The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The big message from the midterms? Voters aren’t impressed with either party.

J.D. Vance, Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate in Ohio, takes the stage after his win during an Ohio Republican Party election night party on Tuesday in Columbus. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

The great question of this year’s midterm elections was which issues would resonate with voters — the Democrats’ warning that “democracy is on the ballot” and their alarm over the Supreme Court ending federal abortion rights, or the Republicans’ focus on inflation, energy costs, crime and the porous southern border? The answer? All of the above, depending on the candidate, the state and the race.

The mixed messages voters sent in the midterms reflected a nation still deeply divided and leery of both major political parties. Most Americans haven’t embraced the rhetoric that “extreme MAGA Republicans,” as President Biden began labeling them, are on a mission to destroy democracy. The New York Times reported that as of noon Wednesday, more than 210 Republicans “who questioned the 2020 election” had so far won House and Senate seats, along with races for governor, secretary of state and attorney general. That number is certain to grow.

Even a series of high-profile, televised congressional Jan. 6 committee hearings failed to persuade most Americans to be afraid of the big bad wolf. It was always a perplexing argument, considering that the MAGA candidates in question were pursuing power the old-fashioned way — through democratic elections.

The Democrats’ other big election message, on GOP threats to abortion rights, had mixed results. Some Republican candidates, including Ohio congressional incumbent Steve Chabot, bit the dust after being hammered in ads as being “obsessed” with taking away abortion rights, but pro-life Senate candidate J.D. Vance cruised to victory in the same state. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had one of the biggest and widest GOP wins of all while embracing various antiabortion views.

While control of the Senate might very well be decided again by a runoff election in Georgia, Republicans seemed likely to at least win the House, even if by a much narrower margin than predicted. As The Post reported in September, Republicans have promised that, if given the reins, they intend to open countless investigations, including into spending by the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection, the Justice Department’s search of Mar-a-Lago, the Biden administration’s “deliberations over weapons sales to Ukraine” and many other matters.

But focusing too much time and resources on endless “revenge investigations” risks accusations of bait and switch. If, as Wednesday morning trends suggested, the GOP is poised to narrowly regain the House, it was by tailoring campaigns to highlight pressing economic and domestic issues. Addressing those topics is what Republicans have now been hired to do.

But the biggest takeaway for Republicans is that what should have been a big red wave nearly turned into a disaster. What happened? While voters didn’t buy into the notion that MAGA candidates are a dire threat to democracy, they also weren’t particularly impressed with their quality or their messaging. Republicans were good at identifying Democrats’ failures, bad at suggesting remedies.

Donald Trump, meanwhile, has promised a “big announcement” next week, and he is widely expected to declare his candidacy for president in 2024. But the midterms’ results should provide Republicans with all the evidence they need that Trump’s day has passed. Some are already realizing it. Tellingly, Vance, whose campaign was propelled by the former president’s endorsement and rallies on his behalf, didn’t mention Trump in his victory speech Tuesday night.

Make no mistake, Trump’s issues motivated millions of Americans, and his legacy as the person who remade the Republican Party and restored it to competitiveness after lopsided losses in 2008 and 2012 is secure. “Trumpism” is the GOP’s future, a direction that has been decided not by party leaders, but by rank-and-file Republicans who believe in energy independence, an “America First” foreign policy, cracking down on those crossing the border illegally and a devotion to the kind of God-and-country generational traditions that an increasingly progressive world calls outdated or even “intolerant.” But Trump’s star power is fading. DeSantis is ready for his close-up.

In the meantime, a weary country needs a break — from political drama, from never-ending election cycles and from the accusatory rhetoric unmoored from reality that has been emanating from both sides. Republicans should stop accusing Democrats of rigging past elections. Democrats should stop accusing Republicans of rigging future elections. While party leaders on both sides clearly have work to do, millions of grass-roots Americans should tune it all out for a while and remind themselves that there’s more to life than fighting over politics. We used to know that. We need to remember it.

The 2022 Midterm Elections

Georgia runoff election: Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) won re-election in the Georgia Senate runoff, defeating Republican challenger Herschel Walker and giving Democrats a 51st seat in the Senate for the 118th Congress. Get live updates here and runoff results by county.

Divided government: Republicans narrowly won back control of the House, while Democrats will keep control of the Senate, creating a split Congress.

What the results mean for 2024: A Republican Party red wave seems to be a ripple after Republicans fell short in the Senate and narrowly won control in the House. Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential campaign shortly after the midterms. Here are the top 10 2024 presidential candidates for the Republicans and Democrats.