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Column: Looking back on a plague year and ahead to more political upheaval

Police with guns drawn guard a Capitol door on Jan. 6.
Police with guns drawn guard the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol as rioters try to break in on Jan. 6.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

Today we look back on the year in politics and forward to the midterm election, now less than 325 days away.

Because 2021 was so much fun, why not live it again?

Please.

Our plague year began, in fittingly grim fashion, with pro-Trump insurrectionists overrunning the U.S. Capitol in an effort to overturn the 2020 election and bring down democracy.

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It was the culmination of an unprecedented effort to thwart the will of voters and subvert America’s 244-year-old rule of law.

To recap: After Joe Biden’s clear-cut victory, attorneys for President Trump clogged the courts with groundless lawsuits seeking to reverse the election result. Channeling his inner mob boss, Trump tried to muscle Georgia’s secretary of state into “finding” enough ballots for him to carry the state. He pressured Vice President Mike Pence to ignore the Constitution and declare Trump’s reelection by decree.

When those efforts failed, the president’s followers turned to violence.

Ugh.

What came next, however, was a heroic moment of resolve that will forever shine on the pages of our nation’s history.

Huh?

Shocked at the president’s contemptible and brazenly autocratic conduct, fellow Republicans set aside partisanship, fiercely condemned Trump and joined Democrats in voting to impeach the president. Leaders of the GOP then drummed Trump out of their party, acting to ensure that no president ever again contemplates such an unseemly assault on the country’s foundational principles.

Wait, what?

Ha ha. Just wanted to see if you were paying attention.

Can a former president’s claim of executive privilege outweigh the decision of the current president?

Actually, after an initial, short-lived wave of condemnation, the overwhelming majority of Republicans in Congress bowed before Trump, refused to acknowledge Biden’s victory and allowed the president to perpetuate his dangerous lies about election fraud. Many GOP leaders continue to echo those false claims and act as though the assault on the Capitol never happened, or is best forgotten.

And unlike former presidents of the recent past, Trump remains a commanding force within his party. He is, at this moment, the front-runner for the 2024 Republican nomination.

Surely the GOP will pay a price in 2022.

Don’t be too sure. Shocking as the assault on the Capitol was, the rampage has become just another source of partisan division.

To use a stock market analogy, you could say the events are already priced into the midterm election: Those most outraged by the rioters’ execrable actions were probably anti-Trump — and, thus, anti-GOP — to begin with. Few of those inclined to vote Republican are likely to change their minds because of what happened on Jan. 6.

Besides, if you believe the polling and focus groups, most voters have other things on their minds, like inflation, supply-chain problems and the never-ending restrictions and upheaval the pandemic has imposed on our daily lives.

In Virginia, a state Biden carried by 10 percentage points, the Democratic candidate for governor, Terry McAuliffe, talked nonstop about Trump. The president campaigned there and suggested Republican Glenn Youngkin was Trump with “a smile and a fleece vest.” Still, Youngkin prevailed, managing the considerable feat of distancing himself from the ex-president without alienating too many of his supporters.

A bad omen for Democrats?

It would appear so. Privately, strategists say the only question is whether 2022 will be merely a bad year for their party or an epically awful one.

Remind me what’s at stake in 2022.

Control of the House, the Senate and, for all intents, the hopes for Biden’s presidency in the last half of his term.

What does history tell us?

That it’s exceedingly likely Republicans will be in charge of Congress starting in January 2023.

The party controlling the presidency almost always loses House seats in the midterm election. Since World War II, the average is 26 seats. Republican need to gain just five to seize the majority; the GOP could gain that number just from the congressional districts lines redrawn after the 2020 census.

California congressional matchups for the 2022 midterm election are quickly taking shape after new district lines were approved Monday.

And the Senate?

Republicans need to gain just a single seat. The average loss for the party in the White House is four seats.

So bye-bye Democratic majority?

Not necessarily. To borrow another phrase from the investment world, past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Republicans have blown prime opportunities before. In 2010 and 2014, landslide GOP years, the party nominated a fun-house collection of Senate candidates who proved either too extreme or too gaffe-prone to win. Several uber-Trumpy candidates could prove similarly problematic in a general election, especially if their fealty to the former president puts his reprehensible behavior front-and-center.

Part of the reason Trump’s actions no longer matter as much politically is because he’s no longer in the news every moment of every day. When is the last time anyone you know covfefed?

It’s been a while.

Exactly.

What else is there to watch?

There are 36 gubernatorial contests, including one in California — though Democrat Gavin Newsom doesn’t seem to face much threat after easily beating back an attempted recall.

There are also several important races around the country for secretary of state. Normally, the position is a campaign afterthought. But Trump sympathizers are seeking a foothold that would put them in charge of elections in several presidential battlegrounds, including Arizona, Michigan, Nevada and Georgia.

Should someone like QAnon adherent Mark Finchem win — the Arizona lawmaker was just outside the Capitol on Jan. 6 and tweeted his support for rioters — the results of the next presidential election could be overturned without a seditious horde turning to violence.

Scary stuff.

It is. And with that, Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.


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