Did GOP optimism outrun reality?

Kevin McCarthy
House Minority leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., speaks at DMI Companies in Monongahela, Pa., Friday, Sept. 23, 2022. McCarthy joined with other House Republicans to unveil their “Commitment to America” agenda. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger) Barry Reeger/AP

Did GOP optimism outrun reality?

DID GOP OPTIMISM OUTRUN REALITY? Even as votes continue to be counted, the big picture that is emerging from midterm results around the country is that, as predicted, it appears Republicans will win control of the House of Representatives. That’s a big deal. Even if the GOP controls only one chamber of Congress, President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda is dead. A Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), should McCarthy realize his ambition to run the House, is not going to help the president pass any big legislative priority. That will be a momentous change in Washington.

But in the final days and weeks of the campaign, Republicans began to hope for more. An optimism grew among GOP insiders that the party could capture the Senate, as well. First, they began to believe that Republicans could hold on to the toss-up seats they currently control — Ohio, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. The first three they felt very confident about, and the final one, Pennsylvania, they knew would be difficult. But as time went by, especially after Democrat John Fetterman’s poor performance in the Oct. 25 debate with Republican Mehmet Oz, GOP strategists began to feel increasingly confident about winning Pennsylvania, too.

Then, once Republicans successfully defended their current seats, the thinking went, all they had to do was win at least one of the vulnerable Democratic seats in Georgia, Arizona, and Nevada. If the GOP lost Pennsylvania, it would have to win two of those, but some Republicans were confident they could do that, too.

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As time went by, some in the GOP became even more confident, believing they had a good chance to win New Hampshire, which had earlier seemed out of reach. Some even thought they could take Washington state, which had seemed even farther out of reach. In the big picture, they predicted Republicans would win control of the Senate with 52, 53, 54, or maybe even more seats.

Now, it appears the GOP will be doing well to win control of the Senate at all, even with a bare 51-seat majority. And it is entirely possible that Democrats will keep control.

First, the Republican hold-your-own states turned out to be much more difficult than optimistic Republicans had thought. Yes, in Ohio, Republican J.D. Vance won a solid victory over Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH), reflecting the state’s continued move toward red-state status. But in Wisconsin, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) had a much more difficult time with Democratic challenger Mandela Barnes than many in the GOP envisioned. The same with Rep. Ted Budd (R-NC) versus Democrat Cheri Beasley in North Carolina, although Budd was declared the winner around midnight. And in Pennsylvania, the state that attracted the most attention and passion from both parties, Fetterman defeated Oz.

So just holding on to Republican states was a struggle. Needless to say, the pie-in-the-sky states, New Hampshire and Washington state, were hard, too. Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH) easily won reelection against Republican Don Bolduc in New Hampshire — so much for that GOP hope. In Washington, Democratic Sen. Patty Murray won decisively over GOP challenger Tiffany Smiley, whose strong performance nevertheless earned her a lot of good reviews in Republican circles.

And then there were the big three potential pickups, Republicans’ best chance to gain ground in the Senate. In Georgia, many Republicans believed Herschel Walker’s status as a University of Georgia football legend gave him a reserve of goodwill and support that Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) just could not beat. As of late night, the race was essentially tied, with neither candidate likely to break the 50%-plus-one-vote standard required by Georgia law. If the race ends that way, there will be a runoff between the two on Dec. 6.

That left Arizona and Nevada. Significant portions of results in both states were still unknown when this story was filed. But the GOP’s experience around the country on Tuesday night suggested that each would be difficult, especially for Republican Adam Laxalt in Nevada.

There were some bright spots for Republicans. The brightest was the state of Florida, in which Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) easily won reelection, as did GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis. DeSantis, in particular, emerged from election night in a powerful position not only to press forward with his agenda in the state but to enter the 2024 Republican presidential primary race if he chooses.

But overall, the reality of the 2022 midterm elections fell short of the optimistic scenarios Republicans had increasingly come to embrace. Their optimism leaked into the general conversation about the elections, as well, even though many polls showed several contests as too close to call. Fairly early on Tuesday night, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes described what he called “a narrative that became increasingly untethered from the data” — in other words, a media narrative that leaned increasingly toward predictions of a Republican wave when underlying polls did not necessarily support that conclusion. In the end, for many Republicans, that narrative might have been driven more by hope than anything else.

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