The “Red Wave” Was a Dud

November 14, 2022

The 2022 midterm election is now behind us. While final results are still being tallied in a few races around the country, the broader contours are now clear: the endlessly-hyped “red wave” election of 2022 turned out to be a dud.

For the better part of two years, Republican spinsters predicted a “biblical plague” for Democrats in the midterm elections. This was based on one of the iron laws of politics: the party in the White House loses legislative elections in the midterms. But it was based on something else, as well: a ludicrously overheated atmosphere within the increasingly insular right-wing echo chamber, where Joe Biden has been assigned comic book villain status. Republican leaders believed that President Biden’s low approval rating reflected a broader anger at the Democratic Party, and voter preference for the GOP. This, it turns out, was wrong.

Here in North Carolina, Republicans chalked up some significant wins, but they also dramatically under-performed expectations at both the state and local levels. For the GOP’s “perfect storm” election, 2022 turned out to be a major disappointment, stemming from a serious misreading of the electorate.

The Situation Nationally

Democrats not only held on to their control of the U.S. Senate, but actually expanded their majority by picking up a seat in Pennsylvania, in addition to holding them in Arizona and Nevada (Georgia’s race will be decided in a runoff). Though Republicans successfully defended seats in Ohio, Wisconsin, Florida and, of course, in North Carolina, these represented costly defensive holds, rather than new seats for the GOP.

Control of the U.S. House is still unclear (which is remarkable all by itself). While Republicans are likely to win control of the chamber, they’ll likely have a much narrower majority than they hoped for. While Donald Trump lost 41 Republican seats in the “blue wave” election of 2018, Republicans are currently forecasted to pick up only 25 when the dust settles – one seat less than the historical average. One notable Democratic pickup: North Carolina’s 13th Congressional district, where Democrat Wiley Nickel defeated Trumper candidate and Charlotte resident Bo Hines.

The “red wave” failed spectacularly to deliver in gubernatorial races. Democrats won (or are likely to win) closely contested governorships not just in blue states like Oregon, Maryland, New York and Massachusetts, but in purple ones like Nevada, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and – it now appears – Arizona. Even in blood-red Kansas, Democratic incumbent Governor Laura Kelly won her close re-election. Republican incumbent governors won by comfortable margins in Texas, Georgia and Florida.

North Carolina joins the trend

Likewise, here in North Carolina, the endlessly-hyped “red wave” turned out to be more of a light tailwind.

Ted Budd won his race for the U.S. Senate over Cheri Beasley, but by a margin of just 3.6 points. This represents a whopping 2-point shift from 2020’s Presidential margin – not exactly a smashing victory. Budd’s high margins in rural counties was countered, as usual, by strong support for Beasley in urban areas, but lower Democratic turnout (particularly in Mecklenburg) sealed the deal. Though the final numbers are still being tallied, the national GOP was forced to invest very heavily to keep Budd’s seat in their column, likely weakening their efforts to flip or hold seats elsewhere.

Notably, Republicans failed in their key promise to win supermajority control of the state legislature – albeit barely. The GOP managed to win a net gain of only 2 seats in the State House and 2 in the State Senate, just enough to win a 1-seat Senate supermajority, and fall 1 seat short of a House supermajority. For Republican leaders who bragged loudly about their confidence of winning a supermajority, this represents a major embarrassment. The numbers themselves are also paltry: compare to 2018’s blue wave, when Democrats won 9 seats in the State House and 6 seats in the State Senate.

In short, Governor Cooper’s veto still stands. And just like Republican vows of supermajority control, taunts about overriding that veto will likely be difficult to realize.

The demographics of the North Carolina General Assembly also changed. In a major change, Republicans elected the second Black Republican state legislator since Reconstruction: Ken Fontenot, a new State House Representative in Wilson county. There are now two non-white Republican legislators, up from zero in the previous session. By contrast, Democrats are now slightly majority-non-white and female:

Republicans’ biggest win in North Carolina was a clean sweep of all 6 statewide judicial races, including flipping control of the state supreme court. This means that North Carolina’s highest court will have a Republican majority at least until 2028. Flipping control of the court means that Republican leaders will have a free hand to re-gerrymander the state’s Congressional maps, as they first attempted in 2021’s redistricting. (They are still prevented from redrawing the legislative maps by the state constitution.) This is the second straight cycle where Democrats have failed to win any statewide judicial seats, a serious problem that Democratic leaders have yet to grapple with.

School board challengers fall flat

Few stories have captured the political media as strongly as the radical right-wing’s attempt to seize control of local school boards. Nationally funded, far-right organizations like the “Moms for Liberty” have teamed up with hate groups like the Family Research Council and, locally, the NC Values Coalition to train right-wing activists to run for their local school boards. These efforts have spawned dozens of radical-right candidates who ran in 2022 for school boards, most with little clear agenda besides culture war posturing.

Yet it appears voters weren’t buying it. Voters in the ten largest counties in the state – which account for nearly half (46%) of all voters – turned away far-right candidates by big margins. Of the 40 right-wing activist school board candidates who ran in Wake, Mecklenburg, Guilford, Forsyth, Durham, Cumberland, Buncombe, New Hanover, Union and Gaston counties, only 10 won their races – and just 5 represented a flipped seat from an incumbent or Democratic member. The most notable success for the far-right was in New Hanover, where a slate of 4 candidates won, representing a net flip of 2 school board seats. In Buncombe, Cumberland, Durham and Forsyth, whole slates of far-right activist candidates failed to win a single seat.

Read more: Why are some school boards elected on a partisan basis, but others not?

Of course, there are 90 other counties in the state, which are much smaller in population and more rural. In these counties, right-wing activists had considerably more success. This reflects growing partisan polarization more than any other factor. A perfect example is Haywood County, where voters elected a 21 year old college junior – who attends school outside of the county – as the county’s new Tax Collector, simply because he was listed as the Republican candidate. Party identification, particularly in low-visibility local races (like the school board) has become such a powerful signal that in mostly “red” counties, partisan signaling often overrides any other substantive factor.

More analysis of the 2022 results is surely on its way, as precinct-level votes are tallied. But the results speak for themselves: North Carolina remains narrowly divided politically, with growing divides between rural, exurban/”countrypolitan” counties, and urban ones.

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