The writer is an FT contributing editor
For many of us, Wednesday November 9th was never going to bring good news. And that was before KFC in Germany announced it would commemorate the Kristallnacht anniversary with a special offer of extra crispy cheese with their chicken. (An apologetic retraction was later offered). But then matters began to look up. Sergei Surovikin, the commander of Russian forces in Ukraine — vast, bull-like, baleful and an apt personification of their entire Special Military Euphemism — announced a “manoeuvre” backwards over the Dnipro river, abandoning the city of Kherson, which Vladimir Putin had recently proclaimed would stay Russian forever.
And then as the 8th turned into the 9th, the Curious Incident unfolded whereby the Republican dog failed to bark in the night and many of us, doggedly attached to that battered old thing, American democracy, found ourselves ambushed by the one outcome for which we were entirely unprepared: the shock of optimism. For weeks, commentators had been warning that no incumbent presidents, let alone one encumbered by 8 per cent inflation and a challenge with consonants, escaped midterm elections without a drubbing.
Polls and pollsters reinforced the prophecy. But come the early hours of the 9th, the only wave going on was the bye-bye to assumptions about a massacre of Democrats, both in Congress and State Houses. As of writing, the House of Representatives will have a small Republican majority, and it might not even have managed that, had not four Districts in — wait for it, New York state — flipped, including the one where I live.
In a rerun of 2020, control of the Senate turns on the same two western states — Nevada and Arizona — whose votes helped to tip the election to Biden. This won’t be decided until Saturday when mail-in ballots will have been tallied. In Arizona, the incumbent ex-astronaut Mark Kelly seems likely to beat Trump-anointed election-denier Blake Masters. But in Nevada, where the hospitality industry was brutally punished by the pandemic, Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto may have a harder time prevailing against Adam Laxalt, a son and grandson of previous senators.
Should those states be split between the parties, the Groundhog Day election will continue with a run-off in Georgia between the incumbent Raphael Warnock, pastor of Martin Luther King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, and the Heisman trophy-winning footballer Herschel Walker. During the 2008 election, I heard Warnock deliver an Easter Sunday sermon which was a tour de force of social-evangelical rhetoric. But in their only television debate, expectations for Walker were so low that his completion of sentences was judged “holding his own”. In any case, a silver tongue is not necessarily an asset in American politics. At the time of its delivery, the Gettysburg Address had mixed reviews.
But if you want to understand the most compelling aspect of this astonishing election, look at the state houses and legislatures where much of the management of elections lies. Expected to fall like ninepins, Democrats will end up with a net gain of governors. In Wisconsin, Tony Evers beat the Trump-backed Tim Michels; in Pennsylvania, Josh Shapiro routed the January 6ther, Doug Mastriano, whose campaign went beyond conspiracy theories to anti-Semitic digs at his opponent’s children’s attendance at a Jewish school.
The most spectacular victory in the electorally crucial midwest belonged to Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer who, in 2020, survived a rightwing terrorist plot. Whitmer’s victory had coat-tails, flipping the state senate to the Democrats and thus cutting off any route to electoral college shenanigans whereby the legislature could overturn the popular vote. Elsewhere, the far-right strategy of electing secretaries of state, who control the management of elections, failed in New Mexico and Minnesota. In Arizona, the Secretary of State election is emblematic. Mark Finchem, the mastermind of this campaign, is trailing (though not by much) Adrian Fontes, the Recorder of Maricopa County. Maricopa is the state’s most populous county and one relentlessly audited by deniers of the 2020 result.
Whatever else emerges from this election, two pieties of the pundits will have bitten the dust. First, that the Democrats were foolhardy in not campaigning more on abortion and the threat to democracy posed by the refusal to accept electoral realities. In fact, both drove voters to the polls. Wherever there were referendums on abortion, including deep red Kentucky, anti-abortionists lost. Likewise, the most fanatical agitators about a stolen election were almost all defeated. Second, a note to anti-woke warriors: beware of the culture wars lest they come back to bite you. In 2023, the first openly lesbian governors will be installed in Oregon and Massachusetts; Maryland will have its first African-American governor; the first Generation Z candidate will enter Congress. The first native Alaskan Representative has taken her seat in the House.
Meanwhile, down in Mar-a Lago, Donald Trump is said to be lathered up with rage, lashing out, bunker-style, at the losers who have so unforgivably betrayed him. But if 45 is not yet Thanksgiving turkey, the certainty of a re-election triumph is now pumpkin pie in the sky.