Given that the midterms failed to generate the unambiguous Republican triumph many conservatives expected, it is natural that we ask the question: why not? There appear to be numerous reasons, with the important caveat that Republicans did not fare so badly, and even our failures may have silver linings that will improve our prospects in 2024 – an election that will be far more determinative of our country’s fate.
One number leaps out of the exit poll published by NBC News: 27% of voters defined abortion as the most important factor in their vote, and, by a modest margin, these voters favored the Democrats. By contrast, 31% cited inflation as their top concern, and only 11% cited crime. That is a shocking result, based on prior polling and Republicans’ expectations. From this perspective, it appears that the Dems’ big bet on abortion in their ad spending was not in vain, and the GOP effort to make crime a centerpiece of the 2022 election fell somewhat flat. Again, the pre-election polling mostly suggested it was the Dems who were barking up the wrong tree, but electoral realities do not always take shape in the way pollsters predict.
The Democrats and their media allies work 24/7 to make Republicans seem, not just “extreme,” but dangerous, unbalanced, seditious and criminally violent. Based on exit polling, 68% of the voters believe that American democracy is “threatened,” but, on the other hand, those who said it is did not vote appreciably differently than those who said it is “secure.” In addition, overall the voters do not regard the Republicans as any more “extreme” than the Democrats (52% versus 51%, respectively). There is no evidence, therefore, that Democratic hand-wringing about January 6th moved a great many swing voters to choose to vote blue.
On the other hand, we cannot discount the possibility that, in a year in which Democrats had little else to enthuse them, dark fantasies about insurrections, fascism and back-alley abortions may have driven many Democrats to the polls who would not otherwise have shown up. Elections are largely about rallying the base, and, since Biden is clearly incapable of doing so, the Democrats had to fall back on pure, blinding hatred of their political enemies. It appears to have worked.
Was Trump a major factor in 2022? He played an outsized role in helping Republicans to choose some of their most important candidates, and some of those candidates were demonstrably flawed. On the other hand, Republican under-performance was very broad-based and was observable in the many races in which Trump had little or no role. It is also worth observing that the 58% of voters who view Trump unfavorably is not appreciably higher than the 56% who feel the same way about President Biden. Forty-seven percent of voters said Biden was not a factor in their decision, while 54% said the same about Trump. It would be silly, therefore, to view the 2022 election as fundamentally yet another referendum on Donald Trump.
Of course, one thing an exit poll cannot capture is the profile of who did not vote, and why. Republicans, in the wake of these disappointing results, have to ask themselves whether their constant fretting about election integrity and outright fraud may have convinced a considerable number of like-minded Americans to give up on electoral politics, because they view it as futile and rigged. These sentiments are strong among Republicans and conservatives, and they represent a powerful threat to GOP prospects in 2024 and beyond.
To the extent that concerns about election integrity are legitimate, on the other hand, Republicans need to demonstrate progress – as they have at the state and local level – in improving the system, reducing opportunities for fraud, and catching and punishing fraudsters. By doing so, they can reassure Republican voters that, when they cast their ballots, their votes will be recorded and that the system will not be submerged in a flood tide of phony ballots.
Whatever caused Republican under-performance in 2022, the fact is that Republicans won may important match-ups. Ron DeSantis’ political star continues to rise, and Republicans will almost certainly control the House, meaning that they can block the Biden administration’s legislative and budgetary agenda and hold the Democrats accountable by increasing the scrutiny on their misdeeds. Control of the Senate is still pending, but if the GOP can eke out a majority it will be much harder for the Dems to claim momentum coming out of the midterms – and, more importantly, Biden’s transformation of the judiciary will move at a crawl, if it moves at all.
The best news for Republicans is that the Democrats’ relief, verging on exaltation, about the 2022 results means that their great albatross, Joe Biden, is feeling more confident than ever that his party needs his singular leadership qualities in 2024 and beyond. This almost certainly presages a long battle in the Democratic Party to decide on its nominee in 2024, and to determine whether the party is currently too progressive, not progressive enough, or about right. The GOP can take comfort in the fact that the standard-bearer for the Democrats in 2024 may well be a fumbling octogenarian, or he/she/ze may end up being someone far to the left of Biden on many issues, and thus unelectable.
On the other hand, Republicans must heed their own warning signs. Even before the 2022 election was finished, Donald Trump had begun to direct criticism at DeSantis, who he understandably perceives as a potential rival. That Trump intends to run again appears obvious. That many Republicans, especially in the leadership of the party, have grown weary of Trump and fear that he could lead them to abject defeat in 2024 is equally obvious. Whether DeSantis, or someone else, can best Trump in the primaries, however, is doubtful, given the immense leads Trump has in virtually every poll of Republicans’ preferences.
Whoever emerges as the GOP nominee in 2024, there is a strong possibility that candidate will be scarred by a long, vicious internecine battle that may damage the party fundamentally. Tens of millions of Republican voters are loyal and passionate Trumpers – and whether they would continue to vote in support of a party that spurned their idol is the $64,000 question that Republican Party leaders, and potential candidates like Ron DeSantis, now have to weigh. In other words, Republicans and conservatives need to ask themselves: Can Trump win in 2024? And, if the answer is no, then the next question has to be: Can anyone else on the Republican side win, absent Trump’s blessing and enthusiastic support?
In the end, the results and ramifications of the 2022 election are mixed and ambiguous, and portend opportunities and challenges for both sides. As Churchill once quipped, having been informed of his stunning defeat in the 1945 parliamentary election as he emerged from his bath, “That’s democracy. … Hand me my towel.”
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