From left, Pennsylvania Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro, former President Barack Obama, President Joe Biden, and Pennsylvania Democratic Senatorial candidate John Fetterman take part in a political rally at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pa., Nov. 5, 2022. (Francis Chung/E&E News/POLITICO via AP Images)

The history of midterm elections is one of beatings exacted upon the president’s party. With inflation red hot, President Joe Biden’s job approval low, and Republican Senate candidates rising in the polls, most everyone expected history to repeat itself. It didn’t. We don’t yet know which party will control either the House or Senate, but for the election to be that close is, in and of itself, a Democratic victory.

A lot of punditry, assuming significant Republican gains, was premised on presidential job approval. But as I noted in my own pre-election commentary, voters do not use midterms to judge the presidency but to strike political “balance,” regardless of their feelings towards the president. Giving the opposition party more seats is typically the way to achieve more balance. But what if the opposition party is unbalanced?

As I noted last year, the president’s party almost always loses five or more House seats. Still, we have exceptions in times of crisis—midterms that occurred amid the Great Depression, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Clinton impeachment, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

This midterm featured multiple crises: a rise in prices, a rise in crime, a wave of abortion bans, the continued fallout from the pandemic, and a wave of election denialists loyal to Donald Trump. Republicans charged Democrats with botching inflation and public safety. Democrats warned that Republicans were undermining democracy and personal freedom. This wasn’t an election about one thing but a clash of narratives.

The two narratives achieved a rough parity of importance to voters for a few reasons. First, unlike most midterms, the opposition party could implement a major policy, thanks to a Supreme Court stacked by the opposition party that abolished a long-standing constitutional right and allowed state governments to ban abortions. Second, Trump, the opposition party’s titular leader who seems certain to run again, helped field the GOP’s slate of candidates and demanded fealty to the scurrilous notion the last election was stolen.

The president’s party often has midterm turnout problems once the excitement of winning the White House gives way to the hard realities of governing. But today’s Democratic voters are terrified by Trumpian Republicans, giving them a jolt of motivation to vote. Plus, polls show swing voters oppose severe abortion bans and election denialism. In the CBS News exit poll, 59 percent of voters said abortion should be legal in most or all cases, and 53 percent trusted the Democrats most to handle the issue. And 61 percent said Biden was legitimately elected.

Of course, swing voters hate inflation and crime, and the Republicans had the edge on both of those issues, 54 and 52 percent, respectively. When asked which issue out of five was most important, 31 percent said inflation, but abortion followed closely at 27 percent.

Only 11 percent of voters said crime was the most important issue, but we saw the issue impact the midterms, most sharply in the Wisconsin Senate race. The Democratic nominee Mandela Barnes led this summer but fell behind this autumn after Republicans fired a barrage of ads excoriating him for promoting the reduction of prison populations and reallocating police funds. Now the lieutenant governor is on the verge of a narrow loss, even though Barnes’s 2018 running mate, Tony Evers, the Democratic governor, was re-elected. Soft-on-crime attacks also buffeted the gubernatorial campaigns of New York’s Kathy Hochul and Oregon’s Tina Kotek. Both may win at smaller margins than Democrats in those states have traditionally enjoyed.

While Democrats were helped by Republicans nominating extreme candidates, they must also recognize that many voters see them as extreme. According to the exit poll, 52 percent said the Republican Party is “too extreme.” And the Democratic Party? 51 percent.

An earlier CBS News poll found that 56 percent of voters believe Republicans would pass a national abortion ban if they were to capture Congress. It was easy for Democrats to prosecute that case because plenty of Republicans are on record in favor of a national abortion ban, including Senator Lindsey Graham, who wants to ban abortions nationwide after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

At the same time, 53 percent believe if Democrats retained congressional control, they would cut police funding. The perception of congressional Democrats as anti-police is striking because, in 2021, they increased police funding. And in September, the House passed a package of bills providing still more police funding. The only reason the public believes the Democrats want to cut funding is because of Republican attack ads.

In other words, both parties’ attacks hit their targets. Democrats were able to significantly mitigate the damage, but they shouldn’t pretend they didn’t suffer damage to their brand despite their strong results.

On the bright side for Democrats, it shouldn’t be tough for them to repair their image problem. At The American Prospect, Stan Greenberg argues Democrats have to provocatively distance themselves from the anti-police rhetoric on the left to surmount what has become a severe image problem.

Republicans will have a more challenging time shedding their extremist baggage because it comes from the top. Not only is Trump a cancer on the GOP, but Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is also another aggressive malignant growth. And after DeSantis romped to re-election by 19 points, he has every reason to challenge Trump for the Republican presidential nomination. A cage match between two proto authoritarians is hardly the best way for Republicans to shed their extremist reputation.

Democrats can proudly take stock of surviving this midterm and be heartened that the electorate still cares about preserving reproductive freedom and democracy. Then, they should get back to work fixing their problems.

Bill Scher

Bill Scher is political writer at the Washington Monthly. He is the host of the history podcast When America Worked and the cohost of the bipartisan online show and podcast The DMZ. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillScher.