The August 3 primaries confirmed a trend evident to pollsters and campaign strategists since the overturning of Roe v. Wade and the explosive January 6 Committee hearings. Voters have taken notice of Republican extremism and appear to be swinging back to the Democrats. The shift upends the conventional wisdom that 2022 will be a banner year for the Republicans. Typically, the president’s party loses seats in Congress in the midterm elections. Facing dismal presidential approval ratings and inflationary headwinds, Joe Biden and the Democrats seemed headed not just for losses but for a devastating red wave.
But this is not a typical year. Democrats seem poised to hold or even make gains in the Senate, and they have a fighting chance of keeping the House, depending on turnout.
What’s curious about this shock of recognition is that while the Dobbs decision and the revelations of the January 6 Committee hearings have changed the conversation, they are not surprising. For decades, Republicans vowed to destroy abortion rights, and they kept their word.
The January 6 Committee revealed the extent of Donald Trump’s depravity, including prurient details like hurling ketchup at the walls and demanding that the Secret Service drive him to the Capitol insurrection. But the basic arc of Trump’s disdain for democracy was already well known. If there hadn’t been the Big Lie, there had been a tape recording of Trump calling the Georgia secretary of state searching for 11,000 votes. So why are these events—the end of Roe and the committee hearings—turning points rather than already factored into public opinion?
Even Republicans have been shocked by the force of the backlash: Media properties owned by Rupert Murdoch have abruptly gone sour on Trump under the heat of the January 6 spotlight. After pressing forward on extreme abortion bans, GOP candidates are now making dazed retreats. The confusion is understandable. “This is what we always said we would do,” Republicans must say to themselves. “So why is everyone shocked?” Even Democrats have had difficulty acclimating to the new environment. Two weeks ago, the conventional wisdom among Democratic political consultants was that abortion and autocracy would remain niche concerns compared to “kitchen table issues.” Now, they’re seeing the power of abortion, the Kansas results, and the January 6 hearings.
The underlying benefit-turned-liability for Republicans is that for ages, voters didn’t believe that the GOP would fulfill their unpopular promises. If you were a pro-choice voter in Oakland County, Michigan, you could assume that Republicans might bark about ending abortion rights, but they would never bite. Sometimes the denial is even more fantastic. Even after Republicans have voted for gruesome policies, many voters simply refuse to believe them. Merely describing the historical record to them leaves them incredulous. They assume it’s a scurrilous political attack, because how could anyone deny health care to veterans with cancer due to toxic burn pits?
Focus groups have long confirmed this denial effect. Back in 2012, when the liberal group Priorities USA Action presented research participants with ads attacking the Social Security–destroying budget proposed by Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan, the reaction was muted out of pure disbelief:
Bill Burton [of Priorities USA Action] and his colleagues spent the early months of 2012 trying out the pitch that Romney was the most far-right presidential candidate since Barry Goldwater. It fell flat. The public did not view Romney as an extremist. For example, when Priorities informed a focus group that Romney supported the Ryan budget plan—and thus championed “ending Medicare as we know it”—while also advocating tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, the respondents simply refused to believe any politician would do such a thing. What became clear was that voters had almost no sense of Obama’s opponent.
Similarly, many voters refused to believe that Republicans would ever really overturn Roe. And why not? Even supposedly centrist Republican senators like Maine’s Susan Collins had insisted that abortion rights would remain safe—even as they confirmed Brett Kavanaugh. Undoubtedly there are marginal Trump voters who refuse to believe that their man condoned an assault on Vice President Mike Pence or that he was leading a violent coup against democracy.
So now, many voters who had been inclined to sit out the election—or to vote Republican to send Democrats a message over ephemeral disgruntlement—suddenly realize that Republicans mean what they say.
When Republicans say they intend to privatize Medicare and Social Security, they mean it. They will do it if given a chance. When they vote against birth control, say they want to end protection for marriage equality, demonstrate opposition to all forms of gun control, and demand an end to the separation of church and state, these are not idle threats.
This is the future Republicans want and will implement if given power. And now, to use a favorite conservative metaphor, more voters are getting red-pilled and seeing the truth. The problem is that the scales falling from their eyes may prove to be only a brief respite unless Democrats continue to hammer home the threat that Republican autocracy still poses to the country.