In a signature line from Norman Lear’s fondly remembered 1970s TV sitcom “Maude,” the imperious liberal matriarch (played by actress Bea Arthur) would glare at husband or a family member and say: “God’ll get you for that.”
The line offers one path of explanation for the unexpected twists of Election 2022 and a set of thwarted ambitions. Consider the following sequence of events:
- Ultraconservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin “Nino” Scalia died in his sleep on February 13th, 2016, while on a quail hunting trip to Texas. President Obama had the constitutional duty of sending the nomination of a successor to the U.S. Senate for confirmation.
- Within hours of Scalia’s death, however, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declared that the vacancy should not be filled until after the 2016 election. Republicans held a 54–46 Senate majority. McConnell and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Senator Chuck Grassley refused to even to hold a hearing on Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland, a U.S. Court of Appeals judge and now the Attorney General, to fill the vacancy.
- Donald Trump captured the presidency and nominated conservative appellate judge Neil Gorsuch to fill the Scalia vacancy. A major Trump regime goal was to fill the federal bench with judges approved by the Federalist Society. Gorsuch won confirmation on a largely party line vote, the Senate being split 52–48.
- Trump then got to fill two more vacancies on the Supreme Court. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg succumbed to cancer weeks before the 2020 presidential election. Did McConnell follow his 2016 precedent and await judgment of the American people? Nope. He rushed through confirmation of nominee Amy Coney Barrett in little more than a month.
The Coney Barrett appointment was unveiled at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. A mostly maskless ultra MAGA crowd celebrated on the White House lawn. It turned into a superspreader event. Trump contracted COVID-19. So did University of Notre Dame president Father John Jenkins, pictured without a mask despite his stern instructions to students back on campus.
The three Trump-appointed justices have formed the bulwark of a new right-wing supermajority on the Supreme Court. In June of this year, the high court handed down the Dobbs ruling, overturning Roe v. Wade and depriving millions of American women of a right that has been theirs for just short of fifty years. The opinion’s author, Justice Samuel Alito, went on a victory tour, gently mocking critics at a speech in Rome and basking in cheers at a Federalist Society dinner.
The shock of Dobbs gave way to action. American women swelled voter registration rolls. A conservative state, Kansas, voted down by 59–41% a bid to repeal abortion rights. Measures guaranteeing choice went on the ballot in Michigan and California. In the meantime, Senator McConnell hinted at a nationwide abortion ban. Senator Lindsay Graham, R‑South Carolina, proposed a bill to ban abortion after fifteen weeks of pregnancy.
Reproductive freedom became a marquee issue in the 2022 midterms.
A McConnell-sponsored PAC, the Senate Leadership Fund, poured as much as $30 million into individual Senate races, hoping to put Republicans back into control of the Senate, and in a position to take up Graham’s legislation.
It wasn’t to be. Women comprised a majority of voters, and abortion helped make them a bulwark of Democratic strength. Single women vote Democratic by a split of 66–31%. The result: Abortion rights defenders won Senate seats from Arizona to Washington, from New Hampshire to Arizona, from Colorado to Nevada. Embattled pro-choice Democratic governors were returned to office in Michigan, Wisconsin, Kansas, Maine and and New Mexico.
And Democrats kept control of the Senate, in a break from most of the recent midterm elections in 1994, 2006 and 2014. Those occurred during Democratic presidencies and each resulted in a loss of control of Congress’ upper chamber.
Mitch McConnell won’t get to return as Senate Majority Leader in the 118th Congress. Nor will he be able to stall the chamber’s business. A Democratic-run Senate has confirmed eighty-three federal judges in the past two years and has one hundred and seventeen nominees awaiting action. McConnell indicated a Republican majority would block any Biden nominee to the Supreme Court.
While the price they paid is steep, American women have delivered a comeuppance to Mitch McConnell. The Senate Republican leader sowed the wind in February of 2016. He is reaping the whirlwind in 2022.