US Midterms – A Roe, not Red, Wave

Prior to the election many pundits and pollsters predicted comfortable Republican victories in the House and the likelihood of clinching the Senate too. 

Whilst a handful of House of Representatives seats remain uncalled, NBC News has produced a final forecast, with 219 seats for the GOP and 216 for the Democrats (plus or minus 4 seats), with 218 as the magic number needed to achieve a majority. In that sense, Republicans will have gained the majority, but with a net gain of just 6 seats in a midterm year where the party that does not hold the White House gains on average 37 seatswhen the President’s approval rating is below 50%, and President Biden’s stands at 41%. 

Given the extraordinarily wide gaps between the factions of the GOP House caucus, from the ‘MAGA’ and Freedom Caucus wings to the more moderate groups, the now-expected House majority of 1 or 2 will make their caucus almost ungovernable as Kevin McCarthy will struggle to appease all elements. Marjorie Taylor Greene may become Republicans’ Joe Manchin. Only one moderate Republican need vote with the Democrats and investigations into Biden, for example, won’t materialise. 

It is worth noting though that it is still remotely possible Democrats could reach 218 and retain control.

To make matters worse, Republicans have already lost the US Senate, and the Georgia Senate race is advancing to a runoff on 6 December, where Democrats have the opportunity to expand their Senate majority to 51-49, and dilute Joe Manchin’s influence and give them greater judicial power and gain critical majorities on committee panels. 

At present, it seems incumbent Democrat Raphael Warnock has a solid chance at victory; he already came out on top in vote totals in this November race, Republican Herschel Walker will not have Governor Brian Kemp’s coattails to ride (who coasted to re-election in Georgia comfortably on the same ballot). It is also expected that Trump’s impending 15 November presidential campaign announcement is poised to energise Democrats and suburban voters with a strong distaste for the former President. 

Republicans have also ‘lost modest ground both at the gubernatorial and state legislative levels’. Crucially, following the baseless claims of fraud following the 2020 elections and the attempts by Trump to overturn the results, there was increased focus on gubernatorial, Secretary of State and state legislature races. 

In a victory for democracy, GOP candidates for Secretary of State (whose purpose is to ensure the smooth running and integrity of elections), especially those that espoused Trump’s fraud claims, have generally lost in competitive states. States such as Nevada, Arizona, Minnesota, Michigan, Pennsylvania (by electing Democrat Josh Shapiro Governor, who will appoint the Secretary of State), and when all votes are counted are favoured to win in Wisconsin too. These swing states will be intensely competitive for the Presidency in 2024, and it has made the ability to overturn the results significantly harder for Trump or which else Republican nominee may attempt it. 

Surprisingly, despite slow and steady vote counting in states like California, Nevada and Arizona, few unsuccessful major office candidates have claimed fraud as the reason for their defeat. Even Joe Biden applauded many GOP candidates for accepting their losses. 

A chorus of Republican Senators, Representatives, media pundits and consultants have already been pointing fingers and expressing disappointment and anger over this lost opportunity. 

Why did this unfold as it did, as a slap in the face for the Republican Party?  

There seem to be three predominant reasons for the GOP’s underperformance and Democrats’ unexpectedly strong performance: the overturning of Roe v Wade in June, Donald Trump, and candidate quality. 

The Supreme Court decision to overturn the 1973 ruling Roe v Wade and federal abortion rights this June in their Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision electrified Democrats and many independents. It seems suburban women and young voters, the key to these Democratic wins. All ballot measures aimed to restricting abortion across the states last week failed, both in red (Kentucky and Montana), and blue states (Vermont, California and Michigan). It was clear following the court’s decision in the early summer that it was extraordinarily unpopular, but polls suggested the issue was not as much in the fore by November as the economy and inflation. In retrospect, the strong (18-point) result in favour of abortion rights in red state Kansas in August’s abortion referendum seemed like an obvious precursor. 

The decision energised women and young voters who delivered clear rebukes to abortion restrictions, defeating the ballot measures and handing Republicans unexpected losses and Democrats shocking victories (especially in some House races like Washington’s 3rd District, where FiveThirtyEight gave Democrats just a 2% chance of winning pre-election). 

It was these same groups that rebuked Trumpism concurrently. The former President elevated loyal election deniers in the primaries over perhaps more moderate candidates who would have had a better chance at winning in these very winnable races, including Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania and Adam Laxalt in Nevada. Blame has already been directed at Trump for costing Republicans crucial seats in both chambers, and his threat of announcing an immediate presidential run after the midterms no doubt incentivised some Democrats and will likely have the same effect on the Georgia runoff. 

The Republican sweep in Florida is a silver lining for Republicans nonetheless; many conservatives seem to have found a new Republican leader in Governor Ron DeSantis, in a blow to Trump. 

Candidate quality clearly mattered. I noted last week that ‘recent Republican tendencies to embrace celebrities as candidates does not seem to be doing them many favours overall’, which seems to have been fair in hindsight. Dr Oz’s defeat in Pennsylvania and Walker’s possible loss in Georgia, and the GOP ‘selected weaker nominees that they could have’, which together will have cost them the US Senate majority. Plenty of poor (and extreme) candidates, mostly selected and endorsed by Trump, won their primaries but lost the general elections. 

It appears that it is much more accurate to label these elections as a Roe Wave, as the predicted red wave absolutely did not materialise at all, and I would argue it is not a stretch to say the greatest reason why, was the overturning of Roe v Wade, which pushed young people, women and independents to the polls in droves, delivering unexpected Democratic wins. 

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