Why the Red Wave never materialized

Kevin McCarthy
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Calif., arrives to speak at an event early Wednesday morning, Nov. 9, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon) Alex Brandon/AP

Why the Red Wave never materialized

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The still-unsettled outcomes of who will control Congress counter the pre-Election Day conventional wisdom that voters would broadly punish President Joe Biden and Democrats on Capitol Hill for the nation’s worst inflation in 40 years, stubbornly high gas prices, and other national problems. Republicans are still favored to retake the House but with a bare majority, and the Senate appears likely to remain in a nominal tie but functional Democratic control, with Vice President Kamala Harris as the tiebreaking vote.

Either way, there was no expected “red wave.” That has spurred both the parties and the media to reassess the issues underlying this election and how they played versus how they were expected to play among voters. Here is what they’ll find.

RIPPLE EFFECT: REPUBLICANS STUNNED AS DEMOCRATS TURN BACK RED WAVE

Abortion politics

Republicans thought the midterm elections would be run on their preferred topic: criticizing Biden and congressional Democrats over a limping economy. Yet the Nov. 8 results show there was more potency than had been widely predicted for Democratic-favored issues, including abortion rights, after the Supreme Court’s June 24 Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling made the procedure a state decision rather than a national right.

Many Democrats made abortion rights a rallying cry of their campaigns. And there were signs ahead of time that the strategy would work. Conservative Kansans in August voted against a referendum to restrict abortion.

The results were similar on Nov. 8, the first major election of the post-Roe v. Wade era, which yielded new protections for abortion rights. Voters in California, Michigan, and Vermont approved ballot measures to add state constitutional rights guaranteeing access to the procedure. In addition, anti-abortion referendums in Kentucky and Montana were both headed for defeat.

Limits of anti-Bidenism

A midterm election is a referendum on the president. By all historic measures, voters should have handed Biden’s party a massive rebuke. Inflation is at historic levels, crime is up, the president’s approval is underwater, and Democrats have one-party control.

That’s a seemingly potent political brew for Republicans to have won big over Democrats in the midterm elections. After all, the average midterm House loss for the president’s party is 26 seats. And it’s been much worse for the party of recent presidents in similar circumstances, which lost between 40 and 63 House seats and control of the chamber.

The muddled Nov. 8 outcome, however, leaves open the question of how aggressively, if at all, congressional Republicans will be able to go on the offense against the Biden administration during the latter two years of his White House term.

In preelection interviews, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), who is in line to become speaker if and when Republicans claim the majority, outlined GOP plans to cut back on government spending and launch rigorous investigations of the Biden administration. The closing campaign message to voters by McCarthy and House Republican candidates further included tackling inflation, rising crime, and border security.

Similarly, across the Capitol, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) recently vowed that if he were chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, the panel would investigate Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, over the federal government’s COVID-19 response. But lacking a committee gavel with Democrats in the majority, Paul and Republicans would have no power to issue subpoenas and otherwise pursue Fauci’s testimony.

Trump as a political deadweight

Hanging over the 2022 midterm elections landscape was the specter of Trump. From his Mar-a-Lago estate in South Florida, the former president has tried to play captain and kingmaker for congressional Republicans, then claim credit for expected big Republican midterm wins, all the while awaiting a 2024 presidential bid and likely rematch against Biden.

That’s not how the midterm elections turned out for Trump, though. Many of his hand-picked candidates were defeated or struggled in otherwise winnable races. In Pennsylvania, Oz, a former television personality, lost to Lt. Gov. John Fetterman by more than 2 percentage points. In Georgia, Sen. Herschel Walker couldn’t break through to a majority on Election Day and now faces that runoff against Sen. Raphael Warnock. In Arizona, the GOP’s Blake Masters faces long odds in overcoming his vote deficit against Sen. Mark Kelly.

Trump moreover proved a massive distraction on the campaign’s final day by promoting speculation about his own 2024 campaign plans, even threatening to launch his candidacy the night before voting. Now, if Trump goes through with announcing a 2024 Republican primary bid, he’ll be doing so in an environment in which Republicans fell far short of their expectations of a sizable red wave.

All of which makes Trump seem not so invincible to 2024 Republican presidential primary rivals. It means the chances Trump can clear the field are vastly diminished, which correlates with the excellent Election Day enjoyed by a would-be challenger, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The Florida governor’s nearly 20-point victory over Democratic rival Charlie Crist provides a fresh rationale to Republican voters about why he should be the party’s standard-bearer to challenge Biden or whoever the Democratic nominee ends up being. DeSantis in his reelection win carried some big, largely Hispanic counties, including Miami-Dade and Osceola, home to many Puerto Rican Americans. DeSantis won Hispanic voters with 57%, women voters with 52%, and independent voters by a bit over half the electorate, according to exit polls.

So, DeSantis’s Florida model of populist conservatism offers Republicans an alternative path to Trumpism. Still, Trump won’t let the party move on without a fight, and the intra-Florida Republican fight is just getting going.

Democratic meddling worked

While Democrats had a much stronger-than-expected election night on Nov. 8, some of the victories weren’t so surprising. In fact, they were part of a broader plan by Democratic officeholders, strategists, and operatives to ensure Republicans who made it to the ballot in the general election were the weakest possible to win.

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Democratic meddling proved successful in several gubernatorial contests, where primary spending on behalf of candidates on the far Right helped elevate them to the general election, only to get crushed by Democrats. The story was similar in a swath of congressional races. Democrats gained a House seat in western Michigan and successfully defended a Democratic-held district in New Hampshire by employing this strategy.

Some Democratic Party elders took issue with this deeply cynical play, suggesting it was hypocritical for their party to argue democracy was threatened by Trump-loving Republicans, only to elevate those very candidates to the general election, where they had a chance to win. Yet the successful electoral results make it doubtful Democrats will drop this meddling tactic anytime soon since it worked so well in 2022.

© 2022 Washington Examiner

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