ASSESSING BLAME AFTER THE GOP’S CLOSE CALL. Many Republicans and conservatives are pointing fingers at each other over the party’s lackluster performance in the 2022 midterm elections. Given all the advantages the GOP had — widespread economic anxiety, a huge majority believing the country has gone off track, and a deeply unpopular Democratic president — Republicans should have done better.
That’s true. But it’s also true that, even with all the complaining, the GOP might still take over both houses of Congress. At this moment, most projections say Republicans have won 211 seats in the House to the Democrats’ 194. That means the GOP needs just seven more seats to win control of the House, while Democrats need 24. The simple fact is that Republicans seem headed toward control of the House. And that, no matter that the margin of victory was far smaller than some had projected, will mean that President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda for the second half of his term is dead. That is a momentous change.
As far as the Senate is concerned, who knows? It was projected to be a toss-up, and three days after Election Day, it is still a toss-up. The first thing to say is that it is a scandal that Arizona and Nevada cannot count votes in a reasonable period of time. People vote in different ways than they did years ago. Other states have adjusted. Arizona and Nevada clearly have not. Some state officials seem to take pride in their slowness. In reality, they should be embarrassed.
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In any event, if one guesses that Republican Adam Laxalt wins in Nevada and Republican Blake Masters loses in Arizona, then control of the Senate will come down to the winner of the Georgia runoff between Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker. If Walker wins, and he might benefit from the absence of the libertarian candidate who took 2% of the vote in the general election, then Republicans will control the Senate. After all the arguing and debating and blaming, the GOP might end up in control of Congress.
But there is still blame to be assessed among Republicans. For four reasons: 1) some of them misread the issues, 2) many failed to adapt to new methods of voting, 3) former President Donald Trump played a negative role in some cases, and 4) nearly all of them had out-of-control expectations.
1) First, the issues. Republicans believed, correctly, that the economy was the most important issue in the campaign. The issue was not just inflation, although that was the biggest part. It was also a looming recession, rising mortgage interest rates, shrinking 401(k)s, and generalized economic anxiety. Republicans also thought, correctly, that they would benefit from an environment in which about three-quarters of the public believed the country was on the wrong track. And they knew that historically, a president as unpopular as Biden simply did not pick up House seats in a midterm election. It just did not happen.
On the other hand, it appears many Republicans misread the electoral damage wrought by the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade and by GOP efforts in some states to ban or dramatically limit access to abortion. Immediately after the Court’s June 24 decision, Democrats overestimated the effect it would have on the midterm elections. In reaction, Republicans tended to downplay it. Then, as fall came, Republicans became more convinced that abortion, even though it would motivate voters in some deep-blue areas that were going to elect Democrats anyway, would not be a major factor in the elections overall.
Now, it turns out many Republicans misread the situation. Look at these numbers from the Fox News-Associated Press voter analysis of more than 90,000 voters nationwide. First, on the question, “Which one of the following would you say is the most important issue facing the country?” The category “economy and jobs” was by far the most important, named by 48%. Abortion was at 9%. Numbers like that led Republicans to conclude abortion would not be a major factor. But then look at the question: “Thinking about voting in this election, how important to you was the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision on abortion?” Twenty-four percent of respondents said the abortion decision was “the single most important factor” in their vote. Another 45% said it was “an important factor, but not the most important factor.”
The Kaiser Family Foundation, assessing the results, concluded that the abortion decision “disproportionately motivated Democratic voters, first-time and younger voters, and women under age 50, both nationally and in key states.” In states that had an abortion measure on the ballot, the numbers were even bigger. “About four in ten voters across states with abortion on their ballot say overturning Roe had a major impact on their decision to turn out to vote,” wrote Kaiser. And they voted for Democrats.
That was a bigger effect than many Republicans anticipated. As they evaluate what happens, Republicans will have to look at the effect of their advocating abortion policies that were broadly unpopular with voters. For many years, hundreds, even thousands of polls have shown that a large majority of voters favor legal abortion while also favoring significant restrictions on abortion. Now, after the Supreme Court decision, passed with the votes of Republican-appointed justices, and with debates going on in states, the more likely it appears that Republicans want to ban abortion, the more likely the GOP position will set off a strong reaction among the majority that wants abortion to remain legal, albeit with restrictions.
2) Next, the Republican problem with methods of voting. In an ideal world, everyone would vote on Election Day. That way, the voters would express a collective will at the same moment, based on the same set of facts. But that is not how things work in the United States today. Mail-in voting, which was growing even before the coronavirus pandemic, is a huge factor in our elections. That is not desirable because the best type of voting involves the direct handoff of a ballot from the voter to an election official, with no other parties coming between the two. That is not what happens with mail-in voting. But the fact is, mail-in voting exists and is the dominant form of voting in several states. Republicans can either adapt to it, encourage their voters to use it, or lose elections. At the moment, though, Republicans still favor Election Day voting, which, while it is the best way, is clearly not enough to win elections going forward.
3) Next, the Trump factor. First, the former president has played a negative role in the voting-methods debate by regularly trashing mail-in voting. His position may have cost him the 2020 election, when he rejected mail-in voting and encouraged his supporters to show up on Election Day. That meant that for weeks before the election, Democrats banked millions of votes while Republicans waited for the big day. It wasn’t a good strategy.
Trump’s bigger role in 2022 was in endorsing and supporting some poor candidates and in pressing his obsession with the results of the 2020 presidential election. Among those poor candidates were Walker in Georgia, Arizona’s Blake Masters, New Hampshire’s Don Bolduc, and Pennsylvania’s Mehmet Oz. Of those, only Oz and Bolduc have lost for certain. It appears Masters will lose Arizona, but Walker is headed to that runoff in Georgia that might determine which party controls the Senate. In addition, Trump-endorsed candidates Ted Budd in North Carolina and J.D. Vance in Ohio won outright.
Of course, as anyone who remembers 2010 will know, Republicans have been able to choose poor candidates for years, long before Trump emerged as a factor. So Trump does not deserve all of the blame this time around. But in 2022, Trump did particular damage with his fixation on 2020 and his demand that candidates pay lip service to his contention that the presidential election was stolen from him. To take one example, look at the call that Trump made to Masters after Masters’s debate with Sen. Mark Kelly (D-AZ). Trump said Masters did a good job, but he, Masters, failed to press the accusation that the election was stolen. “If you want to get across the line, you’ve got to go stronger on that one thing,” Trump told Masters. “Look at [Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake]. Kari’s winning with very little money, and if they say, ‘How is your family?’ she says, ‘The election was rigged and stolen.’ You’ll lose if you go soft.”
When Bolduc lost in New Hampshire, Trump said, “Don Bolduc was a very nice guy, but he lost tonight when he disavowed, after his big primary win, his longstanding stance on election fraud in the 2020 presidential primary. Had he stayed strong and true, he would have won, easily. Lessons learned!!!” (Presumably, Trump was referring to the 2020 general election and not any primary.) And when Joe O’Dea, the Republican Senate candidate in Colorado who did not support Trump, lost, Trump actually celebrated a defeat for the GOP. “Joe O’Dea lost BIG!” Trump wrote. ‘MAKE AMERICAN GREAT AGAIN!!!”
On the question of which meant more to Trump, Republican victory in 2022 or his own political future, consider that Trump repeatedly had to be talked out of announcing his 2024 candidacy for president while the 2022 campaign was still underway. The final talk-down session, between Trump and GOP officials and others, occurred on election eve, when Trump wanted to announce his candidacy at a rally in Ohio for Vance, which certainly would have diverted attention away from the midterm elections finale and toward Trump.
4) Finally, the issue of out-of-control expectations. There’s no doubt Republican expectations grew and grew and grew as the campaign went on. (For a more detailed look at this, see “Did GOP optimism outrun reality?” the newsletter published in the wee hours of Wednesday morning.) Just looking at the Senate, Republican politicos first believed they could hold the current GOP seats in toss-up states Wisconsin, Ohio, and North Carolina. Then they came to believe they could successfully defend Pennsylvania as well. Then they began to believe they could grab Democratic seats in Georgia, Nevada, and Arizona. Then they began to think they might win long-shot seats in New Hampshire and Washington state. There was a lot of behind-the-scenes talk of Republicans winning the Senate with 52 or 53 or 54 or more seats. Now they’re struggling just to stay afloat. They could not keep their expectations in check.
In post-mortems, Republicans need to look at polling — unlike previous years, did some surveys overpredict GOP performance? — as well as their own assumptions. Going back to the issues question, perhaps they should consider this: They knew that voters were deeply concerned about inflation. They believed in their bones that economic issues are always the most fundamental issues in a campaign — the “It’s the economy, stupid” rule. And that might have led them to underestimate the role that other considerations play in today’s hyperpartisan environment. Why would so many vote for the party already in power when old political thinking suggested they would not? Why would abortion be so much more powerful an issue than GOP strategists thought? Why would many voters be moved by crazy suggestions that American democracy might end if Republicans were elected? Whatever happens in the remaining undecided races, Republicans will need to think hard about all of that.
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