Politics

Are Republicans Going to Pretend Again Like They Won, or Will They Acknowledge Reality?

A blond woman holds her head in her hands in front of a TV showing the returns from Fox News.
A staff member waits as a lectern is prepared during an election night watch party for House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) after the midterm elections, early on Nov. 9, 2022, in Washington, D.C. Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy was supposed to have spoken much earlier in the night on Tuesday. The presumed speaker-in-waiting was hoping that the call that Republicans had clinched the House majority would come at a reasonable hour for news networks to pick up. How hard could it be?

When McCarthy did speak, at 1:57 a.m., he couldn’t even say that Republicans had won the majority. Instead, he offered a promise that by the time people woke up, Republicans would have done it. This premature declaration of victory is in keeping with grand recent Republican tradition. Unlike in 2020, though, the GOP may still yet pull this one out.

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As of that moment, the GOP was still favored to retake the House majority. Control of the Senate, too, is up in the air, with the one key race called as a flip being the Pennsylvania Senate contest, a pickup for John Fetterman and the Democrats.

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The GOP wave—to the shock of Democrats predisposed to expect the worst and Republicans who expected to surf the favorable fundamentals—did not materialize. In fact, it could be the weakest midterm result for an out-of-power party since the 2002 election, when Republicans rode George W. Bush’s post-9/11 coattails to rare pickups.

Huh.

One of the fastest states to tally votes proved to be Republicans’ high-water mark early in the night. Republicans ripped through Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis coasted to a 20-point reelection, with Sen. Marco Rubio running not far behind him in his own reelection. Republicans rode DeSantis’ gerrymander of the state to a pickup of several House seats. Democrats’ problems in South Florida worsened, with both DeSantis and Rubio outright winning Miami-Dade County.

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But that was more a sign of the continued, sharp reddening of Florida than a national Republican overperformance.

As more states rolled in, it was clear Republicans would not have the night of their dreams. Democrats kept 2 of the 3 Virginia House seats they were monitoring as potential defections in a red wave. They held a crucial Rhode Island House seat that Republicans had targeted. Democrats won 5 of Ohio’s 15 districts, when they feared they might win only two under Republicans’ gerrymandered map. Democrats would go on to hold toss-ups in reddening South Texas, both of New Hampshire’s House seats, and knock off one of Donald Trump’s prized recruits in North Carolina. By the time McCarthy spoke to say that Republicans would win, in fact, there was still a chance that Nancy Pelosi might retain the speaker’s gavel.

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Still, Republicans remained the slim favorites. Democrats’ weakest performance on the East Coast appeared to be in New York, where Republicans are looking at several pickups after state courts tossed New York Democrats’ proposed gerrymander early in the year. Chief among those threatened Democrats is Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, the chair of Democrats’ campaign arm, who had moved himself to a safer district only to find that it may not have been safe enough.

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In the Senate, the outer perimeter of races Republicans thought they might have a chance at winning under wavelike conditions—Colorado, New Hampshire, and Washington—weren’t even close. Republican J.D. Vance did win in Ohio, and Republican Rep. Ted Budd defeated Cheri Beasley in North Carolina. GOP Sen. Ron Johnson was narrowly but consistently leading over Mandela Barnes in Wisconsin, a hold the Republicans will ultimately need if they have any shot at taking the Senate.

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The biggest Senate call late Tuesday night came, again, in Pennsylvania, where Fetterman—written off by many after his debate performance in October—defeated Mehmet Oz. Because of that flip, in order to take control of the Senate, Republicans must win two of the Arizona, Nevada, and Georgia Senate races. Georgia appeared headed to a runoff, and Nevada could take days to determine a winner. Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly was leading Blake Masters late Tuesday night, but the margin was expected to get closer.

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Democratic governors won reelection in three crucial swing states that could be determinative in a 2024 presidential race—Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania—and took back control in Maryland and Massachusetts after eight years of Republican governors. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul held off a much-discussed challenge from Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin. In ruby-red Kansas, even incumbent Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly was hanging on to a slim 2-point lead over Republican challenger Derek Schmidt at the end of the night.

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Huh.

As I type, talking points months in the works are being shredded. Republicans had been certain of a major night, in line with their midterm blowouts of 2010 and 2014, in the way someone is certain they’ll soon end up in a pool when they begin down a waterslide. Democrats, meanwhile, had been preparing for another round of the “blame game” and ritual sparring between mushy moderates and vulgar progressives about who was to blame for the collapse of their coalition.

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We don’t yet know why things went a different way, but a number of statewide ballot measures—including in red states—appeared headed for defeat for those seeking to codify abortion bans. As Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell also predicted this summer, the party’s Senate odds seemed weighed down by a number of Trump-backed challengers with “candidate quality” issues, as he so gingerly put it.

Whatever the reason for Tuesday’s outcomes—and however the remaining races go—there will be weeks to figure out just why Democrats clearly outperformed the fundamentals, their own expectations, and everyone else’s. We’ll see if Republicans are in the mood to do any of their own soul-searching. Though if McCarthy’s a guide, they may just take another victory lap.

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