Despite the palpable relief of Joe Biden’s election, American democracy is experiencing an ongoing crisis. With Republicans likely to end the Democratic hold on the House next year with an aggressive gerrymander, GOP-led states enacting voter suppression laws and Republicans laying the groundwork for a more successful version of Trump’s post-hoc effort to steal the 2020 election, the threat to democracy is clear and present.
That widely felt, crisis-like sense of urgency is why the Democratic House passed the For the People Act, which among many other things would end gerrymandering and make it easier for adults to vote, and then made history by forwarding a D.C. statehood bill to the Senate, which would rectify a longstanding injustice and help keep Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, the leader of the minority rather than the majority.
Unfortunately, a handful of Democratic senators led by and possibly limited to Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, and Kyrsten Sinema, of Arizona, may unwittingly usher in a long era of de facto authoritarianism by blocking the reforms needed to preserve democracy. Both insist that they won’t abolish the filibuster, which is the gateway drug to doing anything at all. Consequently, Democrats must avert both the looming carnage in the midterm elections as well as a post-election putsch in 2024. There’s really only three things they can do, and none of them will be easy but it’s worth considering because the alternatives are worse.
First, Biden and Harris could win re-election by a margin beyond dispute. The 2020 election was extremely close. A small shift in votes across three battleground states could have thrown the election to Trump despite Biden’s significant margin in the national popular vote. A more substantial Biden win in the critical states might ensure that GOP coup plotters won’t be able to pull off an electoral vote heist.
Barring that, it is critical that Democrats cling to one branch of Congress in both 2022 and 2024. The GOP gambit to object to Electoral Votes and throw the election into the House failed in large part because they needed a majority in both chambers to toss out the Electoral Votes from a particular state. While a majority of Republican senators never signed on to this malevolent project, the guess here is that this can mostly be attributed to the futility of the effort. If Republicans had the votes, many of the senators who refused to object would almost certainly have come around if they believed that the maneuver could have secured another term for Donald Trump.
Democrats must also win gubernatorial (and Secretary of State) races in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Georgia, Arizona, and others. Another factor in the coup is that Democrats controlled the election machinery in the Midwest battlegrounds, and Republican officials in Arizona and Georgia, to their credit, refused to play their part in Trump’s plot. We may not be so lucky in 2024.
It is hard to overstate how unlikely it is that even one out of these three things might happen if Democrats can’t muster the votes to pass democracy reform.
They don’t call them midterm losses for nothing. The president’s party has taken a beating in nearly every post-WWII midterm election, losing an average of 26 seats in the House and four in the Senate. The out-party’s voters are extra motivated to deliver a rebuke to the president’s party, while the president’s party gets complacent. To make matters worse, in the absence of mandatory non-partisan redistricting, Republicans are going to add a significant number of safe or Republican-leaning seats to the House, making their path to a majority even easier.
In the Senate, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, of New York, must hold onto precious seats in what will be tough races in Georgia (Raphael Warnock), Arizona (Mark Kelly), Nevada (Catherine Cortez-Masto), and New Hampshire (Maggie Hassan). Democrats have only three realistic pickup opportunities in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, maybe Florida. That math is not great.
As for those governor races, Democrats again begin the cycle struggling against history’s headwinds. The president’s party has lost governorships in 16 of the last 19 midterms. In just one midterm since WWII (1986) has the party in power increased its gubernatorial numbers. According to Morning Consult, both Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers have approval ratings below 50 percent. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf is more popular but term-limited. Meanwhile, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp is at 53 percent and term-limited Arizona Governor Doug Ducey is at 50 percent.
If Democrats lose both chambers of Congress, cough up multiple governorships, and the 2024 election is another squeaker, we know the playbook. GOP governors will certify Republican Electors no matter what the voters want, and Republican congressional majorities will try to deliver the presidency to their party’s candidate. State Legislatures, which used to pick Senators, will supplant secretaries of state where Republicans detect any wobbling. Wherever it goes from there is anyone’s guess, but democracy as we know it will be gone. The country could crack.
That means figuring out how to get Manchin and Sinema to nuke, or at the very least curtail, the filibuster should consume every waking minute of Chuck Schumer’s life. The alternative is to either hope for a series of electoral miracles or watch helplessly as an authoritarian mob ushers in the catastrophe. We may never get another chance to fix this peacefully.