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Election Preview 2022: The Red Wave Gathers

Republicans seem poised to reap high rewards in Tuesday’s midterms, with minimal risks.

Donald Trump Holds Rally With Ohio Candidates In Youngstown

From the earliest days of Joe Biden’s presidency, the red wave has been gathering. Tomorrow, its immense swell will make landfall.

And more deservingly so for Democrats—who have overseen the invasion of our southern border, the destruction of our communities through drugs and crime, the decline of the dollar and our economy, and the poisoning of our children’s minds with critical race theory and gender ideology—than any wonderful works by the GOP. Sometimes, a crucial part of winning is simply not being the other guy—certainly, there was an iota of that in President Donald Trump’s victory over crooked Hillary Clinton in 2016.

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Six years after that unlikely but welcome victory, the Republican party has been remade in the former president’s image—both in style and substance. This isn’t your grandfather’s GOP of foreign wars and free trade under the banner of compassionate conservatism. It’s the return of your great-grandfathers. It’s a Republican Party concerned with protecting domestic industry and the working class that it supports. It’s a Republican Party that relishes the opportunity to jump into the culture war fray. It’s less dogmatic, more realpolitik, more focused on results than ideas. And, to the dismay of the left and their Never-Trump tagalongs still pulling their hair out over January 6, Mar-a-Lago documents, and the overturning of Roe, it’s a Republican party that’s going to win.

I can’t remember an election cycle that has broken so favorably for Republicans in the last month of the election. The last two presidential cycles should have provided such breaks—the Hunter Biden laptop story in 2020 and the Hillary email probe in 2016—but didn’t, thanks to the collusion of big tech, media, and the administrative state. There hasn’t been an October surprise of Hunter-Biden-laptop magnitude for the 2022 Midterm cycle. Rather, it has been a procession of small blunders from the Biden administration and its allies that have accumulated in Republicans’ favor.

On October 1, FiveThirtyEight’s Senate election forecast had Democrats with 2 to 1 odds to hold the upper chamber—the most likely outcome was that Democrats would have 51 Senate seats to Republicans 49 come January. By October 31, Democrat’s 2 to 1 odds had vanished. All of a sudden, it was a 50-50 coin flip for who would win the Senate. Just a week later, on November 7, Republican odds to control the Senate had improved to 55 in 100. FiveThirtyEight’s House forecast reflected the long-standing expectation, based on historical precedent, voter trends in competitive districts (think the Rio Grande Valley going red in 2020), and the Biden administration’s failures, that Republicans would take back the House. The House forecast on October 1 was the inverse of the Senate forecast—Republicans had 2 to 1 odds to recapture the lower chamber. Since, Republican odds have increased to 83 in 100.

I thought it best to highlight some races to keep an eye on as the results roll in on Tuesday night. Some of these candidates and ballot items you’ve likely become well acquainted with by reading The American Conservative over the course of this cycle, others not as much.

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Trump’s message translated to large electoral victories in Ohio in 2016 and 2020, and have set Ohio Republicans up for long-term success. Now, author J.D. Vance is poised to beat Democratic Congressman Tim Ryan to fill the open seat left by Senator Rob Portman. Despite some initial struggles, Vance surged past a crowded primary field late thanks to strong debate performances, an America First agenda that was genuinely working class (rather than the same old Republican slogans supposedly rebranded for the working class like we saw from Josh Mandel and others), and Trump’s endorsement. Vance has been able to continue building momentum since his primary victory, and is expected to beat Ryan by five points or more. Vance will also have the advantage of being on the ballot with current Republican Governor Mike DeWine, who is currently polling 15 to 20 points ahead of Democratic challenger Nan Whaley.

Herschel Walker, a University of Georgia football legend and Republican senate candidate in Georgia that seeks to unseat Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock, will also have the advantage of appearing on the ballot with a popular governor in Brian Kemp. Kemp looks likely to sail through his reelection bid, a rematch with election denier Stacey Abrams, by 8 points. Walker, a candidate that is sometimes prone to gaffe and has not been without scandal this election cycle, is polling just over a half of a percent better than Warnock, and must hope from a sizable boost from Kemp’s performance Tuesday to pull him over the 50 percent threshold to avoid a runoff. If Walker doesn’t crack 50 percent, Walker will be on his own when he squares off against Warnock in a runoff on December 6. If Republicans want to take back a Senate seat from Georgia this election cycle, it has to happen on Tuesday.

In Arizona, GOP senate candidate Blake Masters is locked in virtually a dead heat with former astronaut and current Democratic Senator Mark Kelly. RealClear Politics’ polling average has Kelly up by 1 point, and FiveThirtyEight’s model has Kelly holding on to that seat 66 out of 100 simulations. But Masters has surged in the polls in the last two weeks—from 43.3 percent to 47.2 percent. Kelly’s polling numbers have improved as well—from 45.8 percent to 48.2 percent—over the same period of time. Failing to keep pace with Masters’ rise has caused Kelly’s 2.5 point lead to shrink to just one. But Masters ace in the hole is the meteoric rise of Kari Lake, a former Phoenix television anchor turned Republican gubernatorial candidate. She’s charismatic, eloquent, defiant, authentic. She regularly embarasses the left-wing media with gleeful ease. She knows this game—she’s been playing it for three decades. Though RealClear Politics has Lake’s lead at just under two points, FiveThirtyEight estimates Lake’s odds of winning are nearly 2 to 1. And if someone pulls the lever for a firebrand like Lake, they’ll likely have no qualms doing so for Masters, a firebrand in his own right, either. Show me the Lake-Kelly voter, and I’ll show you a unicorn.

But Dr. Mehmet Oz, the Republican candidate to replace outgoing Republican Senator Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania, will not have the advantage of pairing with a strong gubernatorial candidate. Doug Mastriano was propelled past the gubernatorial primary with strong grassroots support, but has completely and utterly failed to turn that grassroots momentum into a proper political operation. Most likely, Mastriano will suffer a crushing defeat—his democratic opponent Josh Shaprio has more than a 10 point advantage in the polls—and many Pennsylvania Republicans will likely suffer those consequences down ballot. 

Oz will suffer because of Mastriano, too, and wasn’t a particularly great candidate for Pennsylvania to begin with. But Oz has two big things going for him that gives him a chance to win—which most Republicans thought almost unthinkable a few months ago. The first is he’s going up against Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman. Fetterman simply hasn’t been the same since having a stroke nearly six months ago. As one would expect, his speech and cognitive abilities have clearly been impacted. I have nothing but compassion for Fetterman—what the Democratic party is making him do is borderline abuse. The second is that Oz has all of the momentum. Throughout the summer, even after Fetterman had his stroke but was not back on the campaign trail, the Pennsylvania senate looked like it was going to be a bloodbath for Oz—Fetterman had nearly a 9 point lead. But as the public has seen more of Fetterman, the less confident they are in his ability to serve the people of Pennsylvania in Washington—not merely because of his health problems, but because of his outlandish open-borders, soft-on-crime, anti-American energy agenda. Now, Fetterman's edge in the polls has been completely wiped out.

Out west in Nevada, Adam Laxalt is poised to unseat Democratic Senator Catherine Cortez Masto. In mid-September, Laxalt passed Masto in the RealClear Politics polling average, and has built nearly a 3 point lead since. If Laxalt wins, it’ll be the first time that particular senate seat is held by a Republican since 1987, when Harry Reid filled the open seat left by Paul Laxalt, Adam’s grandfather, when he retired.

If Republicans have an even better night than expected—if results come in that show Oz and Walker over performing—it might be worth staying up late on the east coast to see if Republicans can steal a Senate seat from Democrats in Washington state. GOP senate candidate Tiffany Smiley is down just 3 points to incumbent Democrat Patty Murray. 

Though the senate race in Washington is tight, it’s almost a sure bet that Republicans won’t unseat Democratic Senator Ron Wyden in the neighboring state of Oregon. While the Beaver state’s Senate election is expected to be far from close, the gubernatorial race might be. Democrat gubernatorial candidate Tina Kotek is locked in a tight battle with Republican candidate Christine Drazan. Kotek’s four point lead she had on September 1 has dropped to about a point. At the time, FiveThirtyEight gave her 70-30 odds of winning the seat. Now, the odds are 55-45 in favor of Kotek.

All that said, however, polling in the Pacific Northwest is typically biased towards Republicans. So even if things look to be cutting favorably in Republican’s direction, the GOP may not pull off the aforementioned upsets in the Pacific Northwest. Even still, the thought of a contentious race for Oregon’s governorship—a state that hasn’t elected a Republican governor since 1982 and hasn’t had a Republican come within two points since Dudley versus Kitzhaber in 2010—is remarkable. Of course, the real gain for TAC-alligned observers of American politics in the Pacific Northwest will be watching the landslide election of Joe Kent in Washington’s third congressional district.

One gubernatorial race that Republicans had high hopes to win this cycle was in Michigan, where incumbent Governor Gretchen Whitmer faces off against GOP challenger Tudor Dixon. Though Dixon has managed to shave off some of Whitmer’s lead, Whitmer maintains a strong 4 point advantage in RealClear Politics’ polling average. But possibly even more important than Michigan’s gubernatorial race is Proposition 3. Prop 3, if passed, would enshrine abortion as a right under Michigan’s constitution. The current feeling in Michigan is that, tragically, and to Michiganders’ shame, Prop 3 will pass.

Kentuckians will be voting on almost the exact opposite question posed to Michiganders—passing Amendment 2 in Kentucky would make it explicit that the state constitution does not protect the right to kill an unborn child. It’s expected to go the pro-life movement’s way, but the expectations for Kansas were similar earlier this year before the staunchly-red state chose to uphold abortion rights. California and Vermont will also seek to solidify their pro-abortion regimes with ballot measures on Tuesday as well.

Even if the cause of life manages to win in Kentucky, somewhat expected setbacks in Michigan, and all but guaranteed setbacks in California and Vermont, should cause the conservative movement, especially its legal strategists, to take pause. Is an America where some states have total abortion bans, but others allow abortion up to the point of birth, all that more just? Can an America so clearly and presently divided on this question even stay together? Maybe the right to kill an unborn child isn’t something that should be left to democracy, whether at the state or federal level. Maybe Justice Alito should have argued that the constitution precluded the mass slaughter of the unborn—end of story.

For Republicans, who have long smelled blood in the water, it’s been an election cycle defined by high risk. At times, those risks, outside of Vance in Ohio, seemed unlikely to pay off. It wasn’t that long ago when many discussions in Washington about the midterms were predicated on winning the House but losing the Senate. The silver lining of this scenario, many of us thought, was that the Republican conferences in both chambers would move right in important, meaningful ways. But there was always something more to it. Unsurprisingly, TAC editor-at-large Daniel McCarthy saw something in the tea leaves that I could not. As he recently wrote in a guest essay for the New York Times:

The Republican Party’s strategy in 2022 has been to double down on the Trump approach. Its candidates for the U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania and Georgia, Herschel Walker and Mehmet Oz, are celebrities without political experience, as is Kari Lake, a former Phoenix area news anchor who is now the Republican nominee for governor of Arizona…but the Republican Party’s embrace of apparently high-risk candidates is a sign of confidence, not weakness. The party’s voters feel strongly enough about the populist, pro-Trump positioning that they have supported them over more experienced and less controversial figures.

This reinvention is presenting midterm voters with something that looks fresh and new, at a time when the old party identities, and old norms and institutions, seem feeble and impotent.

McCarthy is right. There was always the potential that some of these high-risk Republican candidates would not pan out; there still is. But if there were ever a time for the Republican Party to run high-risk candidates capable of making lasting changes to the party's vision, it is this cycle, when all of the fundamentals are working against the Democratic Party. Candidates who just a few months ago seemed to be risky investments seem less so now, but tomorrow, Republicans still seem poised to reap high rewards.

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