A photo of Florida governor Ron DeSantis speaking with attendees at the 2021 Student Action Summit.
Florida governor Ron DeSantis speaking with attendees at the 2021 Student Action Summit. Credit: Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia Commons

Many Canadians are breathing a sigh of relief at the results of the U.S. mid-term elections.

It could have been a lot worse for those who care about the environment, social justice and democracy. 

Pundits and pollsters had predicted the Republicans – whose ranks include not only a good many election deniers but legions of climate-change and abortion-rights deniers – would win big. 

That did not happen. 

The Democrats beat the historic odds. Most often, the party in power in the White House can count on losing bucketloads of seats to the other party in the first midterm election following the presidential victory. 

Not this time.

On Tuesday November 8, the Democrats suffered a net loss of only a handful of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives, although it was probably enough to give the Republicans a nine or ten seat majority. 

As for the 100-member Senate, the final outcome is still up in the air, but the Democrats did succeed in taking one crucial seat from the Republicans, in Pennsylvania. 

When all the votes are counted there’s a good chance we’ll see a return to the 50-50 status quo in the Senate (with Vice President Kamala Harris holding the deciding vote). A 51-49 Democratic majority is also possible. 

Those numbers, for both houses of Congress, do not add up to anything remotely resembling the red wave many in the chattering class had predicted. 

Republican activists and commentators are now busy concocting explanations for the disappointing outcome. 

However, for folks on the progressive side of the political divide, both in the U.S. and here in Canada, the election is not an occasion for celebration.

Many Donald-Trump-endorsed candidates, who bought into the big lie that the 2020 election was stolen, lost. But many also won. And those who lost got tens of millions of votes. 

Extremists at the gates

Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin has been one of the most ardent Trumpists in Congress. He not only pushed the stolen election narrative, he used his role to spread misinformation about COVID vaccines and to promote discredited treatments for the disease.

Johnson ran for a third six-year term against the young African-American Lieutenant Governor of Wisconsin, Mandela Barnes. When, last summer, polls showed Barnes in the lead, Johnson went on the attack. 

The Johnson campaign put out a flurry of negative television ads portraying their opponent as soft on crime and in favour of defunding the police.

The ads were larded with racial overtones. One portrayed Barnes as “different” with that word morphing into “dangerous”. Another darkened the colour of Barnes’ skin.

Going negative worked for Johnson. He won on Tuesday night.

One of the most extreme 2022 candidates was Douglas Mastriano, the Republican nominee for governor of Pennsylvania.  

Mastriano is a former military officer who took an active leadership role in the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. 

The would-be governor has spread conspiracy theories about the September 11, 2001 (9/11) attacks in New York and Washington and promoted the shadowy QAnon group, which trucks in outlandish fantasies about the sexual abuse of children. 

Mastriano calls himself a Christian Nationalist. He made an issue out of his opponent Josh Shapiro’s Jewish identity during the campaign, and has used well-known antisemitic tropes in his speeches and advertising.

It almost goes without saying that Mastriano is against both a woman’s right to choose and rights for LGBTQ people, and does not believe climate changes is real. Those positions are garden variety on the U.S. Right. 

Mastriano also proposed effectively defunding public education. He would replace most public schools with private schools, which parents would access by using government-issued vouchers.

It would be hard to find a more extreme candidate than Douglas Mastriano. He makes Donald Trump seem almost moderate. There was a time when such a candidate would be on the outer fringes of the electoral process, garnering perhaps one or two per cent of the vote. 

Not this time.

While the Democrat Shapiro did defeat Mastriano by close to 14 percentage points, Mastriano still won more than 40 per cent of the vote. That’s a lot of votes.

2.2 million Pennsylvanians thought a bigot, insurrectionist and conspiracy theorist would make a good governor for their state.  

And the same happened throughout the country. 

The New York Times reports that “more than 210 Republicans who questioned the 2020 election have won seats in the U.S. House and Senate and in state races for governor, secretary of state and attorney general https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2022/11/09/us/politics/election-misinformation-midterms-results.html?action=click&pgtype=Article&state=default&module=election-results&context=election_recirc&region=StorylineUpdateVisua .” 

Despite the tepid result for the Republicans, this election has helped normalize what, for a long time, both Americans and Canadians considered to be beyond-the-pale, extreme political positions. 

All hail Ron DeSantis, new Republican hero

On a personal level, the election does seem like a slap in the face for Donald Trump, if not for his movement. 

Republican operatives are not happy with the defeat of so many Trump-endorsed candidates. To political professionals, power is everything. Those pros are starting to doubt Trump can help them win that power. Many are now looking for a new flag-bearer, and the election might have delivered them one.

Canadian-born David Frum and other commentators now say Florida governor Ron DeSantis is poised to take the mantle of Republican leadership away from Donald Trump. 

The 44-year-old DeSantis won a huge re-election victory on Tuesday. He even carried urban districts, such as the city of Miami, that were once Democratic strongholds.

DeSantis and Trump are currently conducting a personal feud. A few days before the election, Trump called the governor “Ron Sanctimonious”. 

Trump is obviously worried about this potential rival. But the rest of us should not take Trump’s enmity to mean DeSantis would be an improvement over the former president. 

The Florida governor might be a conventional professional politician, who, unlike Trump, is not interested in creating a cult of personality around himself. But DeSantis’ policies are as extreme as any the former president has championed.

As governor, DeSantis resisted most common-sense measures to deal with COVID-19, resulting in a huge death toll for his state. He went so far as to withhold funds from school districts which defied him and required their staff and students to wear masks. 

The Florida governor promoted a state law which expressly forbids schools from teaching the full history of slavery in the U.S. To DeSantis, teaching about the actual history of the U.S. means subscribing to “critical race theory” – which he characterizes as un-American and Marxist.

And DeSantis’ Florida is a leader among U.S. states in banning books

Among the hundreds of books DeSantis and his ilk do not want Florida children to read are the Harper Lee classic To Kill a Mockingbird and Nobel prize winner Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.  

Ironically, while he unabashedly seeks to stifle free speech and the unfettered dissemination of knowledge, DeSantis, like Canadian Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre, drapes himself in the cloak of something he calls freedom. 

The Florida governor has far more discipline and self-control than Donald Trump, and he is better educated. He is Ivy League through and through; he earned his bachelor’s degree at Yale and law degree at Harvard. 

But be forewarned. Those qualifications and personal attributes make DeSantis more, not less, effective (and dangerous) than the tempestuous, unpredictable and unruly former president. 

Republican control of House spells trouble

The bottom line about this election is that while the Republicans might have fallen short of their high hopes, they did, almost certainly, win control of the House of Representatives. That is a big deal. 

Control of the House will give the Republicans enormous power.

Republican-controlled committees will be able to investigate the current president and members of his family, notably Joe Biden’s son Hunter, whose dealings in the Ukraine have raised eyebrows. 

Congressional Republicans will use their position to harass members of President Joe Biden’s cabinet. They will almost certainly initiate a witch-hunt over the evacuation of Afghanistan. And they could attack former senior official Dr. Anthony Fauci’s handling of COVID.

It will be a messy business, and will distract from many matters that are important to Canadians, such as bilateral trade and fighting climate change.

It is also quite likely a Republicans in the House will make an effort to block funds for Ukraine. If they were to succeed it would put enormous pressure on allies such as Canada to fill a huge gap.

The biggest short-term threat not only to the U.S. but to its allies and trading partners will arise from a peculiar American institution called the debt ceiling. Here’s how that works. 

Governments borrow money. It is unavoidable. When the government of Canada borrows money, it agrees to pay it back, with the agreed-to interest. That is called servicing the debt. The same goes for pretty much every other government.

If a government fails to repay its creditors it defaults on its debt, which is equivalent to a private business or individual going bankrupt.

The United States federal government pays back its debts as a matter of course. But alone among advanced economies it has a legal limit on total debt, which it must periodically raise through legislation. 

Until 2013 raising the debt ceiling was a simple affair. Congress would routinely pass the required measure, and the U.S. government would continue to pay off its debts. 

Then, in the second year of President Obama’s second term a radical right group of Republicans in Congress decided to use the exercise of increasing the debt ceiling for leverage. They threatened to push the U.S. into default if the administration did not accede to their demands.

It was a tense moment, and the stability not only of the U.S. but of the world economy teetered on a knife edge.

Obama and the Republicans reached a deal then, but a taboo had been broken. 

During Joe Biden’s first year in office the Senate Republicans played brinksmanship with debt ceiling legislation, exploiting the fact that a 60-vote majority is needed to pass most measures in the Senate. Both parties came to an agreement to end that standoff.

At that time, the Democrats had majorities in both houses of Congress. Now, with a likely Republican majority in the House all bets are off. 

The current Republican House contingency, jam-packed with Trumpists who claim the 2020 election was marred by fraud, is capable of anything.

They are not likely to worry about the consequences for not only the U.S. but for its neighbour Canada and other allies were their government to go into default.

Some of that gang might not even know what that means.

Welcome to the brave new post-2022-midterms world.

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...