Being Right: The GOP’s Identity Crisis After Midterm Mediocrity

Patrick Taylor, Staff Writer

We all saw what happened last Tuesday. In nearly every state, the Republican Party vastly underperformed expectations (mine included) in the midterm elections. The Associated Press, along with most other media outlets, has called the Senate for the Democrats, and although it isn’t official yet, the Republicans appear likely to have gained only a slim majority in the House.

Now that I’ve eaten my slice of humble pie, we have to explore why my predictions, alongside those of innumerable pundits and commentators, failed to materialize. In my view, it ultimately comes down to the Republican Party, at its heart, lacking a compelling message.

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, Republicans had only recently found a potent line of attack against Biden and other Democratic politicians: the subject of crime. I stand by the salience of this message, as we saw a veritable red wave hit New York as a result.

According to the Financial Times, Rep. Lee Zeldin ran what was essentially a single-issue campaign on crime, and nearly did the impossible in the state’s gubernatorial election. Thanks to his coattails, Republican congressional candidates Brandon Williams, Marc Molinaro, George Santos and Anthony D’Esposito all appear to have won their races.

Still, crime is not necessarily a universal issue, it turns out. The areas most affected by high crime rates (New York and California, for instance) yielded results that, so far, look decent for Republicans. However, if you’re a voter for whom crime isn’t a particularly pressing issue, Republicans offered very little to motivate organizing, canvassing, donating or even voting.

As the dust settles, Republicans find themselves pointing fingers regarding this total dearth of messaging. Many blame former President Trump for the debacle, suggesting that his endorsements won weak candidates their primary races, creating a crisis of “candidate quality.”

Still, I hesitate to place the blame squarely on Trump. His endorsement record certainly wasn’t spotless, but there are very few candidates he endorsed that wouldn’t have won their primary elections regardless of Trump’s support.

The blame for Mehmet Oz’s faltering candidacy may, to some extent, be placed at Trump’s feet, but this dynamic just doesn’t tell the whole story. A true wave election will drag weak candidates across the finish line. And to be completely honest, many of the nominees whom Trump endorsed weren’t terribly weak.

Unsuccessful Senate candidate Blake Masters, for instance, is an accomplished venture capitalist and family man whose messaging was optimistic, intelligent and powerful. Failed House candidate Joe Kent, according to the Military Times, is a decorated retired Green Beret and Gold Star husband who ran a persuasive anti-war campaign. These are charismatic candidates with compelling, sympathetic life stories who just couldn’t gain the momentum to win their races.

Let’s take a look at the “candidate quality” on the Democratic side: in Sen.-elect John Fetterman (D-Pa.), we have a faux-“working class” Ivy League graduate whose health, unfortunately, is failing. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) has been totally missing in action since her 2016 election and still managed a narrow win. Several governors who sent their states into peril due to their pro-lockdown policies were on the ballot. Heck, a no-name Democrat who, per Politico, is battling sexual misconduct allegations, still gave Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) his tightest election win since 1980.

Thus, to call this a Republican “candidate quality” problem, or a “Trump problem,” is, in my view, reductive and not totally supported by Tuesday’s results.

Though the votes (peculiarly) haven’t been fully tallied yet, it seems that a great deal of the GOP’s midterm woes were caused by the absence of the exact voter whom Trump tended to attract: working-class, particularly rural, voters. The GOP has proven itself unable to turn this group into a reliable Republican voting bloc and is suffering the consequences.

Their absence is reflected in the night’s map.

It’s clear that Republicans whiffed badly throughout the Rust Belt. In Pennsylvania, hardline state Sen. Doug Mastriano (whether due to poor funding or a lack of personal appeal) failed to earn the support of a sufficient number of working-class, Trump-supporting voters, affecting candidates up and down the ticket. Although Republican Senate candidates in Ohio and Wisconsin won, the GOP vastly underperformed in other races (per the NYT), including three missed opportunities in Ohio’s House delegation and the reelection of Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D). Michigan was an even worse bloodbath for Republicans, with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) and a pro-abortion constitutional amendment easily winning out.

On that note, the heightening of the abortion debate due to the Dobbs v. Jackson verdict also left an unmistakable mark on this election cycle. An already underwhelming result from the Trump base in the Rust Belt was exacerbated by a strong showing from pro-abortion rights voters, particularly young people, outraged by the decision.

To this end, Democrats actually had a message: support abortion and scare voters by painting even the most moderate Republicans as “extremists” on every issue imaginable. 

Republicans combatted this with nearly nothing, aside from appeals to bland economic/fiscal policy, and fortunately the issue of crime. RNC Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel, House leadership including Reps. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Tom Emmer (R-Minn.), and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (who wasted tens of millions on Republican-on-Republican races in Alaska and Alabama) should all be punished for their mismanagement of this election.

At the end of the day, the fate of Donald Trump, and how much blame (if any) he deserves, will most likely be up to 2024 Republican primary voters at the ballot box.