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Republicans in Disarray?
As we head toward Labor Day, emotions are emanating from the two major political parties that are different from the moods a few months ago.
As we head toward Labor Day, when the midterm election season will kick into high gear, emotions are emanating from the two major political parties that are different from the moods a few months ago.
There is hope among the Democrats that the fall elections will not only not be a bloodbath, but that the party may do much better than they feared. Could they not only hold the Senate but expand on their razor-thin majority there? Even less likely, but maybe not impossible, is it crazy to think they keep the House?
Among Republicans, concerns now that prospects for a “Red Wave” may be receding, leaving behind anxiety and recriminations. How could they not mop up considering high inflation and President Biden’s low approval ratings? Normally the party out of power does very well in midterms. Will Republicans this year historically underperform?
What is driving a lot of this speculation is a series of polls in battleground states, particularly in Senate races, that show Democrats leading or at least highly competitive. There is also the often-predictive “generic ballot” question, which asks voters which party they plan to vote for for Congress. It has been trending in the Democrats’ direction. And then there are some real results — a few special elections where Democrats did better than expected and the massive win for reproductive rights in Kansas. These data points suggest that Democratic voters are energized and that their turnout could be significant.
Now before we go on, you are urged not to ignore the many caveats. A lot of this excitement is based on polls, and polls have been wrong before. These polls are also close. A small change in one direction could lead to a big shift in electoral fortunes. Furthermore, we have a long way to go. Even if Democrats are leading in the dog days of summer, it doesn’t mean they will be in November. Races often tighten or shift, and we have no way of knowing what external events might push the national environment one way or the other.
This election will ultimately be decided by voters. It will matter how motivated they are, how organized they are, and how determined they are. What makes midterms even harder to predict than presidential elections is that turnout is more variable. And that is especially true in this election, with so many unusual factors.
Donald Trump is not on the ballot but still very much in the public eye. How will this proximity drive his supporters and those who detest him?
How will the Supreme Court decision striking down Roe shape this election? There are a lot of indications it is having a big effect motivating voters to support Democratic candidates. Will that energy sustain itself over the next few months?
What will happen to the economy? Will gas prices keep coming down? Will inflation look better? Will there be growing fears of a recession?
What about the war in Ukraine and the rumblings from China? Will an unstable world affect voters?
In short, nothing is in the bag or a given for either side. This is a volatile moment with even more than the usual unpredictability.
WIth all that said, there is something we can discuss with more certainty. And that is the nature of the Republican candidates running in races across the country. The number who have embraced the “Big Lie” about the 2020 election somehow being “stolen” is strikingly high. We also have seen a fealty to other aspects of the increasingly Trumpist Republican Party. Campaigns are being run on false grievances, identity politics, and divisive social issues.
Furthermore, many top-tier candidates — particularly those running for Senate — are stumbling badly on the trail. This includes celebrity TV doctor Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, the old football star Herschel Walker in Georgia, and the venture capitalist and author J.D. Vance in Ohio. All are political neophytes promoted by Donald Trump. And all are showing it in races that should be winnable for Republicans.
A pair of articles recently in The Washington Post highlighted the struggles the Republicans are having. One, titled “McConnell’s grim 2022 expectations-setting,” focused on some political prognostications made by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell:
“I think there’s probably a greater likelihood the House flips than the Senate,” McConnell said, according to NBC News. “Senate races are just different — they’re statewide, candidate quality has a lot to do with the outcome.”
McConnell added: “Right now, we have a 50-50 Senate and a 50-50 country, but I think when all is said and done this fall, we’re likely to have an extremely close Senate, either our side up slightly or their side up slightly.”
In one way, this merely acknowledges an emerging reality. The generic ballot has tightened in recent weeks, and polls show Republican candidates struggling in some states — such as Arizona, Georgia, Ohio and Pennsylvania — that are key for McConnell’s path back to majority leader. Some prognosticators now have Democrats as favorites to keep their Senate majority.
It’s also convenient for McConnell to set the bar lower in this way, such that an adverse outcome on election night is laid at the feet of those specific candidates (or perhaps someone who endorsed them) and is not seen as a referendum on the broader political strength of his party.
A lot of ensuing commentary focused on McConnell’s “candidate quality” reference and the implicit criticism of Donald Trump for promoting candidates who were less electable.
Another Post article focused on the money woes of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) under the leadership of its chairman, Senator Rick Scott of Florida. Under the provocative headline, “‘It’s a rip-off’: GOP spending under fire as Senate hopefuls seek rescue,” the article notes that the NRSC is pulling ad buys from competitive races and that Democratic candidates are vastly outspending Republicans:
The NRSC’s retreat came after months of touting record fundraising, topping $173 million so far this election cycle, according to Federal Election Commission disclosures. But the committee has burned through nearly all of it, with the NRSC’s cash on hand dwindling to $28.4 million by the end of June...
“If they were a corporation, the CEO would be fired and investigated,” said a national Republican consultant working on Senate races. “The way this money has been burned, there needs to be an audit or investigation because we’re not gonna take the Senate now and this money has been squandered. It’s a rip-off.”
Reckless and undisciplined spending without accountability. Extremist candidates and feckless celebrities not ready for the spotlight. These are not accidents or anomalies. This is the modern Republican Party taken over completely by Donald Trump and Trumpism. If Mitch McConnell wanted candidates who had a better chance of winning, he would have had to stand up to Trump, and we all know how that would have played out. If you’re not sure, you can ask Liz Cheney about it.
There is no nostalgia among the Republican base for anything the party claimed to have stood for in the past. To many people, the party doesn’t stand for much of anything in the present, other than an unquestioned loyalty to its leader. You would be hard pressed to find what Republican candidates actually want to do if given the keys to governance. It’s all “voter fraud,” and “critical race theory,” and “build the wall.” To all but the (sizeable) core of Trump loyalists, it’s showboating, not substance. It’s lies and not legislation. It’s autocracy and not democracy.
The Republicans didn’t get “unlucky” with who they are running for Congress. This is who the base wants. And the opaque fundraising and reckless and unaccountable spending is also par for the course. It’s the Trump way. So it’s the Republican way. There should no longer be any question about that, whether the press covers it that way or not.
To the question of what will happen in November, know this: The Republicans can still certainly win control of both houses of Congress. But that is not a given anymore. American voters, Democrats, Independents, and even some Republicans could rise up in sufficient numbers and say Trump may be able to take over the Republican Party, but we will not let that party take over the country.
To end this, I go to the wisdom of the late E. A. “Squatty” Lyons. He’s long gone now, but he was the longtime county commissioner in Harris County (Houston), Texas, when I was coming up as a young reporter.
Squatty at the time (the 1950s) had won more consecutive elections than anyone in the history of the region. He was a character straight out of “The Last Hurrah,” not college educated but an honors graduate from the School of Hard Knocks.
He and I had graduated from the same tough neighborhood high school. So in the shank of one election night, after he had won again, I asked him for some advice on covering politics.
His answer, which I never forgot, was:
“As the ancients knew well, when it comes to politics, what we most expect oftimes never happens; what we least expect often occurs.”
Seems as applicable today as it was the night old Squatty said it.