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Why The Red Wave Didn’t Happen
Concerns about abortion and GOP extremism offset the forces pushing against Democrats.
Although votes are still being counted in competitive races across the country, it looks like the 2022 midterms will produce a narrow House majority for Republicans. Democrats seem to have an edge in the Senate, but that could change with results pending in Nevada and the Georgia runoff. Given the outsized expectations among the GOP heading into Election Day, and the anxiety from Democrats, this will certainly lead to many sighs of relief among President Joe Biden and his supporters.
Facing serious economic headwinds from 40-year high inflation, and sagging job approval for the President and Democrats in Congress, not getting your clock cleaned counts as a partial victory and gives hope to Democrats going forward. This is not a jump-for-joy moment for Democrats but rather a reprieve that gives Biden and his party breathing room to honestly address and fix the party’s multiple deficiencies with working-class voters and Americans living outside of urban areas.
The economy and jobs emerged far on top of issue priorities for voters (47 percent), according to AP VoteCast, and Republicans won two-thirds of these voters. Likewise, in the national exit poll, using a shorter list of priorities, inflation (31 percent) was the top issue for voters and Republicans won 7 in 10 of these voters. However, in the wake of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, the issue of abortion ranked a close second for voters in the national exit poll (27 percent), with Democrats winning more than three-quarters of these voters. The interaction of these two issues—the economy and abortion—combined to produce the close results we saw on November 8 with abortion likely offsetting inflation concerns among independent and other swing voters in key districts held by Democrats, and the inverse being true in those taken by Republicans.
Awaiting the final tallies in both the House and the Senate, a few lessons for both parties seem straightforward. For Democrats, being a culturally moderate party committed to the economic well-being of working Americans—with the assurance of basic rights and freedoms for all people—is clearly a winning approach. It worked for Biden in 2020 and it worked for a lot of frontline Democrats this cycle facing off against extremist Republicans.
Democrats must feel good seeing the likes of Abigail Spanberger, Elissa Slotkin, Susan Wild, Matt Cartwright, Gretchen Whitmer, Josh Shapiro, Tony Evers, John Fetterman, and Mark Kelly—all with different personal styles but a similar pragmatic approach—winning in highly competitive environments. Ahead of 2024, President Biden and Democrats need to stay focused on embodying a sensible party brand that is “pro-worker, pro-family, pro-America” and avoid temptations to go off on ideological tangents that undermine a big-tent appeal to the electorate.
Democrats still have a lot of work to do on issues like the economy and crime to get back into the good graces of voters facing multiple stresses over personal finances and community safety. The president and congressional leaders should ignore the left of the party which loudly proclaims that cost of living issues and public safety are fake issues cooked up by the right. In reality, one-third of Americans continue to face serious challenges from rising prices and the high cost of living, and Democrats need to serve as their champions.
On the other side, top-level Republicans will continue to rue the day they turned their party over to Donald Trump, a leader despised by Americans outside of a rump base, and a clear drag on the party’s hopes of building a stable electoral majority at the national level. Although Trump-endorsed candidates like J.D. Vance and Ron Johnson won their races, and results in Arizona governors and Nevada Senate races are still outstanding, the toxic crew of election deniers and ideological hardliners Trump backed in competitive races lost, including Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania, Tudor Dixon in Michigan, Tim Michels in Wisconsin, and Don Bolduc in New Hampshire.
Republicans could have posted huge gains in both the House and the Senate but appear instead to have fizzled out after following Donald Trump’s and Rick Scott’s strategy of promoting ideological extremists and conspiracy theorists. Turns out most Americans don’t want a bunch of weirdos in charge of the government, threatening their personal freedoms and democratic elections—a lesson that should be obvious to Republicans by now, but will probably be ignored to their detriment.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis clearly emerged with the biggest night of anyone, easily winning re-election by a 20-point margin in a state that is now solidly Republican. DeSantis’s successful blend of just-enough-culture war, lots of traditional Republican economics, and opposition to Covid-era restrictions and illegal immigration obviously appeals to many people in this critical state. It’s a post-Trump model that many Republicans will be eager to support given proven successes in Virginia with Glenn Youngkin, and now with Brian Kemp in Georgia and DeSantis in Florida. The 2024 Republican primary battle is sure to be a knife fight should DeSantis seek to take on Trump. Although early odds would put Trump well ahead of others, after this cycle many core Republican voters may think twice about setting themselves up for probable failure again by nominating the former president with the reverse Midas touch.
As analysts continue to digest the results, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that American voters are not particularly happy with either political party. Both parties, their congressional leadership, and their current and former presidents are all viewed unfavorably by voters. Billions of dollars of ads in 2022 did nothing to measurably improve the standing of either party—and probably heightened many Americans’ aversion to politics altogether.
The 2022 midterms have produced another era of divided government run by two parties roundly disliked by large proportions of voters. Whichever party chooses to move beyond a strategy of merely seeking to increase hatred for the other side—and instead focuses its agenda and political pitch on advancing the economic and social aspirations of all Americans—will be best positioned for future victories, and possibly, to break out of the country’s chronic political deadlock.
John Halpin is co-editor of The Liberal Patriot, a Substack newsletter focused on domestic and international politics.
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