The red wave that wasn’t
Republicans will still probably win the House, but Democrats held their own and have made Kevin McCarthy’s path to the speakership tougher than he wanted it to be.
Election night didn’t exactly go according to Kevin McCarthy’s plan.
The House Republican Leader had hoped he and his members would ride an early wave of victories to a comfortable enough majority that would make his years-long dream of serving as the chamber’s Speaker a formality.
Instead, the spacious hotel ballroom his political team rented out for the evening remained abandoned for most of the night while GOP operatives behind the scenes watched the prospect that Republicans would come close to the massive gains former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama surrendered in the 1994 and 2010 midterm elections slip away.
It was just before 2 a.m. when McCarthy finally addressed his stunned partygoers with an air of confidence that would have felt more believable had we not just watched a stream of results that defied conventional wisdom.
“It is clear that we are going to take the House back,” McCarthy said. “When you wake up tomorrow morning, we will be in the majority and Nancy Pelosi will be in the minority.”
Supercreator is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a paid subscriber.
This ultimately may be true. After all, McCarthy went into Election Day needing just five seats to help him secure the speaker’s gavel that eluded his unsuccessful candidacy for the top spot in 2015. History has proven that the president’s party loses seats in the first midterm elections after taking office. And with Americans stretched thin by sky-high inflation, several open seats due to Democratic retirements and gobs of dark money to expand the map into blue districts President Joe Biden won handily, Republicans had the makings of what could have been a fantastic night.
But early on it was clear that Democrats would hold their own.
In Virginia, Democratic incumbents Abigail Spanberger and Jennifer Wexton won two of three seats Republicans had hoped to pad their numbers with. (Elaine Luria, a member of the January 6th Committee, lost her seat in the commonwealth.)
The same was true in South Texas where Henry Cuellar, a conservative anti-abortion Democrat, and Vincente Gonzalez held onto their seats. Gonzalez defeated Mayra Flores, who won a special election earlier this year and was thought in Republican circles to be a rising star in a younger, more diverse conservative movement. Here’s how Flores reacted to the loss:
Democrats also won a seat in Rhode Island against a candidate McCarthy endorsed and flipped seats in North Carolina and Ohio that were rated by some election forecasters as “Likely Republican.”
Democrats had winning moments in the Senate too, where Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman flipped the seat vacated by retiring Republican Sen. Pat Toomey blue. And in the process, Fetterman’s triumph clarified the path to maintaining Senate control: Wins in Arizona and Nevada would guarantee Democrats 50 seats even if the race in Georgia heads to a runoff next month as expected. (All three of these races are still too close to call at press time.)
Abortion rights also had a big night as measures to protect access to reproductive health care in Michigan, Vermont and California passed against fierce resistance from the anti-abortion movement. Kentucky rejected an amendment to its state constitution that would have weakened abortion rights as well.
To be clear, any Republican majority — even one as slim as a dozen — is a bad omen for Democrats.
The GOP’s most extreme members like Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Paul Gosar in Texas will have their committee assignments restored after they were stripped last year, empowering them to shape the legislative agenda, grandstand at public hearings and institutionalize the fringiest elements of the party, which Democrats say pose such a threat to our democracy.
Republicans will have subpoena power to use in investigations into the federal response to COVID-19, the withdrawal from the war in Afghanistan and the migrant crisis at the southern border. This score-settling posture will play well in the media but will do little to address the problems that most Americans expect the government to solve.
GOP members will also be emboldened to use tools like the debt limit and federal budget that keep the country in good global financial standing and fund the government as bargaining chips to slash programs like Medicare, Social Security and heaven knows what else in order to give wealthy people and big corporations another tax cut.
And as President Vladimir Putin of Russia hopes to run out the clock with the hope that America and its allies will stop sending Ukraine ongoing military and economic assistance, some nationalists in the Republican Party may do the dictator’s bidding by shrinking the size and scope of the packages to the war-torn country.
Congressional Democrats and President Biden had hopes of reviving some of the care economy policies that were stripped out of the agenda over the past two years, including universal pre-K, reauthorization of the expanded child tax credit and investments in home health care for older Americans. Biden also still wants to pursue an assault weapons ban that gun safety advocates say would keep kids and communities safer. All of this is pretty much dead on arrival under a McCarthy-led House Republican Conference.
But politics is best consumed in context. And Democrats started the day feeling much better about the party, its record and its message than they did yesterday. And if this overperformance holds up, Republicans will have to spend the first few days (or weeks) in power explaining why they didn’t secure more of it when so many of the cards were in their favor.
Speaking of good vibes, they were permeating the White House last night, where President Biden was hunkered down bracing himself for the red wave that wasn’t.
Case in point: We got a “lid” at 11:25 a.m. on Tuesday morning, which meant the president wouldn’t be leaving the premises or making any public appearances for the rest of the day. White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre didn’t hold a press briefing either, another sign that they didn’t want to be bothered with reporters’ questions about the president’s role in whatever everyone thought would go wrong for Democrats yesterday.
This calculus is likely to change now that there are glimmers of hope for the president to parlay into political capital he can use in the final half of his first term and on the campaign trail next year if, in fact, he runs for reelection. And although he was out of sight on Tuesday, he was anything but idle.
Last night, he made almost 30 congratulatory calls to Democratic victors at the local, state and national levels. And as I was waiting at home for McCarthy to take the stage this morning, we received one last update from the press office at 1:54 a.m.: “The President sent a congratulatory text to Pennsylvania Lt. Governor John Fetterman this evening.”
What a difference a day can make, huh?