Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 24 books, including, “The Presidency of Donald J. Trump: A First Historical Assessment.” Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Republicans are feeling much better about the midterms. After a summer when it seemed as if the Democrats might defy the historic trend of the president’s party doing poorly in these elections, the polls are looking up for the GOP.
High levels of concern about inflation and diminished attention on the electoral impact of the Dobbs decision appear to have hurt the Democrats. Though Americans are concerned about the future of our democracy, the issue is not registering at the top of the list – and many voters think the main problem is corruption, rather than threats from the GOP to overturn future results.
The implications of a strong showing by the GOP would be enormous. Not only could Republican success potentially shift control of the House and Senate, leaving President Joe Biden to deal with two years of trying to raise debt limits and avoid draconian budget cuts, but the midterms could entrench Trumpism and solidify the direction of the party.
According to The Washington Post, a stunning 291 Republicans who are running for office in November are election deniers who don’t accept that Biden won in 2020. While many of these candidates will lose, a large number have good odds of being victorious – potentially helping to create a path for former President Donald Trump’s reelection in 2024.
The midterms could turn supporters of election denialism into the new Freedom Caucus – the Tea Party Republicans who came to Washington after the 2010 midterms and organized into a powerful faction in the House GOP within a few years. They could be a driving force in a new majority that pushes anti-democratic policies to the very top of the Republican agenda.
FiveThirtyEight reports that 60% of Americans will have an election denier on the ballot. Among the deniers are some hoping to be secretaries of state, which – if victorious – would allow them to run state elections in coming years.
The transformation that has been taking place in the party was captured in a recent New York Times Magazine profile of Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene. In the piece, Robert Draper wrote about how Greene has quickly moved from being an outlandish, bomb-throwing maverick in her party – too right-leaning for even the most hardened conservative – to become a power broker in the GOP.
Undergoing the same sort of transformation that her predecessor Rep. Newt Gingrich experienced in the 1980s, Draper shows how Greene has turned into a party leader. If the Republicans win, he notes, she will certainly be appointed to a position of power. Moreover, Politico has reported that Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, who former GOP Speaker of the House John Boehner derided as a “political terrorist,” would become one of the party’s main power brokers in the lower chamber.
In other words, Republican success in the 2022 midterms will cement that Trumpism wasn’t some sort of aberration – it is the norm. Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming is out; Greene is in.
Midterm elections frequently play a big role in defining what parties are about. While the pundits spend much of their time spinning who will win or lose, equally important – though too often ignored – is what the voting says about the character of a party.
One of the best examples of how midterms can have this impact took place in 1978. On paper, the results were not terrible for President Jimmy Carter since Democrats retained control of the House and Senate – and Republicans remained out of power.
But just beneath the surface, it became clear that something was changing. The nation’s rightward turn, which Ronald Reagan cemented with his presidential election two years later in 1980, was on the way. The Democrats lost three seats in the Senate and fifteen seats in the House. Republicans made gains throughout the South, which had been solid Democratic territory until the 1960s.
Republicans gained six gubernatorial seats, an area where the Republican National Committee had heavily invested. Republicans celebrated securing control of 12 state legislative chambers, up from four. “This is the most profound change for us,” noted then-RNC Chair Bill Brock, in Time magazine.
“President Carter,” one reporter noted, “was unable to turn back the Republican tide that apparently defeated Democratic candidates for the Senate in more than half of the 19 states in which he campaigned.”
The numbers were not as important as the inner substance. There were several up-and-coming Republicans, like Gingrich of Georgia, who championed a new generation of brash and aggressive conservatives and rejected the older generation of party leaders who believed in the need to stick to the center.
Republicans like Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi won seats that had been controlled by conservative Democrats for decades. Cochran took the seat of retiring Democratic Sen. James Eastland, one of the most famous opponents of civil rights. In Iowa, Democratic Sen. Dick Clark fell to defeat to abortion opponent Sen. Roger Jepsen, who attacked his opponent as “the senator from Africa” for Clark’s work fighting apartheid. These Republicans emphasized themes such as tax reductions and a stronger stance against communism.
There were new conservative political organizations that flexed their muscle. The National Conservative Political Action Committee, created in 1975 and one of the most important forces of what was being called “The New Right,” helped to unseat several prominent Democrats. With the PAC’s support, Republican Gordon Humphrey of New Hampshire, a conservative abortion opponent, defeated Democratic incumbent Sen. Thomas McIntyre.
For conservatives, the 1978 election proved a critical moment in the direction of their party. Moderate Republicans like Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker changed their approach to issues as they read the way the political winds were blowing. Baker announced his opposition to the SALT II Treaty with the Soviet Union as hardliners wrestled control within the GOP.
Surveying the results, Newsweek noted, “Nearly a half century after the dawn of the New Deal, America swung rightward toward Republicanism last week … The real message of the election returns was the ratification of a new and no longer partisan agenda for the nation – a consensus on inflation as the priority target and tax-and-spend government as the primary villain.”
And looking ahead, the RNC’s Brock told reporters in 1978, as quoted in Time magazine, “We will go into 1980 stronger than in 1976.”
More than four decades later, we are living through another important period of political transformation.
“Trumpism” has already happened, but some still wonder if there will be any long-term change in the Republican party. While that kind of question is impossible to answer, the hold of election denialism on so many Republican candidates and the rightward shift on policies like immigration is a very strong indication of where things stand – even if some of the high-profile Trump-selected candidates, such a Herschel Walker in Georgia or J.D. Vance in Ohio, lose.
The party is coalescing around an anti-democratic theme that the former president elevated as part of his effort to overturn a presidential election. He was unsuccessful in doing so, but his strategy lives on.
The midterms are turning into a moment for the Republicans to double down on this direction, reminding voters why conservatives such as Cheney don’t really have much room at the table. If they’re triumphant in November, there will be no turning back in the next few election cycles from the new royalty of the party of Trump.