The Surge

Slate’s guide to the most important figures in politics this week.

Welcome to this week’s edition of the Surge, which is ready to put on its tuxedo and become a proper Presidential Election Newsletter again.

Ha-ha-ha! That was the most fun election week we’ve covered. You think one thing might happen and then, ayy, the other thing happens. (Sort of.) We have so much wonderful stuff to look forward to: a busy lame-duck session, House and Senate leadership races (the purest of all politics), a titanic fight between Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump, and the (maybe! Still not called!) prospect of watching Kevin McCarthy attempt to manage a two-seat GOP majority. Twitter might be gone soon, too. What have we done to deserve so much?

Let’s wrap up election week, though, with a ranking of figures who defined the midterms.

Donald Trump's head surrounded by red and blue shapes
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

Rank 1

Last Week Up from last week #3

1. Donald Trump

Another blown election in the books.

A central reason for the Republicans’ poor showing was systematic “candidate quality” issues that rest almost entirely on Donald Trump’s shoulders. First, Trump established a litmus test for Republican candidates across the country, in which they had to subscribe to the theory that the 2020 presidential election was stolen in order to win their primaries. Such a test draws some real characters out of the woodwork. Trump also ushered specific bad candidates in major races through their primaries (Mehmet Oz, Blake Masters, Herschel Walker, Dan Cox, Geoff Diehl, John Gibbs, to name a few) while keeping some quality ones (Doug Ducey, Chris Sununu, Charlie Baker) on the sidelines. The “Trumpy” candidates, either because of their direct association with him or simply the vibes they gave off, almost uniformly trailed the less-Trumpy Republicans with whom they shared a ticket. Had Trump just kept his mouth shut for a couple of years after leaving the White House, as basically every other president in modern history has done, Republicans could have come closer to the typical, lopsided midterms result they were expecting. In the few days since the midterms, Republicans operatives and politicians are speaking against Trump more freely than they have since the few days after Jan. 6. Let’s see how long this window of internal disgust at Trump’s world-historical, calamitous self-absorption stays open.

Rank 2

2. Samuel Alito

The biggest policy backlash wasn’t a Democratic one.

The truth is, Trump’s full legion of dinguses could have all been swept into power had the political environment looked like it did in November 2021, when Republicans posted a wavelike performance in off-year elections. That environment, though, evaporated in late June when Samuel Alito got to fulfill his elementary school dream of eliminating the constitutional right to an abortion. It awakened a dead Democratic base and put Democrats in a position to grind out close races. Let’s think about it like this: Why does the party controlling the White House typically lose House seats in midterm years? Much of it is that those who just lost a presidential election are more motivated to turn out and vote against the party in power, while some swing voters with buyer’s remorse flip sides. Republicans had all of that going for them. But another factor is usually that the party in power will pay a price when it’s achieved a long-sought partisan policy goal—think of the backlash to Democrats passing comprehensive health care reform in 2010. This year, though, it was Republicans who achieved their long-sought partisan policy goal, through the Supreme Court whose justices they put into place. It cut hard against their other advantages, and it placed abortion on the ballot in state after state. One way of looking at this is that Republicans were “the dog that caught the car” and stupidly blew an election with wave-ish potential through their insistence on getting Roe overturned. Another way, though, is that they achieved the Holy Grail of conservative policy wins … and still look like they could pick up at least one chamber of Congress. Most of them will take that trade in the long run.

Rank 3

3. Rick Scott

It was the National Rick Scott Committee all along.

The worst mistake Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made all cycle was allowing Florida Sen. Rick Scott to turn Senate Republicans’ campaign committee into a vehicle for branding Rick Scott as the anti–Mitch McConnell. This led to some real screwups! Scott, defying McConnell’s strategy of making the midterms strictly a referendum on Joe Biden, first released a policy agenda in February that suggested raising taxes on the bottom half of Americans and sunsetting all legislation—including Social Security and Medicare—after five years. As Republicans are now conceding, this really did hurt them throughout 2022. Down the stretch, Scott’s National Republican Senatorial Committee and McConnell’s super PAC took divergent strategies, with Scott spreading money to long-shot states like New Hampshire and McConnell’s super PAC focusing on locking down core states like Pennsylvania (oops). As Politico has reported, Scott’s plan was to get all of those long-shot Republicans, whose “candidate quality” McConnell had disparaged, across the finish line—and then challenge McConnell for the position of Republican leader. He wouldn’t have been able to beat McConnell, but he at least would have had a talking point for a future presidential campaign about how he stood up to him. Scott, however, supposedly nixed the bid this week when all of his wretched candidates lost.

Rank 4

4. Sean Patrick Maloney

It was the best of Maloneys, it was the worst of Maloneys …

Then there’s the other celebrity campaign chief of the cycle: New York Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He is a man of contrasts! On an individual level, he ignominiously bigfooted Rep. Mondaire Jones out of his district because he wanted a safer district for himself … and then lost that race, on which he had to use DCCC funds. Tough look. On the other hand, he also had arguably the best record of a DCCC chair, relative to expectations, in memory? His DCCC pushed aggressive new maps on states like Illinois, New Mexico, and Nevada that saved Democrats’ seats. Everywhere you look on the House results map, you see DCCC-backed front-liner after front-liner carrying difficult districts by a few points in a national turnout environment that still, despite Republicans’ aforementioned problems, leaned the GOP’s way on net. One other thing about Maloney’s own seat: We’re not sure hubristic Republicans, who as of Friday have still not clinched control of the House, look like geniuses for having spent disgusting amounts of money that could’ve gone elsewhere to collect a trophy win.

Rank 5

5. Andrew Cuomo

He got his revenge, all right.

Another factor taking Maloney down was that the red wave did materialize to an extent in New York. You can point to a lot of factors for why: dissatisfaction with one-party rule, nonstop crime talk, and a strong, if ultimately unsuccessful, Republican gubernatorial candidate in Lee Zeldin at the top of the ticket. Republicans are going to pick up at least three House seats in New York, which could be enough to comprise Republicans’ margin in the House. It’s shocking when you think about New York Democrats’ original plan this cycle: to gerrymander a map in which they would flip at least three seats. That map, however, was tossed by conservative state judges appointed by ex-Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Cuomo was said to have revenge on the mind after being forced out of office over sexual harassment allegations. Well, his appointments may well have cost Democrats control of the House of Representatives. Hopefully that scratches the itch.

Rank 6

6. The Democratic Governors Association

A risky strategy that completely paid off.

It’s not getting as much press as House or Senate results, but Democratic governors had a huge night. The party retook control of Maryland and Massachusetts, and retained control of key governorships in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. They fended off difficult challenges in Oregon and Kansas. And as we write this, Republicans’ star of the cycle—Arizona Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake—could still lose. The Democratic Governors Association, and the Democratic candidates they supported, were central figures in one of the most controversial ploys of the cycle: spending money to “elevate” MAGA candidates in GOP primaries so as to secure easier opponents. Democrats did this in the Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Illinois governor’s races—and won them all. Senate Democrats’ super PAC elevated Don Bolduc in the New Hampshire Senate race and comfortably won that, while the DCCC elevated MAGA favorite John Gibbs over Trump-impeaching Rep. Peter Meijer in a Michigan swing district, and promptly swung it. Now, without the Dobbs effect awakening the Democratic base, these may have all been disastrous bets that ushered election deniers into key seats of power. But Dobbs did happen, so whatever!

Rank 7

7. Lindsey Graham

Smooth move with the abortion ban.

We don’t know if Lindsey Graham is truly one of the seven people who determined the outcome of the midterms. But we do have a paragraph’s worth of material to write about him. His decision in mid-September to hold a press conference introducing national abortion ban legislation ranks right up with Rick Scott’s policy manifesto as one of the dumbest individual moves on the cycle. “I think Lindsey Graham, talking about abortion, nationalizing an abortion ban weeks before the election, did no one any help,” New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu said this week. A “source close to” Rick Scott, meanwhile, told the Washington Post that Democrats used Graham’s ban “in every swing state in the country.” Scott, of course, said this as a way of getting at McConnell, saying the mistake was McConnell’s for allowing Graham to be a bonehead. Sheesh. Reader? Both House and Senate Republican leaders are a ruthless, finger-pointing mess right now. Donald Trump is talking shit left and right about potential 2024 rivals, saying that Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s name “sounds Chinese.” Count your lucky stars. The midterms are over, and our best content days are ahead of us.