In Shakespeare’s All’s Well that Ends Well, one character observes, “Oft expectation fails and most oft there where most it promises.” And so it was for Republicans on Tuesday night.
What was projected to be a “red wave” or a “red tsunami” became—at best—a red trickle. By almost any standard, the midterms proved disappointing for Republicans. In battleground House races across the country, Republican candidates faltered. The GOP looks likely to pick up only a handful of House seats; while narrow House control seems in sight, the door has closed on a 2014-size majority.
The Senate may prove even more of a disappointment. John Fetterman has won the open Pennsylvania Senate seat, so Republicans may yet lose seats in the upper chamber. Votes are still being counted in Arizona and Nevada; as of this writing, incumbent Democrat Mark Kelly holds a lead over Blake Masters, while Republican Adam Laxalt clings to a slim lead over incumbent Catherine Cortez Masto. In an echo of 2020, the Georgia Senate race appears headed into a run-off, though incumbent Democrat Raphael Warnock seems to have made it through the first round with a slight lead over Herschel Walker.
The gubernatorial races have more disheartening tidings for Republicans. Republicans were locked out of the governor’s mansion in key swing states Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. In Maryland and Massachusetts, governorships formerly held by Republicans were lost to Democrats in blowout margins. Arizona remains too close to call, as does Oregon (a seat that had seemed a possible Republican pick-up).
An incumbent Democratic president with an approval rating in the 40s, raging inflation, a mixed economic picture, and growing voter concerns about crime—how did it come to this for the GOP? Many structural factors suggested that 2022 would be a “wave” year, but Republican candidates were instead often stranded. Tuesday’s results point to major underlying issues for the Republican Party, and the nation as a whole.
If this was a wave election, it might be considered a “normie” wave election. After a pandemic, widespread economic disruption, and years of hyper-polarized conflict in D.C., voters often rewarded candidates with political experience and a record of governing. Joe Biden in part won the White House by promising a return to “normalcy,” and if “normalcy” didn’t quite arrive by 2022, signs suggest that voters are still looking for it. Many Republican candidates were far from optimal from that perspective. In a number of GOP primaries, Donald Trump intervened to back candidates with whom he had a close personal relationship or who were willing to join in his campaign to delegitimize the 2020 election. Many of these candidates—from Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania to Tudor Dixon in Michigan—ended up washing out.
Gubernatorial races often exerted a significant gravitational force on other elections. Having held almost the entirety of Ohio’s political offices, Governor Mike DeWine embodies the “normie” Republican, and he won a smashing reelection victory—which probably helped boost political newcomer J. D. Vance in the Senate race. Georgia governor Brian Kemp defied Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election in the Peach State and crushed a Trump-backed primary challenge. With a record of governing and opposing election nullification, Kemp beat Democratic Party favorite Stacey Abrams by eight points—significantly outperforming Senate nominee (and political newcomer) Herschel Walker.
Conversely, toxic or lackluster gubernatorial candidates likely inflicted pain elsewhere on the ticket. In Pennsylvania, Doug Mastriano won Trump’s endorsement, but he repelled many Pennsylvanians. His 13-point loss was a millstone around the neck of Senate candidate Mehmet Oz (who did five points better than Mastriano, but not good enough to win). Tudor Dixon’s ten-point loss to incumbent Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer was accompanied by a bloodbath down the ticket. Republicans lost races for secretary of state and attorney general there, and Democrats may enjoy their first trifecta in the Michigan statehouse in 40 years.
Tuesday’s results show how many voters are turned off by candidates who try to delegitimize past elections. For years, Stacey Abrams discounted the legitimacy of the 2018 election she lost by a razor-thin margin—and Brian Kemp won his rematch against her handily. Kemp and Georgia secretary of state Brad Raffensperger burnished their images as responsible holders of power by defending the results of the 2020 election. Fortunately for American democracy, swing voters (the ones candidates need to win elections) do not reward conspiracy theories that aim to nullify elections.
If “normie” voters like candidates who (legitimately) affirm the credibility of American elections, they also dislike crime and the appearance of lawlessness. In New York, growing voter anxiety about crime helped make the governor’s race far more competitive than in previous cycles; current tallies show Republican Lee Zeldin at 47 percent of the vote—the highest result for a Republican since George Pataki’s 2002 reelection. Zeldin’s strong performance also probably helped some House candidates over the finish line.
Even if not seen elsewhere, the “red wave” did end up crashing on the beaches of Florida. Ron DeSantis and Marco Rubio racked up massive reelection margins. These decisive wins are partly a result of a broader political realignment. An entrenched party apparatus for turning out votes across the spectrum (mail-in, early, and in-person on Election Day) also helps Republicans there. Additionally, DeSantis and Rubio spoke to normie concerns. They are experienced officials with long records in Florida politics. While quite willing to advance the ball in a populist-conservative direction (on education, for instance), DeSantis has also shown himself a skilled administrator. A DeSantis ad early this fall indicated the broad coalition he aimed to build: it boasted of keeping schools and workplaces open, protecting the environment, and giving raises to teachers.
The tea leaves on the day after any election can tell false tales, but these results might offer a few potential hints about the years ahead.
Despite his low approval rating, Joe Biden probably benefited from the passage of a number of bipartisan bills in his first two years as president. While Republicans tried to harness popular dissatisfaction with inflation and draw on grassroots anger over the excesses of the Covid regime, they also struggled to present themselves as a credible political alternative to Democrats. Notably weak and inexperienced candidates in gubernatorial and senatorial battlegrounds aggravated this problem. Even if voters weren’t happy with Biden, they were also wary of Republicans.
This influences the GOP’s political and policy calculus. To convince voters that it could govern well if it gained power, the Republican Party has a strong political incentive to lay out a policy vision and to try to enact some of it via legislation. Alluding to this theme, J. D. Vance emphasized the importance of governing in his victory speech. Also on Election Night, South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham identified tech policy and energy as two areas where Republicans and Democrats could work together. But the GOP faces significant political peril if it becomes viewed merely as a party of outrage and complaints.
The 2022 midterms also indicate the limits of disruption. Instability likely increases the appetite for candidates and parties who seem steady. Midterm elections are often thermostatic, in which one tendency gets checked by another. Normally, this functions in a partisan way, so that voters turn against the party that holds the White House. Perhaps the 2022 thermostat is calibrated differently, as voters grope for something other than a politics of chaos and conflict.
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