Nov 13, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Midterm stunner shows extremes don't pay

Illustration of a hand motioning "stop" coming out of a megaphone.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

One of the clearest trends that emerged from election night: Most extreme Republican nominees badly underperformed, costing the GOP very winnable races and control of the Senate.

Driving the news: In the Senate, Trump-endorsed Blake Masters in Arizona and Adam Laxalt in Nevada were the final two GOP candidates to fall as Democrats held onto their majority.

  • In the 36 House races that the Cook Political Report rated as toss-ups, former President Trump endorsed just five Republicans. Each one lost.
  • Kari Lake, the election-denying, McCain-bashing candidate for Arizona governor, is trailing Democrat Katie Hobbs.

Why it matters: This time around, extremism didn't pay. Most voters are tired of radical, intemperate rhetoric on all sides. But the Trumpified GOP base promoted flawed candidates in a number of battleground races — and voters rejected them en masse.

Details: The candidacy of right-wing Republican Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania's gubernatorial race played a role in Democrats sweeping the contested congressional races across the state. Democrats also are watching closely to see whether they flipped the Pennsylvania state House for the first time in decades.

  • Ohio Republican J.R. Majewski, a MAGA-aligned candidate who was at the Capitol during the Jan. 6 riots, lost by a whopping 13 points to Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) in a Trump district.
  • Michigan Republican John Gibbs, a Trump-endorsed candidate who upset pro-impeachment Republican Rep. Peter Meijer in the primary, lost by double-digits to Democrat Hillary Scholten.
  • Republican Joe Kent, a right-wing candidate backed by Trump and Peter Thiel, upset an anti-Trump lawmaker in the GOP primary but lost a solidly Republican seat in Washington state. FiveThirtyEight's forecast had his odds of winning at 98 out of 100.
  • Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), one of the most provocative right-wing members of the Republican House caucus, is in an unexpectedly close re-election fight against Democrat Adam Frisch. Her district backed Trump by eight points in 2020.

By the numbers: Similar majorities of voters think both parties are too extreme, according to the National Election Pool (NEP) exit poll. 51% of respondents said Democrats are too extreme, while 52% said the Republicans are too extreme.

  • But Trump's favorability rating was dismal, with 39% viewing him favorably and 58% viewing him unfavorably.
  • The GOP's Trump ties kept some of those disaffected swing voters in the Democratic camp. A 49% plurality of voters who "somewhat" disapproved of President Biden nonetheless still backed Democratic congressional candidates — a unique dynamic.
  • Independent voters typically swing against the party in power during a president's first midterm, especially during a period of high inflation. Breaking historical precedent, independents broke toward Democrats by a two-point margin.

The other side: Progressive Democratic candidates also underperformed: In Wisconsin, Sen. Ron Johnson narrowly defeated Democratic Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, capitalizing on the challenger's left-wing views on criminal justice.

  • Exit polling found voters found 49% of Wisconsin voters found Johnson too extreme, but nearly as many (46%) viewed Barnes the same way. The state's mild-mannered Democratic governor, Tony Evers, was re-elected with 51% of the vote, running about 2 points ahead of Barnes.
  • Meanwhile, Democratic darlings Stacey Abrams and Beto O'Rourke performed poorly in their second chances running for statewide office in Georgia and Texas, respectively.
  • Jamie McLeod Skinner, the progressive challenger in Oregon who defeated moderate Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) in a primary, ended up losing to Republican Lori Chavez-DeRemer in a Biden +9 district.

The bottom line: For all the panic over the state of American democracy, U.S. voters are often a lot more sensible than are given credit. The critical mass of swing voters tends to reject extremes on all sides, rewarding the party that reaches out to the broad middle of the electorate.

  • They backed a moderate-sounding Democratic president as part of an anti-Trump coalition in 2020 but gave him bare majorities in Congress.
  • In 2022, voters were poised to check Biden and the Trumpian excesses once again, and come out of the midterms with a narrow Democratic majority in the Senate and the likelihood of a narrow Republican majority in the House.
Go deeper