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Trumped at the Polls

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Trumped at the Polls

Despite Joe Biden’s deep unpopularity, GOP gubernatorial candidates backed by the former president struggled in yesterday’s election. November 9, 2022
Politics and law

The midterm elections of 2010 and 2014, where Republicans made big gains in Washington, were also accompanied by a GOP wave in the states that lasted nearly a decade. Boosted by those midterms, the party over the course of several elections won more than 900 local legislative seats, occupied 33 governor’s mansions, and boasted 26 state “trifectas”—that is, complete political control over a state government.

With a deeply unpopular Democratic president in office, inflation raging, and high crime resonating in many areas, Republicans seemed poised to ride another state red wave this year. Instead, they have struggled merely to retain currently held governorships, losing several in the process. What was different this year? Polls suggest it was Donald Trump. The ex-president, who has remained a significant player in local elections, didn’t just spit fire at Democrats in 2022. He also feuded with Republican state leaders in some places, took shots at potential competitors within the party, including Florida governor Ron DeSantis, and played a massive role in helping MAGA candidates win state GOP primaries. But Trump, exit polls show, is deeply unpopular with many voters—even more so than President Biden. In some states, candidates he endorsed could muster little support beyond voters who say that they back Trump, too. It wasn’t enough to unleash a red wave.

In the previous GOP waves, moderate Republican gubernatorial candidates were able to flip several deep-blue states, including Larry Hogan in Maryland and Charlie Baker in Massachusetts in 2014. Both governors managed the task of governing in a blue state well enough to coast to reelection in 2018. But Hogan was term-limited this year, and Baker, facing the likelihood of a tough challenge from a Trump-backed candidate in the state GOP primary, declined to run again. Trump supporters won both state Republican primaries, including a victory in Maryland by state delegate Dan Cox, who was aided by millions of dollars in ads run by the Democratic Party, which preferred him as an opponent over former state secretary of commerce Kelly Schulz, endorsed by Hogan. The cynical strategy paid dividends. Cox managed less than four in ten votes in Maryland, a sharp turnaround from the 55 percent of votes Hogan won in 2018. Trump’s favored Massachusetts candidate, state delegate Geoff Diehl, fared worse, managing just 35 percent of the vote against Democrat Maura Healey. Baker, by contrast, won reelection in 2018 with 66 percent of the vote. As the Boston Globe observed, Healey likely wouldn’t even have run if she had to face the popular Baker in a general election. Trump helped ensure that didn’t happen.

To offset these potential losses, Republicans had an opportunity to flip Democratic governorships in several states that lean Republican. Both Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, for instance, have GOP-controlled legislatures but Democratic governors. Both states went narrowly for Biden in 2020, but exit polls from the 2022 midterms show that the president is deeply unpopular there today. In Pennsylvania, 53 percent of those who voted on Tuesday disapproved of the job he is doing. In Wisconsin, the number was 54 percent.

But Trump shook up those races by endorsing candidates backing his agenda, including Pennsylvania state senator Doug Mastriano, who supported efforts to decertify the 2020 election. Yesterday, Mastriano—another recipient of Democratic support during the state GOP primary—secured just 42 percent of the vote against state attorney general Josh Shapiro. Key to the loss was his rejection by independent voters, 63 percent of whom went for Shapiro. Though Biden has just a 46 percent approval rating among yesterday’s voters in the Keystone State, Trump’s approval was far lower, at 39 percent. More significantly, perhaps, nearly a quarter of those who disapprove of Biden nonetheless voted for Shapiro. By contrast, most of Mastriano’s support came from those with a favorable view of Trump. There just weren’t enough of them in the state to matter.

In Wisconsin, former lieutenant governor Rebecca Kleefisch, who campaigned heavily on school reform, had the inside track on the GOP nomination until Trump jumped into the fray and endorsed construction executive Tim Michels after he traveled to Mar-a-Largo to get the ex-president’s blessing. Michels quickly became the GOP favorite, though after polling poorly in the leadup to the general election, he mentioned Trump less and less, and was even accused of scrubbing the ex-president’s endorsement from his website. Exit polls suggest his reluctance to advertise the endorsement was understandable: only 40 percent of Wisconsin voters have a favorable view of Trump. As expected, those voters broke heavily for Michels, but, as in Pennsylvania, there simply weren’t enough of them, and Michels, like Mastriano, failed to win most independents’ votes.

Trump-backed candidates had some wins yesterday—J.D. Vance in Ohio’s senate race, for example. But Trump also feuded with Ohio’s Republican governor, Mike DeWine, and started out the campaign season trying to recruit a candidate to face him in the GOP primary before eventually endorsing him. The incumbent kept his distance from Trump, even showing up at his granddaughter’s school track meet rather than attend a Trump rally. DeWine won his reelection bid by nearly 10 percentage points more than Vance’s victory, in a state where Trump has a 55 percent unfavorable rating. Crucially, 30 percent of voters who don’t view Trump favorably nonetheless voted for DeWine yesterday. Vance got less than half as many of those votes.

If there was a big winner on Tuesday, it was Florida governor Ron DeSantis. In a state that narrowly went for Trump in 2020, DeSantis won with about 60 percent of the vote, including a majority of independents. DeSantis is at least as conservative as Trump on the issues, ranging from economic policy to cultural concerns. But DeSantis has been less divisive than the former president, who has begun taking pot shots at the Florida governor. Most important, however, is DeSantis’s track record, including his efforts to keep Florida’s economy and schools open during much of the pandemic, and the state’s quick response to Hurricane Ian. Not surprisingly, 65 percent of yesterday’s Florida voters told exit pollsters that they don’t want Trump to run in 2024.

Two contrasting facts help sum up the election. Charlie Baker, a Republican recently ranked as the country’s most popular governor, decided not to seek re-election after Trump’s promise to recruit a candidate to challenge him in the GOP primary. Meantime, Democrat Tony Evers in Wisconsin, with the lowest favorability rating among incumbents running for reelection yesterday, won against yet another GOP candidate strongly backed by the ex-president.

Is it any wonder Democrats are spending millions of dollars to help Trump-endorsed candidates win Republican primaries?

Photo by Phelan M. Ebenhack for The Washington Post via Getty Images

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