The Culture War Still Wins
Tuesday night’s results solidified the importance of the culture war.
Last night wasn’t the red wave Republicans began to envision in the last three weeks of the 2022 midterm election cycle. Only after hundreds of thousands of votes were already cast in crucial states like Pennsylvania and Georgia did the Senate ever start to feel like a sure thing in GOP observers' minds. In reality, it was always going to be a nail-biter, and it was always going to take days—if not a month because of a potential Georgia runoff—to sort out. The House felt well in Republican hands, but dreams of a twenty-plus Republican majority were just that.
Yet, despite a disappointing night for Republicans and their high hopes, it might still be “mission accomplished.” The House will return to Republican control by a slim margin—the New York Times currently estimates that the GOP will hold 224 seats, mirroring the FiveThirtyEight estimate from mid-October before polls started breaking more towards the GOP. The Senate is far from a sure thing, but Republican Adam Laxalt currently has a lead in Nevada, and word on the street is that there might be enough votes left in Arizona to pull both GOP Senate candidate Blake Masters and gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake over the line. And who knows what could happen in a Georgia runoff, though I wouldn’t put money on Walker if control of the Senate comes down to Dec. 6 in the Peach State. Considering the 2022 midterms, a limited GOP success is still possible, if increasingly unlikely.
Wednesday morning left the nation with more questions than answers. Why is every state, other than Florida, remarkably poor at tabulating election results? Do October surprises or late-poll-surges even matter in the era of forever-Covid mail-in ballot elections? Who deserves credit for the Democrats’ overperformance, and who is to blame for Republican underperformance? Should Kevin McCarthy be allowed to hold the Speaker's gavel? And if it was the fault of Dobbs rather than Republican politicians, isn’t a narrow House majority, and a tied Senate with West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin among the Democratic ranks, a small price to pay for the fall of Roe?
One thing thus far is abundantly clear: to win tossups and swing elections, conservatives must advisedly swing to the right, not tack to the center.
After the Dobbs decision was leaked and then later handed down, Democrats engaged fiercely in the culture war. January 6 and the Select Committee to investigate it, continuing its work through the summer and early fall, provided an essential backdrop. For Democrats, the election became more about alleged Republican extremism than anything else. But isn’t that always part of the Democrat's electoral strategy? To call Republicans fascists, bigots, misogynists, and all the other dirty words in the liberal mind? Of course it is, and Republicans should learn from them.
But this cycle was different. Unlike 2016, 2018, and 2020, Democrats were in complete control of government. And things were far from going their way—skyrocketing inflation, crime, illegal immigration, drug overdoses, homelessness, the list goes on. But instead of having to defend their record of governance or their policy proposals to fix these abundant problems, Democrats wisely chose to lean into the culture war. They said democracy was on the ballot, Jim Crow was on the ballot, America’s soul was on the ballot. LGBT and women’s healthcare and even rights were on the ballot, too.
The Republican candidates who refused to allow the left to set the terms of the culture war, and fought back both with rhetoric and substance, won, and won handily, last night.
Nowhere was that victory more pronounced than in Florida. Incumbent Republican Governor Ron DeSantis defeated challenger Charlie Crist by 20 points. Every single county in Florida shifted in Republicans’ favor—and by massive margins. Democrats' only hope for Florida before Tuesday night was stellar results in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Broward shifted 14 points towards DeSantis, and the governor actually won Miami-Dade outright as it shifted 19 points in the incumbent governor’s favor compared to the 2020 election. Republican Senator Marco Rubio also won Miami-Dade, as did every statewide office. All this in spite of the fact DeSantis has become the Democrats’ number two bogeyman, second only to Donald Trump. In the face of immense pressure, the governor refused to waver on his cultural agenda, just as he refused to acquiesce to the left’s lockdown demands during the pandemic. He was unabashed in stopping critical race theory in schools, banning gender transitions for minors, and protecting women’s sports from biologically male athletes. He sent illegal migrants to Martha’s Vineyard.
Come January, J.D. Vance will be a sitting Senator for the state of Ohio. He dispatched Democratic Congressman Tim Ryan relatively early in the night. Some thought Ohio was in the bag for Republicans from the start, but from July 1 to mid-October, FiveThirtyEight had Vance down in the polls, though the publication still gave Vance the edge to win the seat left by Republican Rob Portman. And though last night Vance was down early in the count, as is now to be expected for Republicans in the era of mail-in voting, Vance came roaring back. When the election was called for Vance by NBC News at 10:53 p.m., the Hillbilly Elegy author’s lead was more than six points, similar to that of Trump’s victories in the Buckeye state in 2016 and 2020. The man who wrote the book that helped explain why Ohio and heartland America went for Trump in 2016 will be bringing his working-class, Americans first message and agenda to the Senate.
Vance was helped in replicating Trump’s success in part because he was on the ticket with incredibly popular incumbent Governor Mike DeWine, whom Vance thanked in his victory speech Tuesday evening. It is worth noting that DeWine cruised to reelection by a margin of 25 points, much more than Vance’s six-plus point lead, but DeWine is just that popular—and higher interest in gubernatorial elections for Republicans is typical, given their localist leanings. As the Democrat Ryan tried to distance himself from the national party apparatus and its doubling down on the culture war, Vance remained focused on the national culture war, and was able to attach Ryan's voting record in Congress to liberal bogeymen like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Who can forget Vance’s “Are you a racist?” ad, or his passionate response to Ryan’s accusation of promoting the “great replacement theory” in a debate? It signaled to voters that he, like them, was tired of being baselessly called names.
But the campaign was more than pointing fingers at the media and Democrats for calling Americans racists for wanting to close an open southern border and stop the flow of illegal drugs. Vance backed that up with a strong platform of finishing Trump’s border wall, doubling the number of border agents, curtailing levels of legal immigration, and a promise to never vote for amnesty. When Democrats planted their flag in the culture war, Vance’s response helped voters identify that the ground Democrats had staked out was the root cause of American decline. Free trade, free money, and free sex and drugs have crippled Ohio and the nether parts of the country, first their industry, then their people’s industriousness. Entire communities have collapsed. A vote for Vance was a recognition that economics works in tandem with culture, and that an American restoration requires bold, innovative strategies to improve both.
Meanwhile, the antithesis of the Vance way of winning was on full display in Pennsylvania. Dr. Mehmet Oz managed to squeak by in the primaries thanks to the endorsement of former President Donald Trump. It was one of his more questionable endorsements from the beginning. The questions about Oz’s viability as a candidate only grew as Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman opened about a ten point lead on Oz. Certainly, Oz had great name recognition and the sizable media platform that comes with Oprah fame, but when that platform pushes a message that simply isn’t being well received by voters, it doesn’t prove much good.
Then Fetterman had a stroke. For months, Fetterman’s campaign was more or less on hold. As it became clear that Fetterman was suffering cognitive and speech impairment, Democrats refused to make a change—like their ballots, Democrats thought they could just mail it in. Initially, it appeared the Fetterman campaign thought that it could copy the Democrat's 2020 strategy of keeping Biden in the basement. For a while, it appeared this gamble would pay off.
Oz began to climb back into the race as questions circulated about Fetterman’s fitness, however, and Democrats brought Fetterman out from the basement to allay those fears. The reaction was the opposite of what Democrats had hoped. The race continued to tighten, and what FiveThirtyEight had as a 4 in 5 chance of Democrats flipping the open Senate seat in Pennsylvania became a dead heat in the final days of the cycle.
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But at 1 o’clock in the morning Eastern Standard Time, NBC News called the Pennsylvania Senate race for Fetterman, as the margin began to open up to just over three points. The New York Times’ graphic on county margin shifts compared to the 2020 presidential election is awfully telling. The only county that voted more Republican in favor of Oz than Trump in 2020 was Beaver County, a suburb of Pittsburgh. Elsewhere, in Elk, Clarion, Carbon, and rural counties across the state, Pennsylvania shifted more towards Fetterman—despite his clear cognitive issues. Pennsylvania voted for an invalid in 2020; we shouldn’t be surprised they did so again in 2022.
Though Oz was Trump’s choice, he ran an establishment Republican campaign. At every turn for Oz to forcefully engage in the culture war, he balked. He pivoted to other issues—the economy, China, the war in Ukraine—he’d say almost anything to avoid planting a flag on immigration, on abortion, on identity politics. Oz may like Trump, but in no way is he Trumpian, and rural Pennsylvanians saw right through him. They knew that voting for Oz was a vote for the continuation of the status quo. And if the choice is between a liar or the large feeble-minded man that promised to support their blue-collar unions, the latter seemed a better choice.
In the coming days, when the establishment tries to regain its grip on party power and the Republican consulting class once again says the GOP must cater to suburban dads by recentering lower taxes, to suburban moms by easing our stance against abortion, to 2 percent of the black vote by talking about criminal justice reform, let Oz’s defeat be a lesson to them.