For the GOP, the outcome of the 2022 election was disappointing, especially when measured against expectations—including mine. Its leaders need to understand why the “red wave” never materialized.
The divide between “red” and “blue” states has hardened into something that will be with us for a long time. That means neither party will have enough support from its base alone to win the presidency and control Congress outright. In the “red” states, Republicans did well when they offered voters something appealing.
This was also true in “blue” and “purple” states. In New York’s gubernatorial race, GOP congressman Lee Zeldin gave Democrat Kathy Hochul a real run for her money because he campaigned hard on how the incumbent was missing in action in the fight against crime.
Zeldin didn’t win but, because he was organized and his positive message related to solving problems at the top of the voters’ minds, he helped the Republicans win congressional seats throughout the state, picking up three that had gone for Joe Biden by double-digit points in 2020, and advance in the state legislature.
A good candidate with a good campaign plan well executed can compete just about anywhere. Fail to hit the mark on any of those three and you’re likely to lose.
This happened in Arizona, where talk of problems with the voting machines in parts of Maricopa County has obscured any real discussion of why the GOP had a bad night. Its first problem was candidate recruitment. The strongest candidate the GOP could have run for U.S. Senate—Gov. Doug Ducey—opted not to run because he didn’t want to tangle with former president Donald Trump, who still blames him unfairly for failing to “stop the steal.”
The GOP nominees in statewide races—former local TV anchor Kari Lake for governor and businessman Blake Masters for U.S. Senate—were untrained in the art of politics. Lake campaigned not as Ducey’s successor, building on his reforms in taxes and education and regulation, but as a Trump clone—in a state Trump lost in 2020. “Be like Trump” might work in some places, but not there and not now. The equally inexperienced Masters never grasped the strong independent streak running through the Arizona electorate, so he ran to the Right and campaigned with ads better suited to the primary than the general election. His opponent, Democrat Mark Kelly, didn’t have to do a thing.
Recruitment matters. Who runs—and who doesn’t—shapes a race. So does the nomination process, which this year allowed the wrong people to get on the ballot in too many places. In red states, it didn’t matter much. In blue and purple states, the “election denier” label Democrats were able to pin on some nominees was an automatic disqualifier that drove independent voters away from the GOP. In Washington state, the Democrats picked up a U.S. House seat in a district Trump carried in 2020 by 4 points.
Besides candidate selection and campaign plans, elections can turn on issues. An abortion rights referendum on the Michigan ballot not only helped drag the statewide GOP ticket down but cost Republicans control of both houses of the state legislature for the first time in decades.
Wherever the Republicans were able to run base candidates on base issues and successful governance, they ran well. In Florida, Iowa, and West Virginia, they excelled. Wherever they broadened the agenda, showed competence in governing, and had a positive plan for the future, like they did in New Hampshire, New York, and Wisconsin, they did okay. In states where they had to win the votes of registered Democrats and independents but ran to the Right—Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota—they did poorly.
One column can’t explain all the reasons the election turned out as it did. There’s no one lesson to be learned. Trump was a problem but not the only one. The Democrats were saved because the Republicans tried to win easy instead of fighting smart. It’s up to the GOP to figure out why it lost—and for the Democrats to understand how they won—before campaign 2024 begins.
Newsweek contributing editor Peter Roff has written extensively about politics and the American experience for U.S. News and World Report, United Press International, and other publications. He can be reached by email at RoffColumns@GMAIL.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheRoffDraft
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.
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