The Georgia Senate runoff brought a sad end to the midterm elections for Republicans: they lost the race and, with it, experienced a net loss of one seat in the upper chamber of Congress, despite an unpopular Democratic president and highly favorable political climate.
It’s a GOP mood that is only going to get worse.
The disappointing showing exposed Republican problems that won’t be easy to solve by 2024 and looks likely to increase infighting within the party.
Let’s look first at Georgia. It was clearly a winnable race. Despite Joe Biden carrying the state in 2020 and a close governor’s race two years before that, every statewide Republican candidate won this year except for Walker. And he won 49 percent of the vote.
Many Republicans blame former President Donald Trump, who had little success in the Peach State primaries besides Walker this year. Trump recruited Walker to run and has often prioritized celebrity and personal relationships over other candidate qualities when making endorsements. Trump’s general election record with non-incumbent Republican Senate candidates in competitive races was just 2-5 this year.
Trump’s allies blame establishment Republicans for denigrating many of these Senate candidates. (Though some of these bad-mouthers sure spent a lot of money trying to get them elected, where Trump’s track record is more questionable.) Many of them are now willing to part ways with Trump on ballot harvesting and early voting, areas where Democrats racked up big advantages.
But according to exit polls in the first round of voting, Walker lost voters who only somewhat disapproved of Biden by 6 points while Republican Gov. Brian Kemp won them by 16. Walker lost independents by double digits.
Not all of this was necessarily fair. Much of the press outside of conservative media concealed flaws in Pennsylvania Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman’s Senate candidacy for months and then dismissed questions about his fitnessness for office as “ableist” when that was no longer possible. They had no such compunctions about Walker.
Yet liberal media bias has been an issue since the days of Richard Nixon. Kemp’s easy reelection win in a rematch against liberal media darling Stacey Abrams in the same state at the same time showed it was not insurmountable, even if Fetterman could get away with things Walker never could. Walker needed some of the suburban voters put off by him, Kemp simply won them.
This was a microcosm of the Republicans’ problem nationally. Yes, the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade turned out to be more competitive with inflation as a motivation to turn out to vote than some public polls indicated. This especially helped Democrats turn out fickle younger voters.
Nevertheless, a top Democratic data scientist estimated that the fundamentals had long suggested Democrats would get about 48 percent of the vote this year. They wound up getting 48.5 percent — not a huge difference from what might have constituted a legitimate red wave. But in some of the most competitive races, Democrats overperformed more than that.
Republicans have a problem motivating both their base and swing voters simultaneously. They have arguably lost elections in recent years for both reasons — perhaps even at the same time.
That’s going to make it challenging for Republicans to recalibrate, no matter what happens with Trump’s 2024 campaign. Trump alienates voters Republicans need in competitive races but none of the party has not solved any of the problems — the base’s lack of confidence in party leadership, a mismatch in priorities between GOP voters and donors, a growing sense of conservative unease with the direction of the country — that led to Trump’s rise in the first place.
The only difference may be that there is a Republican leader in Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis besides Trump who can possibly address some of these issues while alienating fewer people. But outside of Florida, that is still more of a hypothesis than a certainty.
Another difficulty is that while the shift of college-educated whites toward the Democrats has happened and proved resilient in the face of inflation and crime, the migration of Hispanic voters to the GOP is still ongoing and could conceivably be halted or reversed.
Independents appeared to agree with Republicans more than Democrats about Biden, the economy, and the direction of the country, according to exit polls. But they voted 49 percent to 47 percent for Democrats nationally, negating high Republican turnout in some key races.
Republicans have their work cut out for them.
Expert Biography: A 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, James Antle III is the Washington Examiner’s politics editor. He was previously managing editor of the Daily Caller, associate editor of the American Spectator, and Editor of the American Conservative. He is the author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?