The bloodbath that wasn’t and the baffling return of regional politics

Votes remain to be counted, but it’s clear the Republicans had a disappointing night, failing to capitalize on voter discontent and underperforming in key states like Pennsylvania and New Hampshire.  At the same time, they were in the baffling positioning of over performing in other key states including Florida and Ohio.  The question is why.

There’s no avoiding the obvious:  The Republican Party underperformed on Tuesday night, and what should have been a bloodbath was closer to a finger prick.  I and many other prognosticators were wrong.  There will undoubtedly be no shortage of blame to go around.  Did we pick the wrong candidates?  Jon Fetterman, for example, prevailed in Pennsylvania despite obvious cognitive issues.  The conventional wisdom is that his opponent, Mehmet Oz, could not connect with blue collar voters.  Dr. Oz was also former President Donald Trump’s favored candidate.  What portion of the blame does he share in losing these close races?  The result in Georgia might cause similar criticisms of the former President, who backed Herschel Walker.  That race is now headed for a runoff in early December.  The Republican Party’s messaging will also be subject to scrutiny and second guessing.  A focus on inflation was a no-brainer, but did the border and crime also resonate?  Or was it that they didn’t propose enough concrete plans and strategies to assure voters they could fully address their concerns?  Are they too far out of step on the abortion issue?  Of course, we cannot underestimate the influence of the national party, how dollars were spent and how resources were deployed.  Did the Republicans underfund winnable races?  Did they fail to organize their resources properly in winnable states?  Did they invest too much in states that weren’t winnable in the first place?  Or states that were already locked in, such as Senator Marco Rubio in Florida, and Senator Elect J.D. Vance in Ohio?  These are all questions that need to be answered.  The Republican National Committee, and its counterparts at the local level, plus the Senate and House Committee have a lot of explaining to do.

It also goes without saying that the Trump question looms large.  In addition to backing many candidates against the will of the establishment, what impact did his continuing prominence in the Republican Party have in key races?  The Never Trump contingent, as represented for example, by National Review will insist the disappointing performance was the former President’s fault.  In fact, they were at it before the night was even over.  “All the chatter on my conservative and GOP channels is rage at Trump like I’ve never seen,” claimed Michael Brendan Dougherty, a Senior Writer, on Twitter. “The one guy he attacked before Election Day was DeSantis — the clear winner, meanwhile, all his guys are sh***ing the bed.”  Perhaps needless to say, this is not entirely accurate.  In high profile, winnable races the former President backed J.D. Vance in Ohio and Ted Budd in North Carolina, both victories.  Adam Laxalt appears poised to win Nevada. Herschel Walker could prevail next month. President Trump did back Dr. Oz in Pennsylvania, and it is fair to consider what the outcome might have been with another candidate.  He also backed Don Bolduc in New Hampshire, who lost to incumbent Maggie Hassan.  At the same time, no one really considered that a winnable race until very recently.  Otherwise, the races in Georgia and Arizona are undecided.  If the Republicans win both, Trump’s record is far superior to how it is being portrayed in anti-Trump circles.  In fact, the Republicans can still get to 52 seats in the Senate. Even if the Republicans win only one, it is better than advertised.  In that regard, it’s also worth noting that politics is a zero sum game.  You run with the candidates you have.  You do not create them in the lab.

It is true that Trumpian candidates tend to have Trumpian traits.  The alternative, however, in many cases are establishment candidates that seek a return to the glory days of George W. Bush and Mitt Romney.  Many in the Republican Party, such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, would probably prefer the party move in that direction.  It was Minority Leader McConnell after all who infamously took aim at his own party’s candidates earlier this summer, saying “I think 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.  Right now, we have a 50-50 Senate and a 50-50 country, but I think when all is said and done this fall, we’re likely to have an extremely close Senate, either our side up slightly or their side up slightly.”  This was widely viewed as an attack on Trump-endorsed candidates, but it also reveals a deep schism in the party, one that has persisted since candidate Trump announced his first run for the presidency in 2015.  The Trumpian wing represents a more populist movement combining an anti-establishment streak with a skepticism of foreign intervention and military adventurism.  They are also willing to be bold on cultural issues, unwilling to accept the creeping progressivism affecting everything from the classroom to the military.  The establishment wing, however, is far more moderate, willing to go along to get along, less likely to engage in scorched earth fights over cultural issues, and more inclined to foreign entanglements.  Each is highly skeptical of the other, complete with obvious bad blood between leaders such as President Trump and Minority Leader McConnell, whose feuds are well known and all too public.  At some point, one side or the other will prevail, but in the meantime there is no doubt this impacted the allocation of resources, especially in tight races.  If the Senate Minority Leader was less than bullish on candidates such as Mr. Walker and Dr. Oz in public, we can only imagine the decisions that were made in private regarding funding, advertising, get out the vote efforts, and more.  It is also undoubtedly true that the Republican Party needs to pay less attention to the media, which spent most of the summer claiming Republicans could not prevail in a classic self-fulfilling prophecy.  They were also snookered into believing races in states trending increasingly red, namely Florida and Ohio, were too close to call, when they should’ve known that wasn’t the case from the reality on the ground.

Considering all this and more is vitally important for the future GOP, but I would suggest there is another level of analysis that needs to be undertaken.  Ever since the advent of modern mass media, swing voters have tended to move in one direction.  It is almost possible to believe in this polarized era, but less than forty years ago, Ronald Reagan won 49 states.  In 1988, his successor, George H. W. Bush won 400 electoral votes, carrying 40 states.  Bill Clinton won 370 in 1992, securing victory in 32 states.  He increased his margin to 379 in 1996 even though he lost a state for victory in 31, but since then the country has become increasingly polarized and less movable in either direction.  George W. Bush eked into office on 271 electoral votes in 2000 and 286 in 2004, carrying 30 and 31 states respectively.  Even President Barack Obama, who won the most decisive election this century, fell below President Clinton’s total in 2008, securing 365 electoral votes but only across 28 states.  He would lose two of those states and 33 electoral votes in his second run.  President Trump outpaced George W. Bush with 304 electoral votes in 2016, but carried the same total of 30 states.  President Joe Biden reached 306, but again it was only across 25 states.  There is little doubt that the country is fairly evenly split between both parties over the past twenty years, but this political stalemate has not prevented the occurrence of wave elections until very recently.  In 2010, the Democrats were on the receiving end of what President Obama himself referred to as a “shellacking,” losing 63 seats in the House of Representatives and 6 in the Senate, one of the biggest waves of all time.  In 2014, Republicans picked up another 9 Senate seats, and 13 in the House (their numbers were limited by already being in the majority).  In the two midterm elections since then, however, the results have been mixed.  Donald Trump wasn’t exactly a popular President in 2018, and yet he managed to gain 2 Senate seats and keep the bleeding in the House to 41.  President Biden appears poised to do something similar, despite sagging approval ratings and a Republican advantage on key issues like inflation, crime, and the border.

On the surface, it may seem like a true wave election is impossible or at least highly improbable at this point, but the situation is more complicated at the state level.  Rather than moving en-masse in response to national issues, states appear to be moving more individually and idiosyncratically at different paces.  Florida, for example, was among the most important swing states between 2000 and 2016.  George W. Bush won it twice, as did Barack Obama.  After 2016, however, Florida has trended rapidly red.  President Trump won it handily in 2020.  In the interim, Governor Ron DeSantis eked out a close victory in 2018 only to dominate by nearly twenty points on Tuesday.  Senator Rubio scored a decisive victory as well by almost 15 points.  The Republicans also picked up four seats in the House and lost not one.  As of this writing, the GOP’s eight seat gain (so far) in the House is being driven by the four in Florida.  Likewise, Ohio was a perennial swing state for more than twenty years.  George W. Bush prevailed in 2000 and 2004, the same as Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, but after Donald Trump won in 2016, the state has shifted dramatically to Republicans.  Governor Mike DeWine won on Tuesday by more than 20 points.  Senator Elect Vance by around 7.  The Democrats did manage to pick up one House seat there, but clearly if the rest of the country was trending in the same direction as Florida and Ohio, Republican electoral prospects would be much brighter.  Nor are those two states the only bright spots:  Texas was considered ripe for a Democrat take over as recently as 2020, but Donald Trump prevailed by a healthy margin and Governor Greg Abbott was reelected this week by more than 10 points.  The two parties swapped seats in the House.  Media darling, Beto O’Rourke has lost three straight high profile races.  Other states in the Southwest have also shown signs of trending red.  Nevada is poised to elect a GOP governor and Senator in a much needed pick up.  Arizona, likewise, is likely to elect a Republican governor, Kari Lake, and the Senate race is too close to call.  The Republicans also picked up two seats in the House in the the Grand Canyon State.

These Republican gains, however, have been offset by Democrat gains in other states.  President Trump lost Georgia in 2020, and the Democrats swept the Senate.  Governor Brian Kemp prevailed there this week, but the Senate race between Raphael Warnock and Herschel Walker is headed for a run off.  North Carolina continues to be Republican territory, but by margins as few as three points, not exactly confidence inspiring. Nor have Republicans managed to fare any better in the Northeast.  Pennsylvania appeared to be trending toward Republicans in 2016, until President Trump lost in 2020 and Dr. Oz lost this week.  The state now appears to be its true blue self from 10 years ago.  Likewise, Republicans have long had hopes in New Hampshire, which George W. Bush carried in 2000, but other than a Republican governor Chris Sununu, who happens to be a favorite native son, the state continues to be blue and seemingly impenetrable.  Republicans have likely been shut out of the West Coast, not winning California, Washington, or Oregon for decades.  The Midwest is more mixed, but Republicans are hard pressed to win races in Michigan, Minnesota, or Wisconsin, though Ron Johnson did eke out a win there this cycle.  Generally speaking, these states have either not moved at all in sync with Florida and Ohio, or Nevada and Arizona, or they have moved in the opposite direction.  In some cases, these moves have been dramatic, like Georgia and North Carolina.  In others more subtle, like Wisconsin.  Either way, all of them also appear beyond the reach of the Republican wave.  Regional concerns have long been a part of American politics, of course, but this appears to be unusual at least to this observer.  Georgia and Florida, for example, share a border.  Why is one moving so radically to the right and the other shifting blue or at best remaining purple?  Ohio and Pennsylvania are also neighbors, but we see the same opposite dynamic in play.  Nevada and Arizona are sandwiched between super conservative Utah and uber liberal California, and yet the one appears to have no effect on the other.

Candidate quality, infrastructure, and national party investment all play a role of course, but it seems like something more dramatic is at play.  Alas, I cannot say for sure what it is, but the Republicans had best figure it out if they have any hope of competing in the future.

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