In the middle of an election night when Democrats were supposed to lose just about everything, CNN chief congressional correspondent Manu Raju stood at the edge of the House Republican Caucus “victory party” and reviewed the results as of midnight on the East Coast. The news ticker at the bottom of the screen read, “McCarthy waits to address crowd as many races remain too close to call.”
The room appeared to be empty. House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, who just hours earlier had been imagined as the Grand Old Party’s man of the moment, was nowhere to be seen. Raju explained that “it was not the red wave they expected.”
It certainly wasn’t. While the midterm election results will make governing more difficult for President Joe Biden, they are unlikely to derail Biden’s administration so thoroughly as midterm setbacks did the presidencies of Democrats Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
Republicans were still expected to win a modest majority in the House, and McCarthy would eventually appear at 2 am to put the best face on the results. But, by then, Democrats had a decent chance of retaining control of the US Senate, and perhaps expanding their majority. They were scoring dramatic wins in statehouse contests, claiming the governorships of what are sure to be 2024 presidential battleground states. Democrats picked up two previously Republican governorships, in Maryland and Massachusetts, and could still pick up one more in Arizona, where Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs was, as of Wednesday morning, ahead of former TV anchor Kari Lake, an election-denying conspiracy theorist who ran with enthusiastic support from former president Donald Trump.
Progressives were also celebrating statewide referendum wins for abortion results, marijuana legalization, increased wages, and other agenda items that aligned with the Democratic program.
“No red wave… it’s official,” declared Representative Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.). “Red ripple at most!”
As the 2022 midterm election approached, pundits had settled on the notion that a “red wave” was building, and Republican partisans were anticipating something more. “I think it’s going to be a tsunami,” announced Texas Senator Ted Cruz during a preelection bus trip to battleground states. “I think Republicans are going to retake both the House and the Senate. I think in the House we could easily end up with a majority of thirty, forty, fifty votes. In the Senate, I think we’re going to retake the majority. I think we’ll end up with about 53 Republicans in the Senate.”
That won’t be the case. There are still a lot of votes to be counted in a lot of states. But the Democratic coalition that gave the party significant gains in the 2018 and 2020 elections held together sufficiently to prevent the sort of sweeping gains for the opposition party that are the norm in midterms.
McCarthy says he is positioned to become House speaker, but it is likely that he will have a majority so narrow that he will struggle to manage an extreme right-wing faction that includes outspoken members such as Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene. But McCarthy may not have to deal with another firebrand, Lauren Boebert, who was trailing by 4,000 votes in her Colorado reelection bid.
Over in the Senate, Republican leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will at best find himself worrying again about what the results of a Georgia runoff election will mean for his dashed ambitions.
“Republicans had tremendous opportunities and they did not follow through on them,” pollster Frank Luntz explained as the clock ticked toward 3 on Wednesday morning. “It’s still a newsworthy night for Republicans, but it’s nothing like what they expected.”
Decades ago, Luntz helped outline the “Contract With America” that Republicans employed as they stormed to a dramatic 1994 midterm election victory. Going into the 2022 contest, Democrats were haunted by the memory of that 1994 result, which stalled the agenda of Democratic President Bill Clinton and the 2010 midterm result that allowed Republicans to derail much of Democrat Barack Obama’s agenda during his first term.
But relatively “big-tent” Republican Party of 1994, and even the Tea Party–influenced Republican Party 2010, are no more. The GOP has become a cult of personality. And the personality, former reality-TV star Donald Trump, stuck the GOP with a 2022 slate that was packed with the sort of B-list celebrities he imagined as leaders. One of them, TV doctor Mehmet Oz, lost a critical Pennsylvania Senate contest to Democrat John Fetterman, in a result that flipped a previously Republican seat. Another Trump favorite, scandal-plagued former football star Herschel Walker, was trailing Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock, and looked to be headed toward a December 6 runoff.
As veteran Republican strategist Alice Stewart said early Wednesday morning, “Trump’s involvement in this turned off a lot of Republican voters.”
She pointed to the former president’s “election denialism” after the defeat of his 2020 reelection bid,” and told CNN that “his handpicked candidates” cost the party dearly.
Fox News, usually an amplifier of Trump’s self-aggrandizement, ran a headline that read, “Trump blasted across media spectrum over Republicans’ midterms performance: ‘Biggest loser tonight.’” The former president’s prospects for winning the 2024 Republican nomination faced a new hurdle as his most likely rival, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, swept to an easy reelection victory.
Even if Trump secures the party’s nod, his ability to influence November elections in battleground states was called into question by the midterm results.
In the five states that Democrats flipped in the 2020 presidential election that put Biden in the White House, Trump’s candidates proved to be losers. Democrats won governorships over Trump-backed candidates in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania; Trump picks for governor and the US Senate were trailing in Arizona; and Walker could well fall to Warnock in Georgia.
“We could have won much more if we had more moderate candidates,” said Stewart.
Probably. But Republicans were also undermined by their party’s position on abortion rights, which moved to center stage after a Supreme Court dominated by Trump appointees issued a June ruling overturning protections for reproductive rights that had been established by the court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade and 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey decisions.
While Republicans focused on issues such as crime and immigration, exits polls showed that 2022 voters ranked abortion second only to inflation as the election’s top issue. Author Jessica Valenti declared, as referendum results and better than expected finishes for Democrats were recorded on Tuesday night, “Abortion rights are popular. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
And don’t let anyone tell you that this midterm election gave the Republicans the power they thought they would take. Whatever the numbers finally add up to, Tuesday’s result, as South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham frankly acknowledged Tuesday night, was “definitely not a Republican wave, that’s for darn sure.”