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Unsolved Mysteries

Midterm edition.

Former President Donald Trump embraces Arizona Republican nominee for governor Kari Lake. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The hardest part of my job isn’t writing or researching or even choosing a topic to write about, although that’s often difficult.

The hardest part is resisting the impulse to chase every new twist in the nascent Trump/DeSantis 2024 death match like Dug the dog alerting on a squirrel.

As Dispatch readers know, it’s become a bit habit-forming.

Instead of wagging my tail and bounding after Vanity Fair’s juicy new scoop about Team DeSantis telling donors that he won’t challenge Trump after all, I’ll show restraint for once and focus on a more immediate concern. A national election is four days away and, while the outcome isn’t in much doubt, it’s certainly in doubt at the margins. Republican control of the House is a fait accompli and control of the Senate looks likely, but swing-state polls remain tight enough to make the results of individual races suspenseful. 

As we ponder the campaign decisions that delivered us to this point, three headscratchers stand out. And depending on how things shake out on Tuesday, the people at the heart of those mysteries will have much to answer for.

The day of recriminations is close at hand. Let’s prepare.

Mystery one: Why didn’t Trump spend more on the candidates he endorsed?

Superficially, this isn’t a mystery.

A pathological narcissist making money from his cult hand over fist won’t agreeably share his wealth with others for the simple reason that he won’t agreeably share anything. Ever.

We’re talking about a guy who, if the New York Times’ reporting is correct, knowingly placed himself in criminal jeopardy by retaining sensitive national security documents despite warnings from his own lawyers not to do so. Why? Because, reportedly, he believed those documents were rightly his. Never mind what the law said or how his predecessors in office behaved.

Every time I think of Trump’s selfishness, I hear an old bit George Carlin used to do about the selfishness of American consumerism. “Gimme that, it’s mine!” is how he summarized the attitude, making his voice as whiny as possible. “Gimme that, it’s mine!”

That’s Trump with everything. Classified material? Gimme that, it’s mine. A gigantic fundraising haul that could help elect Republicans across the map?

Gimme that, it’s mine.

Even in the best of circumstances, when there’s a written contractual obligation, getting money out of him has never been easy. His willingness to stiff contractors during his days as a real estate magnate is legendary, a habit that allegedly followed him to his new social media platform. His fondness for showing up to charity photo ops before entering politics also apparently far exceeded his fondness for actually giving to charity.

When he visited France in 2018 and stopped by the official residence of the U.S. ambassador, he liked some of the art on the walls. So he just … took it with him.

The man could squeeze a buffalo nickel until it poops.

In that sense, Trump declining to donate to Republican candidates is a “dog bites man” story. That he’s not inclined toward altruism is the opposite of a mystery.

What makes his behavior mysterious is that there are selfish reasons for him to have spread his campaign cash around this year.

His enemies on the left and right are poised to bludgeon him next week if his MAGA Senate endorsees in swing states flame out. Imagine Herschel Walker, Blake Masters, Mehmet Oz, and even J.D. Vance fumbling away races that should have easily gone Republican in a national environment as favorable as this one. Trump will be blamed for having saddled the party with terrible candidates instead of more generic Republicans who would have won in a waltz. And that will feed perceptions among the DeSantis-curious that Trump’s become more of a liability for the GOP than an asset.

Which would be bad enough. But since any defeats those candidates suffer are destined to be narrow, he’ll also be asked to explain why he didn’t pony up TrumpBucks to help carry them over the finish line. Control of the Senate might plausibly turn on the fact that Donald Trump boosted unlikable nominees to victory in their primaries—and then left them for dead financially in their general elections.

By doing so, he also fumbled an opportunity to purchase their loyalty in its entirety. Had he bankrolled Vance, Masters, and the rest, they’d arrive in the Senate owing their seats to no one but him. As it is, per Marc Thiessen, Trump’s stinginess created space for his one semi-serious counterweight in the party, Mitch McConnell, to fill the void.

McConnell-aligned super PACs — including SLF, American Crossroads and Faith & Power PAC — have invested a whopping $238 million so far in seven key Senate races. How much has Donald Trump spent? He has raised an eye-watering $161 million this election cycle. But his super PAC, Make America Great Again, Inc., has spent a grand total of … $14.8 million on Senate races. To put that in perspective, MAGA Inc.’s total spending across the country is less than McConnell-aligned PACs have spent in any individual race in which they are engaged.

Another difference between Trump and McConnell: McConnell-linked groups have been on the air since August. MAGA Inc. did not even begin booking airtime until October. McConnell was backing Trump’s candidates early, while Trump provided too little, too late.

McConnell’s PAC has spent $32 million on Vance, $57 million on Oz, and $38 million on Walker, notes Thiessen. Trump’s PAC has spent $2.3 million, $3.4 million, and $3.4 million on the same races, respectively. As much as Vance et al. may like to preen about not doing Mitch McConnell’s bidding once they’re in the Senate, the fact that they’ll owe their seats to him as much as they will to Trump will necessarily affect their willingness to defy him.

If Trump wants a new Senate majority leader next year, he might find that the rookies he was counting on to help oust McConnell have gotten cold feet about crossing their new patron. He could have prevented that if only he’d been more generous in donating to them.

Even if all of his candidates win, there’s a good chance that some Republican nominee somewhere, like Tiffany Smiley in Washington, will lose a tight race. Had Trump spent heavily on the likes of Vance, McConnell’s PAC could have used its money to go in hard for Smiley instead. As it is, McConnell had to pick up Trump’s slack, which means the GOP is likely to end up leaving winnable seats on the table.

A man who might soon face a plausible challenge from Ron DeSantis on the question of which of them is better for the party seems not to have considered that his spending habits this year, and the Senate outcomes those habits produced, will be used to prosecute the case against him. Mysterious.

Mystery two: Why hasn’t Kyrsten Sinema campaigned for Democrats in Arizona?

The curious case of Trump not spending on his endorsees isn’t really that curious, I think. He’s remorselessly selfish and not bright enough to recognize what’s in his long-term strategic interest. Character is destiny. Perhaps he thinks he doesn’t need to spend on Vance and the rest because they’ll kiss his ass anyway. Why buy loyalty from someone when you can bully them into it for free?

The case of Kyrsten Sinema not going all-in for her party in Arizona is a genuine stumper, though. Netflix could make a spooky episode of their Unsolved Mysteries reboot out of this one.

Consider: Despite all the heavy breathing over control of the House and Senate, the Arizona gubernatorial race might quietly be the most important election in the country this year.

It’s a race where the GOP’s conspiratorial populist nominee, Kari Lake, was supposed to stand no chance against normie Democrat Katie Hobbs. Instead, four days out from Election Day, Lake is poised to win. If she does, it’ll scramble the conventional wisdom that crank candidates are unelectable in swing states. The floodgates will open for Republican kooks to run in 2024, assuming they aren’t fully open already.

Lake’s retail performance in the campaign has also propelled her to superstar status within the GOP pending victory on Tuesday night. Despite her wild theories about the 2020 election, she’s as cool and unflappable during interviews as you’d expect a veteran TV newscaster to be. Already Democrats are eyeing her as a national political force if she brings home a win next week, a likely shortlister to be Trump’s vice president in 2024. The probability that Kari Lake will be president before the decade is out is north of zero.

And the probability that Gov. Lake will cause a constitutional crisis in 2024 by refusing to certify a Democratic victory in Arizona’s presidential election is way north of zero.

Democrats have all kinds of reasons, in other words, to pull out the stops and end Lake’s political career before it gets rolling. And luckily for them, they have a secret weapon to help them do so: One of the most popular Democrats in the country among Republican voters, Kyrsten Sinema, represents Arizona in the Senate. She stood up to her party on the minimum wage, on election reform, and on ending the filibuster to codify Roe v. Wade. Together with Joe Manchin, she helped thwart progressive ambitions for a Build Back Better mega-blockbuster last year. She’s walked the walk as an independent Democrat who doesn’t follow the left out of mindless partisan loyalty. 

If there’s any liberal in the United States whose opinion conservatives and leaners might take seriously, in other words, Sinema is it. That makes her uniquely positioned to try to convince them that Lake is a fruitcake who doesn’t belong within 500 miles of official power.

Four days out from Election Day, she’s said next to nothing about Lake or Dobbs.

Cue the Unsolved Mysteries theme song as you read this from the Daily Beast.

During the 2022 election season, Sinema has not campaigned publicly with her colleague [Sen. Mark] Kelly, or with Hobbs, [secretary of state nominee Adrian] Fontes, or any other Democrat on the ballot in the state. It was not until two weeks before Election Day, with early voting underway, that Sinema even publicly confirmed she was supporting Hobbs.

[A]s is often the case with Sinema, it’s not just what she does, but how she does it. For instance, some of her critics have seethed that she appeared more in public with Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell in this campaign season than with Arizona Democratic candidates. In September, she gave a speech at McConnell’s foundation in Kentucky, which was filled with mutual praise between the two.

It’s not clear whether Sinema has declined Democrats’ invitations to campaign for her or if the invitations were never extended to begin with.

But they must have been extended, no?

Granted, as much as Republican voters have come to respect Sinema, Democratic voters have grown to despise her more. Progressive organizing to primary her in 2024 began months ago and has drawn interest from names as big as Rep. Ruben Gallego. In a vacuum, Sinema is the last person a Democratic candidate looking to energize the liberal base would want as a surrogate.

But elections don’t happen in vacuums. As much as they might dislike Sinema, Arizona Democrats doubtless have come to fear and loathe Lake even more, and for good reason. They’re not going to stay home in protest and let Lake get elected governor just because Kyrsten Sinema happens to turn up at a Katie Hobbs rally.

On the contrary, Sinema stumping hard for Hobbs should have been an obvious opportunity for her to get back in the good graces of her own voters. Imagine if she had spent the last three months tirelessly campaigning for her party and Hobbs, Kelly, and Fontes all ended up winning narrowly. She’d be a Democratic hero. Maybe not enough of one to spare her a primary challenge, but conceivably enough of one to survive that primary challenge.

Hobbs and the others must have wanted her on the stump. She didn’t show up. I honestly can’t fathom why.

The best I can do is speculate that Sinema has already written off running for reelection and is planning to become Tulsi Gabbard 2.0 on the GOP media circuit when she retires in 2024. But that’s hard to believe, as she doesn’t hold any classically conservative or even neo-MAGA policy positions. Gabbard is aligned with the right because she’s a soft-on-authoritarians isolationist who likes to rail against woke-ism. You don’t hear that from Sinema. To the extent she has a pet issue, it’s preserving the filibuster.

I have no solution to this mystery to offer you. But if you have any information on the disappearance of Kyrsten Sinema, call the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office. You can remain anonymous if you like.

3. Why did Democrats make abortion the centerpiece of their campaign?

This one isn’t a mystery at all, yet it’s destined to be the question debated more hotly than any other in the aftermath of Tuesday’s drubbing.

It’s already being debated. For Democrats the day of recrimination has arrived early, accelerated by the growing certainty that they’re about to be trounced. A few days ago the New York Times reported on fingers being pointed inside the party at its rhetoric down the stretch. “In areas where victory depends on high Black voter turnout, Democrats worry that they are not mobilizing that constituency,” the paper noted. “Others say there has been too much focus on abortion rights and too little attention on worries about crime or the cost of living. And across the country, Democrats point to an inadequate economic message and an inability to effectively herald their legislative accomplishments.”

Wherever liberals end up settling in the great “surely it was our messaging, not our policies” cope-fest to come, consensus is growing that the high expectations for a Dobbs backlash at the polls haven’t borne out. Whether Americans lost interest in abortion rights organically, had their interest supplanted by rising economic worries, or got exasperated trying to follow the patchwork of new laws, court orders, ballot referenda, and proposed federal legislation that followed the ruling, there’ll be no “Roevember” this year. Only after Democrats spent $320 million on abortion advertising, more than 10 times what they spent on ads about inflation, is that hard reality finally dawning.

So was it a mistake for them to have stuck with abortion as their message as long as they did?

We’ve already begun to debate it internally at The Dispatch. Some of us think that a red wave will be proof positive that the Democrats’ pro-abortion messaging failed epically—and, in the abstract, there’ll be no disputing that. The number of Republican pick-ups in the House will be proof enough that it’s true.

My question is this. If not Roe, what should Democrats have campaigned on?

Inflation? What could they plausibly say about it at this point apart from “W-w-well, Republicans don’t know what to do about it either”? That would be pitiful coming from the party with total control of government.

Crime? Democrats could have pounded the table about hiring more police, I suppose, but I doubt there’s any way they could have wrested the advantage from the GOP on the issue in the short term. There are too many bad vibes from the left to overcome: “defund the police,” rising crime in blue population centers, bleeding-heart prosecutors, organized shoplifting rings ransacking stores in San Francisco, etc., etc. “The Democrats had so little credibility on crime that any message I tested this year against the Republicans ended up losing us votes, even messages that voters previously liked,” Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg reported this week.

A focus on crime wasn’t going to dig the party out of its hole. If anything, it might have dug the hole deeper.

How about running on Democratic policy accomplishments, though? They passed an infrastructure bill, a major climate change bill, a minor gun control bill, the CHIPS Act, and, oh, right, the COVID relief bill that caused global inflation to metastasize. Per Greenberg, though, it turns out voters don’t want to hear about any of Biden’s achievements in office. Evidently that backward-looking message makes it sound like the party is disengaged from the problems Americans are facing now. “It’s our worst performing message,” he told Politico recently. “It said to the voters that this election is about my accomplishments as a leader and not about the challenges you’re experiencing.”

Maybe focusing on what they did in concrete terms to reduce prescription drug costs for seniors could have broken that mold. But, per Greenberg, maybe not.

When in doubt, there’s always the third rail of American politics, entitlement reform. Republicans have made some noise about changing Social Security and Medicare recently. But no one expects them to have the votes in the Senate they’d need to make it happen (at least until 2025) and the issue is destined to seem like a non sequitur to voters fretting about prolonged inflation and a new recession in the near term. Democratic scaremongering on entitlements might be potent in the next cycle, but not this one.

And so we return to our question. If not Roe, what should Democrats have campaigned on?

Let me rephrase. If Democrats had campaigned on something other than Roe and took a predictable in-party beating in the midterms anyway, what question would the entire world be asking in the aftermath?

Right. Why didn’t you campaign on Roe?

The end of 50 years of constitutional abortion rights in America was a nuclear blast in the culture wars. The magnitude was such that it seemed capable of distorting normal midterm political gravity, the way 9/11 did to the 2002 cycle or impeachment did to the 1998 cycle. Nate Silver speculated in August that this might in fact prove to be an “asterisk” election.

That being so, put yourself in Democrats’ shoes. They’re at midfield, down a touchdown, with five seconds left. In that situation, should they try some too-clever strategy to score, like a series of laterals—chattering about inflation and crime and their achievements, none of which were likely to work?

Or should they have thrown to the end zone and hoped for the best?

It’s not a mystery as to why they ran on Roe. It was the smart play under the circumstances. It just didn’t work, as Hail Marys seldom do.  

The real mystery in hindsight is whether there was any message that could have been effective for them in a climate like this. When voters are paying 10 percent more for everything, I suspect you’re hosed no matter what.

Special bonus mystery: Will DeSantis run in 2024?

Yes, fine. I’m going to chase the squirrel. Briefly.

And yes, I do think this counts as a mystery of the midterms even though it concerns the next election cycle. I’ve said many times that DeSantis’ margin of victory next week is important to his pitch against Trump. The more he outperforms Trump’s margin of victory over Biden in Florida in 2020, the stronger his case becomes that he’d be more electable nationally.

The case is shaping up pretty nicely.

Nothing would be more depressing than having DeSantis, fresh off a landslide and the GOP’s lone credible presidential contender beside Trump, stand aside in 2024 so that a twice-impeached, soon-to-be indicted insurrectionist can be crowned a third time by acclamation.

I remain skeptical that DeSantis will hold back, Vanity Fair’s reporting to the contrary notwithstanding. It would make no sense. He’s campaigning around the country for Republican candidates; he has $90 million still in the bank to spend on a future campaign; and if he waits to run until 2028, when he’ll have been out of office for two years, he risks being supplanted as the base’s second-favorite Republican by some populist goblin we might not have even heard of yet. (Or by Kari Lake, especially if she ends up as Trump’s new running mate.)

His moment is now, as Mrs. Ron DeSantis reportedly recognizes. Barack Obama decided not to wait his turn in 2008 when he challenged Hillary Clinton and ended up as president. Chris Christie decided that he should wait his turn in 2012 when he didn’t challenge Mitt Romney and ended up as Trump’s valet.

Fortune favors the bold. DeSantis must realize that.

I think he does. Watch his new ad. You’re telling me this egomaniac is going to humble himself before Trump by not running?

My hot take is that Team DeSantis is whispering to reporters lately that he won’t challenge Trump because they don’t want him taking shots at the governor at Sunday’s big rally in Miami that DeSantis wasn’t invited to. Trump allegedly resents DeSantis for not pledging to stand down if he runs in 2024 and might be inclined to air some of his grievances with the governor at the rally. That won’t stop DeSantis from winning on Tuesday, but anything with the potential to cut into his margins with MAGA voters is unhelpful as he tries to run up the score against Charlie Crist.

The leak to Vanity Fair could be DeSantis’ way of pledging privately to stand down if Trump runs, knowing that Trump will be pleased when he hears of it and will lay off DeSantis at the rally. Then, once DeSantis is safely reelected as governor, surprise—he’ll change his mind and decide that he’s running for president after all.
And as for how conservative media’s DeSantis fanboys will react if he doesn’t run after all, leaving them with another choice between a deranged autocrat and a Democrat, there’s no mystery to that at all.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.