Scale of the GOP midterm debacle becoming clearer, finger-pointing grows more intense

The scale of the GOP midterm debacle grows clearer, and the finger-pointing only grows more intense. It will probably not surprise you to learn that some losing candidates have concocted elaborate explanations of how it’s everyone’s fault except theirs. Meanwhile, House and Senate Republicans face big questions about who should lead them for the next two years.

Over the past few days, the 2022 midterms have somehow gotten worse for the Republican Party.

The GOP blew a golden opportunity to win control of the Senate when it split 50–50. It’s more than fair to wonder if Georgia Republicans will be quite as motivated on December 6, now that control of the Senate is no longer a stake.

Control of the House is no guarantee, and even if the GOP does win, a majority if 218-220 seats is barely a functioning majority at all.

Republicans will begin 2023 with fewer governors than this year. They essentially forfeited gubernatorial races in Massachusetts, Maryland, Illinois, and Pennsylvania by running fringe candidates completely unsuited to those states’ electorates. They didn’t come all that close to dislodging Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan — Tudor Dixon lost by almost eleven percentage points! — and fell considerably short in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and New Mexico. We’re still waiting for the final call in Arizona, but right now it looks like Katie Hobbs — the woman who wouldn’t debate! — is going to be the state’s next governor.

Traditionally, the president’s party loses a lot of state-legislature seats in the midterm elections — around 400! — but this year, Democrats are on course to gain seats. Democrats took control of the Minnesota Senate, both chambers of the Michigan legislature, and the Pennsylvania House.

Considering the national political environment, Biden’s approval rating, the inflation rate, and all the rest, the midterms amount to a debacle for the Republican Party and the cause of limited government. Yes, divided government is likely arriving, but the wide-ranging House GOP agenda is likely to be dramatically curtailed, with the presumptive next speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy, having exceptionally limited leverage in negotiations.

Already, the usual suspects are concocting a narrative where their preferred lousy candidates don’t have to change anything; it’s everybody else’s fault but the candidates.

Infighting among Republican leadership in Congress and elsewhere has ensued since the poor performance at the polls.

Losing GOP Arizona Senate candidate Blake Masters blames Mitch McConnell. Losing GOP Michigan gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon blames the Michigan Republican Party. Representative Lauren Boebert of Colorado is in a neck-and-neck race, and she blames the GOP’s Colorado candidates for U.S. Senate and governor.

So much for being the party of personal responsibility.

Masters, Dixon, Doug Mastriano, Mehmet Oz, Kari Lake, Don Bolduc, Herschel Walker, Dan Cox . . . in this narrative, those were all terrific candidates, it’s just that everyone else around them failed. Sure, sure.

(Note that Oz, Lake, Masters, Walker, and Dixon had never run for any office before. Bolduc had never won a race before, and Mastriano and Cox had only been elected to state legislative seats. This means they didn’t have much experience at running a campaign, and not much of a fundraising or get-out-the-vote network in place. Winning a competitive Senate race is a really tall order for any first-time candidate, even a good one.)

For those who are inclined to blame vast conspiracies guaranteeing Democratic victories in statewide races, I find it a little odd that the conspiracy forgot to rig the statewide vote for Arizona’s state treasurer, which Republican Kimberly Yee is leading, 55.5 percent to 45.5 percent. The conspiracy forgot to rig the Nevada governor, lieutenant governor, and state controller’s elections, all won by the GOP. The conspiracy forgot to rig the Wisconsin treasurer’s race, won by Republican John Lieber. Honestly, if there was a vast shadowy conspiracy to rig the elections in favor of the Democrats, it is the sloppiest and least-effective one since 2020, where the conspiracy forgot to prevent the GOP from winning a bunch of House seats.

The next complaint is that Democratic victories are attributable to “vote harvesting.” If by “vote harvesting,” you mean that Democrats did everything possible to get their voters to cast ballots early, then yes, you’re right. The irony is that in the pre-Trump era, state and local Republican parties embraced early voting. Every person who cast a ballot ahead of that key Tuesday in early November was one less person you had to worry about on Election Day. Certain states saw GOP leads in early voting in 2010 and in 2014.

But in 2016, even after Donald Trump had won the presidential election, he bashed early voting as somehow unreliable. He continued this stance into 2020, calling vote-by-mail “corrupt,” contradicting the message from certain state and local Republican parties and grassroots organizers.

Republicans who ignored the denunciations of early voting, and saw it as an opportunity, tended to thrive. Early voting helped Glenn Youngkin win Virginia in 2021. This year, while Trump continued to express his opposition to early voting and imply that it wasn’t a trustworthy way of casting votes, Florida governor Ron DeSantis was urging supporters to cast ballots early. “If you wait till Election Day, you get a flat tire, you can’t take a mulligan,” DeSantis said. “Whereas if you vote early, you do it, you’re in the can. If something happens [while you’re on your way], you got another shot at it. We can’t be complacent about this.” Republicans won the early vote in Florida this year.

Beware of anyone who gives you an all-too-easy “the problem with the Republican Party is people like you, the solution is people like me” answer. I think Trump was a big factor in GOP underperformance this cycle, but he wasn’t the only factor.

In Colorado the distinctly non-Trumpy and arguably anti-Trump GOP Senate nominee Joe O’Dea lost by almost 14 points to incumbent Democrat Michael Bennet. Meanwhile, the GOP gubernatorial candidate, Heidi Ganahl, described herself as “the MAGA candidate” and picked an election denier as a running mate. Ganahl lost by almost 19 points. And as mentioned above, Lauren Boebert is hanging on by the skin of her teeth in the state’s most conservative and pro-Trump district, encompassing much of the Western half of the state.

Colorado’s a pretty blue state — this year, it looked ultramarine — but just eight years ago, Republicans won a bunch of statewide races there, including the U.S. Senate race. A non-Trump identity didn’t work for O’Dea, but the MAGA label worked even worse for Ganahl, and Boebert’s in-your-face, Trump-esque style appears to have alienated a small but potentially decisive percentage of Republicans in her culturally conservative district.

To win in once-purple, now-blue places such as Colorado, Republicans will need to shed the albatross of Trump and broaden their appeal even further. The national exit-poll numbers tell a story of a minority party that was poised to win big if it could just not be perceived as insane.

About half of voters say inflation factored significantly in their vote, as groceries, gasoline, housing, food and other costs have shot up in the past year and raised the specter of inflation. The economy was an overarching concern for voters, about 8 in 10 of whom say it was in bad shape. A slim majority of voters say Biden’s policies caused inflation to be near 40-year highs, while just under half are blaming factors beyond his control, such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Yet independents — 31 percent of the electorate this year — narrowly split in favor of Democrats, 49 percent to 47 percent.

Who Should Lead Congressional Republicans?

There are three principles House and Senate Republicans should use to select their next leaders, after this most disappointing of midterm elections.

The GOP should not hold its leadership elections until there are declared winners in all House and Senate races. (There are still 20 House seats without declared winners.) This may require some patience on the part of senators than representatives. How would you like to be Herschel Walker, win the runoff, and then learn that you don’t get a say on GOP Senate leader because the rest of the caucus already held the vote before you won your race?

Disgruntlement with Mitch McConnell or Kevin McCarthy is only half of what’s needed for a leadership change. If you don’t want McConnell to lead the Republicans in the Senate, then you need another Republican senator who both wants the job and can defeat McConnell. “Down with Mitch!” must be followed by “Up with [somebody else]!” Otherwise, you’re just venting frustration. At least in the House, Republicans disgruntled with McCarthy have a declared alternative, House Freedom Caucus chairman Andy Biggs of Arizona. But the type of leadership preferred by the Freedom Caucus is not necessarily the type of leadership preferred by the caucus as a whole.

The leaders of Republicans in the House and Senate ought to be in their jobs because they’ve got good potential as leaders of their caucuses — and preferably a strong record of leading their party in previous battles over legislation. If a team wants to change coaches, the new guy has to be better than the old guy to get better results. A key question is: What do congressional Republicans want their leaders to do? It’s not enough to just to go on Fox News and say things that other Republicans like hearing. Ideally, the next GOP congressional leaders would be shrewd strategists and tacticians, understand the needs of every corner of their caucus, and have exceptional skills at keeping a small majority or minority unified. McConnell and McCarthy have their flaws, but I don’t see a lot of figures in Congress who seem like obvious improvements on them — and who, again, both want the job and can win it.

One more thought.

Maybe it's time to start making the case for how the GOP nominating Ron DeSantis for president would represent a welcome return to normalcy and sanity in American politics. Even if you’re a nationalist-populist, it is fair to wonder if the increasingly erratic and vindictive Donald Trump gets you where you want to go. If you’re a conservative, you’ve got good reason to want a president who actually cares about policy, governance, and running the executive branch. And even if you’re liberal, DeSantis would represent an improvement because he isn’t inclined to burn down the country in a tantrum if he thinks someone is being unfair to him.

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