45 per cent, but after narrowly losing a Senate seat in 1996, Republicans changed it back to 50 per cent in 2008. In 2021, they passed a law that shortened the time between an election and a runoff from nine to four weeks – something that makes it impossible for new voters to register between the two rounds. The new law also made it illegal to give water or food to people standing in line to vote – in a context where the longest waiting times are typically in areas with large Black populations.

As no candidate received a majority of votes on 8 November, a runoff between the top two – Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock and Republican challenger Herschel Walker – took place on 6 December.

Warnock is a minister of Martin Luther King’s Atlanta church. His 2020 election made him the first Black senator from Georgia, giving Democrats narrow control of the Senate. Walker, a former American football star with a shady past and a winding political trajectory, is also Black. But unlike Warnock, who describes himself as a child of the 1960s civil rights movement, he speaks the language of white conservatism, denying the reality of institutional racism. He’s a Trump loyalist and an election denier.

In the final day of his campaign, Warnock pleaded with voters to show up. And indeed, despite the many barriers seeking to make voting harder, turnout was key. Warnock’s win made Walker the fourth Trump-backed candidate to lose a winnable Senate race.

While most governorships remained in the same hands, in another unusual turn of events the president’s party increased rather than decreased its share: out of four states that switched, three – Arizona, Maryland and Massachusetts – went to Democrats, while only one, Nevada, flipped to the Republicans.

A test for democracy

Unable to do much to improve the state of the economy, the Democrats’ campaign focused on other key issues at stake, from the sanctity of the right to vote to women’s bodily autonomy. Campaigning alongside former president Obama, Biden sought to convince voters the midterm results were crucial to preserve democracy.

This was the first election following the coup attempt of 6 January 2021, when the Capitol building was stormed by right-wing extremists encouraged by Trump in an attempt to prevent the certification of his successor’s victory.

Two years followed of non-stop efforts to undermine trust in the integrity of the electoral process. Trump and his army of ‘MAGA’ – Make America Great Again – Republicans endlessly spread conspiracy theories and questioned the election results, seemingly believing that a lie repeated often enough becomes the truth. Dozens of unsuccessful lawsuits were filed, some of them deemed frivolous, resulting in fines for the plaintiffs.

Trump lost, but if anything, Trumpism only became stronger among the Republican base, who in a large number of primaries opted for Trump-endorsed election deniers over more moderate, classic Republicans. This trend was strengthened by a potentially dangerous tactic embraced by Democrats in some states: that of supporting the nomination of extreme Republicans they viewed as unpalatable for many voters and therefore easier to defeat. Among those boosted was the Republican candidate for Pennsylvania governor, state senator Doug Mastriano, a Christian nationalist and retired military colonel who had hired buses to take people to what became the 6 January insurrection.

Hundreds of election deniers like him ran for office at every level, including 12 competing for their state’s top election position, secretary of state, which would have enabled them to refuse to certify any Democratic victory in 2024. One of them, Arizona lawmaker Mark Finchem, had already tried to decertify election results in three key Arizona counties and supported the convening of a slate of fake Trump electors to change the outcome. A former member of a far-right militia, he was present at the attack on the Capitol. He was yet another unsuccessful Trump-endorsed candidate.

The extremely polarised context raised fears of a rise in political violence. These only increased when Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband was attacked just before the election. The man who broke into their house in San Francisco in the middle of night and beat 82-year-old Paul Pelosi with a hammer apparently wanted to kidnap Nancy. He was an election denier and had engaged with online groups spreading conspiracy theories. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take long for the attack itself to also become wrapped up in nonsensical conspiracy theories.

Courts and election officials took precautions, including strengthening the transparency of counts, putting up barriers to protect buildings where counts took place, prompting candidates to pledge to respect the results and getting officials ready to immediately respond to any false allegation of ballot fraud.

Abortion rights on the ballot

If democracy was at stake in the election, so were abortion rights.

In June 2022 the US Supreme Court overturned its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which protected the right to abortion in the USA for almost 50 years. The new ruling effectively left abortion regulation up to each of the USA’s 50 states. Abortion soon became illegal in many that had introduced trigger bans, designed to take effect if Roe was overturned.

The fact that the fundamentalist, ultra-conservative backlash driving this trend didn’t accurately reflect the state of public opinion became apparent in unmistakably conservative Kansas, where in August voters rejected an anti-abortion constitutional amendment.

This pointed the way for the midterms. While some Democratic strategists recommended downplaying abortion rights to focus instead on what polls showed as people’s most pressing concerns – rising prices and crime – grassroots women’s and youth movements thought otherwise. The defence of sexual and reproductive rights became a rallying point for the Democratic base, injecting enthusiasm, driving voter registration campaigns and boosting turnout.

It was the right thing to do, and also a strategic choice that was vindicated. Elections are about what voters think they are about, and according to exit polls, inflation and abortion were the two most important issues driving voting choices. Crime and immigration had much lower salience, despite Republicans’ efforts to drive attention to them.

The Democratic campaign called on voters to prioritise women’s health when casting their votes: a good example of this was a billboard campaign coordinated by the Brooklyn-based organisation SaveArtSpace in 14 US cities, mostly in states that were restricting abortion rights. The effect of this was mostly on turnout: it didn’t change anyone’s position on abortion rights but encouraged people to vote who might not have bothered.

Turnout, particularly among young people, was unusually high, particularly in contested races. The youth turnout rate was the second-highest in a midterm election in 30 years.

The most notable impact was seen in the states where abortion rights were literally on the ballot. This placed the issue front and centre: opinion polls showed that while barely 30 per cent of voters mentioned abortion as the top issue guiding their voting behaviour, when asked a specific question about abortion, around 60 per cent said it should be legal in all or most cases. Five states – California, Kentucky, Michigan, Montana and Vermont –held referendums on sexual and reproductive rights, either to eliminate protections or write them into law, and abortion rights campaigners won every time.

In California, Michigan and Vermont, voters approved amendments to state constitutions to guarantee abortion rights and other reproductive health services. Voters in Kentucky and Montana rejected proposals to change state constitutions to deny abortion rights, just like in Kansas.

Bad news for Trump

Trump had urged his followers to vote only on election day, baselessly linking early and mail-in voting with ballot fraud. With more than 47 million mail-in and early in-person votes cast nationwide, some districts experienced a red mirage. Many states count in-person votes first and the early votes last, something that brings delays and plays to a narrative of election day theft. The initial counting of election-day votes meant that many pro-Trump Republicans went to bed on election night sure they had won but woke the next day to the news they had lost.

Trump’s standing has taken a hit. It was the most pro-Trump and Trump-like candidates who lost the most, while many Republicans seen as more presentable managed to win. As a result, party insiders started questioning Trump’s harmful influence. By making election denial a test of loyalty and using this as a key criterion for endorsing candidates, Trump elevated candidates who couldn’t win.

Refusing to own defeat, Trump doubled down, announcing his next presidential run. His advisers had barely managed to stop him doing so before the election. Ominously he has called for the ‘termination’ of all rules, including those enshrined in the US constitution, because they haven’t favoured him. He’s also killed the post-election boredom by spending time with antisemites and white supremacists.

Meanwhile, Trump’s starring role in the assault on the Capitol has been abundantly documented by a Congressional committee. A judicial investigation is ongoing over his alleged theft of classified official documents. In late November, the leader of the far-right Oath Keepers militia was convicted of seditious conspiracy for seeking to keep Trump in power through a plot that climaxed in the 6 January insurrection. And in early December, a New York jury convicted the Trump Organization of criminal tax fraud.

Many in the Republican Party now seem set on distancing themselves from Trump’s toxic influence and moving towards a more palatable and electable alternative – the 44-year-old Florida governor, Ron DeSantis, just re-elected by a landslide.

Continuing danger

The midterms brought many significant firsts. Three states got their first female governors: Arkansas, Massachusetts and New York. Maryland got its first Black governor: Wes Moore, a young Democrat, will be the only Black governor in office in all of the USA. In Oregon, Democrat Tina Kotek became the state’s first lesbian governor. Vermont, which has a single representative in Congress, elected a woman for the job – an out gay liberal Democrat – for the first time ever. And 25-year-old Maxwell Alejandro Frost, an Afro-Cuban liberal Democrat from Florida, became the first member of generation Z to be elected to Congress.

For the first time LGBTQI+ candidates ran in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. There were 18 per cent more LGBTQI+ candidates on the ballot than in 2020. A ‘rainbow wave’ followed, as they won in record numbers.

But the country remains deeply polarised, and that isn’t going to end anytime soon. The midterm election results also don’t bode well for any hopes of renewal of politics. A resounding Democratic defeat would have piled pressure on Biden not to run again, but the unexpectedly good results make it likelier the 80-year-old president, the oldest in US history, will seek re-election.

Only four years younger, Trump is no youthful challenger, and he’s now a known quantity. Despite his recent defeats, he’s still the favourite of the radicalised Republican Party base. He doesn’t perform well among the public as a whole – he never got a majority of the popular vote, and probably never will. But will anyone be able to stop him from grabbing the Republican presidential nomination again?

Right now, DeSantis appears to be the only one who could, but this would likely be a bruising battle. If DeSantis prevails, Republicans will have a less erratic and more palatable and electable leader – but not necessarily a more moderate one. DeSantis is Trump without the drama. He’s more consistent than Trump has ever been in his anti-immigration, anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQI+ positions. He’s placed himself at the forefront of a culture war fought on every possible battleground, from courts to schools. He has campaigned on an explicitly anti-progressive platform. In his victory speech he proclaimed Florida the state ‘where woke goes to die’. Trumpism isn’t going anywhere, even after Trump is gone.

In the face of continuing threats, Democrats are trying to get key legislation passed to protect rights before the House changes hands on 3 January 2023. On 14 November, the Senate passed the Respect for Marriage Act. Once it’s passed by the House, it will replace the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as the union between one man and one woman and allowed states to refuse same-sex marriage licences issued in other states. The Supreme Court threw out this law in 2015, but now the court is dominated by conservative judges, the same arguments used to overturn Roe v. Wade, a ruling based on the right to privacy, could be applied to lift protections on same-sex marriage. If the Supreme Court overturns its previous rulings, state-level bans on same-sex marriage would go into effect in 35 states.

Democracy was on the ballot and it emerged very much alive. But it would be a grave mistake to underestimate the continuing dangers.

Voting rights are also far from guaranteed. The Supreme Court is currently hearing a case brought by North Carolina Republicans who are contesting a decision by the state’s Supreme Court, which rejected gerrymandered electoral maps and ordered them to be redrawn. The plaintiffs are pushing a fringe legal theory that the constitution gives state legislatures full power to set the rules for federal elections.

If the Supreme Court agrees, even more aggressive gerrymandering and voter suppression efforts are guaranteed. If that happens, the 2022 midterms may have been the last free and fair elections after all. The next couple of years – and what happens at the 2024 presidential election – are going to be crucial for the future of US democracy.


  • The Democratic Party should continue to take steps to codify rights before it loses its congressional majority.
  • Public officials and civil society should work to counter disinformation on key issues including election processes and results, sexual and reproductive rights, and minority rights.
  • Civil rights campaigners should continue to resist voter suppression attempts by all means available, from mobilisation to litigation.

Cover photo by Rachel Wisniewski/Reuters via Gallo Images