GOP exuberance crashed into Democratic resistance to defy midterm expectations

The Washington Post by Thomas Simonetti
Anna Paulina Luna, the Republican candidate in Florida’s 13th Congressional District, touches the shoulder of a supporter at her election night party at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club in St. Petersburg, Fla. on Tuesday, November 8, 2022.

The 2022 elections will be remembered for Republican exuberance colliding with Democratic resistance to produce an unexpected outcome that, while potentially shifting the balance of power in Congress, suggests no call for a dramatic change in direction nor a mandate for the GOP.

In a season of election denialism and warnings of disruptions or worse on Election Day, democracy held, with few problems and robust turnout that, when all of the ballots are counted, could eclipse that of 2018, the previous record for a midterm election.

Few foresaw that Democrats would defy expectations of a “red wave,” and yet the pattern of results has been an integral part of the country’s politics for some time, ever since Donald Trump won the White House in 2016. The forces that aligned against Trump in 2018 and 2020 were evident yet again on Tuesday, less noticed or appreciated in advance, but every bit as determined to be heard.

Abortion and concerns about extremism in the Trump-dominated Republican Party proved as potent in energizing voters on the left as inflation, crime and illegal immigration did in aiding Republicans. President Biden’s low approval ratings turned out to be less catastrophic for Democratic candidates than history would have suggested. Polarization remains deeply embedded in the electorate and this, too, helped to blunt Republican hopes of major gains in the House and a clean victory in the Senate.

“With inflation at a 40-year high, crime out of control in many cities and our southern borders still porous, coupled with Joe Biden’s job approval in the low 40s, Republicans should have run away with this election,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. “It should never have been close.”

It was close, he said, for two reasons. First, the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade proved to be a major catalyst for Democratic voters and others who support abortion rights. For that, Republicans can blame themselves and Trump, for having assembled the current 6-3 conservative majority on the court.

The second reason, Ayres said, was the quality of Republican candidates. Many with Trump’s backing predictably proved not to be ready for prime time, including two in Pennsylvania – Mehmet Oz, who lost the Senate race to Democrat John Fetterman, and Doug Mastriano, who was soundly defeated by Democrat Josh Shapiro in the governor’s race.

Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network, said too many analysts misread the signs that have been evident since the court ruled in June to overturn abortion rights in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

“Since Dobbs, Democrats checked all the boxes,” he said. “They overperformed in five special elections, overperformed in Kansas [in a ballot initiative that kept abortion rights in the state constitution]. Voter registration went up. Our candidates raised more money. The question was would the intensity carry over to the election. The early vote showed that intensity had carried over to the election and then it carried over to Election Day. Republicans hadn’t checked any of the intensity boxes.”

Red and blue divisions continued to hold and in one particular place – Florida – intensified. Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’s double-digit reelection victory was the most talked about single outcome of the night, converting, at least for now, a state once regarded as America’s quintessential swing state into a Republican stronghold.

Meanwhile, Democrats reasserted themselves in three northern states that have long been presidential battlegrounds and where Trump had made inroads in 2016. In addition to Shapiro in Pennsylvania, Michigan voters reelected Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Wisconsin voters narrowly reelected Gov. Tony Evers.

Photo for The Washington Post by Nick Hagen
People in Michigan watch election results while they wait for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and other Democrats at a post-election gathering in Detroit.

Those victories, along with the reelection of Jocelyn Benson, the Democratic secretary of state in Michigan, blocked Republican candidates who questioned or denied the outcome of the 2020 presidential election from holding public offices in which they could have created serious mischief in the 2024 election.

Coming out of the worst of the coronavirus pandemic, voters appeared ready for stability, soundness and reason. The results suggested that they were not looking for dramatic change or extreme candidates, instead searching for something safer.

“As much as anything people are trying to find their equilibrium,” Democratic pollster Peter Hart said. “It’s been a tough two years for America. It’s an election about normality rather than ideology.”

“When you feel like things are unsteady and close to unraveling, you look for candidates who will provide a safe harbor,” said Republican pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson.

Extreme candidates found themselves in tougher-than-expected contests, the most prominent being Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), who as of Wednesday afternoon was trailing her Democratic opponent, Adam Frisch, by a few thousand votes.

“Trump lost on Election Day,” said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. “Many of his endorsed candidates and his style of politics lost. Despite low job numbers and dissatisfaction with the economy, voters actually affirmed the Biden-type politics.”

Exit polls, while not definitive, offered some evidence to support this. More than 9 in 10 of those who approved of Biden’s performance, strongly or somewhat, voted for Democratic House candidates, just as more than 9 in 10 of those who strongly disapproved voted for Republicans. But among the 10 percent of the electorate who said they somewhat disapprove of the way Biden is handling his job, 49 percent backed Democratic candidates to 45 percent who supported GOP candidates.

The data also offered telling indicators of the clash between issues advanced by Republicans and those pushed by Democrats. Nationally, abortion ranked a close second to inflation as the most important issue in people’s voting choice. In some key states, the comparisons were even more dramatic. In Michigan, where a referendum to put abortion rights into the state constitution was approved by voters, 45 percent of the electorate said that issue was most important compared with 28 percent who named inflation. In Pennsylvania, 37 percent named abortion compared with 28 percent who cited inflation.

In New Hampshire, it was 36 percent naming inflation and 35 percent citing abortion. And in that state, even as Republican Gov. Chris Sununu rolled to reelection, Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan held off a strong challenger to win by 10 percentage points, and two Democratic House members, Ann Kuster and Chris Pappas, easily defeated their GOP challengers. Republicans had thought any or all three of those contests could end up in their column.

“I think the voters were saying, ‘Don’t tell us what we care about; we’ll tell you what we care about,’ ” said William Galston of the Brookings Institution. “The conventional wisdom in the week before the election was that abortion had faded as a burning issue, that the Democrats had made a huge mistake not talking about the economy more, and that the combination of inflation and crime was going to be a killer one-two punch.”

If there was one other big message, it was the damage done to Trump and to his wing of the Republican Party. “It’s not a catastrophic fall for him, but it feels more that we’ve reached an inflection point,” historian Gary Gerstle said. “The Republican Party may be pulling away somewhat from Trump, but not in a way it’s acknowledging that. . . . We’re beginning to see in this election a quiet divergence, which Trump will notice because he pays close attention.”

Rosenberg added, “The big Republican mistake in this cycle is they ran toward the politics of [Make American Great Again] that had been rejected by the American people in the last two elections.”

Trump’s politics appeared to be most problematic in the handful of swing states that decided the last two presidential elections and that were at the center of Tuesday’s battle for control of the Senate.

“Voters might be exhausted by the rhetoric or just tired of him hanging around,” said Jennifer Piscopo, chair of the politics department at Occidental College. “His very core base does not have the majority in these more diverse swing areas.”

Some analysts see the results as a shift in the balance of power inside the Republican coalition, with DeSantis the biggest winner of the night. In Florida, DeSantis won 58 percent of the Hispanic vote and carried traditionally Democratic Miami-Dade County, the state’s most populous county, with 55 percent of the vote overall.

Galston speculated that Republicans may conclude that DeSantis is “the one who can break the logjam of the 50-50 nation” and give them a governing majority. “I’m sure a lot of Republicans are asking, ‘Why isn’t he our best candidate?’ ” he said.

There was evidence that the polarization that has defined the electorate deepened with this election. According to a Washington Post analysis of election returns nationwide, counties where at least 40 percent of adults hold a bachelor’s degree or more went strongly Democratic, by nearly 60 percent, down only marginally from Biden’s performance in 2020. Counties where fewer than 22 percent of adults have a bachelor’s degree cast 69 percent of their votes for Republican candidates in House races, up six percentage points from Trump’s performance in 2020.

The highest-income counties went for Democratic House candidates, but not as strongly as they backed Biden in 2020. But in middle-income and lower-income counties, Republican House candidates did better than Trump’s performance in 2020.

Republicans were hoping to make major gains in suburban areas on Tuesday. They improved on their performance in 2020 but not spectacularly so. In 2020, suburban counties backed Biden with 52 percent of the vote. On Tuesday, based on current data, Republicans won those counties with less than 51 percent of the vote.

As control of Congress has swung back and forth over the past decade or more, independent voters have moved accordingly, generally backing the winning party and sometimes by big margins. On Tuesday, something different happened, which provides a window into why the Republican results fell short of expectations.

With more than 9 in 10 Republicans and Democrats casting votes for candidates of their own party, independents went 49 percent to 47 percent for the Democrats over Republicans, according to exit polls produced by Edison Research.

It remains to be seen whether the final margins in the House will affect how Republicans approach governing – whether they will pursue an agenda that includes a federal ban on abortion in the face of votes around the country showing opposition to such policies, or initiate investigations of the Biden administration or the president’s son, Hunter Biden, as many in the party’s base would like to see.

“The voters are still divided and so neither party has a big incentive to change direction,” said Linda Fowler, a professor of government, emerita, at Dartmouth College. “And as long as we have low-turnout primaries for nominations, that probably won’t change.”