Republicans dramatically underperformed

Republican gubernatorial candidate for Florida Ron DeSantis with his wife Casey DeSantis speaks during an election night watch party at the Convention Center in Tampa, Florida, on November 8, 2022. - Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who has been tipped as a possible 2024 presidential candidate, was projected as one of the early winners of the night in Tuesday's midterm election. (Photo by Giorgio VIERA / AFP) (Photo by GIORGIO VIERA/AFP via Getty Images)

This week: The Briefing, Vol. X, Issue 46

  • Why did Republicans underperform?
  • Is it enough to blame Trump?
  • What is the path forward?


This week, we look at possible explanations for Republicans’ shortcomings based on the variability of the results. The main question is whether people are right to blame former President Donald Trump outright — and our answer is that it’s kind of a mixed bag. Sure, Trump made some very poor endorsements, and he may have lost some fans along the way. But to blame Trump and leave it at that is to overlook many other Republican failures that clearly had nothing to do with him.

We will also look at how some states did have red waves — only little ones in isolation, and what that means for conservatives going forward.

Next week, we will look closely at exit polling to determine the role of the issues that motivated voters, and how various groups’ voting patterns were different from recent elections.

The reckoning: We were quite badly wrong about the midterm elections — far too optimistic about Republicans’ prospects. But in our defense, we were in good company. Namely, that of…nearly everyone.

Nearly every poll showed Republicans doing well. Most polls in the close races showed them winning. Even the Democrats thought they were going to lose. The Republicans — establishment, MAGA, and every other kind — definitely thought they were going to win.

It appears that Republicans may yet squeak out the narrowest possible House majority, and that will be a victory of sorts. But they have already lost their chance to take the U.S. Senate. And their attempts to oust governors in such states as Kansas, Michigan, and New York fell short. It looks like the only incumbent governor to lose in 2022 will have been Nevada’s Steve Sisolak (D).

So what happened? How are we to interpret all this?

Blame Trump? Some people have immediately jumped to blame former President Donald Trump. But it is far too simplistic to attribute everything to him. Beyond any responsibility that could be attributed to the former president, there are obvious shortcomings in many states’ Republican parties. There was, for example, a fundamental lack of resources put into Republican get-out-the-vote efforts in many states. Republicans are also light-years behind the Democrats in many key states (not in Florida, Iowa, or Ohio) when it comes to mail-balloting and early voting. They need to invest in fixing that before 2024, or else there is going to be a disappointing repeat.

The 2022 results show that Republicans failed in governor’s races (usually by narrower margins) in most of the same states where they had failed in the Democratic midterm year of 2018 (e.g. Pennsylvania, Nevada, Arizona, Kansas, Michigan). They also succeeded (albeit by wider margins) in many of the same states where they succeeded in 2018 (e.g. Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Iowa, Texas). The disparity suggests that the Republican parties of some states need to be overhauled and retooled, and perhaps their leaders replaced, lest they continue their losing streaks.  

Even if it is foolish just to blame Trump, it would be foolish to overlook his contribution to the problem. That starts in the Keystone State, where the results of his endorsements were definitely not what he had in mind.

Pennsylvania: Aside from perhaps Michigan, this was the worst outcome for Republicans in the entire election, and it arguably defines the 2022 midterm, as it was the Republicans’ highest profile loss.And it came with two controversial Trump endorsees at the top of the ticket. 

Trump’s endorsement of Dr. Mehmet Oz (R) over a more conservative primary opponent sent even his most ardent followers into rebellion. And Trump’s endorsement of Doug Mastriano (R) was much worse — it may have proven to be the biggest losing decision by anyone in the election cycle. Mastriano was crushed — he lost by the largest margin of anyone running against a non-incumbent governor since 1946.

Unfortunately, a bad gubernatorial candidate can drag down an entire ticket, and in Pennsylvania, it did. Oz, who was not an especially good candidate, probably needed the help of a strong gubernatorial nominee to drag him across the finish line against Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D). Lacking that, he lost badly in spite of Fetterman’s stroke-induced inability to communicate normally. The polls seemed to show Oz closing the gap near the end, and we felt his win was in the tea leaves. But apparently, this was an illusion. Fetterman’s campaign was smart to hide him from voters until after mail-balloting was well underway. The media’s complicity in this is another question, however. 

Thanks to their top-ticket deficit, Republicans also failed to gain any of the U.S. House seats in Pennsylvania that nearly everyone thought they would win. Those seats may still be attainable in better years, but now Democrats will hold them for at least two. Also, Democrats seized control of the state House.

The final result in all cases wasn’t especially close. You cannot lose by a margin that wide as a result of voting fraud, and not even Mastriano is alleging a stolen election.

The lesson here is that endorsements — especially endorsements from people as influential as Trump — have real consequences. It’s not enough to get someone the nomination — the real issue is to steer it to an acceptable winner.

Also, it bears mentioning that Trump went to Pennsylvania in the late stages of this race and trashed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in a speech with his much-panned “DeSanctimonious” nickname. This didn’t cause an electoral disaster all on its own, but it is bizarre to demotivate voters on purpose during an election campaign, especially in the service of self-promotion.

New Hampshire: Republicans had tried to get Trump to intervene and endorse state Senate President Chuck Morse (R) over Donald Bolduc (R) for Senate. Trump did the opposite. Bolduc, it turned out, got crushed in spite of Gov. Chris Sununu’s (R) coattails. Morse might have defeated Sen. Maggie Hassan (D), but a poor-quality candidate could not, even with financial help from the NRSC and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell’s SuperPAC.

Then again, don’t just blame Trump for this one. Republicans originally tried to recruit Sununu, who to all indications would have stomped Hassan. He was even willing to run — until he met with Senate Republican leaders, who were not very persuasive. Sununu later described them as trying to “con” him into running. That recruiting failure was costly.

Michigan: Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s (D) numbers were always very good against all of the potential candidates running against her. There’s no way to know who would have done better or worse than Trump-endorsee Tudor Dixon (R), but she did terribly in losing by 11 points and underperforming the down-ticket candidate for attorney general. 

This was bad enough to drag down Republican candidates for House all over the state. Democrats also took control of the state House and appear set to retake the state Senate as well, pending counts in a couple of races. And so Whitmer will now have free rein for the next two years.

Arizona: Not all the races in Arizona are decided yet, but the U.S. Senate race has been called. Blake Masters (R) was not a great candidate, even though he had his moments and surged in the end. He was not a disaster like Mastriano, but there were better candidates who ran for the nomination, such as Attorney General Mark Brnovich (R). Unfortunately, Brrnovich had not gone quite far enough to show he believed that the 2020 election was stolen in Arizona, so Trump trashed him and endorsed Masters, an unknown quantity. Masters went on to lose by a much wider margin than any of the polls suggested. 

Sometimes, Trump’s desire to have candidates personally loyal to him works against Republicans’ ability to win. There is nothing wrong with admitting this. It is something Republicans are going to have to think about moving forward.

Kari Lake, however may yet pull out a victory, so that would be a Trump endorsement that panned out. But you have to admit, most newbie candidates are not Kari Lake and cannot be expected to come on as strongly as she does. Even so, her vote tally is running behind Republican House candidates. Although it gives great delight to conservatives who watch her savage the media and Democrats, perhaps her forceful, Trump-like approach to politics is not quite as popular with other people. 

Ohio: Here is a one counterexample that shows you can’t just lay all the blame at Trump’s feet. Trump picked a first-time politician who was a real winner in Ohio — in fact, he appears to have received some excellent advice there. J.D. Vance was almost certainly a better candidate than former state Treasurer Josh Mandel (R), and for reasons that have nothing to do with Trump himself.

Gov. Mike DeWine (R) led the Buckeye ticket with a massive 25-point win. That was enough to secure a conservative majority on the state supreme court (assuming that his appointment is good) that will probably save Ohio’s Republican-leaning congressional redistricting. But that was not enough to save one of the most Trump-identifying House candidates, Madison Gesiotto Gilbert (R) in Youngstown, nor incumbent Rep. Steve Chabot (R) in Cincinnati.

North Carolina: Trump also picked a winner in senator-elect Ted Budd (R). Although Republicans failed to win one of the House seats they were supposed to win in the state, they did at least seize control of the state Supreme Court — an important factor in eventually undoing the outgoing Democratic court’s partisan congressional gerrymander

Nevada: In some states, you really cannot blame Trump for the things that went wrong. This is one of them. Former Attorney General Adam Laxalt (R) was a party consensus nominee in Nevada, enjoying support from both Trump and the state political establishment. He simply came up short. So did Republican candidates in all three of the contested House races.  

Also, Trump’s endorsed gubernatorial nominee, Joe Lombardo (R), did win — whether you want to credit Trump for that is another question. But somehow, a picture emerges in which the abilities and reputations of the individual candidates played a bigger role than anything else. 

Georgia: Here’s the biggest mixed bag of them all, and in a state where Trump is not popular.

Herschel Walker (R), whose chances in the runoff are probably not as good as they were on election day, was not just a Trump endorsee — he was equally backed by the Republican establishment. He underperformed all of the polling that showed him at least finishing first on Election Day. He still has a chance, but now the fight is over a single Senate seat, not control of the Senate. It will be harder to motivate the base. He also will not enjoy the strong coattails of conservative Gov. Brian Kemp (R), who won his race handily in spite of Trump’s efforts to stop him. In some counties, the drop-off between the vote for Kemp to the vote for Walker was as high as 25%.

Speaking of which, Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) both won comfortably despite Trump’s extreme and public antipathy over their unwillingness to undo the 2020 election result. So this may be one place where, because Trump is not especially popular, his involvement actually had the opposite effect of what he would have intended. A slim plurality of Georgians voted to end Trump’s presidency — the last thing they want when they choose their candidates is a reminder of what they didn’t like about it.

Red Islands: So much for the failures. But there were isolated Republican successes on election night as well, some of them in swingy or even Blue states. What these “Red islands” have in common are well organized Republican state parties and a relative lack of interference from Trump.

Florida: If you watched the Florida results come in first, and considered them to be a sign of things to come, you would have expected a red tsunami last Tuesday. Republican candidates blew the doors off of Democrats from the top of the ticket to the bottom. Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) won by nearly 20 points, as did Sen. Marco Rubio (R). Both carried Miami-Dade County; DeSantis even carried Palm Beach County, which is nearly unthinkable for a Republican. 

Remember: Charlie Crist nearly won the governorship for a second non-consecutive term in 2014, and DeSantis nearly lost his race for governor in 2018. A lot has happened in four years. 

Republicans won every single House seat they were supposed to win in Florida, swept all of the statewide constitutional offices, and secured a two-thirds majority in both houses of the state legislature. They didn’t just win the Cuban vote — they won the Puerto Rican vote as well.

This was a state where Trump held at least one late rally, but had little cause to get involved, because there were no open Senate or governor races. He was not heavily involved in the choice of nominees at any level.

Also, for those who might blame vote by mail for the outcome in other states, Florida had no problems with its very robust early vote and vote-by-mail system, even as Republicans swept everything. This should be the model for the rest of the country. 

DeSantis, is now talked about as presidential material, be he has to contend with Trump, who plans to announce soon. Trump views it as an act of disloyalty that DeSantis is even considering running. That’s really not how this is supposed to work. And if DeSantis wants to be president, 2024 will be his only chance, because after his second term in Florida he will become irrelevant to national politics like most former governors do.

Moreover, the idea that the first tenet of the party is to be loyal to Trump, before any set of ideas or principles, is not helpful. There is a fundamental conceptual problem with the Republican Party here that needs to be resolved before 2024.

Iowa: Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) blew out their respective opponents. That wasn’t necessarily a huge surprise, but Reynolds’ especially excellent performance at the top of the ticket (she won by 19 points In what is normally a swing state — in 2018 she won by less than three) most certainly helped Zach Nunn (R) eke out a narrow 2,200-vote victory over the Democratic incumbent in the third congressional district, securing an all-Republican congressional delegation.

Iowa Republicans also won a two-thirds majority in the state Senate, which means that Democrats can no longer block Reynolds’ appointees.

Reynolds’ huge margin also helped a down-ticket Republican candidate defeat Iowa’s 40-year Democratic incumbent attorney general, Tom Miller (D), at long last. Thanks mostly to Miller, Iowa has not had a Republican attorney general since Jimmy Carter was president. But it will now.

The statewide race for auditor is not called yet, but it appears that Republicans are about to fall heartbreakingly short of sweeping every state constitutional elected office for the first time since 1976.

New York: Wait, what? Didn’t Rep. Lee Zeldin (R) lose his governor’s race? Yes, he did. But he performed so well in losing this deep blue state by just five points that down-ballot Republicans squeaked out multiple U.S. House seats on his coattails. Republicans even defeated the DCCC chairman, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D), and won all of the other close House seats in New York except for one. 

This means that Republicans will represent 11 New York districts in the next Congress — a gain of three and a loss of four for the Democrats (the state lost a seat due to low population growth).

This means that Zeldin and DeSantis (who forced Florida’s legislature to pass a more aggressive Republican-leaning House map) could be double-handedly responsible for the Republicans’ House Majority, if they do indeed end up winning one.

Texas: Republicans’ victory in Texas was strong but perhaps less remarkable for a state like Texas. Yes, it was refreshing to see Beto O’Rourke (D) pummeled once again by Gov. Greg Abbott (R), and for Republicans to sweep all statewide offices, but that is basically par for the course.  

What was interesting, however, were the three strong performances (one of them a victory) in South Texas congressional districts. Although Republicans have not yet fully broken through in all three districts, Monica de la Cruz Hernandez (R) won her race and Rep. Mayra Flores (R) kept hers within ten points in what had been a D+17 district. Previously, Republicans barely competed in these districts — they lost all three by more than 20 points in 2018. There are no Texas exit polls to show a shift in the Hispanic vote there, but it is happening, just more slowly than some Republicans optimistically expected. 

Bottom Line: The initial impression from the vote tallies that are available so far, in our view, is that the Republican Party has serious problems in some states where it should be more competitive. These need addressing immediately. The uneven (mostly bad) performances indicate a party that is failing due to lack of investment, technological backwardness, and over-reliance on the brand of a single polarizing celebrity candidate. 

States that nominated strong gubernatorial candidates and have well-functioning state parties that punch above their weight — not just deep-red states, but also swingy Florida, Iowa, and Ohio and blue New York — saw a Republican wave. The wave just never reached places like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Nevada. There’s a lesson to be taken here.

Next week: A closer look at the exit polls.