Midterms’ Aftermath: GOP’s ‘Red Wave’ Fizzles

What Went Wrong?

Supporters of Republican gubernatorial candidate for Florida Ron DeSantis cheer as they watch the live results during an election night watch party at the Convention Center in Tampa, Florida, on November 8, 2022.
Supporters of Republican gubernatorial candidate for Florida Ron DeSantis cheer as they watch the live results during an election night watch party at the Convention Center in Tampa, Florida, on November 8, 2022. (photo: Giorgio Viera / AFP/Getty)

WASHINGTON — Days before the 2022 midterm elections, analysts and media outlets alike predicted that all the ingredients were there for a major GOP victory.

President Joe Biden’s poll numbers were low, Latino voters were trending Republican and record-setting spikes in inflation and interest rates had strengthened the GOP’s indictment of Democratic policies. 

Republicans would not only gain five House seats and one Senate seat needed to flip the two chambers of Congress, pundits predicted, they might even secure a mandate for change, breaking the stalemate in Congress that had stymied the advancement of their plans.

It didn’t happen.

Days after voters pulled the lever for their candidates, the GOP still did not have the seats it needed to control the House or the Senate. And while the party was expected to narrowly win the House, it was at risk of falling short in the Senate, where the outcome could hinge on the December runoff between the Democratic and Republican contenders for Georgia’s seat. 

On Election Day, early GOP victories in the Ohio Senate race and in contests across Florida, where a hurricane lurked offshore, raised Republican hopes that this was the beginning of an electoral mandate returning them to power on Capitol Hill and delivering a stinging rebuke to President Biden and his fellow Democrats.

“We chose facts over fear. We chose education over indoctrination. We chose law and order over rioting and disorder. Florida was a refuge of sanity when the world went bad,” said Gov. Ron DeSantis, a possible Republican presidential candidate, after cruising to a second term.

But such electric moments proved hard to come by for the GOP as a decisive “red wave” failed to materialize. 

“The Democrats lost seats and will probably lose control of the House,” Matthew Green, the chairman of the Department of Politics at The Catholic University of America, told the Register. “It’s just the magnitude of [this shift in power] is much smaller than the fundamentals would predict. Republicans should have won around 30 or 40 seats.”

When the economy is in bad shape, the party that’s not in power usually wins, Green noted, explaining why so many were surprised that GOP candidates underperformed. 


Two Explanations

The lackluster performance has stirred a contentious internal debate in the Republican Party over what went wrong and what the party should do now.

In the immediate aftermath of the election, analysts like Green offered two explanations for the shortfall: weak GOP candidates in competitive contests and the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision overturning Roe v. Wade.

Exit polls conducted by AP VoteCast found 27% of voters identified abortion as the most important election issue, compared with 31% who said inflation was the major issue. Crime and gun violence were also key. 

Discouraged social conservatives acknowledged that the election outcome would provoke a reassessment of how the GOP frames its opposition to abortion at the highest levels of the party. 

“There’s no question that the issue helped the Democrats sway some voters and turn out even more,” Ramesh Ponnuru argued in a National Review column that addressed the fallout from the election results. 

No doubt, Democrats ratcheted up voter anxiety over Dobbs and what it meant for women facing crisis pregnancies. But strongly pro-life GOP gubernatorial candidates, like DeSantis, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott had still prevailed, and those gains pointed to a more complex election equation.

GOP strategists will be looking at unsuccessful key races, like Pennsylvania’s Senate contest, where Democrat John Fetterman, still ailing after suffering a stroke in May, edged out Republican Dr. Mehmet Oz.

Another sore point for Republicans is the defeat of the GOP’s Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate, Doug Mastriano, who was seen outside the Capitol on Jan. 6. 

Back in August, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell repeated his concerns about the “quality” of some Republican Senate contenders, telling reporters in August that there’s “probably a greater likelihood the House flips than the Senate.”

“Senate races are just different; they’re statewide — candidate quality has a lot to do with the outcome,” added McConnell.


The Trump Factor

Behind the scenes, McConnell and Sen. Tim Scott, R-Fla., who led the National Republican Senatorial Committee, worried about the weak polling and fundraising efforts of untested candidates who had been backed by former president Donald Trump, and they bickered over whether those contests should take precious resources away from the campaigns of more experienced and electable contenders.

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., who is retiring and saw his seat filled by Fetterman, blamed Trump for the GOP’s poor showing in the state.

“All across the country,” he told The Wall Street Journal, “we see that the hardcore MAGA candidates dramatically underperformed more conventional Republicans, so that’s a big reality that we have to recognize.” 

Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor, doubled down on this message. 

“Almost every one of these Trump-endorsed candidates that you see in competitive states has lost,” Christie said during a Nov. 9 interview on ABC’s Good Morning America.

“It’s a huge loss for Trump. And, again, it shows that his political instincts are not about the party; they’re not about the country — they’re about him.”

According to CNN, exit polls showed that “Trump was viewed favorably by just 39% of voters … while 58% saw him in an unfavorable light. Those numbers put him below Joe Biden (41% favorable/56% unfavorable).” 

Daniel Philpott, a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, cautioned that exit polls must be carefully reviewed before putting blame at Trump’s door. But he, too, took aim at the former president’s divisive legacy. 

“Trump’s refusal to accept the results of the 2020 election, and his support for the storming of the Capitol Building on Jan. 6, 2020, have alienated voters, both Independents and moderate Republicans, who otherwise might vote for Republican candidates,” said Philpott.

Philpott said Trump’s continuing dominance in the party made it possible for Democrats to smear many GOP candidates as “extremist” election-deniers.

President Biden used every opportunity to drive this message home, scheduling prime-time speeches warning the election would decide the future of American democracy. The election outcome suggested that this concerted effort gave voters pause. 

“It helped Democrats turn attention away from inflation and crime as well as from their own extremism in promoting abortion as well as norms that would impose false norms of sexuality on schools, businesses and civil society organizations,” said Philpott.

Trump’s defenders have signaled their ongoing support for the embattled former president. J.D. Vance’s Senate win in Ohio was one of the relatively few bright spots for Trump-backed candidates.

“Every year, the media writes Donald Trump’s political obituary. And every year, we’re quickly reminded that Trump remains the most popular figure in the Republican Party,” Vance, who is a recent Catholic convert, told The New York Times. 


Latino Vote Shift

But Trump’s dominance might already be under threat. Gov. DeSantis’ nearly 20-point election victory over Democrat Charlie Crist is a major inflection point, and no one has failed to grasp its significance.

DeSantis “won nearly everywhere in the state, and notably in Democratic strongholds,” The Wall Street Journal editorial page reported

“He won by double digits in heavily Hispanic Miami-Dade County, which Joe Biden carried by 85,000 votes and a statewide Republican hadn’t carried since Jeb Bush won re-election 2002.” 

DeSantis wasn’t the only Republican to draw a larger portion of Latino voters. 

Mike Madrid, a Sacramento, California-based GOP political consultant specializing in the Latino vote, told the Register that the 2022 midterms revealed that this segment of the electorate has continued to pull back from its long support for the Democrat Party. So while Democrat candidates in heavily Hispanic districts and regions “might still win the majority of their votes,” the slow, steady shift to the GOP has reduced that margin of victory and reached a tipping point in parts of Florida and Texas.

“DeSantis’ victory shows that a conservative political agenda can be electorally successful,” said Philpott. 

“He has managed to capture a significant number of Latino voters and … won with a huge margin in a purple state.”