By Alastair Thompson
Going into the night of the 2022 US midterm elections, spirits in the Republican camp were high – and this optimism was certainly justified. Republican candidates across the country had been picking up considerable momentum in the polls and Joe Biden had achieved a historically low job approval rating of only 38% of Americans. This abysmal statistic was even more damning considering that it was on par with that of both Ronald Reagan in 1982, and Donald Trump in 2018. In their own respective midterm elections, Reagan lost a total of 26 congressional seats, while Trump, lost a colossal 40 seats – and since midterm elections in the United States are almost always a referendum on the current administration, the Democrats were set for a bruising come election night.
The general consensus among many pollsters was for a decisive Republican victory in which they carried both the House and Senate – a win that would have set them up nicely for widening these majorities in 2024 to forward the Republican mandate and block that of the Democrats. This prospect posed a monumental threat for Democrats, who will have a significant number of vulnerable swing seats up for grabs in the next election cycle. As a result of these promising indications for GOP performance in the midterms, the concept of the 2022 ‘red wave’ was born. However, it should be noted that this political phenomenon of massive midterm swings in the balance of power in the House and Senate is absolutely not a new one, with historical examples like the 2010 midterms, in which Republicans saw a net gain of 63 seats, and the 2018 midterms, where Democrats won a net gain of 41. So, as Democrats braced for the coming results, the question became less about whether the GOP would actually wind-up winning majorities in the two chambers of government, and much more about the margins by which they would do so.
Following the 2020 presidential elections, the Democratic Party had enjoyed an eleven-seat majority in the House, and a fifty-fifty split in the Senate (in which ties could be broken by the Democratic Vice-President Kamala Harris). ‘The Cook Political Report’ had predicted that the Republicans would carry the House by a margin of 12-25 seats, while ‘FiveThirtyEight’ had rated the Senate contest at a dead heat. Furthermore, ‘Washington Post’ columnist, Henry Olsen, even speculated that these polls underestimated the impact of the “political truism that midterms are always a referendum on the president”, before then going on to describe Joe Biden as “historically unpopular”. Olsen himself even predicted that Republicans may end up winning 54 seats in the Senate – gaining Senate seats in all swing states of Nevada, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and New Hampshire. Thus, with all these positive factors going in favour of the Republicans, it appeared that a ‘red wave’ was probable and that the Democratic election message of the Republican ‘threat to democracy’ just wasn’t resonating with the American people.
However, unfortunately for the Republican camp, these predictions were wildly blown out of proportion in favour of the GOP. An election night, or perhaps more accurately, an election week, that was set to be a historic Republican victory, resulted in a lacklustre performance in which they had managed to lose the Senate, and barely claw the House out of Democratic hands. In fact, this election entertained the lowest losses for any president in the last two decades. The only consolation for Republicans was the sweeping GOP victory that occurred in Florida, which was not only a metaphorical ‘red wave’, but a ‘red tsunami’, pioneered by the rising star Governor, Ron DeSantis. In fact, DeSantis won his gubernatorial race by a clear margin of 19% over his Democratic challenger, Charlie Crist – this number is even more glaring considering that DeSantis’s previous election was won by a significantly smaller margin of 0.4%.
As it stands today, Republicans hold a minute majority of nine seats in the House, achieved only by a select few crucial victories in New York congressional districts, and they face a 51-seat Democratic majority in the Senate after the Republican loss in the Georgia December runoff election between candidate Herschel Walker (R) and incumbent, Rafael Warnock (D). Not only does this miniscule House majority once again illustrate the remarkable Republican ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, but it posed a significant challenge for the Republican candidate for ‘Speaker of the House’, Kevin McCarthy, to be elected with his meagre majority – with 15 separate ballots required for McCarthy to achieve speakership over his Democratic opposition of Hakeem Jeffries of New York. This was perhaps one of the most glaring consequences of the poor Republican midterm performance as McCarthy was forced into negotiating with 20 Republican holdouts who refused to back his bid for speakership in what was the longest leadership contest since 1859. This was no doubt in sharp contrast to the efforts of Democrats, who managed to vote unanimously for Jeffries from the very first ballot. Clearly, while Democrats may not have a handle on inflation or the immigration crisis at the southern border, at least they maintain some sense of party unity.
Thus, the question that has plagued both dumfounded pollsters and disappointed Republicans is the same: ‘how could this possibly have happened?’ Surprisingly, the answer to this is rather straight forward. In several key races, the GOP made the strategic blunder of nominating poor, volatile candidates in close primaries who only appealed to the strong Republican base: many of them being Trump-endorsed candidates like Pennsylvania Senate candidate Mehmet Oz and New Hampshire Senate candidate Don Bolduc, who maintained strong right-wing positions on divisive topics such as abortion. This alienated independent voters, who make up the vast majority of the electorate, resulting in the loss of all Trump-endorsed Senate candidates with the exception of those in Ohio and North Carolina. The recurring message delivered to the GOP on election night was that the Republican candidates who focused on stable and reliable governance, opposed to more divisive social issues, tended to fair much better among independents (individuals who do not align themselves with a specific political party). Therefore, looking to the future, Republicans might be better off coalescing around the successful approach of Ron DeSantis, opposed to that of Trump – who has now presided over not one, but two lost elections.
This is perhaps most evident in the excessive number of ‘split ticket’ ballots (voting for both a Republican and Democratic candidate) that were cast on election night. Republican Senate candidate for New Hampshire, Don Bolduc, managed to lose to Democratic incumbent, Maggie Hassan, while the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Chris Sununu, carried the state by around 100,000 votes. The exact same pattern was seen in Georgia, in which Republican gubernatorial incumbent, Brian Kemp, carried the state by a margin of around 300,000 votes, while the GOP Senate candidate, Herschel Walker, lost by about 37,000.
Moreover, the Democrats managed to shift the focus of the election away from the crumbling economy and lack of faith in the president towards the poor quality of many of the Republicans candidates and prominent social issues – specifically the topic of abortion. According to an exit poll from the ‘Washington Examiner’, the demographic of unmarried women tended to swing 68% in favour of the Democrats, suggesting the possibility that many of these elections became referendums on abortion instead of the current administration, which is a catastrophic prospect for Republicans. Moreover, according to a Gallup poll, 54% of Independent voters self-identify as ‘pro-choice’. While it is difficult to argue that the recent Supreme Court abortion ruling itself was the reason the election went the way it did, especially with the GOP seeing gains among Latin and African Americans in recent years, it may have been just enough to put the Democrats over the line in many key races – particularly in the house. In Joe Biden’s usual slumberous fashion, he proclaimed in a post-election speech to the DNC that “women in America made their voices heard, man”.
While the 2022 Midterms certainly cannot be viewed as a victory for Democrats, seeing as the Republican-held House will maintain some power in stymieing the Biden agenda, the GOP will need to re-evaluate much of their election strategy and candidate selection if they wish to avenge their disappointing Midterm performance in the 2024 presidential election. However, drastic changes in Republican strategy seem somewhat unlikely with RNC chairwoman Ronna McDaniel winning her fourth consecutive term in late January of this year.