What the heck happened, and whose fault is it? Where did that so-called Red Wave go?
Ronna McDaniel, chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, tried to spin the disappointing night as a win. But this was no Red Wave – not even close.
“There was a wave that happened last night and we’re waving goodbye to Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi and we are going to have a Republican majority in the House,” McDaniel said.
That’s a nice try, but unconvincing.
The Red Wave that Never Was?
Republicans will—most likely—control the House of Representatives in January. But the fact that “most likely” is in the discussion days after an election is the problem. By 10 p.m. last Tuesday, most pollsters and pundits thought a red wave—maybe even a red tsunami—would be evident. Instead, it’s a red mild precipitation, red sprinkle, red drizzle…
A GOP-controlled House was sort of the floor of expectations, given both the political and economic environment as well as historical trends. The new GOP House majority might even be smaller than what Pelosi has now.
The desire is to make it simple and blame Donald Trump, or the Republican establishment, or that astonishingly the public really loves abortion above all else. The fact is an election is rarely so simple as to blame one thing or one person.
There are probably other reasons at play, but here are a few definite ones on why that Red Wave never occurred.
1. Donald Trump and ‘Candidate Quality’
Counterfactuals could play out all day about whether the non-Trump backed candidates would have beaten Senator-elect John Fetterman, Sen. Mark Kelly, or ousted Sen. Rafael Warnock without a runoff. Let’s note for fairness that a Georgia sports icon like Herschel Walker might have won the GOP Senate nomination without Trump. But Dr. Mehmet Oz entirely owes his nomination to Trump.
That’s speculative if the results would have been different.
But the 45th president certainly had a role in the campaign. He was a kingmaker in primaries. And the bulk of candidates he endorsed in competitive contests lost what seemingly could have been GOP pickups. What Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell said about “candidate quality” is certainly not without merit.
McConnell is not blameless, mind you. He shifted resources from his Senate Leadership Fund to Alaska to help defend the seat of Sen. Lisa Murkowski who was running against another Republican under the odd Alaska rules. That’s money that could have been used more effectively elsewhere rather than defending a seat that would be a GOP hold no matter what. But, if we are talking about money, Trump’s Save America PAC sat on about $100 million and did very little to help Republican candidates in the general election.
Trump not only didn’t always endorse the strongest candidates in primaries, but he made his endorsement contingent on accepting his narrative that the 2020 election was stolen. This gave Democrats a general election weapon of shouting “election denier.”
It should have also been a dead giveaway that the Democratic National Committee and other party-aligned groups spent tens of millions to help nominate some of the same candidates that Trump endorsed, presuming it would be an easier win in the general election. For the most part, Democrats were right.
Worst of all, this came just before Trump was set to announce (we think) another White House bid. In such a speech, he almost certainly intended to take credit for a red wave. If that’s the case, he has to share some of the blame.
It’s not 100% Trump’s fault. But his presence in the race was enough to galvanize just enough Democrats to vote that might have otherwise sat out a midterm.
2. Lack of a Bold Vision Means No Red Wave
It’s safe to say that Bill Clinton, and even Barack Obama, were better presidents than Joe Biden. So why is Biden the Democratic president that slid by with the best midterm performance of any Democratic president in a generation?
Well, in 1994, House Republicans unveiled the bold “Contract with America,” as a set of widely popular proposals that appealed to voters beyond typical GOP constituencies. It was enough to sweep Republicans to a Senate majority too.
In 2010, a grassroots Tea Party movement swept Republicans into a House majority.
Republicans have typically been better about the vision thing than Democrats in midterm elections. Democrats won in 2006 and 2018 based on convincing voters that George W. Bush and Trump needed a check on their power.
So, where was the GOP vision here?
Seemingly in the 11th hour, House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy presented the “Commitment to America” plan. It had a few strong proposals for a stronger economy and safer and freer nation. But Republicans didn’t really talk much about it after unveiling the plan. And candidates gave it little oxygen on the campaign trail.
Earlier in the year, Sen. Rick Scott, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, presented a “Plan for America,” as a platform for Republican candidates to rally around. However, McConnell outright dismissed it, and said Republicans should just relax and let the Biden presidency collapse.
If McConnell didn’t like Scott’s plan, that’s one thing. To suggest sitting around and beating something with nothing is sufficient is bad politics no matter what a trainwreck the Biden presidency has been.
3. Abortion on the Ballot
It’s safe to say that Democrats doubled down on the culture war and apparently a significant number of voters really did care more about abortion than the economy or inflation. That’s not likely the case for swing voters.
When Roe v. Wade was in place, pro-life voters were consistently more likely to be single-issue voters. After the Dobbs decision, the pro-life community was first jubilant but perhaps later a bit complacent. The single-issue momentum could be on the left now.
Democrats—at least the consultants of the party—were salivating for a ruling to overturn Roe. It offered redemption in what appeared to be a red wave year. For better or worse, abortion is a holy sacrament among the Democrat Party faithful. While the issue seemed to die down closer to the election, it’s clear there is virtually nothing else that could have driven out the hard left more than the abortion issue.
It didn’t—or doesn’t seem to have—saved the House majority. It might have salvaged a Senate majority. But an adoration for abortion might have been at least on par with hatred for Trump in keeping Democrats active for 2022.
The upside is that many perceived the Dobbs decision as a national ban on abortion—when it only democratized the issue. The election made that abundantly clear and might quell some of the hysteria.
4. Biden’s Ultra-Secretive Executive Order
One sleeper item that cannot be ignored is President Joe Biden’s March 2021 executive order, which was mostly written by the liberal advocacy group Demos. The order calls for an “all of government” effort to increase voter registration and voter participation.
This means taxpayer dollars going for what amounts to a get-out-the-vote effort. It seems fairly unlikely that an administration will play it down the middle. That’s particularly the case if Biden actually believed his own rhetoric that democracy itself was on the ballot.
The federal agencies have not responded to information requests from more than 50 Republican members of Congress about how the executive order is being implemented, and in most cases have been non-responsive to various Freedom of Information Act requests from news media and government watchdog groups. Biden’s Department of Justice even filed a motion in federal court to block the public release of much of the information on how the order was being implemented until sometime after the election.
To what degree this made a difference, we won’t know for a while. But it certainly didn’t help Republicans. And now that these GOP members are likely to control House committees, they can subpoena information, rather than just politely ask.
5. Balkanization and a Future of Nudge Elections
Before looking at the 2022 elections in isolation, it’s worth looking at the 2020 election.
There was no wave for either side in the last election cycle either. The Senate split 50-50. Voters strategically removed Trump from the White House, but rewarded House Republicans with additional seats.
Even in 2018, where Democrats picked up about 40 House seats, it was less pronounced than the 63 seats Republicans won in 2010. Moreover, Democrats got a thumping in Senate races that year. Sure, it was a favorable Senate map, but it was the same map as 2012 when the GOP didn’t do nearly as well.
It could be wave elections are so 2010—or before.
I usually tire of all the fretting over polarization. Compared to when? The 1960s? The 1860s? The early 1800s when a sitting vice president of one party gunned down a former Treasury Secretary of another?
That said, matters seem to have gotten worse now than just a decade ago. The two parties have always cast the other side as evil, but now rank and file voters seem less skeptical of such claims. And of course, there is the problem with the consent of losers being key to a functional democracy. The last two losing presidential nominees—Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton—both insisted the election was stolen from them.
The point is that maybe people are so dug into their tribalism and wedded to various partisan narratives that we won’t see wave elections for a while—just nudge elections—a nudge to the right and a nudge to the left—depending on which party controls the White House.
Fred Lucas, the author of The Myth of Voter Suppression, is the manager of the Investigative Reporting Project at The Daily Signal.