Wot Happened?

There is no way to sugarcoat this pitiful Republican showing. What went wrong?

For much of this year I had in the back of my mind the possibility that this mid-term could be a rerun of the 1978 midterm, when Republicans also underperformed in a very favorable political climate. Between Jimmy Carter’s sagging approval, rising inflation, and the flood tide of the tax revolt in the wake of Proposition 13 in California in the spring, Republicans should have done very well. The House Republican Leader at the time, John Rhodes, predicted a “massive” Republican sweep in the election—perhaps a gain of up to 50 House seats.  In fact, Rhodes said, he would be disappointed if GOP gains were only 25 to 30 seats.

Yet Republicans gained only 12 House seats and three Senate seats in 1978 (bringing them to only 159 in the House, and just 41 in the Senate). “The ineptness of this party has almost no parallel in history,” Henry Fairlie gloated in The New Republic. “The Democratic party is still without any real opposition.” Political scientist Nelson Polsby said the midterm election left Republicans no more than “halfway back to where they have to get to be even minimally competitive.” Michael Barone was more specific in his diagnosis: “There can only be one reason for the Republicans’ relatively poor showing in House races: they simply do not have enough good candidates.” But Barone predicted that this would begin to change in the 1980s, as the shadow of the Nixon years receded. 

The parallels are obvious. Nixon’s shadow was long gone by 1980, but Trump’s shadow is still very much with us. In fact Trump’s late campaigning may have backfired on Republicans, and he is the biggest loser yesterday, which may not be a bad thing. Candidate quality matters after all (as it did in several winnable Senate races in 2010 that the GOP threw away). Some of the GOP losers were quite worthy, like Tiffany Smiley in Washington (though also a first-timer on the ballot). But others were clearly not, such as Dr. Oz.

The big winner yesterday is clearly Ron DeSantis, and therein lies a tale. How come DeSantis and other Florida Republicans romped to victory, while Republicans struggled most everywhere else? Maybe the fact that DeSantis has a strong record to run on, and moreover is always on the attack, helped. What was the general Republican issue message this year for the House? I know the House GOP put forward some kind of new “Contract with America,” but did you ever hear about it? It was a mistake to think you can win by just not being the other guy. Anyway, I had put the over/under line for a winning presidential run DeSantis’s margin of victory at 15 percent, and he won by 20.

But the scene isn’t entirely bleak. We remember what happened two years after that dismal 1978 midterm. And while Joe Biden has to be reckoned a big winner yesterday, it means in due course that the big loser was . . . the Democratic Party. The “Dump Joe” campaign is going to be put back in the deep freeze, and Biden is more likely to run again because of this election result. And if Biden chooses not to run again on his own because of age or some other cause, Democrats are likely stuck with Kamala, because anyone who challenges Kamala will infuriate the identity-politics base of the Democratic Party.

I can guarantee you that there are many old-line Democrats (but also the distinctly new-age Gavin Newsom) who secretly hoped Democrats would get crushed, so they could ease Biden out and clean out the crazy progressives who have hijacked the party. Instead Democrats are certain to take their relative success as evidence that there is nothing wrong with their message or their policies. Let them persist in this view. In the meantime, lots more gridlock ahead, but as Stan Evans liked to say, gridlock is the next best thing to having constitutional government.

Meanwhile, I’m putting away my surfboard.

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