Boy did the Republicans blow it. In midterm elections, on average, the president’s party loses 28 seats in the House of Representatives and four Senate seats. In addition to that snapback trend, Republicans were running against an unpopular president trying to explain away high inflation to cynical voters who largely think the country is going down the tubes. It should have been a Republican rout.
It wasn’t. Democrats will keep control of the Senate and could even pick up one seat. Republicans seem set to win the House, with a net gain of 10 seats or less. Yet once all the outstanding votes are counted, the Republican margin could be so small that a couple of deaths or retirements during the next two years could give Democrats a chance to retake control. On the whole, Republicans put up the worst midterm showing since the Democrats in 2002.
It's clear that part of the problem for Republicans is former President Donald Trump’s grip on the party. Trump has no obvious agenda, at this point, other than promoting himself and perpetuating his absurd claims about 2020 election fraud. Voters want to move on. Yet beyond Trump, the GOP doesn’t have a resounding message or distinctive agenda. Here’s what voters told the GOP in the 2022 elections:
Get an economic plan. Republicans ran against the Biden economy in 2022, mainly hoping high inflation would doom the incumbents. Amazingly, it didn’t. Abortion rights and election integrity turned out to be bigger issues for voters than polling ahead of the elections suggested, which neutralized some of the GOP’s advantage on the economy. But Republicans also failed to tell voters much about their own economic plan. They just bashed Biden’s. That’s not good enough.
In October, Kevin McCarthy, the House Minority Leader—who will probably become House Speaker if Republicans cement control—gave some disturbing hints about what his party’s economic priorities would be if it gained power. McCarthy suggested his party would once again threaten to block an extension of the federal borrowing limit in 2023, to demand spending cuts. In theory, yes, Washington should spend less and get gigantic annual deficits under control. But in reality, threatening financial mayhem has already proved to be a losing move that only disgusts voters.
Worse for Republicans, the spending cuts McCarthy is talking about can only come from Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid, because that’s where the money is. The GOP won’t cut defense and all the other programs don’t add up to enough to make a difference. Those social-welfare programs are popular—especially Social Security and Medicare—so the GOP’s economic plan amounts to a chaos-sowing exercise that Biden would veto, anyway.
Oh yeah—tax cuts. Another GOP goal for the next Congressional session is to lay the groundwork for an extension of the Trump tax cuts when they expire at the end of 2025. Well, not all of them expire. When Republicans passed that law in 2017, they made business tax cuts permanent, while the tax cuts for individuals were temporary. So the individual tax cuts will expire in 2025, unless Congress extends them. Alas, the 2017 tax cuts turned out to be unpopular because voters felt they overwhelmingly favored businesses and the wealthy. That’s one reason Republicans lost the House in the 2018 midterms. The law did cut tax rates for most workers, but most of the benefit went to those who earn the most. If keeping those tax cuts in place is the real GOP agenda, they’ll need to sell it a lot better than they did in 2018.
Get a climate plan. Exit polls for 2022 show that 71% of voters think climate change is a serious problem. There is no Republican plan to address this voter concern or do anything about climate change. They need one. If it were sensible and pragmatic, it would give the GOP a solid counterweight to the Democrats’ dreamy Green New Deal.
Get an energy plan. “Drill, baby, drill” won’t cut it anymore. The United States is in a precarious situation on energy. The shift to renewables has clearly begun and isn’t going to reverse. But the pullback in fossil-fuel investment is occurring before there’s enough green energy to replace it. The vulnerability this has created for Biden will persist, because energy markets seem likely to remain tight, and prices elevated. There could even be crisis-level shortages of certain fossil fuels, such as diesel, during the next year or two. The United States desperately needs a coherent energy plan that provides ample fossil fuels today while still steering toward renewables as they become available. The Democrats don’t have that kind of plan, which means the next time gasoline prices soar, they might suffer a far worse electoral whooping than in 2022.
Look to the future, not the past. Americans don’t want to hear about the 2020 election two years later. They’ll be even less interested in hearing Trumpers drone on with their election lies in 2024. Appealing to angry Americans who feel cheated by the system worked for Trump in 2016. That was the end of it. Voters rejected Trumpism in 2018, 2020 and now 2022. Trump-style culture wars may still get some Republicans fired up, but it’s no longer clear they can win elections. American voters always want to know who’s going to make their lives better, and anger alone doesn’t get the job done.