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The Red Wave That Never Was
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The Red Wave That Never Was

What to make of Republicans’ failure to notch sweeping gains Tuesday night.

Happy Wednesday—and sorry we’re a little late this morning! Long night of crunching election returns.

But congratulations to the person in California who won this week’s $2.04 billion Powerball jackpot and is now so rich that he or she doesn’t have to care about yesterday’s results.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Results

The long promised “Red Wave” failed to materialize on Tuesday, with Democrats hanging on to several key Senate and House seats despite some GOP gains. By the wee hours of Wednesday morning, we still didn’t know which party would control either chamber—and it could be days before we do. Even in already-called races, exact tallies will shift as final votes get counted, but we’ve highlighted some preliminary results (as of 5 a.m. ET) for competitive races, as reported by NBC’s Decision Desk:

Senate: Control of the upper chamber is still uncertain due to races in Nevada, Arizona, and Georgia, where the race may be headed for a December runoff.

  • Pennsylvania: Democrat John Fetterman eked out a victory of 50 percent to Republican candidate Mehmet Oz’s 48 percent.
  • North Carolina: Republican Ted Budd took home 51 percent of the vote, edging Democrat Cheri Beasley’s 47 percent.
  • Georgia: The race was too close to call, with incumbent Democrat Raphael Warnock holding a slight lead at 49.2 percent to Republican Herschel Walker’s 48.7 percent. The candidates may head into a runoff December 6.
  • Florida: Incumbent Republican Marco Rubio walloped Democrat Val Demings, winning nearly 58 percent to her 41 percent.
  • Ohio: Trump-endorsed Republican J.D. Vance beat Democratic candidate Tim Ryan 53 to 47 percent.
  • Wisconsin: In a race too close to call, Republican incumbent Ron Johnson held the lead at 50.5 percent over Democrat Mandela Barnes’ 49.3 percent.
  • Arizona: With only 67 percent of expected votes reported, the race was still too early to call despite incumbent Democrat Mark Kelly leading Republican Blake Masters 52 to 46 percent.
  • Nevada: In another race too early to call early Wednesday, Republican Adam Laxalt led incumbent Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto 50 to 47 percent with 80 percent of the expected vote reported.
  • Utah: Incumbent Republican Mike Lee soundly defeated Independent Evan McMullin, 55 to 41 percent.
  • Colorado: With about 55 percent of the vote, Democratic incumbent Michael Bennet overcame Republican challenger Joe O’Dea’s nearly 43 percent.
  • Washington: Incumbent Democrat Patty Murray took home 57 percent of the vote to Republican Tiffany Smiley’s 43 percent.
  • New Hampshire: Democratic incumbent Maggie Hassan won about 54 percent of the vote to Republican Don Bolduc’s 44 percent.

House: The lower chamber still seems likely to land in Republican hands. By early Wednesday, the New York Times labeled 206 seats as solid- or lean-Democratic and 219 seats as solid- or lean-Republican. The other 10 remain toss-ups.

  • Virginia: Democrats hung on to vulnerable seats, with Abigail Spanberger winning 52 percent to Republican Yesli Vega’s 48 percent in the 7th District and Jennifer Wexton taking 53 percent to Hung Cao’s 47 percent in the 10th District. Incumbent Democrat Elaine Luria, however, lost her 2nd District seat 48 to 52 against Republican Jen Kiggans.
  • Rhode Island: In the 2nd Congressional District, Democrat Seth Magaziner outpaced Republican Allan Fung 50 to 47 percent.
  • Ohio: Democrat Greg Landsman successfully flipped incumbent Republican Steve Chabot’s seat in the 1st District, winning 53 percent of the vote to Chabot’s 48 percent.
  • North Carolina: In the 13th District, Democrat Wiley Nickel edged out Republican Bo Hines, 51 to 49 percent.
  • Texas: Incumbent Democrat Henry Cuellar kept his seat in the 28th District, winning 57 percent to challenger Cassy Garcia’s 43 percent, while Republican Wesley Hunt took the 38th District with 63 percent of the vote to Democrat Duncan Klussmann’s 35 percent. Democrat Vicente Gonzalez defeated Republican Mayra Flores 53 to 44 percent in the 34th District.
  • New Hampshire: Incumbent Democrat Chris Pappas defeated challenger Karoline Leavitt 54 to 46 percent to keep his seat in the 1st District.
  • Michigan: Democrat Hillary Scholten won the 3rd District 52 to 44 percent against Republican John Gibbs, who ousted Rep. Peter Meijer in the primary. In the 7th District, Democratic incumbent Elissa Slotkin defeated Republican Tom Barrett 51 to 47 percent.
  • New York: Several key races remained too close to call but were leaning toward Republicans, including between Republican Michael Lawler and incumbent Democrat Sean Patrick Maloney in the 17th District, Republican George Santos and Democrat Robert Zimmerman in the 3rd District, Republican Nick LaLota and Democrat Bridget Fleming in the 1st District, and Republican Marcus Molinaro and Democrat Josh Riley in the 19th District. In New York’s 18th Congressional District, Democratic incumbent Pat Ryan had a slight edge on Republican Colin Schmitt.
  • Indiana: In the 1st Congressional District, the state’s only competitive district, Democratic incumbent Frank Mrvan seemed poised to defeat Republican Jennifer-Ruth Green, 53 to 47 percent with 83 percent of the expected vote counted.
  • Nebraska: Incumbent Republican Don Bacon looked likely to beat Democrat Tony Vargas in the 2nd District, leading 52 to 48 percent with 88 percent of the vote reported.

Governors: Voters also hit the ballot box for gubernatorial races, handing wide victories to a few candidates.

  • Florida: Incumbent Republican Ron DeSantis clobbered Democratic challenger Charlie Crist 59 to 40 percent.
  • Georgia: GOP candidate Brian Kemp won 53 percent of the vote, defeating Democrat Stacey Abrams’ 46 percent.
  • Texas: Incumbent Republican Greg Abbott beat Democrat Beto O’Rourke 55 to 43 percent.
  • New York: Current Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, won 53 percent to Republican Lee Zeldin’s 47 percent.
  • Pennsylvania: Democrat Josh Shapiro’s 55 percent defeated Republican Doug Mastriano’s 43 percent.
  • Ohio: Incumbent Republican Mike DeWine took home 63 percent of the vote to Democrat Nan Whaley’s 37 percent.
  • Michigan: Incumbent Democrat Gretchen Whitmer kept her post with 53 percent of the vote to Republican candidate Tudor Dixon’s 45 percent.
  • Wisconsin: Incumbent Democrat Tony Evers won with 51 percent of the vote over Republican Tim Michels’ 48 percent.
  • Massachusetts: Democrat Maura Healey swamped Republican Geoff Diehl by a margin of 64 to 35 percent.
  • Maryland: Democrat Wes Moore won 60 percent to Republican Dan Cox’s 37 percent.
  • Maine: Incumbent Democrat Janet Mills kept Republican Paul LePage from returning to office, winning 58 percent to his 40 percent.

Ballot initiatives:

  • Michigan: Voters approved—56 to 44 percent—an amendment to the state constitution establishing a right to abortion and other pregnancy-related decisions.
  • Kentucky: With 82 percent of votes counted early Wednesday, Kentucky voters seemed poised to scrap an amendment specifying that the state constitution doesn’t guarantee a right to abortion or require abortion funding, with 51 percent of votes opposed and 49 percent in favor.
  • California: Voters soundly defeated ballot measures that would have legalized sports betting at tribal casinos, licensed racetracks, and online.
  • Missouri and Maryland voters approved measures legalizing marijuana, while Arkansas, North Dakota, and South Dakota defeated similar proposals.

A Red Trickle

Dr. Mehmet Oz, who lost the Pennsylvania Senate race to Democrat John Fetterman, speaks during an Election Night event. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Regular readers of this newsletter may have noticed we didn’t devote much space in recent weeks to midterm prognostications, opting instead to spend our time covering the economy, the war in Ukraine, the protests in Iran, the Supreme Court, the pandemic, the fentanyl crisis, and more. We’re lucky we skipped the punditry, because if we hadn’t, we’d probably be writing you today with a mea culpa for getting the election so wrong.

Republicans entered Tuesday incredibly bullish on their chances for a big night, and for good reason. Inflation remains at levels not seen since the early 1980s, the country appears to be tipping into an economic recession—if it isn’t in one already—and President Joe Biden’s net approval rating has been hovering between -8 and -19 percent all year. Couple that with the fact that the sitting president’s party almost always crashes and burns in the midterms, and you can see why GOP officials would be optimistic. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy planned to deliver a momentous address around 11 p.m. ET ushering in the massive new House Republican majority that would deliver him the speaker’s gavel.

Instead, he settled for a brief update at 2 a.m., when even Fox News was reporting that control of Congress was still up in the air. “When you wake up tomorrow,” McCarthy claimed, “we will be in the majority and Nancy Pelosi will be in the minority.”

But as we hit send on this newsletter, we still don’t know which party will be calling the shots in either chamber of Congress. On the Senate side, the races in Nevada, Arizona, and Alaska remain too close to call, and Georgia’s seems likely headed to a runoff, with neither Raphael Warnock nor Herschel Walker surpassing the 50-percent threshold necessary for an outright win. Republican prospects in the House are slightly better—the party could theoretically pick up a couple dozen seats if everything still outstanding breaks their way—but the results are a far cry from the swings many pundits were predicting. When all is said and done, Democrats could conceivably have the strongest midterm performance by an incumbent president’s party in two decades.

“[It was] definitely not a Republican wave,” GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham admitted last night. “That’s for darn sure.”

We’ll have much more analysis of the results in the coming days, but here are a few key takeaways from one of the weirdest and most surprising Election Nights we’ve ever seen.

Turns out candidate quality might matter after all.

Sen. Mitch McConnell in August expressed doubts about the GOP’s chances of taking back the Senate, citing “candidate quality” as a major reason why Democrats could retain control of the chamber. He’d been thwarted by this phenomenon before, like when Todd Akin, Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle, and Richard Mourdock managed to lose eminently winnable races in 2010 and 2012. McConnell didn’t specifically name Herschel Walker, Blake Masters, Don Bolduc, and Dr. Mehmet Oz as examples of what he meant this time around—but he didn’t have to. 

As economic conditions worsened, however, that conventional wisdom began to shift—on both the right and the left. Maybe candidate quality doesn’t matter, pundits began to argue. Maybe the political environment is such that any jamoke with an R next to their name could ride the Red Wave—no, Red Tsunami—into office, personal or political baggage be damned.

Nope! Turns out voters are more than capable of discerning between strong and weak candidates—and more than willing to withhold their support from the latter. 

In Georgia, for example, Brian Kemp, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, received 201,000 more votes than Herschel Walker, the scandal- and gaffe-plagued Republican candidate for U.S. Senate. Kemp trounced Stacey Abrams, his Democratic opponent, by nearly 8 percentage points, while Walker is almost assuredly headed to a runoff with Raphael Warnock.

A similar situation played out on the Democratic side in Pennsylvania. Josh Shapiro, the party’s gubernatorial candidate, was outpacing John Fetterman—the far-left Senate candidate recovering from a severe stroke—by nearly 275,000 votes. Both Democrats still won because Republicans nominated someone who was at the January 6 riot and an out-of-touch celebrity doctor who lived in New Jersey until recently, but Shapiro’s margin of victory was nearly five times as big as Fetterman’s.

Chris Sununu and Don Bolduc in New Hampshire. Chuck Schumer and Kathy Hochul in New York. Mike DeWine and J.D. Vance in Ohio. Raphael Warnock and Stacey Abrams in Georgia. In solidly blue/red New York and Ohio, the weaker of the two candidates still made it over the finish line. But in state after state, voters rewarded candidates who ran campaigns better suited to their electorate.

Donald Trump’s 2024 star is falling—and Ron DeSantis’ is rising.

Let’s talk about the guy who saddled the GOP with many of these lousy candidates. With a few high-profile exceptions, Donald Trump was able to usher the vast majority of his chosen candidates through Republican primaries. Many of them—Don Bolduc, Doug Mastriano, Mehmet Oz, Tudor Dixon, Tim Michels—faceplanted once they got to the general, but Trump doesn’t want you to focus on that. “I think if [Republicans] win, I should get all the credit,” he said in an interview yesterday. “If they lose, I should not be blamed at all.”

That may not cut it with GOP elected officials and operatives, who grew more and more frustrated with the former president as Tuesday night wore on. “All the chatter on my conservative and GOP channels is rage at Trump like I’ve never seen,” National Review’s Michael Brendan Dougherty noted. We’ll see if any of those private complaints end up being voiced in public, but the vexation wasn’t just over his endorsees’ performances: Trump spent the days leading up to the election injecting himself into the news cycle by teasing a 2024 campaign launch and attacking a number of prominent Republicans. His first public reaction to the results Tuesday night was to essentially celebrate Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet’s win in Colorado, because his Republican challenger—Joe O’Dea—had distanced himself from the former president.

The other object of Trump’s ire on Tuesday was Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. “I would tell you things about him that won’t be very flattering,” Trump said in a Fox News interview when asked about a potential DeSantis presidential bid. “I know more about him than anybody—other than, perhaps, his wife.”

But if the goal of those comments was to deter such a bid, Trump may have his work cut out for him. DeSantis was one of the Republican Party’s lone bright spots on Tuesday, smashing expectations to defeat Charlie Christ—the Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat who challenged him—by a whopping 19.5 percentage points. He won Miami-Dade county—an area Hillary Clinton won by nearly 30 points in 2016—outright, and approximately 65 percent of the vote in the state’s majority Hispanic precincts.

Considering Trump only won Florida by 3.3 percentage points in 2020 and 1.2 points in 2016, DeSantis will have a strong electability case to make in 2024 if he so chooses. His supporters—and the political betting markets—are banking on it. His victory speech was interrupted multiple times last night by a not-so-subtle chant: “Two more years! Two more years!”

Republicans aren’t making ‘stolen election’ claims … yet.

As high-profile race after high-profile race went Democrats’ way, we started to get a pit in our stomach. A not-insignificant number of Republican candidates this year were 2020 election truthers; were they going to start baselessly crying fraud en masse because things didn’t go their way?

It’s too early to tell. We saw public concessions from Don Bolduc and Karoline Leavitt in New Hampshire, Darren Bailey in Illinois, Bo Hines in North Carolina, and Tim Michels in Wisconsin before the night was out—and 2018 election truther Stacey Abrams quickly bowed out after it became clear Brian Kemp would win—but plenty of other Trump-backed candidates chose not to abide by network election desks’ calls.

“This race is going to be too close to call, despite what FOX thinks,” Tudor Dixon—the GOP’s gubernatorial candidate in Michigan—said last night. She currently trails Democrat Gretchen Whitmer by 340,000 votes (8 points) with 85 percent of the ballots tabulated.

Dixon’s hesitancy to concede wasn’t unique among MAGA Republicans. From Doug Mastriano and Joe Gibbs to Dan Cox and Lee Zeldin, a number of GOP candidates decided to wait at least a day before throwing in the towel. Arizona’s gubernatorial race has yet to be called one way or another, but GOP nominee Kari Lake is already raising questions about the veracity of the results after issues with a number of tabulation machines in Maricopa County Tuesday. (Bill Gates, chair of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, said voters affected by the temporary glitch had three options to ensure their vote was still counted.)

Democrats—who made adherence to the democratic process a key platform plank this year—were much quicker in conceding once races were called for Republicans. Ohio’s Democratic Senate candidate Tim Ryantook pride in it. “I have the privilege to concede this race to J.D. Vance,” he said. “Because the way this country operates is that when you lose an election, you concede, and you respect the will of the people. We can’t have a system where if you win it’s a legitimate election, and if you lose, someone stole it. That is not how we can move forward in the United States.”

Worth Your Time

  • So it begins. With the midterm elections barely in the rearview, Democrats and Republicans are already turning their gaze to the 2024 presidential election—and neither party likes what they see. “What every Republican leader knows, but few dare say out loud, is that 2022 would mark the third consecutive year that Republicans not named or tainted by Trump had a good election,” Jonathan Martin writes for Politico. “For all the affection Trump enjoys from his base, there’s a reason why it’s Democrats who are the most eager to make him the face of the GOP.” Meanwhile, Democrats have their own succession headaches. Democratic lawmakers’ “dread about 2024 extends from the specter of nominating an octogenarian with dismal approval ratings to the equally delicate dilemma of whether to nominate his more unpopular vice president or pass over the first Black woman in the job,” Martin writes. “[But] should the former president formally announce his candidacy this month, top Biden officials believe it’s virtually certain the current president will at least begin to pursue a re-election bid.”
  • Polling suggests voters aren’t especially swayed by claims about the end of democracy, Graeme Wood notes in The Atlantic. That might be a good thing. “Americans are probably better off not willing to vote as if the political end-times are near, just because the president stands in a post-apocalyptic transportation hub and says they should, or an ex-president says something similar at a county fair,” Wood writes. “And my appreciation for this skepticism is deepened by the fact that democracy was, in fact, threatened and nearly subverted by the leader of the Republican Party. Subversion is harder, not easier, when voters are skeptical of their politicians’ rhetoric and instead demand tangible results. One interpretation of the haywire politics of the past decade or so is that politics have become too idealized, about ‘hope’ and ‘change’ and ‘greatness,’ rather than about crime, kids’ math classes, gas prices, and preventing war. Three-point-five percent of voters care about democracy. I suspect that somewhat more care about earthbound issues.”

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Toeing the Company Line

  • Urban areas vote Democratic, and Texas is no exception. Kevin examines why that is and finds the Republican Party’s focus on grievance over good governance undermines urban support. “Imagine yourself as a high-achieving young Texan who wants to attend an elite university, graduate, move to Austin, and work at Apple,” he writes. “Worse than merely failing to sympathize with the values and aspirations of these voters, Republicans often sneer at them, denouncing the cities and the mode of life lived there as corrupt, dismissing the colleges and universities that prepare students for professional life as dens of inequity, and, increasingly, treating those at the commanding heights of business as cultural traitors.”
  • While control of the House and Senate may grab the biggest headlines, Tuesday’s gubernatorial votes offer critical lessons, too—particularly about the future of the Republican Party, Andrew reports. Candidates who tied themselves to Trump and “stop the steal” floundered, while others focused on recruiting a broader base of Republican voters and found success.
  • Even if Republicans gain control of the House, GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy’s path to speaker got a lot rockier last night, Haley says. He will face backlash for the disappointing results, have fewer votes to wrangle for support, and, even if installed as speaker, will have more trouble ruling the resulting caucus.
  • Democrats’ cynical decisions to boost more extreme Republican primary candidates seem to have paid off last night, as Price reports, with all six of the boosted primary winners losing to Democratic candidates. That’s likely to encourage future Democratic meddling—but operatives say it should also be a wake up call for Republicans supporting extreme candidates.
  • Will a surprisingly-successful election night buy Biden more time in his party’s (somewhat) good graces? Democrats have long fretted about whether the president’s lack of popularity would tank them in the midterms, but now some tell Audrey that Tuesday’s results could help clear the field for another Biden presidential run.
  • If Republicans do indeed take back the House, what are they likely to do with their newfound power? Expect efforts to impeach Biden, along with a whole slew of investigations into the withdrawal from Afghanistan, alleged political interference at the Justice Department, Hunter Biden, the origins of COVID-19, and much, much more, Haley reports in Tuesday’s Uphill
  • Yesterday’s elections mattered, but they weren’t the most important of our lifetimes, Sarah writes in this week’s The Sweep (🔒), arguing that such hyperbolic rhetoric has a cost. Plus: why bad polling might be a boon for democracy, and how efforts to improve polling now involve crisp $5 bills.
  • Is there anything the coming Congress can do that would have lasting significance? David comes up with two low-probability, high-consequence actions in Tuesday’s French Press (🔒): cutting off aid to Ukraine and refusing to certify the next presidential election.
  • Nick jammed as many pre-election hot takes as he could into yesterday’s Boiling Frogs (🔒), running through a score of different outcomes and drawing conclusions about Democratic messaging, candidate quality, Hispanic and black voters, and Kari Lake’s future in MAGA Land.

Let Us Know

Why do you think the Red Wave didn’t come to fruition?

Declan Garvey is the executive editor at the Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2019, he worked in public affairs at Hamilton Place Strategies and market research at Echelon Insights. When Declan is not assigning and editing pieces, he is probably watching a Cubs game, listening to podcasts on 3x speed, or trying a new recipe with his wife.

Esther Eaton is a former deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch.