Reality Check

Donald Trump and Kari Lake at “Save America” rally in Florence, Arizona.

A day after the 2022 midterm elections it is looking like the projected Red Wave turned into a Red Swell. I have spent many hours in the Atlantic Ocean and many times what looked like it might be a wave while it was still way out ended up being nothing more than a swell by the time it reached us. That certainly seems to be the case with these elections.

Two weeks ago, Oliver Wiseman, writing for The Spectator World, headlined his column “All signs point to a red wave.” He began with, “It’s now just under two weeks until the midterms. Judging by the mood music on both sides of the aisle, all signs point to a very good night for the Republican Party.” He concluded his comments on the midterm with this: “Midterms tend to be a referendum on the party in power, and Democrats have every reason to believe that the verdict will be unfavorable.”

While not all results are yet in, and which party will control the Senate is still unclear, we do know that the verdict was actually not unfavorable for the Democrats—or at least not very unfavorable. It was, however, unfavorable for the Republican party as a whole and for Donald Trump and his minions in particular.

Someone suggested to me today that the media had done a good job of gaslighting everyone—that the best way to discourage people from voting is to make them think that the outcome was in the bag. He was specifically suggesting that some voters who would have voted Republican did not bother to vote because they were sure the Red Wave was coming. I disagree, though.

There really was every reason to expect a Red Wave. And I will even go so far as to suggest that without Donald Trump, there would have been one. President Biden currently has an approval rating of 41.4% according to FiveThirtyEight. That means that almost three out of every five Americans do not approve of the job that he is doing as president. Every president since Franklin D. Roosevelt had a higher approval rating at this point in his administration than Joe Biden currently has—with the president closest to Biden’s rating being Donald Trump. By the way, I suspect FDR’s approval rating was higher, too, and probably many other presidents, but FiveThirtyEight only has data back to Truman.

The makeup of the Senate is currently 50-50 (including two Independents who caucus with the Democrats), with the Democrats being in the majority thanks to Vice President Kamala Harris being the tiebreaker. That means that the Republicans needed a net gain of only one seat in order to take the majority. Politico rated ten Senate races as toss-ups or likely narrow wins. As of right now, Democrats held three and flipped one, Republicans held three and three are still undecided—Arizona, Georgia and Nevada. Georgia is all but certain to be headed to yet another run-off, since neither incumbent Raphael Warnock nor Herschel Walker managed to get a majority of the vote. Somehow only two-thirds of the vote in Arizona have been counted thus far, but Democratic incumbent Mark Kelly currently has a lead of five percentage points (roughly 90,000 votes). In Nevada, 77% of the vote has been counted. Adam Laxalt, the Republican challenger, has a narrow lead over Catherine Cortez Masto (less than 23,000 votes). Interestingly, Laxalt leads in every county but one, yet his victory is by no means certain. He does not currently have a majority of the vote, either; as of the most recently reported results, 24,608 people voted for one of three other candidates or for “None of These Candidates,” an option Nevada has offered since 1975.

The Republicans retained the seat in Wisconsin, but Ron Johnson barely defeated Mandela Barnes, winning by about 27,000 votes out of more than 2.6 million cast. Barnes actually achieved the exact same percentage of the vote as Joe Biden did in 2020—49.5%. That was enough for Biden to carry the state and pick up Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes, but not enough for Barnes to win; 1.7% of the voters in 2020 cast their votes for one of several third party candidates, whereas only Barnes and Johnson were on the ballot for Senate yesterday.

That the GOP did so poorly yesterday is certainly not a sign of confidence in or approval of Joe Biden. Instead, it is, mostly, a refutation of Donald Trump. Don’t get me wrong—Trump candidates did well in several races. Ron Johnson, for example, was linked to some election shenanigans in 2020 and originally said he would not vote to certify Biden’s victory, though he changed his mind after the January 6 riots. And J.D. Vance, a political newcomer who said that the election was stolen from Trump, won in Ohio. Sarah Huckabee Sanders was one of the earliest candidates endorsed by Trump, having served as his Press Secretary, and she won handily in Arkansas—but she is also the daughter of a popular former Arkansas governor.

But in Arizona, it is a different story. Kari Lake, the Trump-endorsed candidate for governor and a political newcomer who thought she was such an influential figure that she made campaign ads for candidates in other states, is not leading with two-thirds of the vote in. She is at least close. Secretary of State candidate Mark Finchem, however, who has ties to QAnon and the Oath Keepers, is considerably behind Adrian Fontes for Secretary of State.

In Alaska, with about 75% of the vote in, it seems that either Kelly Tshibaka or Lisa Murkowski will win the Senate race, but it is not clear which one. And Alaska has an interesting new ranked voting system in place. Trump has been clearly, consistently and adamantly opposed to Murkowski; if she wins, it will be a clear repudiation for Trump by Alaskans. And Trump-endorsed Sarah Palin has a slight lead over fellow GOP candidate Nick Begich for the a House seat, Democrat Mary Peltola has a sizable lead over both of them.

In Michigan, Democrats swept the statewide offices. Gretchen Whitmer, one of the most authoritarian governors amidst the COVID pandemic, won handily over Trump-endorsed Tudor Dixon. Incumbent Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson defeated Trump-endorsed Kristin Karamo, who denies the legitimacy of the 2020 election, even more handily.

In New Hampshire, Karoline Leavitt lost her bid to unseat incumbent Chris Pappas. Leavitt’s website proclaims that she “worked tirelessly” to get a position in the Trump White House and she later served as Assistant Press Secretary to Kayleigh McEnany. After that she was Communications Director for Congresswoman and House Republican Conference Chair, Elise Stefanik. But she came up short. Trump also endorsed Donald Bolduc in the New Hampshire Senate race, but he came up a full 9 percentage points behind incumbent Maggie Hassan.

In Pennsylvania, Trump-picked Mehmet Oz lost the Senate race to John Fetterman. While it is true that Fetterman is the incumbent lieutenant governor, the fact that he defeated Trump’s guy is noteworthy. Trump received 48.58% and 48.84% of the vote in Pennsylvania in 2016 and 2020 respectively. Oz received 46.8%. Fetterman’s own website describes him this way: “John doesn’t look like a typical politician, and more importantly, he doesn’t act like one. He supported legalizing marijuana before it was popular, officiated a same-sex marriage before it was legal, and pushed for single payer healthcare long before it was mainstream.” He regularly appears in a black hoodie. He did put on a suit and tie for his one debate with Oz, but the tie was not cinched up all the way. Oh, and because of a stroke, Fetterman had the assistance of a closed captioning device for the debate. Still, his performance was rough—so rough that Axios called the reaction to the debate “brutal.” Last Thursday, a poll done by Emerson College and The Hill showed Oz leading Fetterman. And yet….

Donald Trump held a big shindig at Mar-a-Lago last night to watch the election results. Earlier in the day, he released what CNBC called “a four-page press advisory detailing how much he had done to help Republicans up and down the ballot.” During the evening, radio host Jason Miller said that Trump should get the credit for GOP victories because “he is the inspiration and he is the one who has recruited a number of the MAGA candidates to run…no one has been out working harder for the candidates, he is still the kingmaker when it comes to the primaries and he’s the one who can turn people out in the general election.”

Hmmm. Sadly, Trump is a credit hog but spurns any responsibility at all when things go poorly. To his credit, he at least acknowledges it. He said, in an interview with NewsNation that was shown yesterday, “Well, I think if they win, I should get all the credit. And if they lose, I should not be blamed at all. But it will probably be just the opposite.”

In a column posted at 3:30 a.m. today, David Siders wrote, “Trump’s place in the party is far weaker after Tuesday. Truth is, if not for the former president’s interventions, the night could have been a lot better for the GOP.” What does he mean by that? Consider…

In New Hampshire, Bolduc lost to Hassan, receiving 267,594 votes, while Chris Sununu, a Republican not endorsed by Trump, won re-election to the governor’s office with 341,907 votes. In Georgia, Herschel Walker received 1,906,246 votes while Governor Brian Kemp, a Republican not endorsed by Trump (in fact, Trump endorsed someone to run against Kemp in the primary) received 2,109,105 votes. In Ohio, where Trump-endorsed J.D. Vance did prevail in his senate race against Tim Ryan, Vance received 2,147,898 votes, while Mike DeWine, the incumbent Republican governor, won re-election with 2,528,018 votes. In Vermont, Republican governor Phil Scott won re-election, receiving 201,316 votes. He was not endorsed by Trump. Gerald Malloy was endorsed by Trump for the Senate, but he garnered only 80,330 votes, losing badly to Peter Welch. In Maryland, Larry Hogan is the incumbent. He is term-limited and cannot run again, but he won with 51% of the vote in 2014 and with 55% of the vote in 2018. In 2018 he became the second Republican ever to be re-elected governor in Maryland, receiving the most votes of any governor in Maryland history in so doing. For 2022, he endorsed Kelly Shulz. Given his track record, you would think Republicans would pay attention. But Hogan is not a Trump lapdog, and Trump instead endorsed state delegate Dan Cox. Hogan refused to support Cox, calling him a “QAnon whack job.” How did that work out for the Republicans? Cox lost in a landslide, picking up only 37% of the vote, while Wes Moore, who has never before held political office, collected just shy of 60%. In Arizona, which has not yet been called, Trump tapped Kari Lake, who won the GOP primary over Karrin Taylor Robson. At the moment Lake is trailing Democrat Katie Hobbs. Chuck Coughlin, a GOP strategist in Phoenix, said, “I mean, come on. This should be a walk in the park for Republicans … If Karrin Taylor Robson was the [gubernatorial] nominee, it would be an a**-kicking this cycle.”

Kevin McCarthy is in line to become the Speaker of the House if the Republicans do, in fact, gain the majority. But if they do, it will be with a much smaller majority than McCarthy previously predicted. In fact, a year ago he suggested a 60-seat gain for the GOP. There are 46 House races that have not yet been called, and the Republicans only need to win 12 of those to take the majority, so it seems that that will happen. But even if they won all 46 of those races—which will not happen—they would not pick up the 60 seats McCarthy predicted last year.

It’s time for a reality check. Any efforts to truly make America great again will not involve Donald Trump. The sooner the Republican party realizes that the better.

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore

The Final Nail?

Donald Trump speaking at CPAC in 2011

The Republican party—or at least a significant, influential and very vocal part of those who claim to be the Republican party—have been drinking the Trump-provided MAGA Koolaid for years now, including the almost-two years since Donald Trump failed to win reelection. Any Republican who dares to cross Trump does so at his or her own risk, as has been seen, most notably, by Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, who not only spoke out against Trump and called for his impeachment, but served on the January 6 Committee (officially, the U.S. House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol).

As one would expect from Mr. Trump, he has since made Cheney a target of his adolescent name calling, saying that she is a “warmongering fool” (April 2021) and a “despicable human being” (July 2022) among other things. When she lost her primary race against Trump-backed Harriet Hageman, Trump said Cheney “can finally disappear into the depths of political oblivion” (August 2022). Last weekend, Cheney made headlines when she said at an event in Texas that if Trump wins the GOP’s nomination in 2024, “I won’t be a Republican.” And I have to say, I do not think that Cheney is alone in that. She may be the only one, or one of the only ones, saying that out loud right now, but there are very good reasons to be extremely concerned about both Donald Trump’s possible nomination and about many of the candidates that he has been endorsing over the past year.

And he has been endorsing like crazy, issuing more than two hundred endorsements in campaigns for House, Senate and executive offices at the state level. The Washington Examiner said that Trump was embracing the role of kingmaker, but NPR said that while Trump-endorsed candidates did have an overwhelmingly winning record, three-fourths of them were likely to win anyway, with many of them running unopposed in their primaries. That is an important observation, because, as of the beginning of September, while 99% of Trump-endorsed incumbents won and 91% of Trump-endorsed candidates in open races won, only 40% of Trump-endorsed challengers won their races (4 out of 10)—and none of the four Trump-endorsed candidates for state executive office won their races. It is also important to note that some of the Trump-endorsed candidates who won likely would have won without that endorsement—or did, in the cases of J.R. Majewski, an Ohio candidate endorsed by Trump thirty days after he won the primary; Katie Britt, an Alabama Senate candidate endorsed by Trump 17 days after the primary (and after Trump had retracted his endorsement from Mo Brooks, who urged Trump to move past his claims that the 2020 election was fraudulent); and Markwayne Mullin, an Oklahoma Senate candidate Trump endorsed 11 days after he won the primary. Trump’s chosen candidates faired particularly poorly in Georgia—especially David Perdue, whom Trump tapped to take on Gov. Brian Kemp, whom Trump is known to loathe, but who was defeated by Kemp 74% to 22%. Trump-endorsed Morgan Ortagus, who was Trump’s State Department spokesperson and who moved to Tennessee last year and intended to run for the House in Tennessee’s 5th District, was removed from the ballot by the Tennessee Republican Party after its Executive Committee ruled that Ortagus (and two others) failed to meet the requirements of being a bona-fide Republican according to the party’s bylaws.

Of the candidates Trump endorsed, 58 of them had his endorsement for less than a week, including 13 who received his endorsement the day before their win and six who received it the day of their election. In those cases for sure it looks much more like Trump wanting to attach his name to a winner than it does that his endorsement had any impact on the outcome. There were a dozen or so candidates who carried Trump’s endorsement for more than 400 days, including his former press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who is running for governor in Arkansas. One of those candidates was Madison Cawthorn, who was defeated in his re-election bid, and one was Jody Hice, candidate for Georgia Secretary of State who was defeated by the incumbent Brad Raffensberger—he of the infamous phone call with Trump.

Side note – Trump has also endorsed Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who is not expected to win reelection, though he is advancing to the runoff.

All of this is essentially a recap; what’s the point? Why would I start this post clearly implying that Trump’s endorsements are not a positive thing for the Republican party (or the country)? Well, the same reason why Eric Lutz said that the Republican party has nominated “a bunch of bozos” (August 2022). I am no fan of Mitch McConnell, but he is a wily political operative, and he has seen the handwriting on the wall. He told a Kentucky group in mid-August, “I think there’s probably a greater likelihood the House flips than the Senate. Senate races are just different. Candidate quality has a lot to do with the outcome.” Unspoken but still crystal clear: many Republican Senate candidates are not high quality.

Why would McConnell, who stands to regain his position as Majority Leader if the Republicans do retake the Senate, say such a thing? Well, because it’s true. And, whatever else he may be, he is pragmatic. (Which is why he also, just recently, showered praise on Arizona Democratic senator Kyrsten Sinema at the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville. McConnell called Sinema, who has riled her Democratic colleagues by protecting the filibuster and pursuing a moderate course, “the most effective first-term senator I’ve seen.”)

So, what about the Republican candidates? Well, here’s a look at just a few of them…

Mehmet Oz, the celebrity doctor who became famous in no small part thanks to Oprah, is running for Senate from Pennsylvania. He shot a pretty horrible video in April in which he claimed to be shopping for elements of a “crudité,” which is a French appetizer consisting basically of raw vegetables and a dip. Nothing wrong with that per se, setting aside the fact that very few people use the word crudité, and his use of it did not help Oz in his effort to be relatable. He also mispronounced the name of the store where he was shopping, picked up salsa for the crudité, which I am pretty sure no one else does, and then, after lamenting the price of his veggies and salsa, added, “And that doesn’t include the tequila.” Again, I don’t know of anyone who commonly pairs tequila with veggie platters. To make matters worse, when attention was brought to the cringeworthy video, the Oz campaign fired back at Oz’s opponent, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, by saying, “If John Fetterman had ever eaten a vegetable in his life, then maybe he wouldn’t have had a major stroke and wouldn’t be in the position of having to lie about it constantly.” Elsewhere, Oz asserted that he owns two homes, when it was later revealed that he in fact owns ten. The bottom line is that Oz fits the Trump mold—he became popular through TV, because he has been as much an entertainer as a doctor he has said a lot of things he probably now regrets, he has more money than he needs, and he really has no business serving in elected office.

Kelly Tshibaka is the Trump-endorsed opponent of Republican incumbent Lisa Murkowski. A video of her talking about speaking in tongues and God finding itso cute that the only person in the world who can understand me is him” raised some eyebrows among Alaska voters, but Tshibaka is certainly not the only person who believes in speaking in tongues—and that belief is consistent with her position as co-pastor, along with her husband, of Foursquare churches. Perhaps more concerning than that would be her claim in 2015 that God has told her, “I’ve made you a Deborah. I’ve made you a mother to a nation.”

J.D. Vance is the Trump endorsed candidate for Senate from Ohio. Vance is a political newcomer; he has no previous political experience at all, at any level. He is a former Marine and a venture capitalist who wrote the New York Times bestseller Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, which also became a Netflix film directed by Ron Howard. TIME called the book one of six books to read to help understand Donald Trump’s election to the presidency. And Vance once called himself a “never-Trump guy.” But none of that means that he is a viable candidate for the Senate. In May, Axios said that if he wins the election, Vance will be “arguably the hardest-edged populist nationalist in the Senate GOP.” That’s quite a statement. A July 2021 article in The Atlantic was entitled “The Moral Collapse of J.D. Vance,” with a subtitle calling him “a contemptible and cringe-inducing clown.” But none of that necessarily means he is not a good candidate for the Senate. But last month many GOP leaders in Ohio were questioning where Vance was and how effective—or not—his campaign had been. CNN quoted one Ohio Republican saying that Vance was “like the dog who caught the car,” that he did not know what to do after he won the primary election. A Cincinnati-area radio talk show host said that winning the general election would be easier if one of Vance’s primary opponents had won—and that if Vance does not win, “it’s his own damn fault. Worse than that, in an August column on Cleveland.com, Brent Larkin called Vance’s campaign “a stain on the GOP,” writing that Vance “has awful political instincts, not an ounce of class and a tendency to embrace views parroted by political maggots he considers friends.” What’s most troubling of all, though, is some of the things that Vance has said himself. In May 2021, on The Federalist Radio Hour, he said, “We really need to be really ruthless when it comes to the exercise of power.” In September 2021, on the podcast of Jack Murphy, Vance said, “We need like a de-Baathification program, a de-woke-ification program,” and that is Trump wins the presidency in 2024, he should “fire every single midlevel bureaucrat, every civil servant in the administrative state, replace them with our people. And when the courts stop you, stand before the country, and say—quoting Andrew Jackson—‘the chief justice has made his ruling. Now let him enforce it.’” Last October he tweeted that Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a “fake holiday created to sow division.” In February, talking to Steve Bannon, he said, “I gotta be honest with you, I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or another.” There is definitely a question of “candidate quality” here.

Herschel Walker is a familiar name to football fans, especially in Georgia, where he won the Heisman while playing for the University of Georgia. He is also a friend of Donald Trump and was endorsed by Trump for the Senate to defeat incumbent Rafael Warnock. Like Trump, Walker has a spotty record when it comes to his relationships with women, his business dealings and his ability to tell the truth. He claims to have been in law enforcement, including working for the FBI, neither of which is true (though he evidently did spend a week in training at Quantico). In May Walker told an Atlanta radio station that he had never heard Donald Trump claim that the 2020 election was stolen. If that’s true, he’s the only person in the country who can make the claim. Walker acknowledged in his 2008 book Breaking Free that he has struggled with dissociative identity disorder, claiming to have twelve alternate personalities. There is a lengthy list of allegations against Walker pertaining to violence and domestic abuse, and he has admitted holding a gun to the head of his ex-wife. Twenty years ago he was accused of stalking a woman who has been identified as a former Cowboys cheerleader. He supposedly talked about having a shootout with the police in 2001. Now, just days ago, a woman who has a son with Walker has claimed that Walker both encouraged her to abort that pregnancy in 2011 and paid for her to have an abortion in 2009. Walker has denied that he paid for an abortion, saying in a statement, “I deny this in the strongest possible terms.” I obviously do not know if that happened or not, but it is troubling—and does not, sadly, seem implausible given Walker’s record and the things he has admitted to doing. Also sad is the response of some Republican leaders. Ralph Reed, who founded the Christian Coalition and later the Faith and Freedom Coalition, said last week that reports of Walker paying for an abortion are “unlikely to resonate with voters in Georgia. It’s based on an anonymous allegation that is 13 years old.” Being translated, that means, “We’re not letting anything stand in the way of retaking the Senate.” Many prominent Republicans have been supporting Walker, including Nikki Haley, former governor of South Carolina and Ambassador to the U.N., who is considered a possible candidate for the GOP nomination in 2024. Senators Rick Scott, Tom Cotton and Lindsey Graham have expressed support, as has RNC chair Ronna McDaniel. Pitifully, Dana Loesch, a conservative radio host, said, “What I’m about to say is in no means a contradiction or a compromise of a principle. And please keep in mind that I am concerned about one thing, and one thing only at this point. I don’t care if Herschel Walker paid to abort endangered baby eagles. I want control of the Senate.”

Fivethirtyeight.com is calling the Georgia race a toss-up, but projecting Warnock to win. Oz is projected to lose in Pennsylvania. Ohio is leaning Republican. Alaska is considered solid Republican, but it is unclear if Tshibaka or Murkowksi will be the winner. I didn’t talk about Trump protégé Blake Masters here, but he is projected to lose decidedly in Arizona. Leora Levy doesn’t seem to have a chance in Connecticut. Nevada is a toss-up but seems to be leaning slightly to incumbent Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto.

Bottom line: if I had to make a prediction one way or the other, I would not pick the Republicans to take control of the Senate. And to be honest, there’s really no excuse for that. With the current president’s issues and the state of the economy, it should have been a no-brainer to say that the Republicans would take control. The American Presidency Project posted in August that “In the 22 midterm elections from 1934 -2018, the President’s party has averaged a loss of…four Senate seats.” Furthermore, based on historical trends, the site said, “we would expect Democratic seat losses of around 30 in the House and 3 in the Senate.” The president’s party has only gained seats in the Senate six times since 1934, and it has not gained more than two Senate seats since 1934. If the Democrats gain three or more seats in the Senate—which I am not necessarily predicting, but also would not rule out—they would do something that neither party has managed to do since the first midterm election following Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first election to the presidency. If that happens, I hope it it’s the final nail in Donald Trump’s political coffin.

Image credit: Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons