In a way, last night’s runoff election in Georgia provided the perfect cap to a midterm cycle full of missed opportunities and poor assumptions. Herschel Walker narrowly lost as a celebrity outsider to a two-year Senate Democrat incumbent who should have been uniquely vulnerable in 2022. And yet Walker finished behind Raphael Warnock not once but twice, in a state that elected Republicans into every other statewide office last month.
Walker couldn’t get to 50% in either try despite the results of the regular election for Republicans in all other statewide races:
- Governor: Brian Kemp over Stacey Abrams, 53.4/45.9
- SecState: Brad Raffensperger 53.2/44.0 over Bee Nguyen
- Lt. Governor: Burt Jones 51.4/46.4 over Charlie Bailey
- Attorney General: Chris Carr 51.9/46.6 over Jen Jordan
Every single one of these Republicans won over two million votes in their elections. Walker only got a skosh over 1.9 million on the same ballot, and just under 1.72 million in the runoff.
In other words, a significant number of Georgia voters who turned out for Kemp and the rest of the Republican ticket in 2022 simply refused to vote for Walker. That’s not a scenario of stolen elections or fraud. That is a failure in candidate selection, and a failure of assumptions in what moves voters in the first place — and it’s not the only such failure this cycle, either.
The biggest assumption flop: the myth of the celebrity candidate. Donald Trump didn’t create this — one can say it’s been around since George Murphy won a Senate seat in California in 1964 — but Trump’s success seems to have bedazzled voters with a strategy that simply doesn’t work in most instances. Trump won, barely, but only once, and that was a lightning-in-a-bottle moment. Unfortunately, Trump himself seems to be convinced of this strategy, which is why he recruited Walker and Mehmet Oz and then pushed hard to win their primaries. (For that matter, Murphy only won once as well.)
Celebrity may help with name ID, but it doesn’t replace competence.
The next assumption that failed this midterm: the governing party is so bad that voters would rally to any challenger in a general election. There’s probably never been a better test case than the 2022 cycle for that assumption. Inflation raged at 40-year highs, gas prices were going up and down like a roller coaster, and Joe Biden was the most unpopular president in a midterm cycle in decades. Yet when asked to choose between Democrat incumbents like Warnock and Maggie Hassan and alternatives like Walker and Don Bolduc, voters chose the incumbents over the populist outsiders. Why? Because the populist outsiders were poor candidates focused on the wrong issues, and in some cases (Bolduc certainly) were more focused on Donald Trump’s complaints than those of the voters.
The third bad assumption: the base wins elections. In a number of elections this cycle, alternatives with appeal to the center were eschewed for fire-breathers on the basis that the populist base would lift them to victory. In this, the broad disgust over the rise of the Clintonistas in 2016 has been misinterpreted as a political realignment, when in fact no such realignment has taken place. The succeeding three elections have proven that beyond a doubt now, but that should have been fairly obvious after the 2020 election already.
“Broad appeal” doesn’t mean running centrists either. In Georgia especially, results show that conservatives can win when (a) they have prepared themselves to compete, (b) give voters a positive forward-oriented vision, and (c) stay away from extremist rhetoric and causes. Kemp may have been blessed with a particularly inept challenger in Abrams this year, but he wasn’t the only success story for the GOP in Georgia. Look again at the results above in the other statewide races to see how well experienced and well-vetted conservatives can fare in elections, even in a state edging toward purple status over the last few years. For that matter, take a look at Virginia in the 2021 elections, where Republicans won statewide in an undeniably blue state.
Elections are not won by base turnout alone. Candidates have to appeal more broadly to win statewide elections. Even a good ground game — which the GOP clearly had in Georgia — can’t overcome an extremist candidate or one whose appeal is limited by their sponsor/patron.
Finally, we can talk about Trump and his 2020 obsession, which has curdled even more since the midterm flops. One of the undeniable threads in this midterm was that candidates who focused on Trump’s grievances lost in the general election, even if their focus was only during the primaries. Republicans lost winnable seats in New Hampshire, Nevada, Arizona (both Senate and governor), Pennsylvania, and Georgia, while also underperforming in Ohio and perhaps other places as well. Candidates who focused entirely on Joe Biden and the future did much better. Even the surprising discipline from Trump in staying out of Georgia for the runoff didn’t resolve that problem for Walker, who was very clearly and obviously Trump’s candidate. Voters rejected that agenda soundly in 2022.
If the GOP takes just one lesson from this midterm cycle and the embarrassing two defeats for the Senate seat in Georgia, it had better be that lesson.