The Republican Party swaggered into Tuesday’s midterm elections with full confidence that it would clobber President Joe Biden and his Democratic Party, capitalizing on voters’ concerns over inflation and the economy to retake majorities in both chambers of Congress. The question, party officials believed, was one only of scale: Would it be a red wave, or a red tsunami?
The answer, it turns out, is neither.
As of this morning, Republicans had yet to secure a majority in either the House or the Senate. Across the country, Democrats won races that many in the party expected to lose. Millions of votes are still to be counted, particularly in western states, but this much is clear: Even if Republicans eke out narrow congressional majorities, 2022 will be remembered as a triumph for Democrats, easily the best midterm cycle for an incumbent president’s party since 2002, when the country rallied around George W. Bush and his GOP in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Given the tailwinds they rode into Election Day—a fragile economic outlook, an unpopular president, a pervasive sense that our democracy is dysfunctional—Republicans spent yesterday trying to make sense of how things went so wrong. There was a particular focus on Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, three battleground states that went from red to blue on Election Day 2020, and states where Democrats won major victories on Tuesday.
Based on my reporting throughout the year, as well as data from Tuesday’s exit polling and conversations with Republican officials in the immediate aftermath of Election Day, here are four lessons I believe the party must learn before the next election in 2024.
1. Democratic turnout is going to boom in the post-Dobbs era.
For 50 years, Republicans raged against the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade that established a constitutional right to an abortion, arguing that the ruling should be struck down and abortion policies should be determined by individual states. When it finally happened—when Politico in early May published a leaked draft of the majority opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization striking down Roe v. Wade—I warned the evangelical leader Russell Moore on his podcast that Republicans, and especially conservative Christians, were about to deal with some devastating unintended consequences.
Up until the 2022 election, most voters had engaged with the abortion issue as an every-four-years, very-top-of-the-ticket decision. Presidents appoint Supreme Court justices, after all, and only a Supreme Court ruling could fundamentally change abortion policies in the country. (This was essential to Donald Trump’s victory in 2016: Nearly a quarter of his voters said the Supreme Court was their top issue in the election, after he’d promised to appoint “pro-life judges.”) Given that abortion rights were protected by Roe, the voters who identified abortion as their top priority always skewed Republican, and they were primarily mobilized by presidential campaigns and the prospect of Supreme Court vacancies.
We have now entered a different political universe.
More than a quarter of all voters named abortion as their top priority in this election. That number would be astonishing in any cycle, much less in a midterm campaign being waged against a backdrop of historic inflation and a looming recession. (The only issue of greater salience to voters overall—and not by much—was the economy, which 31 percent named as their top priority.) Even more surprising was the gap in partisan enthusiasm: Among the 27 percent of voters who prioritized abortion in this election, 76 percent supported Democratic candidates, according to exit polling, while just 23 percent backed Republicans.
This is a direct result of the Dobbs ruling, which left individual states scrambling to figure out their own abortion regulations. With Republicans pushing a menu of restrictive measures across the nation, Democrats running for office at every level—Congress, state legislature, governor, attorney general—suddenly had ammunition to mobilize a party base that was, until that time, looking complacent. (When Republican Glenn Youngkin won the governor’s race in deep-blue Virginia last year, only 8 percent of voters named abortion as their top priority.) At the same time, Dobbs gave Democrats a tool to reach moderates and independents, particularly suburban women, who’d rejected the Republican Party in 2020 but were beginning to drift back toward the GOP because of concerns about inflation and crime.
Democrats I spoke with throughout the summer and fall were hopeful that the abortion issue would be sufficient to prevent a Republican rout. It did that and much, much more. The Dobbs effect on this election is almost impossible to exaggerate. All five states that featured a ballot referendum on questions of abortion saw the pro-choice side win. (This includes Kentucky and Montana, states that President Joe Biden lost by 26 points and 16 points, respectively.) In those states alone, dozens of Democrats, from the top of the ballot to the bottom, received a potentially race-deciding boost from the abortion referendum. Even in the 45 states where abortion wasn’t literally on the ballot, it was clearly the issue that carried the day for a host of vulnerable Democrats.
By every metric available—turnout, exit polling, individual races, and referendum results—abortion was the dominant motivator for Democrats, particularly younger Democrats, who have historically skipped midterm elections. It was also the dominant motivator for moderates and independents to stick with an unpopular president. The story of this election was that millions of voters who registered dissatisfaction with Biden and his economic policies voted for his party anyway. Why? Because they were more concerned about Republicans’ approach to abortion than Democrats’ approach to inflation.
This is very bad news for the GOP. Democrats now have a blueprint for turning out the vote in a punishing political environment. In each of the two midterm elections under President Barack Obama, Democrats hemorrhaged congressional and state legislative seats because the party lacked a base-turnout mechanism—not to mention a persuasion tactic—to compensate for voters’ concerns over a sluggish economy. Politics is a copycat business. Now that Democrats have found a winning formula, you can expect to see entire field programs, messaging campaigns, microtargeting exercises, and ballot-initiative drives built around abortion access.
A winning issue today is not necessarily a winning issue tomorrow. Abortion rights will rise and fall in terms of resonance, depending on the place, the party in control, and the policies that govern the issue locally. We’ve seen Democrats overplay their hand on abortion in the past, as in 2014, when Republicans flipped a U.S. Senate seat because the Democratic incumbent, Mark Udall, campaigned so myopically on abortion rights that even the liberal Denver Post editorial board ridiculed him as “Senator Uterus.” If Democrats rely too much on the issue—or, maybe the greater temptation, if they use their legislative power to advance abortion policies that are just as unpopular with moderates and independents as some of what Republicans campaigned on this cycle—their advantage could evaporate quickly.
Still, the “Senator Uterus” episode came in the pre-Dobbs era, back when Americans still viewed the Supreme Court as the most immediate arbiter of abortion rights, and local candidates didn’t have nearly the reason (or incentive) to engage with the issue. This is now the post-Dobbs era. Voters who care about abortion are thinking less about Supreme Court justices and more about state legislators. The political advantage, at least for now, belongs to a Democratic Party that just weaponized the issue to turn out its base in a major and unexpected way.
2. Bad candidates are an incurable (and fast-spreading) cancer.
In Michigan, “Prop 3,” the ballot proposal enshrining abortion rights into the state constitution, drove enormous voter participation. Democrats were the clear beneficiary: They won all three statewide campaigns as well as the state’s most competitive congressional races. But Democrats did even more damage at the local level, ambushing Republicans in a number of off-the-radar local contests and winning back control of both state legislative chambers for the first time since 1983.
But if you ask Republicans in the state, Prop 3 wasn’t the biggest contributor to the down-ballot massacre. Instead, they blame the terrible GOP candidates at the top of the ticket.
Whereas Republicans in other states nominated one or perhaps even two far-right candidates to run in marquee statewide races, Michigan Republicans went for the trifecta. Tudor Dixon, the gubernatorial nominee, was a political novice who had made extreme statements about abortion and gun control in addition to casting doubts on Trump’s 2020 defeat. Matt DePerno, the nominee for attorney general, was best known for leading a crusade to investigate and overturn Biden’s 2020 victory in the state. Kristen Karamo, the nominee for secretary of state, was a like-minded conspiracy theorist who manifestly knew nothing about the way Michigan’s elections are administered, and even less about the other duties of the job she was seeking.
“You just can’t ignore the question of candidate quality,” Jason Roe, who ran Republican Tom Barrett’s campaign against Elissa Slotkin, one of the nation’s premier congressional contests, in Michigan’s Seventh District, told me. “We had a fundraising disadvantage, we had Prop 3 to overcome, but candidate quality—that was our biggest headwind. Tom ran about seven points ahead of the statewide ticket. I’m not sure what else he’s supposed to do.”
The same pattern was visible in different parts of the country. In Pennsylvania, Democrats seized back control of the state House chamber for the first time in more than a decade. How? Two words: Doug Mastriano.
In the campaign to become Pennsylvania’s next governor—what was once expected to be one of the nation’s tightest races—Mastriano, the GOP nominee, proved particularly unpalatable. It wasn’t just Mehmet Oz, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in that state, who stayed away; most GOP state lawmakers, even those who shared some of Mastriano’s fringe worldview as it pertains to election legitimacy or Christian nationalism, kept their distance.
But it hardly mattered. The smoldering crater left by Mastriano’s implosion (he trailed by nearly 14 points as of yesterday evening) swallowed up Republicans all around him. Not only did Democrats improbably win back control of the state House; they also won all three of the state’s contested congressional races.
Time and again on Tuesday, bad candidates sabotaged both their own chances of victory and also the electoral prospects of their fellow partisans on the ticket. And for most of these bad candidates, a common quality stood out: their views on the legitimacy of our elections.
3. Voters prefer “out of touch” to “out of their mind.”
For Republicans, a central charge against Democrats throughout 2022 has been that Biden and his party are out of touch with ordinary Americans. A distilled version of the argument went like this: Democrats, the party of social and cultural elites, can’t relate to the economic pain being felt by millions of working people.
That message penetrated—to a point.
According to exit polls, 20 percent of voters said inflation has caused their families “severe hardship” over the past year. Among those respondents, 71 percent supported Republicans, and 28 percent supported Democrats. This is broadly consistent with other findings in the exit polling, as well as public-opinion research we saw throughout the summer and fall, showing disapproval of Biden and his stewardship of the economy. This would seem damning for Democrats—that is, until you consider the numbers in reverse and ask the obvious question: Why did three in 10 people who said they’ve experienced “severe hardship” decide to vote for the party that controls Congress and the White House?
The simplest explanation is that although many of these voters think Democrats are out of touch, they also think Republicans are out of their minds. And it seems they prefer the former to the latter.
“This is what I would see in our focus groups all summer, and it makes more sense now in retrospect,” says Sarah Longwell, a Republican strategist who produced a podcast series this year narrating her sessions with undecided voters. “We would have these swing voters who would say things are going bad: inflation, crime, Biden’s doing a bad job, all of it. And then you say, ‘Okay, Gretchen Whitmer versus Tudor Dixon. Who are you voting for?’ And even though they’re pissed at Whitmer—she hasn’t fixed the roads, she did a bad job with COVID—they were voting for her. Because they all thought Dixon was crazy.”
It was the same thing, Longwell told me, in her focus groups all over the country—but particularly in the Midwest. She said that Tony Evers, the Democratic governor of Wisconsin, kept getting the same benefit of the doubt as Whitmer: “They didn’t like a lot of his policies, but they thought Tim Michels”—his Republican challenger—“was an extremist, a Trumplike extremist.” Her conclusion: “A lot of these people wanted to vote for a Republican; they just didn’t want to vote for the individual Republican who was running.”
For many voters, the one position that rendered a candidate unacceptable was the continued crusade against our elections system. In Pennsylvania, for instance, 34 percent of voters supported Democrats despite experiencing “severe hardship,” significantly higher than the national average. The reason: 57 percent of Pennsylvanians said they did not “trust” Mastriano to oversee the state’s elections.
Another strategy Republicans used to portray Democrats as “out of touch” was to focus on rising crime rates in Democratic-governed cities and states. This was an unqualified success: Exit polling, both nationally and in key states, showed that clear majorities of voters believe Republicans are better suited to handle crime. In Michigan, 53 percent of voters said they trusted Dixon to deal with crime, as opposed to just 42 percent for Whitmer. But it barely made a difference in the outcome: Despite trailing by 11 points on that question, Whitmer actually won the race by 11 points. To understand why, consider that 56 percent of Michigan voters characterized Dixon as “too extreme.” Only 38 percent said the same about Whitmer.
In the exit polls, perhaps the most provocative question was about society’s changing values relative to gender identity and sexual orientation. Half of all voters—exactly 50 percent—said those values are changing for the worse. Only 26 percent, meanwhile, said those values are changing for the better. (The remaining 24 percent did not have a strong opinion either way.) This is another data point to suggest that Democrats, by championing an ultraprogressive approach to LGBTQ issues, come across as out of touch to many Americans. And yet, even among the voters who expressed alarm over America’s values in this context, 20 percent voted for Democrats. This is a revelation: Given the ferocity of rhetoric in this campaign about drag shows, transgender athletes, and sexualized public-school curricula, one might have predicted virtually zero people would both decry the LGBTQ agenda and vote Democratic. But two in 10 voters—more than enough to tip any close election—did exactly that. Why?
Again, the simplest explanation is probably best: Plenty of voters are worried about unchecked progressivism on the left, but they’re even more worried about unchecked extremism on the right.
That extremism takes many forms: delegitimizing our elections system, endorsing the January 6 assault on the Capitol, cracking jokes and spreading lies about the assault on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband. And all of this extremism, which so many swing voters spurned on Tuesday, is embodied by one person: Donald Trump.
4. Trumpism is toxic to the middle of the electorate.
Here’s the scenario many of us were expecting on Election Day: The president, still the titular head of his party despite a growing chorus of questions about his age and competence, suffers a series of humiliating defeats that reflect the weakness of his personal brand and cast doubt on his ability to lead the party moving forward.
And that’s precisely what happened—to the former president.
If Tuesday felt strange—“the craziest Election Night I’ve ever seen,” as the elections-analyst Dave Wasserman tweeted—it’s because so many races revolved around someone who wasn’t running for anything. The reason that practically every first-term president in modern history has gotten pummeled in the midterms is that the opposition party typically cedes the stage and makes it all about him. The idea is to force the party in power to own everything that’s unsatisfactory about the country—its economic performance, military failures, policy misfires. It’s a time-honored tradition: Make the election a referendum on the new guy in charge.
In each of the three states that saw major Democratic victories—Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—25 to 30 percent of voters said they had cast their vote in opposition to Trump. To reiterate: This is a quarter of the total electorate, consistently across three of the nation’s most polarized battleground states, acknowledging that they were motivated by the idea of defeating someone who wasn’t on the ballot, and who currently holds no office. It’s easy to see why they succeeded: In these states, as well as nationally, the only thing worse than Biden’s approval rating was Trump’s. In state after state, congressional district after congressional district, voters rejected the Trump-approved candidate, for many of the same reasons they rejected Trump himself two years ago.
Looking to 2024, GOP leaders will attempt to address the missed opportunities of this election. They will, no doubt, redouble their efforts to recruit strong candidates for statewide races; they will prioritize proven winners with mainstream views on abortion and democratic norms and the other issues by which moderates and independents will assess them. Whatever success party officials might find on a case-by-case basis, they will be treating the symptoms and ignoring the sickness. The manifest reality is that Trumpism has become toxic—not just to the Never Trumpers or the RINOs or the members of the Resistance, but to the immense, restless middle of the American electorate.
We’ve long known that Trumpism without Trump doesn’t really sell; the man himself has proved far more compelling, and far more competitive, than any of his MAGA imitators. But what we saw Tuesday wasn’t voters selectively declining certain decaffeinated versions of Trump; it was voters actively (and perhaps universally, pending the result in Arizona’s gubernatorial race) repudiating the core elements of Trump’s political being.
This trouncing, on its own, might have done little to loosen Trump’s chokehold on American conservatism. But because it coincided with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s virtuoso performance—winning reelection by an astonishing 1.5 million votes; carrying by double digits Miami-Dade County, which Hillary Clinton won by 30 points; defeating his Democratic opponent by nearly 20 points statewide—there is reason to believe, for the first time in six and a half years, that the Republican Party does not belong to Donald Trump.
“I’ll tell you why Tuesday was a bad night for Trump: Ron DeSantis now has 100 percent name ID with the Republican base. Every single Republican voter in the country knows who he is now,” says Jeff Roe, who managed Ted Cruz’s 2016 campaign and runs the nation’s largest political-consulting firm. “A lot of these people are gonna say, ‘All these other Republicans lost. This is the only guy that can win.’ That’s really bad for Trump. Republicans haven’t had a choice in a long time. Now they have a choice.”
Trump’s intraparty critics have long complained that his brutally effective takeover of the GOP obscures his win-loss record. This is someone, after all, who earned the 2016 nomination by securing a string of plurality victories against a huge and fragmented field; who lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by nearly 3 million; who gave away the House in 2018 and the Senate in 2020; who lost the popular vote to Biden by 7 million and handed over the White House; and who just sabotaged the party’s chances of winning key contests in a number of battleground states.
Earlier this week, Trump pushed back the expected launch of his 2024 presidential campaign. This was done, in part, so that he could appropriate the narrative of a grand Republican victory against Biden and the Democrats. Given his humiliating defeats, and how they’re being juxtaposed against the victories of his emerging young rival from Florida, Trump might want to move the announcement back up before a very different narrative begins to take hold.