The wave election Republicans hoped for never showed up Tuesday night. At this point, the GOP is unlikely to take the Senate and could even fail to capture the House. While the outcomes of races for federal office are important, gubernatorial results offer critical lessons too.
The biggest Republican winner of the night was Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who drubbed former Gov. Charlie Crist by a commanding 20 points—the sort of outcome that sets him up well for a possible presidential run in 2024. During DeSantis’ victory speech, some in the crowd chanted “two more years!”
In Georgia, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp handily dispatched Democrat Stacey Abrams for the second time. (This time, she even conceded.) On the other side of the coin, Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial race saw GOP candidate Doug Mastriano waxed by Democratic state Attorney General Josh Shapiro. Mastriano, who was down more than 12 points with 13 percent of the vote left to count early Wednesday, has said he will wait to concede until all the votes are counted.
While those outcomes were expected, here’s one that wasn’t: Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, seems likely to defeat Republican Kari Lake, a newcomer whose star had risen so fast she was already being touted as a possible Trump running mate in 2024.
Of the GOP gubernatorial candidates running in swing states this year, Kemp, Lake, and Mastriano were the three most defined by their relationship with the “Stop the Steal” wing of the Republican Party.
Kemp, of course, had found himself in Trump’s crosshairs after declining to help him overturn Joe Biden’s win in Georgia in 2020. Lake and Mastriano, by contrast, became notorious for their theatrical embrace of Trump’s stolen-election narrative.
“There was massive fraud in Pennsylvania and it needs to be satisfied. And millions of people across the state have been defrauded,” Mastriano said a month after the 2020 election. “It was stolen, it was corrupt and rotten to the core, and I will continue to say that until my last dying breath,” Lake said this year.
Set aside whether their 2020 stances in particular hurt these candidates in the general election. What is clear is how the philosophy behind their stances shaped their campaign strategies—to Kemp’s gain and the others’ apparent loss.
Kemp was forced months ago to contend with the fact that some Republican-leaning voters—voters he needed—viewed him with hostility. He therefore spent months on the campaign trail solving for that problem, messaging relentlessly on the sorts of things that bound his whole base together: his pro-business and open-economy record as governor, his 2021 championing of an election-security law, his support for law enforcement. The result was that he easily defeated Trump-backed challenger David Perdue in his primary earlier this year and consolidated support from the Republican base by Election Day.
Mastriano and Lake, meanwhile, successfully navigated their respective primaries by lashing themselves to the former president in essentially every respect. That meant throwing themselves behind stolen-election conspiracy theories, but it also meant disdaining the notion that they had to care about uniting the party. It was their job to wave the MAGA flag, and everyone else’s job to get in line.
This produced bizarre spectacles, like when Lake went out of her way to attack, not just the late Sen. John McCain, but any of her own potential voters who might have liked him. “We don’t have any McCain Republicans in here, do we?” Lake said at a campaign event. “Get the hell out!”
In a wave election, that sort of behavior might pay off as a triumphal assertion of who is in charge around here. With a loss, it ends up as a remarkable display of political hubris.
“If Democrats end up capturing some of the statewide offices it will absolutely be because the slate of GOP candidates implored right-leaning independents and RINOs not to vote for them,” Arizona GOP strategist Barrett Marson tweeted Tuesday night. “Let’s see how that tactic works out.”
The one-speed campaign strategy continued even as the vote count showed Lake slipping behind Hobbs. “We had a big day today,” Lake said as she took the stage in Scottsdale, “and don’t let these cheaters and crooks tell you anything different.”But some Republicans may be getting the message that there are more competitive ways to run an election: “We need to stop talking about rigged elections regarding a former president who lost in a landslide,” one GOP consultant told The Dispatch, “and spend more time explaining what we are going to do to fix the economic mess Democrats have created.”