Democrats were sleepwalking toward disaster in the 2022 midterm elections before they got the proverbial wake-up call on November 2. The party’s off-year election losses in the supposedly blue state of Virginia, along with setbacks in other regions, confirmed the very real prospect that next year’s voting could cost Democrats control of Congress and multiple statehouses. But President Biden and his partisan allies in D.C. and the states face more than the indignity of a disempowerment along the lines of what Bill Clinton experienced in 1994 and Barack Obama confronted in 2010. If they fail to get their act together, Democrats will suffer a defeat that increases the likelihood of Donald Trump’s return to the White House as a full-blown authoritarian.
Let’s face it: Trump is running for president in 2024. He’s already rallying backers in the first-caucus state of Iowa. Despite the last gasps of GOP dissenters like the primary-targeted Wyoming Representative Liz Cheney, he’ll have no trouble claiming his party’s nomination. Then, whatever the numbers on the evening of November 5, 2024, Trump will claim that he’s won the presidency.
That’s why 2022 matters like no midterm election in modern times. If Trump-aligned Republicans take Congress and statehouses across the country, thanks to their own gerrymandering and voter suppression strategies and Democratic fumbles, they won’t let the presidency go just because their candidate lost the popular vote. They will challenge the Electoral College results on January 6, 2025, just as they did on January 6, 2021—and they could well do so more successfully.
Those are the stakes in November 2022, when 34 Senate seats, 435 House seats, and 36 governorships will be chosen. Both parties will try to game the post-2020 Census redistricting process, but Republicans have an overwhelming advantage: Their control of statehouses positions them to draw 187 House seats, versus 75 for the Democrats.
Midterms are always tough for the party in power. But this one will be tougher than usual for the Democrats, who will go into it with an advantage of fewer than 10 seats in the House and a 50-50 split in the Senate. If there is a GOP wave, of the sort witnessed in the first midterms of every Democratic president for the past 50 years, Biden and his party are screwed. So, too, is the country.
Can that dire circumstance be averted? Of course. But Democrats must recognize the fight they’re in. They cannot continue to come off as dysfunctional, which is what happened when they let months go by amid the wrangling over the infrastructure and reconciliation bills. Biden’s image, and that of the party, took a huge hit as West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin and Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema tripped up the 96 percent of congressional Democrats who wanted to deliver on the party’s 2020 campaign promises. Unfortunately, Democrats are stuck with Manchin, Sinema, and the corporate-aligned House “centrists” who will exploit their ability to tip the balance.
Heading into 2022, the Democrats must bring clarity to a chaotic national discourse that Republicans are gleefully disrupting with their rants about vaccination mandates and “critical race theory.” That won’t be done by abandoning basic premises of economic, social, and racial justice for centrist compromises that disenchant and disengage base voters. And it won’t be done by opting for bland Terry McAuliffe–style candidates, with messages so muddled that voters can’t get excited about showing up in November. In 2020, Georgia Democrats nominated a pair of progressives for Senate seats in a Deep South state that had voted Republican for decades. The Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff didn’t just beat the Republican incumbents; they shifted control of the Senate to the Democrats and made the promise of a Biden presidency real. To maintain that promise, Democrats need to recognize that nominating dynamic progressives is essential to closing the “enthusiasm gap” that haunted them in these off-year elections.
They also need to talk about why 2022 matters. Democrats have to put the fights over gerrymandering and voter suppression into perspective: as part of a renewed push to break the filibuster and enact the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Their blunt focus must be on the reality that if they lose next year, the future of American democracy will be suddenly and severely imperiled.