On Monday evening, shortly before networks called the Arizona governor’s race for the Democrat Katie Hobbs, Charlie Kirk, the 29-year-old conservative activist, asked a guest on his YouTube livestream what Republicans had missed. Since moving to the state in 2018, Kirk and his organization, Turning Point USA, have become one of Arizona’s biggest political powerbrokers, using the state party apparatus to elevate candidates who showed fealty to former President Donald Trump, and purge those who did not. Turning Point had been a launch pad for Hobbs’ opponent, the former local newscaster Kari Lake, and Kirk had for days been predicting an easy victory for the rising conservative star.
“The vibe on the ground was totally different than this, wasn’t it?” he said, head resting on his hand, looking mystified.
His guest, Republican state Sen. Wendy Rogers, was an unlikely source for self-reflection. Earlier this year she was censured by her colleagues after telling a gathering of white nationalists about her desire to hang “traitors” from “a newly built set of gallows.” Like Lake, with whom she campaigned, Rogers was a vocal proponent of Trump’s Big Lie who had called for state elections officials to be paraded in “perp walks.” But for once, Rogers was at a loss.
“We wonder now if we were in an echo chamber,” she said.
Republicans across the country expected a MAGA wave in this year’s midterms. Election-denying governors and legislators and secretaries of state would sweep into office to control the election machinery and clear the path for Trump’s comeback bid in 2024—and get to the bottom of what really happened two years ago. Angry parents, fed up with “woke” education, would sign up for their culture war against trans kids and teachers unions. Ensconced in their own message boards and media, the party’s leaders and candidates were convinced of both their righteousness and their own popularity.
They were dealt a reality check instead. Lake, who was already being floated as a running mate for Trump, lost to the woman she once said should be thrown in jail. Mark Finchem, the election-denier running to be the state’s top elections officer, lost to a Democrat—Adrian Fontes—who had helped administer the elections in 2020. Every other election-denier who ran for secretary of state in a presidential battleground lost too. Doug Mastriano, who like Finchem, traveled to Washington, DC, for January 6th, lost his bid for governor of Pennsylvania. J.R. Majewski—who once advocated for red states to secede from the union on a Periscope rant that began with the words, “I didn’t want to be a hype beast, but…”—fell way short in a Republican-leaning congressional district in Ohio.
By many measures, the midterms were a split decision. Democrats added Senate seats and lost House seats. They made huge gains in Pennsylvania and Michigan, and cratered in New York and Florida. They beat back abortion hardliners in Arizona—but not enough to undo the work of said hardliners. The Democratic governor of Kansas held on. The Democratic governor of Nevada did not. But the story of the midterms wasn’t a red wave or a promised realignment; it was that democracy did well enough at the ballot box to stay on the ballot. This was the Great Reprieve. It was the political equivalent of jump-starting an old car—you still might need a new one, but it’ll run a little while longer.
The structural problems Trump exposed and exploited are, for the most part, still there. All the cracks and warning signs remain. Many of the people responsible for Trump’s ascent and attempted coup still hold power or might yet—Trump himself foremost among them. But after seemingly a decade of electoral shocks, of the worst people winning time and again, nothing unusually bad happened, when there was a chance that everything could go very badly indeed. The norms, and the normies, got their revenge. Barely.
This wasn’t the first time Trumpism has been dealt a rebuke, but is the first time its proponents have actually been forced to acknowledge it. The 2018 wave, in which Democrats flipped the House, left the GOP, if anything, more MAGA—the party traded a bunch of Barbaras Comstock for a few more Rons DeSantis, and continued along on its trajectory. Trump’s 2020 defeat, at the hands of a similar coalition to this one, did deliver a message, but one the party refused to accept. The GOP—its lawyers, its lawmakers, and its mouthpieces—began a sometimes militant attempt to reverse that result and banish all voices of dissent. It is hard to feel too triumphant about a democratic outcome when the people who have been defeated signal so clearly that they’re not bound by such outcomes. Instead of retreating, conservatives re-armed, with an avowed commitment to make right in 2022 what had been wronged in 2020.
But this November, Trump-backed candidates across the country finally confronted the limits of unrelenting purge-style politics. The GOP that lost was a party high on its own supply, speaking to an increasingly smaller audience, with an increasingly narrow message. Its candidates and flacks learned to mimic Trump’s cynical cruelty and paranoid style, in a race to the bottom for eyeballs and endorsements. But the posters and self-promoters, who hogged the oxygen in the Trump era like an algae bloom in a stagnant pond, were projecting their own fears and obsessions onto an electorate that was, by varying margins, sick of dealing with their shit. Candidates who had operated as if the rules of gravity did not exist—because for Trump, they didn’t—fell to Earth hard.
From the outset, Trump-backed Republicans believed that their obsessions and grievances were not just right, but secretly popular. Blake Masters filmed a video of himself shooting a “German-made” silencer in a stretch of desert that looks like a place you’d bury a body. It’s true that many Arizonans, including his opponent Mark Kelly, support the Second Amendment—but far fewer support hitmen. Kari Lake once told anyone who liked John McCain to leave her event, in a state that had elected him six times; she could have used a few of them, though, in a race she lost by less than one point. When Pennsylvania’s Democratic senator-elect John Fetterman suffered a stroke, the spokesperson for his opponent, Dr. Oz, said that a frightening malady that affects nearly every family in America would not have befallen Fetterman “if he had ever eaten a vegetable in his life.” That was not, it turned out, what people wanted to hear from a doctor.
Their platform amounted to the scariest local-news segment you ever saw. In a year when high gas prices and inflation should have given them a winning hand, they bet the house on the idea that there was a silent majority that was ready to burn the house down over transgender kids and critical race theory. While Masters was auditioning for Barry, a Super PAC attacking Kelly ran ads featuring a female swimmer at the University of Kentucky complaining about having to compete with a transgender woman. And from Colorado to New Hampshire they just would not shut up about the litter boxes.
“Why do we have litter boxes in some of the school districts so kids can pee in them, because they identify as a furry?,” Minnesota gubernatorial nominee Scott Jensen asked voters during his campaign. “We’ve lost our minds.”
The first statement was false; the second one, though, said it all.
Democrats, for the most part, didn’t respond in kind. Candidates such as Hobbs courted independent voters and Republicans aggressively, rather than shun them for their past allegiances. Ticket-splitters were welcome. They ran on “democracy” not just by talking about the efforts to undo past and future elections, but also by emphasizing the point of the democratic process—to produce substantive improvements in the lives of people who participate in it.
Rep. Mary Peltola is poised to hold onto her seat in deep-red Alaska on the back of a “pro-fish, pro-family and pro-freedom” platform. Fetterman, anyone could have told you, was for weed and wages. Republican candidates, obsessed with moral panics, ceded the floor on issues that voters cared about more—they certainly didn’t want to talk about Dobbs. After years of criticism for sometimes half-hearted defenses of abortion rights, Democrats leaned into the issue as a matter of life and death. It was not just that democracy was “on the ballot”; what they understood, and what Republicans did not, was that it was also about the things you stood to lose if it weren’t.
Correction, Nov. 16: An earlier version of this story misidentified the source of an anti-Kelly campaign ad.