Opinion 5 big GOP narratives just went down in flames

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) speaks during an election night party at the Westin Hotel in Washington on Nov. 9. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Shattering the expectations of, well, just about everybody in U.S. politics, as of Wednesday afternoon a Democratic hold of the House cannot be ruled out, and Democrats are somewhat favored to keep the Senate.

We might not know either outcome for days, but we already know this: The vaunted “red wave” never materialized.

In the Senate races, John Fetterman triumphed in Pennsylvania, Sen. Mark Kelly is favored to prevail in Arizona with more than half the votes counted, and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto trails in Nevada, but the makeup of outstanding ballots gives her a plausible shot.

If Kelly and Cortez Masto prevail, Democrats will hold the Senate. But even if only one does, Democrats can keep control by winning a likely runoff in Georgia, where Democrat Raphael Warnock narrowly leads. Meanwhile, in the House, Republicans have yet to secure the 218 wins they need, though they’re still narrowly favored to do so.

Beyond the demise of the “red wave” storyline, five other big media narratives just went down in flames. Here’s what we have learned instead:


Democracy was on the ballot, and (for now) it’s winning

We have long been told that inflation and crime are “real” issues that truly matter, while Democratic warnings about the fate of democracy wouldn’t motivate voters. I also feared this.

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The precise role of those warnings in driving Democratic overperformance is uncertain. But we can already say Donald Trump-fueled election denialism suffered a rebuke at the polls, and that voters meaningfully reduced the threat it poses.

With Democrats sweeping gubernatorial races in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin — where GOP governors could have certified sham presidential electors for a losing GOP candidate — a big pathway to a stolen or crisis-ridden 2024 election has been choked off.

And if Kari Lake’s gubernatorial bid in Arizona fails, as appears possible, none of the five most crucial swing states in the 2020 presidential election would have election-denying governors. (Republican Brian Kemp, who defied Trump, won in Georgia.) There’s also a real chance that none will have an election-denying secretary of state.

And so, while dozens of election deniers did win reelection to the House, we seem to be avoiding a situation in which voters failed to hold the most prominent deniers accountable for brashly flaunting their intentions to subvert democracy, which at bottom was a test of the public’s appetite for authoritarianism.


Kevin McCarthy’s dance with Trump has been a disaster

Just after Jan. 6, 2021, the House minority leader privately concluded Trump should resign. Then he made a public pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago to cement their alliance, and helped cover up Trump’s coup attempt for the next 20 months.

For a time, McCarthy’s game was widely treated in the media as clever. He was harnessing the energy of the Trump base to retake the House, even as the GOP didn’t appear poised to pay any political price for helping place Trump beyond accountability. We’ll never know what would have happened if McCarthy had taken the other path — using Jan. 6 to marginalize Trump — but we do know now that harnessing Trumpist energy failed to produce the decisive rout he predicted.

In a poetic twist, the Trumpier House Republicans now see McCarthy as a wounded animal, Punchbowl News reports. Even if Republicans win the House majority, its sheer narrowness is likely to make it easier for members of the MAGA caucus to knife McCarthy in the back, legislatively or with a leadership challenge — a fitting end given the corrupt bargain he struck.


Democratic “meddling” in primaries worked

When Democrats elevated MAGA Republicans in primaries, believing they would be weaker general-election opponents, the roar of pundit criticism was deafening. And to be fair, at first it looked prone to backfiring by letting election deniers sneak into office.

But it was a bet that seemingly paid off. As HuffPost’s Kevin Robillard demonstrates, six of the most prominent election-denying candidates who were boosted by Democrats in House, Senate and gubernatorial races went down.

The critics oversimplified this matter. If you believe the House could pose its most dire threat to democracy simply by virtue of being GOP-controlled, and you also believe elevating a few election deniers might make that outcome less likely, then it’s not an entirely cynical strategy. It risked one outcome (adding a few election deniers to the House) to reduce the risk of another, worse outcome (a House under GOP control).

In fairness, it was probably too risky to elevate election deniers running for executive positions in states, where they could seriously subvert democracy. That said, they don’t seem to be getting into office either. As power politics, this strategy succeeded.


“Invasion” language did little for Republicans

House Republicans poured enormous sums into ads depicting the migrant “invasion” in the vilest of terms. Republicans have long enjoyed a presumption of a major advantage on this issue, but aside from Trump’s 2016 victory, it keeps failing to deliver. The border was central in the 2018 and 2020 elections, and Republicans lost both (though with House pickups in the latter).

Some will argue that Democrats neutralized immigration this time by keeping some of Trump’s border policies, and it’s true that the party hasn’t made a case for its own immigration vision. Still, GOP confidence that President Biden’s “disastrous open border” would spark major electoral repudiation, giving Republicans space to hyper-radicalize their base around the issue, has proved wrong.

And if Blake Masters loses in the Arizona Senate race — after openly embracing “great replacement theory” and running ads featuring the most lurid and militarized “invasion” imagery imaginable — that will only add more evidence against the political effectiveness of this GOP strategy.


A radicalized MAGA House might not have free rein, after all

It has long been suggested (including by me) that a GOP-controlled House would be able to run amok with Benghazi-style investigations and impeachments of everyone down to the White House chef.

But if the majority remains narrow, it’s unclear whether the votes will be there to impeach Biden. And while zealous investigations are expected to roar forward, Republican leaders are almost certainly going to struggle to prevent the unruly MAGA caucus from truly driving things off the rails.

Republicans will likely still win the House and the Senate is still in play. But the big emerging story of these midterm elections is that MAGAfied authoritarian forces enthusiastically embraced by the GOP suffered unexpected and potentially grave setbacks.

Whether Republicans will accept this interpretation and act on it is another matter entirely.

The 2022 Midterm Elections

Georgia runoff election: Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) won re-election in the Georgia Senate runoff, defeating Republican challenger Herschel Walker and giving Democrats a 51st seat in the Senate for the 118th Congress. Get live updates here and runoff results by county.

Divided government: Republicans narrowly won back control of the House, while Democrats will keep control of the Senate, creating a split Congress.

What the results mean for 2024: A Republican Party red wave seems to be a ripple after Republicans fell short in the Senate and narrowly won control in the House. Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential campaign shortly after the midterms. Here are the top 10 2024 presidential candidates for the Republicans and Democrats.