“This election could have been a lot worse.”
That was how Americans United President and CEO Rachel Laser summarized the Nov. 8 midterm elections for a few hundred supporters that joined her and other AU experts for a post-election webinar to analyze the results.
“I think it’s so important that we take these pauses to realize that things could be worse, that we all are in community together and that the reason we’ve been witnessing such hard times is in part because we’re on the winning side of history,” Laser added. “I think that’s what we saw in this election.”
Andrew Seidel, AU’s vice president of strategic communications who joined Laser at the virtual briefing, put it bluntly: “Christian nationalism lost. It actually seemed to be a liability in this election for the most part. People were voting against extremism. And Christian nationalism is religious extremism.”
Seidel acknowledged some prominent Christian nationalists did win. Examples include U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene R-Ga.), who has called on her fellow Republicans to become the “party of Christian nationalism,” and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who has encouraged his supporters to “Put on the full armor of God. Stand firm against the left’s schemes” and whose education department is being investigated by Americans United for training Florida educators to downplay church-state separation.
But in many races, Seidel noted that such extremism has a hindrance. For instance, vitriolic U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), who recently said she was “tired of this separation of church and state junk” and erroneously claimed the principle wasn’t in the Constitution, struggled to recapture her seat in what wasn’t expected to be a competitive race. At Church & State’s press time, Boebert was projected to narrowly win by only a few hundred votes over Democrat Adam Frisch.
Despite expectations that the strained economy and President Joe Biden’s poor approval rating would exacerbate the traditional midterm trend of the president’s party losing seats in Congress and lead to a “red wave” of Republicans sweeping into office, when the 118th Congress begins in January, Democrats will retain control of the Senate, and Republicans are expected to have the barest majority in the House.
As this issue of Church & State was going to press, the Democrats had a 50-49 advantage with U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) heading to a Dec. 6 runoff election against Republican challenger Herschel Walker. Warnock had a razor-thin lead over Walker after the Nov. 8 votes were counted, but Warnock was still about a half-point shy of securing 50% of the votes as Georgia requires.
Even if Warnock loses, Democrats will retain control of the Senate with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tie-breaking vote as she has done for the past two years. But gaining a 51st seat would give Democrats a little breathing room and end the current power-sharing arrangement on Senate committees.
“If Warnock wins, the Democrats will have more power, they’ll have the majority on committees, it will be easier for them to get legislation out,” said AU Vice President of Public Policy Maggie Garrett during the webinar. “They won’t need the vice president, they won’t need both Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.)” to reach a majority.
With many House races too close to call for days after the election, it wasn’t until more than a week later that Republicans secured the 218th seat to claim the House majority. At press time, Republicans held 219 seats and Democrats 212 seats, with four races not yet called. The political website FiveThirtyEight projected Republicans ultimately would end up with 222 seats to Democrats’ 213.
“The slender GOP majority to come has forced many GOP members, aides and strategists to come to grips with the prospect that their agenda might never come to fruition,” The Washington Post reported. “Internal fractures have made it difficult for Republican House speakers over the past decade to control the far-right wing of the party.”
Nonetheless, “Our work in the House is going to be really challenging,” said AU’s Garrett. “We’re going to be faced with more bills that we don’t like getting oxygen. We’re going to see a lot of bills that aren’t obviously church-state bills – think things like spending bills, defense bills, tax bills, social service bills, literally anything you can think of – having bad church-state provisions hidden in them. A lot of our work in the House is going to be defensive now. It’s going to be making sure that bad language isn’t embedded from the start. … When there are bad bills, when there is bad messaging, we will be educating people on the Hill, we will be mobilizing people, and we will be making sure our message about why that language is bad gets out there.”
Part of that education will include AU’s Summit for Religious Freedom (SRF) from April 22-24, 2023, said Brian Silva, AU’s Vice President of Outreach and Engagement. SRF will include an optional, in-person Lobby Day on April 24, during which participants will go to Capitol Hill and urge their members of Congress to protect church-state separation.
One benefit to the Democrats retaining control of the Senate, Garrett noted, is that the Senate oversees confirmation of federal judges and Biden should be able to continue getting his nominees confirmed. “They’ve already confirmed 84 lifetime judicial nominees by President Biden, and they are shaping the courts now in a more progressive direction. They’re incredibly diverse,” Garrett added.
At the state level, Seidel was celebrating the defeat of several high-profile candidates that espoused dangerous Christian nationalist views. Those races included:
Pennsylvania Governor: Republican Doug Mastriano, a state senator and Donald Trump-endorsed election denier, was defeated by Democrat Josh Shapiro, who captured 56% of the vote to Mastriano’s 42%. Mastriano was in Washington, D.C., for Trump’s rally on Jan. 6 that preceded the siege on the U.S. Capitol. He helped organize buses to the event and urged his followers to join him, telling them, “I’m really praying that God will pour His Spirit upon Washington, D.C., like we’ve never seen before.”
Mastriano was accused of antisemitic rhetoric during the campaign (Shapiro is Jewish). A recent profile in The New Yorker asserted that Mastriano “has come to embody a set of beliefs characterized as Christian nationalism, which center on the idea that God intended America to be a Christian nation, and which, when mingled with conspiracy theory and white nationalism, helped to fuel the [Jan. 6] insurrection.”
Seidel noted that not only did Pennsylvanians overwhelmingly reject Mastriano, but in electing Shapiro, they chose the state attorney general who released the bombshell 2018 report outlining his office’s investigation into more than 1,000 accusations of sexual abuse within the Catholic church in the state. “Josh Shapiro showed that churches are not above the law,” Seidel said. “And he just won. So, I think that’s pretty big.” (Pennsylvania voters also elected Democrat John Fetterman to the U.S. Senate over celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz, who endorsed private school vouchers during the campaign.)
Maryland Governor and Attorney General: Similar to Mastriano in Pennsylvania, Maryland State Del. Dan Cox was a Trump-endorsed, election-denying Republican candidate for governor in Maryland who lost, 64.4% to 32.5%, to Democrat Wes Moore, a former nonprofit executive and author who will be Maryland’s first Black governor.
Outgoing Republican Gov. Larry Hogan refused to support Cox, a member of his own party whom Hogan called a “QAnon whack job.” Cox has been affiliated with the conservative Christian home-schooling movement, having been educated through a home-schooling program founded by his pastor father. Reported The Washington Post: “While Cox has not made religious home schooling a focus of his public statements or campaign materials, he has borrowed heavily from the movement’s rhetoric as he condemns teaching about gender and sexuality in public schools. And during his brief time in the legislature, he has repeatedly sought to pass ‘parental rights’ bills that echo model legislation written by conservative Christian home-schooling activists.”
Michael Peroutka, the neo-Confederate Republican candidate for Maryland attorney general, lost to Democrat Anthony G. Brown by a similar margin, 65% to 35%. Peroutka holds an array of alarming views: Vice News reported he thinks American government officials must “take a biblical worldview and apply it to civil law and government” and that separation of church and state is a “great lie,” called public education a communist plot and says laws protecting abortion and marriage for same-sex couples are illegal and unenforceable because they violate God’s law. OnlySky writer Hemant Mehta noted Peroutka has said teaching evolution, instead of creationism, is treasonous.
Arizona Governor: In a much closer race, Trump-endorsed Kari Lake was projected to lose to Democrat Katie Hobbs in the race for Arizona governor. In a state embroiled in election denialism – which Lake, a former television news reporter, buys into – a few counties’ votes had not been certified at press time, but Hobbs was projected to win and had an advantage of about 20,000 votes, or less than one percentage point, over Lake.
Lake has likened criticism of far-right extremists to the persecution of Jesus Christ: “You can call us extremists. You can call us domestic terrorists. You know who else was called a lot of names his whole life? Jesus.” Raised Catholic, she has said in interviews she began attending an evangelical Protestant church during the pandemic because it remained open while her local Catholic church stopped having in-person services. She has called abortion the “ultimate sin,” though news reports indicate she was noncommittal late in the campaign about whether she preferred a total abortion ban or a 15-week ban. She also said she would oppose a bill to expand antidiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people in Arizona.
Michigan Governor: Incumbent Gretchen Whitmer (D) won a second term, carrying the swing state by 11 percentage points as she fended off a challenge by far-right business leader and political pundit Tudor Dixon, who was endorsed by Trump at the behest of his former Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, a private school voucher activist who hails from Michigan. Dixon supports expanding private school vouchers and stressed culture war issues during the race, particularly anti-LGBTQ views. She said she would ban abortion with no exceptions for rape or incest, including in the hypothetical case of a 14-year-old girl raped by her uncle: “a life is a life for me,” she said.
Wisconsin Governor: Incumbent and public education advocate Tony Evers (D) also won a second term, though by a closer margin than his Michigan neighbor. He defeated Trump-endorsed businessman Tim Michels 52% to 48%. During the campaign, Michels said his views on marriage for same-sex couples haven’t changed since 2004, when he supported a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage: “My position is that marriage should be between a man and a woman.” He also wants to expand private school vouchers and ban abortion in most circumstances.
AU’s Seidel noted several prominent Christian nationalist candidates had already lost in primary elections earlier this year, including Idaho Lt. Gov. Janice K. McGeachin (R), who unsuccessfully tried to unseat Gov. Brad Little; Arkansas state Sen. Jason Rapert, who was beaten by Leslie Rutledge in the state’s Republican primary for lieutenant governor; former Pennsylvania state Rep. Rick Saccone, who lost in Republican primary for lieutenant governor; and Tennessee state Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, who lost her reelection bid to political newcomer Michael Hale (R).
On the “flip side of Christian nationalism,” Seidel noted that every member of the Congressional Free- thought Caucus was reelected, including one of the founding members, U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), who is an invited speaker at AU’s Summit for Religious Freedom in April.
Laser pointed to several other wins for democracy and church-state separation: Gen Z, especially young women, “showed up” and voted in strong numbers; voters supported abortion rights in all five states where it was on the ballot (California, Kentucky, Michigan, Montana and Vermont); and the diversity of candidates elected nationwide, including Moore as the first Black governor in Maryland, the first transgender man elected to a state legislature with New Hampshire’s James Roesener, and Afro-Cuban 25-year-old Maxwell Alejandro Frost of Florida as the first Gen Z member of the U.S. House.
“I went into this election wondering the most whether people were going to have hope,” Laser said. “Whether, after everything we’ve been through in recent years, from coronavirus to gun violence to extensive racism to wars, whether people were going to believe in the power of their voices enough to show up. And what I think we saw was that the majority of Americans recognized the threat to our democracy right now and they did show up. And that’s incredibly hopeful.
“Americans United is going to continue to do our part to both educate but also to inspire such hope going forward,” Laser said. “I think we saw in this election that people are primed to join us. They get it, and that the threats are elevated. They understand what it’s connecting to better than ever, what church-state separation is about. We’re going to seize that moment.”