Commentary

Maybe it’s not just ‘the economy, stupid’: winners and losers from the 2022 midterms

November 11, 2022 12:01 am

Polls in Richmond, Va., Nov. 8, 2022. (Sarah Vogelsong / Virginia Mercury)

Elections have a clarifying, refreshing effect. Whether at the local, state or national level, an election authoritatively settles things.

A nation whipsawed and left on edge for months on end at last gets relief from a hyperventilating, self-contradicting media, venomous political ads, and pundits who know nothing and race to the nearest microphone to discuss public polls that are little better than guesswork.

“This is how it’s going to be,” the electoral majority, the ultimate decider in our democratic republic, decrees every November (at least in Virginia).

The aftermath of each election is a time for introspection, a moment to ponder what the voters have said and what it means. We see which ideas and candidates were validated and which weren’t. The task is to look behind the election results and figure out what they tell us, to distinguish why winners won and losers lost.

Here’s my take on it, at least on the results in our commonwealth.

LOSER: The political extremes – the MAGAverse and its progenitor, Donald Trump, and the Democratic far-left fringe

Look at who won.

State Sen. Jen Kiggans, R-Virginia Beach, defeated two-term Democratic Rep. Elaine Luria without the former president’s help, though she supported failed legislation to spend $70 million on MAGA-esque measures to ferret out gauzy, unsubstantiated fears of election fraud. Trump endorsed five Virginia GOP House candidates in this year’s midterms, and Kiggans was not among them. It didn’t hurt that Kiggans was in a newly redrawn GOP-friendly district, but she ran her campaign on traditional Republican values.

Another winner was Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger. She won a third term in a redrawn 7th District as a consistent critic of Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the “woke left.” She won a close race against Republican Yesli Vega, a Trump-endorsed former sheriff’s deputy who never touted Trump’s blessing but advanced MAGA talking points and campaigned with Trump toady Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

Conversely, that makes Virginia’s silent, sensible middle perhaps this week’s biggest WINNER. Election after election, the commonwealth’s voters state resoundingly that Virginia is for lovers, not extremists.

WINNER: Women and women’s rights

Among the more nuanced about-faces seen in the 2022 election cycle was watching as talking heads’ conventional wisdom morphed on the effect of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision that ended 49 years of federal legal protections for abortion. In the furor when the draft opinion was leaked in May (and made official in late June), it was hailed as the driver of a blue wave election. By Election Day, however, the cable news chattering classes had subordinated it to inflation, the economy and crime as key factors that would produce a red tsunami.

The truth, as usual, was lost in the middle. The economy – particularly a troubled one – always figures heavily into elections, and it did this week. Bill Clinton’s political guru, James Carville, crystallized that political certainty in the 1992 presidential election with the campaign’s guiding mantra, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

That was the primary motivator for 31% of those surveyed in Tuesday’s national exit polls. But it wasn’t just the economy. Dobbs was a close second at 27%. That was particularly true for women, who were 52% of those who voted Tuesday. They backed Democrats by a ratio of 53% to 45%. Only 11% said crime was their top issue.

Nationally, voters in Michigan and GOP-leaning Kentucky approved statewide ballot issues protecting the right to abortions in those states, just as Kansas voters did in August. In Virginia, Vega was tied to Republican zeal for banning abortions, in some cases without exceptions for rape, incest and to save a woman’s life. Then she doubled down on it by expressing doubt about pregnancies resulting from rape.

LOSER: Gov. Glenn Youngkin

Not only did two of the three House candidates for whom he campaigned lose very expensive elections, but he stumped for several Trump-loyal 2020 election deniers in governor’s races. That included defeated Republicans Lee Zeldin in New York, Tudor Dixon in Michigan and Paul LePage in Maine. Another, Kari Lake, trailed her Democratic opponent, Katie Hobbs, by about half a percentage point in Arizona’s gubernatorial race with 30% of the vote yet uncounted Thursday.

“He risked a lot of political capital in this election cycle campaigning for, in some cases, election deniers (and) right-wing extremists,” said Mark Rozell, a political scientist and dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.

“He had established himself as a Trump-alternative Republican who still had the ability to secure the Trump base vote, but increasingly by his actions as governor and now the candidates he campaigned for outside of Virginia, he has established himself as a MAGA-friendly Republican,” Rozell said.

WINNER: Virginia’s clean, fair and secure elections

It wasn’t that this week’s election was perfect. There were snafus in a few precincts, as there are in every election where imperfect humans and technological gremlins are a factor. But there have been no claims of massive fraud and no reports of systemic voter intimidation and bullying at polling places of the kind we saw elsewhere.

After Virginia’s voters voted and the vote counters counted, the losers conceded defeat, the orderly transition of power remained on track, and the will of the people was respected.

Not that any of that will matter to conspiracy-mongers who sow discord and suspicion absent evidence to back their claims for their own dark, anti-democratic purposes.  

For decades, I’ve closely watched Virginia’s elections – with all their minor blemishes – and the thousands of ordinary people who give their time to work at polling precincts, faithfully enabling fellow Virginians to vote. It’s the most noble and uplifting thing I have covered in my life in political journalism.

It’s a shame that this is even a discussion point. But memories of the 2020 election and its dystopian aftermath culminating in the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection attempt are still fresh.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]

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