In the lead-up to the midterms, forecasters seesawed on their expectations. Initially, a massive red wave was expected, something capable of flipping both the House and the Senate red. The reasoning was sound: inflation was at a 40-year high, crime was rising, war was raging in Ukraine – and one party, the Democrats, was in control of all of it – the White House and both chambers of Congress. The midterms were expected to serve as a referendum against the party in power, as is historically the case.
Then, over the summer, Democrats made a surge. The Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling, which rescinded Roe v. Wade, gave Democrats a boost. The boost was augmented when a slew of Biden’s legislative agenda passed, including the CHIPS Act, PACT Act, and Inflation Reduction Act. Democrats were left wondering if they couldn’t stave off the red wave after all.
But as summer transitioned into fall, polling results began to show a reversal – Republicans reasserted themselves as the favorites thanks to the prominence of economic and crime issues.
Most of the speculation has been settled now. Republicans will regain the House but fall well short of the 60 seats Kevin McCarthy expected to win. Votes are still coming in, but it appears as though the GOP will only pick up 14 or so seats. The Senate remains in play, with everything hinging on Nevada and Georgia. Republicans will need to win both seats to take the Senate majority.
Regardless of the final outcome, the election will have been intensely disappointing for Republicans. So, what went wrong?
Cracks in the Election Outcome
Well, according to an NBC News poll, it appears that the main issues on voters’ minds were inflation and abortion. For Republicans, inflation was top of mind. For Democrats, abortion was top of mind. Independents listed both inflation and abortion as their top issues. Additionally, “midterm voters mostly disapprove of President Joe Biden’s performance, and a plurality said they think his policies are hurting the country,” NBC reported. “A majority of voters also said they are dissatisfied or angry about the way things are going in the U.S.”
Again, general disproval of the sitting president and the status quo, or “the way things are going in the U.S.,” usually cuts against the party in power. But that didn’t happen last night. GOP messaging may be largely to blame.
Many GOP candidates made crime a focal point of their campaigns. But the NBC poll, which asked “which one of these five issues mattered most in deciding how you voted today:” indicated that only 12 percent of voters indicated crime as the top issue. By comparison, abortion received 27 percent of the vote. Inflation, the number one issue, earned 32 percent of the vote. Crime was tied for third with gun policy, both of which barely edged out immigration (ten percent). The point is the Republican party may have expended valuable resources and airtime focusing on a secondary issue (crime) when voters were more concerned with inflation.
Granted, GOP candidates also hit on inflation. And as the NBC poll indicates, the majority of voters trust Republicans over Democrats to handle inflation more effectively. But abortion was also a huge issue for voters – and the majority of voters trust Democrats over Republicans with respect to abortion. So in addition to misallocating resources towards a crime message, when they should have been hitting harder on an inflation message, the GOP likely shot themselves in the foot (to some extent at least) with their stubborn pro-life stance, which most voters simply do not want (as demonstrated in deep-red Kansas over the summer).
And finally, the NBC poll found that 70 percent of midterm voters believe that U.S. democracy is “threatened.” Most Republicans, Democrats, and Independents agreed that democracy was under threat. But whether that aids Democrats or Republicans is unclear because Republicans are similarly concerned that democracy is under threat; Republican concerns manifest themselves as election denialism, whereas Democratic concerns over democracy come from election denialism. It’s a little bit circular.
Regardless, the midterm will be autopsied further in the weeks to come – more answers (and questions) will be forthcoming. But no matter the ultimate analysis, the night will be remembered as an underperformance for the Republicans.
Harrison Kass is the Senior Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison holds a BA from Lake Forest College, a JD from the University of Oregon, and an MA from New York University. He lives in Oregon and listens to Dokken.