The victors are crowing. The vanquished are moaning, or spinning, or deflecting blame. Pundits and campaign professionals are scouring the precinct-level results or exit polls for evidence that validates their strategies or proves their favorite theories.
That’s all fine with me. I’ve long been fascinated with the art and science of campaigns myself, though as a journalist rather than a practitioner.
When it comes to the 2022 midterms, however, I don’t think we need elaborate statistical models or inside information to understand what happened. Generally speaking, the issue environment favored the Republicans. In some key races, however, Democrats nominated superior candidates.
In North Carolina, the net result was a good Republican cycle. The GOP regained a supermajority in the North Carolina Senate and got within a seat of it in the House (and may end up with a working supermajority on budget issues, at least). The GOP won both seats up for grabs on the Supreme Court, as well as four more on the Court of Appeals. Republicans made gains on county commissions and school boards. And, of course, North Carolinians contributed to the Republicans’ play for the U.S. Senate by electing Ted Budd.
Still, Democrats won the state’s two most-competitive races for the U.S. House: the 1st District (Don Davis defeating Sandy Smith) and the 13th District (Wiley Nickel defeating Bo Hines). And outside of North Carolina, the Republicans fell considerably short of expectations.
Both parties’ bases turned out strongly, motivated as much as anything else by negative polarization (“the other side must be stopped!”). But as is clearly evident in the contrasting performances of Republican gubernatorial and Senate candidates in places like Georgia and New Hampshire, there were enough swing voters present — soft partisans, ticket-splitters, and true independents — to determine the outcomes.
The issues these voters cared about most were inflation, the economy, law and order, and abortion. On three of the four, Republicans had an edge.
For example, swing voters blamed the Biden administration and the Democratic Congress for runaway inflation, fueled both by excessive demand (i.e. trillions of dollars in debt-funded giveaways) and inadequate supply (constrained first by COVID-era rules and then by other current or threatened regulation). To the extent they assume the Federal Reserve’s anti-inflation policies will trigger a recession in the coming months, these voters blamed Biden and his party for that, too.
As for law and order, swing voters resented being told they were imagining the recent spikes in violent crime and the crisis on the southern border. They also resented being told that if they truly cared about democracy and the rule of law, they should vote for Democratic candidates for federal, state, and local office. Of course most of these voters didn’t agree with the rioters who broke into the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. But they also didn’t agree with the rioters who broke many of America’s downtowns during the summer of 2020. They remember the dozens of deaths and serious injuries that ensued, the billions of dollars in property damage, and the craven responses of many public officials in urban areas, overwhelmingly Democrats.
Given this generally favorable issue environment, why didn’t the Republicans fare better at the polls, particularly outside of North Carolina? Because in many instances they nominated inexperienced and unappealing candidates. Some couldn’t stop indulging Donald Trump’s delusions about the 2020 elections. Others mishandled the abortion issue — opposing its legality even in cases of rape and incest — or failed to articulate a credible alternative to Biden’s economic policies.
On inflation, the economy, crime, the rule of law, school closures during COVID, and a host of other issues, the policies Democrats enacted or championed are unpopular. To the extent Republicans failed to translate this opportunity into sweeping victories around the country, they have no one to blame but themselves.