The Democrats’ strategy of portraying Republicans as too radical to govern is bearing fruit

President Joe Biden and his Democrats have always known that any chance of avoiding defeat in the US midterm elections was to portray Republicans as too radical to govern.

That strategy bore fruit Tuesday as Democrats performed far better than expected in a series of House toss-up races stretching from Rhode Island to Texas, denying Republicans a quick and large majority in the lower house, which was predicted in the opinion polls.

Meanwhile, Democrats’ hopes of retaining control of the Senate were boosted after Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor John Fetterman narrowly defeated Donald Trump-backed famed doctor Mehmet Oz. Pennsylvania is politically central and symbolically important to Biden because he was born and raised in the state.

The overall result was that the Democrats managed to come close to a draw in contests seemingly destined to inflict losses on them similar to those suffered by Barack Obama and Bill Clinton in their first midterm elections in 2010 and 1994.

“Democrats have defied history tonight,” said Ben LaBolt, a Democratic strategist and former senior Obama adviser. “The history of Joe Biden’s political career is that people always shut him out and he always defies expectations, and these interim clauses are another example of that,” LaBolt said.

Exit polls prepared for US television networks identified inflation as voters’ top concern. Biden is struggling to contain rising prices as inflation spent most of the year at 40-year highs. The issue helped Republicans, and exit polls showed it was particularly important to them.

But abortion came a close second after conservative Supreme Court justices struck down constitutional abortion rights in June. This suggests the issue has played a role in limiting election damage to Democrats, strengthening their base and attracting swing and first-time voters. The gender gap in the Pennsylvania race was significant: 57 percent of the women voted for Fetterman, while only 43 percent voted for Oz.

More broadly, Biden and the Democrats have been successful enough in branding Republicans as “Maga extremists” — a nod to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan — to show they support the unpopular and twice-impeached former president and his were overly committed to politics.

Though Republicans seemed buoyed ahead of Election Day as voters focused on their economic concerns, Trump’s reappearance on the campaign trail alongside prominent candidates and his own strong leads in the final leg of another presidential bid in 2024 will help their argument.

“The argument against Maga Republicans seems kind of effective,” Neera Tanden, a senior Biden White House adviser, wrote on Twitter when the results came in.

The election result will likely spare Democrats and the White House the typical round of accusations and introspection that would ordinarily follow heavy midterm defeats.

It might even embolden Biden to move forward with his intention to campaign for a second term in the White House, which he had left in limbo until after the midterms.

“This election doesn’t feel like the explosion that many were expecting,” said David Gergen, former adviser to U.S. presidents from both parties and now at Harvard University’s Center for Public Leadership. “Biden might well show up and feel better and say, ‘I’m staying tuned.'”

If Republicans win both the House and Senate — which remained unclear Wednesday morning as key races have not yet been called — it would still stymie any remaining Democratic legislative ambitions and potentially lead to destabilizing clashes affecting markets and the economy could unsettle.

The virtual re-election of popular Republican governors, including Florida’s Ron DeSantis, Georgia’s Brian Kemp, Texas’ Greg Abbott, and Ohio’s Mike DeWine, will also remind Democrats that the Republican brand was only partially tarnished by Trump. Many of these are seen as viable, even preferable, alternatives in more conservative states.

Big wins for South Florida Republicans, including Hispanics in an area that was formerly a Democratic stronghold, will be of particular concern to Biden and his party.

But concerns that Republicans would make leaps and bounds among non-college-educated minorities, including black and Hispanic voters, did not resonate with Democrats as feared, sparking lawsuits, if any, from the GOP side.

Mayra Flores, the Republican House Representative who won her Texas seat in June’s special election only to lose it Tuesday, said in a Twitter message, “The RED WAVE did not happen. Republicans and independents stayed home. DON’T COMPLAIN ABOUT THE RESULTS IF YOU DID NOT DO YOUR PART!”

Democrats will have their own wins among state incumbents, including re-election of Governors Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan and Gavin Newsom in California.

Harvard University’s Gergen said one of the key findings of the night was that even in a tense and highly polarized political environment — this was the first national election since 2020 and the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol — the voting process itself ran smoothly .

“It was not an evening that seemed to threaten our democracy,” he said. The Democrats’ strategy of portraying Republicans as too radical to govern is bearing fruit

Adam Bradshaw

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