CHURCH & STATE | An Election Reflection: In High-Profile Races, Christian Nationalist Hopefuls Fared Poorly At The Polls

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In midterm elections, the party that holds the White House normally loses seats in Congress—sometimes a lot of seats. In 1994, two years into Bill Clinton’s presidency, the Democrats lost fifty-four seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and eight in the U.S. Senate. Republicans took control of both chambers. In 2010, under President Barack Obama, Democrats lost sixty-three House seats and six Senate seats. The House went GOP, while the Senate retained a slim Democratic majority.

Prior to Nov. 8, most pundits were predicting another GOP blowout. Some speculated that the Republican Party might gain thirty-forty seats in the House and win control of the Senate.

It didn’t work out that way. The Democrats not only held the Senate but gained an open seat in Pennsylvania. And while Republicans won enough seats to gain control of the House, the margin was far smaller than anyone predicted. This is even more surprising considering that President Joe Biden’s approval ratings are low, and inflation remains stubbornly high. By all rights, the Republicans should have shellacked the Democrats.

What happened? Analysts and pollsters have concluded that many voters simply grew tired of the political extremism proffered by the GOP, including its Christian Nationalist wing.

Consider Pennsylvania, where GOP voters during the primary chose Doug Mastriano, perhaps the most extreme Christian Nationalist candidate on the ballot this year, to be their gubernatorial candidate. After a campaign marked by culture war dog whistles and allegations of antisemitism, Mastriano was trounced by Democrat Josh Shapiro by fourteen percentage points. (In the race for an open U.S. Senate seat, populist Democrat John Fetterman defeated celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz, a peddler of questionable medical remedies. Oz, a Muslim, didn’t fully embrace Christian Nationalism, but during his campaign, he promoted private school vouchers and highlighted his opposition to abortion.)

To the south in Maryland, GOP voters picked state Rep. Dan Cox to be their gubernatorial candidate over a more moderate alternative. For attorney general, Republican voters put up Michael Peroutka, a neo-Confederate who, in one of the bluest states in America, anchored his campaign on attacking legal abortion, LGBTQ rights and public education. On Election Day, Cox lost to Democrat Wes Moore, winning only thirty-five percent of the vote to Moore’s sixty-two percent. Peroutka’s outcome wasn’t much better: He captured 37.5% of the vote, losing to Democrat Anthony Brown, who won 62.5%.

In Arizona, former TV news personality Kari Lake ran far to the right, anchoring her gubernatorial campaign in attacks on transgender people and other right-wing culture war obsessions. Lake told moderate Republicans that she didn’t want their votes. This turned out to be a poor strategy. She was defeated by Democrat Katie Hobbs.

Similar patterns played out in states like Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, New Hampshire, Alaska, Virginia, Wisconsin and others where Senate, House, gubernatorial and secretary of state candidates who took extreme positions on social issues and/or parroted former President Donald Trump’s absurd claims that the 2020 election was stolen went down to defeat.

Of course, many Christian Nationalists did manage to win their races. In some ruby red regions of the country such as the Deep South and Texas, they remain popular. In Colorado, U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, who this summer proclaimed that she’s tired of “this separation of church and state junk” and called for the church to run the state, managed to eke out a victory by less than 600 votes in a race that not many observers expected to be competitive.

One thing is clear from the results: Christian Nationalist candidates are falling flat with many independent voters and young people. That’s a good sign.

Abortion also turned out to be a much more important issue than many pundits had realized. Yes, Americans are upset over the high price of gas, but they’re also furious over the Supreme Court’s ruling overturning Roe v. Wade. Five states voted to protect abortion rights in November. The outcome was not surprising in California and Vermont, but Michigan is a swing state and Montana and Kentucky are conservative bastions. Add these wins to the pro-choice victory earlier this year in Kansas, and we can see how potent this issue is. Even red state voters don’t want to see abortion outlawed.

We should welcome these results, but let’s not make the mistake of assuming that Christian Nationalism has suffered a fatal blow. The obituary of that movement has been written many times in the past forty years. Its adherents are resilient if not doggedly fanatical, and they don’t give up after a bad election cycle. We’re already seeing signs that Christian Nationalist groups have a remedy for what they perceive as the serious problem of too many people voting. That remedy is still more voter suppression and the end of things like early voting and voting by mail that have boosted turnout in recent years. Remember, when Christian Nationalists and their favored candidates see that they can’t win legitimately, they quickly move to cheating.

And don’t expect Christian Nationalists to drop their Trump worship, even though some political analysts are now labeling him toxic. (Many of the hard-right GOP candidates who lost were Trump acolytes.) Trump has already announced that he will run again in 2024, and, despite some reporting in the media that far-right evangelicals are growing weary of him or might be tempted to jump ship and support Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, their support is not likely to waver. Trump, although a man of stunted morals, gave Christian Nationalists just what they wanted—primarily, a Supreme Court so far to the right that it’s losing legitimacy in the eyes of the public. Expect Christian Nationalists to remain by Trump’s side. This marriage can definitely be saved.

The electorate remains polarized, but the results of Nov. 8 show that Christian Nationalists can sometimes go too far—and when they do, there will be a backlash.

Let’s hope that this is not the last time we see that.