2022 Notebook: Democracy at a crossroads

THE BACKGROUND: The U.S. midterm elections broke from the historical pattern of the president’s party taking a drubbing.

It was a particularly unpredictable campaign season with major issues pulling voters in different directions. Inflation was high. The Supreme Court eliminated the constitutional right to an abortion. And the democratic process itself was challenged by a number of Republican candidates who ran on spreading Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election.

In the end, the election deniers lost nearly all the major swing-state races.

AP journalists covered the candidates, the voters and the issues through it all.

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STEVEN SLOAN, AP political editor

The thing that was so interesting and weird about this election, and especially for a midterm, is that for a lot of the year it was really unclear what the issue was, and that felt very different than previous cycles. If you look back to 2010, that cycle was really driven by response to Obama and Obamacare. 2006 was really a backlash to the war in Iraq. 2018 was a reaction to Trump. And for much of 2022, it was kind of just like, what is this election about? And that really changed, I would say, in the summertime, when the (abortion) decision came down. That was a clarifying moment that really kind of helped crystallize, I think, for voters, and people maybe who weren’t tuned into the political process.

JONATHAN J. COOPER, AP political reporter based in Phoenix

You saw a lot of, I think anger is probably the right word, among younger voters, among Democrats for sure, about the (Supreme Court) decision, and I think that motivated a lot of people to vote and to vote for Democrats. A lot of concern about inflation and the price of everyday goods. Gas especially, but everything. Border security was certainly animating a lot of voters. I talked to a fair number of voters who were sort of cross pressured and they were frustrated with prices, they were frustrated with the situation on the border, but they also didn’t like the Republicans who are election deniers and they were concerned about abortion rights.

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On political extremism:

COOPER:

Arizona is sort of the centerpiece of the election denier moveme nt. This was the state that in 2020, Joe Biden had his smallest margin of victory. Donald Trump and his allies — Rudy Giuliani and others — tried very aggressively in the weeks after that election, and leading up to January 6, 2021, to overturn that result. When they were unsuccessful, then you had the Republican state senate issue a subpoena and obtain access to this vast trove of information, all of the ballots from Maricopa County, all of the voting machines. And then they hired a group of Trump supporters to comb through all of that and conduct sort of this unprecedented partisan audit of the conduct of the election. So this is the state more than any other where the 2020 election has been never ending. And so, for me telling that story, and sort of chronicling the very real tension in the Republican Party between the Trump-aligned MAGA movement and the old guard that’s loyal to John McCain, the more business oriented factions of the Republican Party is fascinating. I think it’s important. I think it’s instructive about the conflicts that are going on around the country, in the Republican Party, and which direction it’s going to go in the future.

SLOAN:

All year long, we’ve kind of been talking about democracy and threats to democracy, and the challenges to vote. And I do think that people were really aware this debate that we’re this conversation happening, and in a lot of cases, especially in those most competitive races, the candidates who were seen as extreme, they were rejected. I mean, there were still victories in some places by people who have denied the results of the 2022 election, but overall, particularly in those decisive states that we kind of come back to every two years, I just think that there was a real move by voters to send a message that there are some limits to kind of what’s acceptable political discourse.

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On whether political polarization is going to ease:

SLOAN

The voters are very engaged — I think far more engaged than some might kind of give credit for. I don’t know that we’re suddenly going to kind of return to an era of good feelings. But I do think it does seem to a certain degree that people are looking to take the temperature down a little bit. Candidates who kind of embraced that and represented that did well, people who kind of were the most inflammatory … certainly in statewide races, those candidates often struggled.

COOPER

Polarization is absolutely getting worse over time. Arizona is the state that elected John McCain, who very famously branded himself as a maverick, willing to buck his party. And I’m not sure that John McCain could win a Republican nomination in today’s Republican Party. You also have Kyrsten Sinema, who just recently announced she’s leaving the Democratic Party. It’s basically a self preservation move, because she would have faced an extremely difficult, maybe even impossible path to win a Democratic primary in 2024. I think we’re at an inflection point where voters in the general election are rejecting the extremes, and it remains to be seen whether primary voters respond accordingly.

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On where political coverage is going:

SLOAN

I think democracy is going to continue to be a central focus for us. Just, you know, how do elections work? How is access to the ballot working and changing and who is that impacting? And so I think that will continue, just the process of elections in this country right now. I think abortion will also continue to be a thing. That was such a seismic moment in American culture, in American history, to have the repeal of a constitutional right, that had been on the books for decades. I think we want to continue to see where the energy around that movement goes. Both abortion rights supporters and opponents are continuing to pour money into the issue, It’s really going to kind of be a state-by-state debate. And I think that will continue to influence kind of where we’re at the politics goes.

I want to think more in this cycle about how we cover the presidency, and Congress and governorships and secretaries of state. What we’re seeing is that, all of those together really shape the lives of everyone in this country. And so it’s important to not get so focused on maybe the flashiest part of the races at the expense of these other races that I think, as we see, have a really massive impact on people. And there actually are some interesting races in 2023. There’s the Chicago mayor’s race, there’s the Kentucky governor’s race. These are races that again, will have a real impact on people and will also tell us more about where voters are right now. And we’ll pay attention to them.

COOPER

This is a story that’s going to be with us for a while. You’re going to have a Republican primary, where they’re really going to have to be deciding, are they going to stick with Donald Trump? Or are they going to go in a different direction, Ron DeSantis, or somebody else? And so we’re really going to see, especially on the on the right, I think that that tug of war. And on the left, if Joe Biden runs again, it’ll sort of put off some of those tensions that are very much present on the left — the old Bernie vs. Hillary battles — for a little while longer, but that tension will very much be cropping up in the future, whether that’s the near future or a little bit down the road.

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