If you thought primary election season was finished teaching valuable lessons ahead of the November elections, then you thought wrong. With the recent contests in Florida and New York, the GOP just received a dire warning about its midterm prospects with all the subtlety of a New Year’s Eve celebration in Times Square.
Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory . . . Again
Up to now, it was common knowledge that the Republican Party was destined to crush the Democrats in a decisive landslide this November in both houses of Congress. After all, it is the historical midterm pattern that has proven itself time and time again; with just four exceptions since the Civil War, the president’s party always loses seats in a midterm election. Both the Senate and the House seemed ripe for the taking.
Indeed, if the election had been held back in May or June, this would have been the case. At the height of the inflation crisis and the simultaneous historic spike in gas prices, Republicans pulled off an upset victory in a special election that saw Texas’ 34th congressional district flip red for the first time in over 100 years.
And yet, just two months later, the GOP has seen its fortunes flipped. In another special election that was considered a major bellwether for the general election, New York’s 19th congressional district, every single poll—including those commissioned by Democratic groups—showed Republican Marc Molinaro as the overwhelming favorite to win. This is an R+3 district that Joe Biden won by just two points over Donald Trump in 2020. And yet, come Election Day, a seat that was supposed to be another pickup for Republicans was won by Democrat Pat Ryan, in a four-point victory over Molinaro.
This embarrassing result is in keeping with the most recent trends in polls depicting the “generic ballot” for the November midterms: Politico’s latest generic ballot shows Democrats with a four-point lead. With several other polls reflecting a similar reversal, the aggregate of all major generic ballots currently gives the GOP a mere 0.2 percent lead with less than three months left to go.
It’s Not the Economy, Stupid
What could possibly be the reason for such a devastating reversal of fortune for the opposition party? In a word: messaging.
In recent weeks, the GOP just couldn’t help but revert to its default favorite topic: The economy.
Understandably, voter frustration with Joe Biden and the Democrats was at an all-time high earlier in the summer, when gas prices reached record levels and inflation topped 8.5 percent. The GOP establishment took this as a sign that they could translate the public’s frustration with these core pocketbook issues into a broader focus on other, more niche economic and fiscal issues. As a result, the Republican Party has started to make mountains out of molehills on such matters as the number of new IRS agents, or the marginal changes to certain tax brackets, as a result of the Democrats’ Inflation Reduction Act.
The problem is that the original core issues that drove up anti-Democratic sentiment earlier in the summer have already begun to fade. Like it or not, Biden’s strategy for reducing gas prices is working. The national average price of a gallon of gasoline has dropped for 70 consecutive days, in the second-longest such streak since 2005. In July, the national average was $4.38 a gallon; in August, it dropped to $3.89, and it continues to go down.
If a 49-cent drop over the course of one month is to be roughly the average for the next two-and-a-half months, then the national average will drop by another $1.20 by November 8 and will stand at about $2.69. By then, voters’ memories of the record-high of $5.02 per gallon in June will have completely faded.
As a result, the GOP continuing to harp on gas prices will appear out-of-touch, desperate clinging to a not-so-distant past where things were slightly worse than they are in the present; in other words, the backbone of this entire electoral strategy involves the Republican Party hoping that things will get bad or stay bad. Voters will take notice of that.
Moreover, Biden is already being rewarded for this noticeable shift in inflation for consumers. Rasmussen Reports, one of the most conservative pollsters in the country, recorded a stunning 11-point increase in Biden’s approval rating in just one month. In July, he was at a historic low of 36 percent; in August, he rose to 47 percent, the highest rating he has seen since September 2021. Other pollsters have reflected a similar increase, in what can only be described as a clear pattern: Biden is bouncing back.
It’s (Still) the Culture, Stupid
Beyond the empirical evidence showing that key economic factors are reversing course and thus becoming useless as campaign attack points, the fact of the matter remains that economic talking points are, quite simply, snooze-inducing. In this new era of culture war-driven politics, where personalities supersede policies, and heart-wrenching social issues are far more captivating than the policy wonk whiteboard presentations often seen in D.C. think tanks or on Fox News, nitpicking over fiscal policies or making a crusade out of temporary economic woes are strategies that are doomed to fail.
It was this economics-focused GOP that pushed so heavily for Molinaro in New York. Just look how far Molinaro got with the support of the Republican National Committee and after being endorsed by the Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Businesses.
But on the same night as this painful display of ineptitude in New York, a beacon of hope for the GOP shined brightly in the South. In the conservative safe haven of Florida, Republicans didn’t just hold their own in the primaries for Congress or statewide office: They charged directly into enemy territory and won.
By the end of primary night in Florida, multiple major school boards across the state were completely overtaken by conservative majorities dedicated to fighting against leftist indoctrination efforts targeting public school students. This grassroots wave even washed over the deep-blue Miami-Dade County, flipping the school board there to a conservative majority that will now be in charge of a district with more than 300,000 students.
How were these victories possible, given a national mood that is slowly but surely shifting back in the Democrats’ favor? Unlike the national GOP that failed miserably in the New York election, the Florida GOP—led by Governor Ron DeSantis—has kept the campaign focus where it should be: on hot-button cultural and social issues that get the voters’ collective blood boiling. Economic issues will bring out the same voters who haven’t produced majorities for years. But these issues can produce a broad coalition of voters who otherwise would not turn out for conservative candidates.
The words that I wrote almost one year ago remain more relevant today than ever before: If the Republican Party and its candidates continue hammering cultural issues the way they did in the Virginia elections, following the example set by President Trump, then they will have an ironclad campaign strategy that will carry them to victory.
Glenn Youngkin and the rest of the victorious Republicans in Virginia won not because they talked about inflation, or gas prices, or taxes—as these things were not even issues in 2021. They talked about the anti-white hatred encouraged by critical race theory, the sexual grooming brought about by the ideology of transgenderism, and the tyranny of COVID mandates demanding that students be vaccinated and masked at all times. Although COVID mandates—like Anthony Fauci’s career—have all but come to an end, CRT and transgenderism are still very much alive and well, and remain more of a threat than ever before.
A Winnable War
Unlike gas prices, the Left’s obsession with race-baiting and its desire to mutilate and indoctrinate children are ills that will not go away on their own. Thus, these issues are never-ending gold mines for Republicans. Conservative candidates who do not make the culture war the centerpieces of their campaigns for all offices will deserve the losses they serve up for themselves.
The Republican Party, once again, is proving itself to be its own worst enemy. The consultants, analysts, and pollsters who serve the party leadership are all too eager to appease the donor base by winding the clock back to 2010 and endlessly yapping about the importance of the debt-to-GDP ratio, the national deficit, or the importance of “fiscal responsibility.” Using the historical midterm trend as an excuse to get complacent, they have convinced themselves that any message, no matter how boring or outdated, will be enough to turn out voters and flip control of Congress. But what worked for the Tea Party crowd 12 years ago means little to the America First base of 2022.
If Republicans roll up their sleeves, get their hands dirty, and tackle head-on the messy and stomach-churning social issues that actually drive up voter enthusiasm, they will be well rewarded in November. But if they insist on resorting to business as usual, then they will once again do what they do best: lose a winnable election, and do more for a Democratic president than his own party ever could.