Thinking About Things: Our Hugely Interesting 2022 Mid-Terms

John DeQ. Briggs 

In the election finally almost concluded, the Biden administration faced  hurricane force headwinds brought on by many things. including:  (i) the catastrophic departure from Afghanistan; (ii) the declaration of war on domestic carbon fuels and the consequent spiking gasoline prices; (iii) the flooding of the economy with “free cash” to politically favored groups  and the consequent spiking of inflation to rates not seen since the 1970s; (iv) the disastrous lack of security on the southern border and the consequential spike in deaths from opioids cum Fentanyl;  (v) the toothless criminal law enforcement policies of many urban centers, driving up murders, carjackings, and burglaries; the mishandling of Covid  during  2021 and the caving in to the demand for lockdowns from the teachers’ unions, with the effect of stunting the educational growth of millions of children; and (vi) the panoply of issues surrounding wokeness in schools and elsewhere.   

But bucking a nearly century-old trend, instead of receiving the voter punishment expected by most, the administration just about broke even.  This was not because the electorate voted to approve the policies that generated these massive headwinds.  This was because, contrary to most polling and expectations, the GOP in general, and Donald Trump in particular, handed scores of congressional seats to generic Democrats.  The red wave never materialized, except in Florida, although as we shall see, normal Republicans did unusually well beneath the surface.

First, and probably most importantly, with maybe two exceptions, every normal Republican who was primaried by and lost to an ultra-MAGA Trumpist candidate watched the Trumpist candidate go down to defeat. The exceptions were J. D. Vance in Ohio and Ted Budd in North Carolina. But even they garnered notably less of the electorate than the successful GOP candidates in their jurisdictions. Here is a list of the Trump-backed losers, all of whom very publicly ran on a platform of 2020 election denial out of obeisance to Trump.   

Trump’s losing endorsed Senate candidates

  • Mehmet Oz—defeated in Pennsylvania by John Fetterman. 
  • Don Bolduc—defeated in New Hampshire by Sen. Maggie Hassan.
  • Blake Master – defeated in Arizona by Marc Kelley
  • Leora Levy—defeated in Connecticut by Richard Blumenthal. 
  • Gerald Malloy—defeated in Vermont by Peter Welch.
  • Herschel Walker – in a runoff against Sen Warnock on Georgia, anticipate defeat

Trump’s losing endorsed House of Representatives candidates

  • Bo Hines—defeated in North Carolina’s District 13 by Wiley Nickel.
  • Steve Chabot—defeated in Ohio’s District 1 by Greg Landsman.
  • Madison Gesiotto Gilbert—defeated in Ohio’s District 13 by Emilia Sykes.
  • John Gibbs—defeated in Michigan District 3 by Hillary Scholten.
  • Yesli Vega—defeated in Virginia’s District 7 by Abigail Spanberger.
  • Karoline Leavitt—defeated in New Hampshire’s District 1 by Rep. Chris Pappas.
  • J.R. Majewski—defeated in Ohio’s District 9 by Marcy Kaptur.
  • Sandy Smith—defeated in North Carolina’s District 1 by Don Davis.
  • Robert Burns—defeated in New Hampshire’s District 2 by Ann McLane Kuster.
  • Sarah Palin—defeated in Alaska’s At-Large District 2 by Mary Petlota.
  • Jim Bognet—defeated in Pennsylvania’s District 8 by Matt Cartwright.

Trump’s losing endorsed gubernatorial candidates

  • Keri Lake – lost to Katie Hobbs in the Arizona Gubernatorial race
  • Tudor Dixon—lost to Governor Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan.
  • Doug Mastriano—lost to Josh Shapiro in Pennsylvania.
  • Lee Zeldin—lost to Governor Kathy Hochul in New York.
  • Dan Cox—lost to Wes Moore in Maryland.
  • Geoff Diehl—lost to Maura Healey in Massachusetts.
  • Tim Michels—lost to Governor Tony Evers in Wisconsin.
  • Darren Bailey—lost to Governor J.B. Pritzker in Illinois.
  • Scott Jensen—lost in Minnesota to Governor Tim Walz.
  • Mark Ronchetti—lost in New Mexico to Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham.
  • Derek Schmidt—lost in Kansas to Governor Laura Kelly.

There was massive ticket splitting in these elections.  The entire electorate stood up and in virtually one voice said to Trumpist candidates “NO. ENOUGH IS ENOUGH,” while leaving regular Republicans unscathed. If you imagine looking at the outcomes via Google Earth and as a video game, the losers were hit by laser beams that hit them and them alone. There was little or no collateral damage. This debacle turned the hat trick for Mr. Trump and made him a certifiable three-time loser: the 2020 presidential election; the loss of both Georgia senate seats (and the senate) in 2021; and now the failure of the GOP to capitalize on the unprecedented weakness of the Biden administration and its slate of candidates. Whether and how the GOP processes this obvious reality will determine much about the next twenty years or more. This is also true of the Democrats. 

In the weeks leading up to the election, the Democrats were frequently criticized or mocked for providing millions and millions of dollars to Trump-supported candidates for statewide office or for congressional seats. The party leadership and outside organizations spent almost $19 million across 12 races — five gubernatorial contests, two Senate races, and five congressional races. Separately, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a billionaire, spent $9.5 million of his own money, combined with about $25 million from the Democratic Governors Association, to push Darren Bailey, a far-right, Trump-endorsed state senator, during the primary season. Pritzker won the race with an 11-point lead over Bailey to secure his second term in office, and Bailey conceded. 

An analysis by the Washington Post found that  most of the spending was on advertising, which took one of three tacks: (1) tying a far-right Republican candidate to Trump and the MAGA movement, as Pennsylvania governor-elect Josh Shapiro did with his GOP rival Doug Mastriano in hopes that the MAGA base would turn out in the primaries; (2) attacking the more moderate candidate, as Pritzker did in Illinois; or (3)  putting out advertising branding the far-right Republican candidate as “too conservative,” as in the Maryland gubernatorial races.  All three of these specific tactics were designed to bring out the MAGA bases so as to assure that the democratic candidate would face a more defeatable ultra Maga republican candidate. These tactics also had plausible deniability. They generally look like they could be attack ads in the context of a general election. But it was the fact that the advertisements ran during primary season that marked them as part of a larger strategy — to give Democrats an easier shot at winning by avoiding a matchup with much stronger Republican who they considered more electable.

In hindsight, the democratic strategy paid huge dividends and looks like money better spent than a lot of the other money spent by the Democratic Central Committee.  It provided an extraordinary return on investment and may become an interesting feature on both sides of the aisle in the future, with each party funding what they perceive to be unelectable politicians on the other side. Bizarre, frankly. A tactic that should actually be illegal without full disclosure. 

It is probably also beyond cavil that Republican absolutism on abortion rights contributed materially to the failure of the GOP to generate more than a red ripple.  For political reasons that are not too difficult to grasp, the Republicans are (wrongly) perceived as being against abortion under any circumstances, ever.  Yet in some states, they are.  Those states become powerful poster children for Democrats to use against Republicans generally, and they did so very effectively. Indeed, five states had referenda on the ballot regarding abortion rights: California, Kentucky, Michigan, Montana, and Vermont.  Voters in all five of these states voted in favor of Constitutional measures protecting a right to abortion or against legislative measures designed to prohibit or restrict abortion rights.  If something quite like the original trimester structure of Roe v. Wade were established by statute, we might de-politicize the issue. But so long as absolutists on the left treat infanticide as simply “abortion,” (cf., New York, Oregon) and so long as absolutists on the right treat all abortion as unacceptable (cf., Alabama, Missouri), the fight will go on without end. 

Much less visible, and indeed less clear, was the impact of the Tucker Carlson Wing of the Republican Party and its hostility to American support for Ukraine in its war against Russia.  This slice of the GOP – the “Natcons,” or National Conservatives — is something of an unknown quantity with more of a social agenda than an agenda aiming at particular economic, international, or broad-based governance policy.  This is a sometimes-influential group of conservatives but one that spends most of its time opposing things, especially woke progressivism (f/k/a political correctness) in government, the military, education, culture, the media, business, and so on.    

Yet, beneath at all, there were some signs of a red rebellion in, of all places, New York, California, Vermont, and other pockets of deep blue political power.  “Normal” (non-Trump-backed) Republicans flipped eighteen congressional seats in some surprising states:  Arizona (2), California (1), Florida (3), Georgia (1), Iowa (1), Michigan (1), New York (4!), New Jersey (1) , Oregon (1), Texas (1),Virginia (1),  and Wisconsin (1),  The Democrats, for their part, flipped only eight seats. Just as interesting, Republicans came very close to some massive upsets, most notably the governorship of New York, and several elections in Washington State and even in California, where the Los Angeles mayoralty election was just called (for the Democrat)  within the last couple of days. The observable evidence suggests that these close calls were due to the persistence of  high crime in many urban areas ever since 2020 and  to a lesser degree inflation and allied economic concerns. And of course, we are seeing recall elections for George Soros funded progressive prosecutors and it is hard to imagine most of them being unsuccessful. The recall already succeeded in San Francisco (Chesa Boudin) and others are in the works. 

Whether and how the Republicans will process what happened remains to be seen.  But the democrats seem to be processing what happened as if they won a stunning victory.  It is worth remembering that just before the recent midterm elections, the mainstream media scribblers, senior democratic grandees and poohbahs, and major Democratic donors were speaking quietly, and in some cases not so quietly, about how to dump Biden and Harris and the urgent need of doing so.   They had about them the stench of aged losers, well past their prime.  The party, many said, needed young blood and fresh leadership.  The New York Times and the Washington Post were part of this chorus.  They were, of course, expecting a shellacking in the midterms.  They were all engaging in what Commentary Magazine’s John Podhoretz has coined as “precriminations.”  They were even sounding like Republicans in lambasting the administration for inflation, crime, too woke and such. But presto chango, because of the Biden “success” (if one can call it that, as opposed to the GOP failure) in the midterms, Biden is riding high and seems committed, even though he just turned 80, to running for a second term in two years. The chorus of precriminations has become silent, and instead, the Democratic apparatchiks and cognoscenti seem to be salivating, for the moment, at the prospect of a Trump candidacy.  

Having dodged a Trumpist bullet, they suddenly think they can dodge all bullets, like the character Neo in The Matrix, and are hence almost immortal.  This could be a disastrous misreading of the electorate. Then there is the appointment of a new Special Counsel. It is hard to read the tea leaves, but this could be a catastrophe for the Democrats if it drives the Republicans away from Mr. Trump. Surely it was intended to do the opposite – to solidify support for Mr. Trump and weaken support for stronger opponents such as Mr. DeSantis thus permitting Mr. Biden to have a presidential contest against the only Republican he could defeat.  

In all events, unlike the Republicans, the Democrats have a tricky billiard shot up their sleeve that could serve as an emergency parachute.  It could run like this: (i)  Kamala Harris is persuaded to take a lifetime Federal judgeship or a multimillion dollar a year job working for George Soros; (ii) President Biden appoints a Vice President, somebody with demonstrated voter appeal (perhaps Gavin Newsome, governor of California); (iii) in early 2024, Mr. Biden resigns on health grounds, explaining that he wants to spend more time with his family; (iv) the Vice President (Mr. Newsome, say) is sworn in as President (he maybe even issues a pardon for Mr. Biden); (v) Mr. Newsome appoints as Vice President a woman, a woman of color, a man of color, or some other person against whom no Democrat could vote and for whom some Independents (or even moderate Republicans) could vote. Voilà!  The Democratic ticket is established early in 2024 and there is no need for troublesome fractious primaries or the expenditure of billions of dollars.  

Back in the real world of the present, it remains to be seen whether Kevin McCarthy has anything close to the skills of Nancy Pelosi to hold together his raucous Republican Caucus or to devise a legislative agenda that would capture votes while serving the public interest.  If I had to place a wager on one side or the other of the question, I would wager that Kevin McCarthy will be a weak and ineffective House Speaker, unable to control the Republican Caucus, and unable to resist spending two years investigating Hunter Biden, Joe Biden’s connection with moneys brought in by Hunter Biden, the FBI, and other things political and vengeful.  While some topics might be worthy of House investigations (for me it would be the Afghanistan debacle and maybe the Fauci/China connection) one doubts that the GOP leadership is capable of stopping the cycle of political vengeance and trying to focus instead on the vital business of the people including the topics detailed below.

So, with Mr. Trump last week having announced his candidacy, and with Florida’s governor Ron DeSantis looking like the winner Mr. Trump has always claimed to be, we are in for an interesting time.  One can read about all this in most any newspaper or follow it on most any Twitter feed.  So, I will poke around for a moment in the shadows.  First of all, Trump’s announcement so early in the game, seems to me to carry great danger for him and great opportunity for the GOP as a whole.  Having become a declared candidate, he has certain reporting obligations for each quarter.  Among those obligations is the obligation to report contributions.  One wonders whether he will get very many contributions.  If it turns out that he does not, then there is for him the risk of public humiliation of losing financial support.  It seems unlikely that he would put any meaningful amount of his own money into his campaign.

Secondly, the one attack made upon Governor DeSantis by Mr. Trump seems to have backfired and Mr. DeSantis seems to have the self-discipline, much lacking in Mr. Trump, to ignore the teases and insults from Mr. Trump and to respond softly, while carrying a big stick.  His response last week was as simple as it was elegant, and probably quite effective.  When asked to respond to Trump’s criticism and characterization of him as Ron DeSanctimonious, DeSantis quietly shrugged and said that as one who has run for office several times he was accustomed to criticism from opponents, the press, the networks, and that it was all just noise that came with the territory.  But, he added, if one wished to compare him with others, “… at the end of the day, I would just tell people to go check out the scoreboard from last Tuesday night.”  This was a brilliant answer, lumping Trump in with the media, not mentioning his name, and just pointing to the Florida outcome, where DeSantis carried every county including Miami-Dade County, which has never been carried by a Republican for the last 100 years.

But back to the next election.  If the GOP expects to reform itself in time to be competitive in 2024, the party leadership needs to come to grips with many realities, among them these:

1. Trump is doubtless the only Republican candidate who could lose to Biden in 2024. Therefore the party must find a way to get him away from the public eye and out of the public mind without alienating most of his base. 

2. There are literally dozens of strong non-Trump Republican candidates as sitting or former governors (Abbott, DeSantis DeWine, Haley, Hogan, and Youngkin, for example) as well as present and former Senators and Members of Congress in the House who could be attractive to most Republicans, most independents, and some Democrats. The GOP has a deep and strong bench if Trump is certifiably out of the picture. If he is on the ballot, the GOP should expect another defeat. 

3. There are very few notable Democratic candidates waiting in the wings to take over from Biden, Pelosi, and Schumer. The Democratic party has a shallow and weak bench. There is not any democrat who seriously would say that Kamala Harris could be a viable candidate for anything

4. The GOP is very good it is opposing things but it has proved terrible at governing at the national level.  The party needs to stop looking in the rearview mirror, complaining about the past  and getting even. It needs provide the country with its vision of a sustainable and positive future.  Among many other things, this means:

  • Addressing the immigration fiasco with a program that could in fact be implemented. Achieving border security, implementing a path to legal citizenship, and creating a priority for immigration that matches immigrants with national needs would be three main pillars of an achievable immigration policy.
  • Addressing economic policy in a way that does not mean just powering taxes.  I have been stunned, frankly, to see that some 53% of the people polled seem to approve of the student debt “forgiveness.”  One suspects that the polling question itself may have been loaded and failed to disclose that we the taxpayers would bear the burden of the hundreds of billions of dollars of debt transfer.  A GOP-controlled Congress would be wise to enact legislation that would prevent the executive branch from doling out such political favors without congressional approval.  It is certainly difficult for me to see the tuition “forgiveness” scheme as anything more than a vote buying gambit aimed at young people increasingly feeling entitled to “free stuff.”
    Yet student debt is a problem worthy of being addressed and the GOP could address it in any number of sensible ways.  For example, National Service, military or otherwise, could be a condition of debt relief with the length of time in service bearing some objective relationship to the amount of debt canceled.  Another approach, as I have previously written, would be to permit student debt to be discharged in bankruptcy, which is not now the case.  Moreover, if students declare bankruptcy with outstanding student debt, the colleges and universities who took the money ought to bear some responsibility for repayment of a material portion of the debt.  The student debt problem is just a symptom.  The more serious problem is that the cost of tuition, room, and board has far outstripped the inflation rate for the last 60 years.   
  • Unleashing American industry to provide oil and gas for the country to become independent, and also able to supply much of Europe with oil and gas. The idea that we can make and power electric vehicles and create the necessary infrastructure by fiat and dictat is and has always been a progressive pipedream. This would do much to contain inflation and bring the country back to pre-pandemic normal. It would also back off from the phony crony capitalism of the democratic party, which has always been inclined away from free markets and towards industrial engineering with a strong flavor of central planning. 
    In this connection, I have found it beyond offensive that the President, without the approval of Congress, has used up most of the American strategic petroleum reserve purely for the political purpose of trying to bring down gasoline prices in the weeks and months preceding the midterm elections.  The strategic petroleum reserve is intended for use in wartime or other such critical circumstances.  The GOP would be wise to pass a law making it impossible for the sitting President to release fuel from the strategic petroleum reserve during peacetime without some form of congressional approval.
  • Making a serious effort to confront the somewhat frightening international landscape, including China (with a newly empowered dictator in charge) with its designs on Taiwan; Russia with its designs on Ukraine; North Korea with its designs on who knows what; and other autocracies in Europe, in Asia, and in South America.  One has a sense, or at least I have the sense, that neither the Democratic Party nor the Republican Party have given serious attention to these matters for quite some time, putting to one side for a moment Ukraine. It would be an extraordinarily refreshing change to see a GOP with a foreign (and military) policy designed to deter aggression rather than one designed mainly or only to react to it.  
    One vital but obscure example where action is needed has to do with tactical nuclear weapons.  Years ago, pursuant to a treaty with the USSR, the United States agreed to eliminate most of it tactical nuclear weapons.  The USSR agreed as well.  The US complied with the agreement.  The Soviet Union did not.  One result is that Russia today has some 2000 tactical nuclear weapons at its disposal, while the United States has slightly more than 200.  This imbalance becomes especially interesting and risky, for example, given the situation in Ukraine.  The 10 to 1 imbalance could well tempt Russia into utilizing such weapons in  Ukraine, especially given the absence of a reliable  US delivery system for tactical nuclear weapons. 
  • Finding a way to bring our schools and colleges back to teaching and to draw them away from indoctrination. There is of course a fine line between these things, but it is a line that should be drawn and respected. The increasing trend away from objective standards (such as the SAT’s and other such tests) is concerning. Once objective standards disappear, one worries that merit might too. The role of government in creating objective standards is difficult and tricky, especially inasmuch as it collides with various flavors of affirmative action. But a society that has no objective standards becomes a society that has few standards at all, and this is something most people should be concerned about, especially the GOP. 
  • It has been painful for me, as a veteran, to see so many trillions of dollars frittered away for reasons that are either not readily apparent or that are overtly political.  The Covid relief program threw money at people young and old indiscriminately.  Yet we have a population of wounded veterans that, according to various internet sources numbers around 2 million people.  I think that a GOP program to provide special care to amputee veterans, in some cases by providing suitable housing, is something that should be seriously considered.  We are bombarded almost every night by advertisements asking us to give to the Wounded Warrior Project, the Tunnel to Towers Project, and other such organizations that appear to provide some basic needs for veterans who seem worthy of them.  It strikes me that it should be far more politically acceptable to both Republicans and Democrats that these people who have served and been grievously injured should be the object of our bounty before we give $800 billion to students who chose to borrow money to go to college and have served the country not at all.  

Extra Credit Reading. 

Christopher DeMuth published a brilliant  article in the November 18 issue of the Wall Street Journal entitled America’s Right Confronts the 21st Century It is a trenchant analysis of the origins of political conservatism, its development, its essential purposes, and a short to do list suited to serving those purposes.  It is behind a pay wall so, apologies for that.

Matt Taiibi’s November 19 article on substack provides an original and entertaining view of both Trump and the left entitled No, New York Times, You Don’t “Deserve Better” Than Donald Trump.  I do not think this is behind a pay wall, and it is both short and entertaining.  The subtitle is “Trump should spare us all and retire.  But his antagonists’ lack of self-awareness keeps giving him oxygen.”  As a bonus, embedded in the article is a clip (2:20) of Dave Chapelle doing a riff on why Trump was so popular in the early days. It is quite priceless and very much on the money.  

Today (Monday) brings an excellent, albeit for some controversial, article in Common Sense, the substack publication run by Bari Weiss. Bill Barr: Trump Will Burn Down the GOP. Time for New Leadership.