Voters did the Republican Party three big favors Tuesday: First, they reelected Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) by historic margins, turning Florida into a red state and showing the GOP the path out of the political wilderness.
Second, they appear to have given Republicans a majority in the House of Representatives – if a narrow one, from what’s clear so far – which means that President Biden’s power to spend trillions of dollars with Democratic-only budget reconciliation bills is revoked.
Third, and most important, they gave the GOP a much-needed wake-up call. According to the Fox News voter analysis survey, 75% of respondents said the country is on the wrong track. The same share was dissatisfied or even angry with the way things are going. Yet on Tuesday, millions voted for the status quo.
Think about that: On Biden’s watch, we have experienced the worst inflation in 40 years, the worst collapse in real wages in four decades, the worst murder rate since 1996, the worst border crisis in U.S. history, the highest gas prices ever recorded, the worst increase in the cost of shelter since 1984. Biden is the least popular president in the history of presidential polling (besides Donald Trump) going all the way back to Harry S. Truman. Six in 10 voters say Biden does not have the mental capacity to be president.
Yet despite this unprecedented litany of disasters, voters looked at the alternative presented by Republicans and said: No, thanks. Not only did the historic red wave fail to materialize, Biden might actually end up doing better in this midterm election than most of his far more popular predecessors.
How did that happen? It’s not because voters approve of Biden’s job performance; it’s because they disapproved of the GOP. It’s because in key House and Senate races, Republicans nominated candidates whose main qualification was their fealty to Trump – and voters rejected them. Americans are desperate for change, but not the kind of change that Republicans offered. And because the GOP didn’t give voters what they considered reasonable alternatives to Democrats, Republicans lost winnable races across the country.
Still, there was a red wave Tuesday – in Florida. DeSantis won reelection by almost 20 points, the largest vote margin ever in a Florida gubernatorial election (and 17 points more than Trump won the state by in 2020).
DeSantis won by just over 32,000 votes four years ago but by more than 1.5 million votes this time. According to DeSantis’s campaign, he won independent voters by 20 points – a 30-point net increase from 2018. He won female voters by at least seven points, a 16-point net increase from 2018. And he won Hispanic voters by 14 points, a 22-point increase from 2018 and the highest share of the non-White vote for a Republican in Florida history. He also won in Democratic strongholds like Palm Beach, Miami-Dade, St. Lucie and Osceola counties, which had rarely voted Republican.
In other words, DeSantis did what Trump failed to do: He won over hundreds of thousands of people who did not vote for him the first time around. He was able to do this because he seems to understand something that Trump does not: Politics is not a zero-sum game. You can broaden your coalition while energizing your base at the same time.
DeSantis is a political counterpuncher who does not hesitate to take on the woke left. But he is also a policy wonk, with a command of the details of the bold conservative reforms (in taxes, education, parental rights and ending pandemic lockdowns) that he has implemented to make life better for his constituents. And when Hurricane Ian hit, he became the model of a chief executive leading in a crisis. Just days after taking a shot at the Biden administration by sending a planeload of illegal migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, he worked with the Democratic president to get power restored and bridges rebuilt – without getting into needless fights with reporters. As a result, DeSantis excited hardcore Republicans without alienating swing voters – and won in a landslide.
If Republicans nominate someone who can do on a national scale what DeSantis has done in Florida, they could win the 2024 election in a landslide, too.
If they nominate Trump, they may feel the same bitter disappointment again in two years.
I say this in sadness, not anger, because I have spilled more ink in these pages than any other human being defending Trump’s accomplishments in office. I don’t regret a word. With the mute button on, his was one of the greatest conservative presidencies in my lifetime.
But his conduct in office drove away millions of swing voters who liked his policies but not him – which is why he lost the 2020 election. And his abysmal behavior after the election was disqualifying to millions of Americans, who made their views clear this week.
By nominating candidates in Trump’s image, Republicans squandered a historic opportunity. They had the most promising political environment in decades, and they blew it. But the dark cloud of these midterms has an important lesson if the GOP chooses to take it: The future of the Republican Party lies in Florida – in Tallahassee, not Mar-a-Lago.
– Follow Marc A. Thiessen on Twitter, @marcthiessen.