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GRAHAM: The Story of the Midterms: The Cult vs. The Cause

“He who has a ‘why’ to live for can bear almost any ‘how,’” wrote philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and this midterm election suggests he was on to something.

Nietzche’s point was that people are willing to sacrifice material comforts and their personal well-being in service to a cause greater than themselves.

One of the most common cliches of pre-midterm punditry was, “This election will be about kitchen-table issues.” A close runner-up: “People vote their pocketbooks.” They are “how you live” issues. Paying the bills. Personal economic comfort. Cash in your pocket.

And the cliches were completely wrong. Yes, Republicans won a majority among voters who said the economy was terrible. But those voters were already more likely to be Republicans.

The problem is that, among those who described the economy as “not so good,” Democrats won by 24 points according to exit polls.

The same with the 1o percent of people in New Hampshire who “somewhat disapproved” of Biden. Typically, the party out of power would win those by 20 points. Instead, they went by about 10 points for Democrats.

And as Tom Bevan of Real Clear Politics noted, “The biggest stunner was independent voters, who went for the incumbent party by two points, 51-49, after four straight midterm cycles of breaking in favor of the out-party by double digits.”

Truly astonishing numbers, reflecting the fact most voters agreed Democrats are not getting the job done and a majority voted for them anyway.

Because they weren’t voting on the “how,” they were voting on the “why.” Their beliefs. Their cause.

When the final numbers are in, it is likely that voters under age 30 turned out in unusually high numbers, and that they dominated the same-day registrations. They didn’t show up to cast a vote on inflation policy or a rebuke of excessive government spending. These younger, more idealistic voters were motivated by the Democrats’ message to cast a vote to save America.

They voted to save women from a “Handmaid’s Tale” future, to defend our democratic system from MAGA “semi-fascism,” as President Joe Biden put it. They showed up not to save money on their energy bills but to save democracy itself.

They were voters with a cause and they overwhelmingly voted Democrat.

Other voters may roll their eyes and dismiss their alleged ‘cause’ as ridiculous. Overturning Roe sent the abortion issue back to the states, not Congress. And the record turnout is a rebuke to the “democracy in danger” charge. So, how did Democrats convince those voters that the fate of our republic was at stake?

The Democrats didn’t convince them. The Republicans did.

Despite their party winning a majority of the popular vote nationwide by around four percentage points, Republican candidates for U.S. Senate lost nearly every swing state. In other words, there were plenty of GOP votes to draw from. Governors like Brian Kemp (R-Ga.) and Chris Sununu (R-N.H.) won big victories while Senate candidates lost badly or were forced into runoffs.

It turned out that nominating Trump-backed candidates who wholeheartedly embrace ludicrous theories about stolen elections or have messy personal lives isn’t just embarrassing to Republicans. It also drives Democrats to the polls in droves.

Because many GOP primary voters insist on embracing the cult of Trump because they mandate candidates show fealty to him — and prove it by publicly embracing his most ludicrous claims — the party was represented by candidates like Pennsylvania’s Doug Mastriano and Arizona’s Blake Masters. Those candidates in turn drove up turnout among Democrats, guaranteeing their own doom.

In New Hampshire, the GOP’s fringe candidates also depressed GOP voting. While 97 percent of Granite State Democrats backed their party’s nominees, just 89 percent of Republicans did the same for their party’s picks. As a result, the state’s Republican governor won big, but so did all three Democrats running for re-election for federal offices.

Sununu has reduced the 2022 election results to a single sentence: “The voters want to fix policy, but they voted to fix ‘crazy’ first.”

The long-term challenge for Republicans, particularly in federal races, is that many parts of America are so affluent they can afford to vote on issues like abortion and election integrity and other abstract concepts, even when the economy is lousy. Voting their “why” doesn’t require much of a sacrifice from their “how.”

Nominating Trumpian Republicans and arguing that voters will accept their eccentricities in exchange for low taxes, more GDP growth, and “owning the libs” hasn’t worked since 2016. Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) won a huge victory in a swing state, and he did it without Donald Trump.

Governors like DeSantis, DeWine, Kemp, and Sununu show there are plenty of Americans willing to vote Republican. The job of the GOP is to give them Republicans they can vote for.

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Pundits Look Ahead to 2022 Midterms

While some pundits have Democrats crying in their beer –or white wine—over Republican momentum in Philadelphia’s collar counties, others say the 2021 election results do not foretell future GOP wins. With or without former President Donald Trump’s long shadow.

Professor Robin Kolodny, chair of the political science department at Temple University, said it makes more sense to compare the November 2021 election to the 2013 municipal election, which is pre-Trump, than the more recent races.

Using a judicial race for comparison, voters in Bucks County gave the Republican candidate 54 percent of the vote in 2013 and the Democrat 45 percent. In 2021, the Democrat candidate received 48.9 percent to 55 percent for the Republican. And Delaware County in 2013 voted 53 percent Republican in a judicial race and 46.8 percent Democrat. In 2021, voters there skewed 55 percent Democrat to 44.9 percent Republican, she noted.

“Democrats improved their vote share in 2021 over 2013 statewide, in Delaware County (by a lot) and in Bucks County,” said Kolodny. “If 2022 elections were held tomorrow, Josh Shapiro (the Democratic Attorney General who is running for governor) wins Delaware County comfortably. What happens if he runs a good campaign?”

Nonsense, says Christopher Nicholas, a veteran GOP political consultant. He believes Republicans have the wind in their sails.

“In politics, ‘the trend is your friend.’  And the trend now is in favor of the GOP in the Philly suburbs,” said Nicholas. “That doesn’t mean Republicans will necessarily win those counties in 2022. But cutting the Democrat’s margins there will help since Pennsylvania Democrats are in a free fall in rural Pennsylvania.”

A major unknown: Where will President Joe Biden’s poll numbers stand next November?

A new Washington Posts/ABC News poll found Biden’s approval is now at 41 percent, with 53 percent saying they disapprove. In a subset of states like Pennsylvania with competitive U.S. Senate races, his approval is just 33 percent.

They also found Republicans winning the “generic ballot” question — “Would you rather see a Republican or Democrat in Congress?”– 51 percent to 41 percent — the highest margin for the GOP ever.

And a Franklin & Marshall College poll taken last month found just 32 percent of registered Pennsylvania voters said Biden was doing an excellent or good job, and  90 percent said his job performance has declined since he took office. The voters who think he’s doing worse cite the chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal, the border crisis, COVID-19, the economy, and inflation as reasons that they have changed their minds.

Just as troubling for Democrats, midterm elections often favor the party that is out of power. Republicans hope to take advantage of that factor as well.

“The red wave that swept local elections in Philadelphia’s suburbs should alarm Democrats as Republican enthusiasm continues to grow in once deep blue districts. As Joe Biden’s approval rate plummets, voters are ready to hold Democrats accountable in next year’s midterms for skyrocketing inflation and prices, rising crime, and special interest groups’ overreach into our schools,” said Republican National Committee spokesperson Allie Carroll.

Carroll pointed to Bucks County gains, where Republicans won five county row offices, including district attorney, where incumbent Matt Weintraub held on to his seat. Republicans also made massive gains in school board races in Bucks County, winning all four seats in the Centennial School District, every seat in the Pennridge School District, and three of five races in Central Bucks School District.

In Chester County, Republican Margie Miller won in the Downingtown Area School District. In Delaware County, the Marple Newtown and Penn Delco School Districts and Chichester Region 1 saw Republican sweeps in school board races.

A major factor in 2021 was parents, who became aware of parts of the curriculum being taught to their children during virtual learning amid the pandemic and came out to vote in large numbers. Parents were also concerned about schools closing along with other issues such as vaccine and mask mandates.

One hugely successful force, the new political action committee Back to School PA, was a big factor, with 60 percent of the candidates it backed winning in races around the state. The PAC supported candidates, including 36 percent who were Democrats, who believe in keeping kids in school rather than in online learning.

“We flipped six school boards,” said Clarice Schillinger, executive director. Of the 208 candidates they backed, 124 won. They also backed candidates in races where they knew there was little chance of winning, she said.

“What we did was raise awareness,” Schillinger pointed out.

The PAC put up $700,000, including $500,000 from Bucks County venture capitalist Paul Martino, to back slates of candidates at $10,000 each. Back to School PA will be funding candidates in the next school board election cycle in two years, Schillinger said. It is also discussing the possibility of taking the organization nationwide.

The PAC estimates it spent about $2,000 per candidate on those they supported, which is very similar to what the Pennsylvania State Education Association (teachers’ union) spent on its candidates. The union has been “putting in money for decades upon decades,” she noted. And candidates the labor union backs are “more likely to negotiate and vote their way during contract season,” she said. “I’m thrilled with the outcome of the election and I think in two years we’re going to be even sharper and even smarter.”

Thomas McGarrigle, Delaware County Republican Committee chair said, “In the suburbs, Republicans need to focus on messaging related to our core values and principles: Protecting individual liberties and first amendment rights, openness and transparency in government, and parental input into their kids’ education. By and large, people want to be left alone, and voters came out to voice their opposition to the Democrats’ government overreach on the national, state, and local levels.

“A lot of what we saw this election was a rejection of the elitist, ‘big government knowns best’ attitude held by too many of the Democrats that are in power now,” said McGarrigle. “The Republican Party needs to rally behind candidates for Congress, governor, and the state legislature who can articulate these concerns.”

And while Kolodny says she believes reports of a GOP surge are overblown, she also acknowledges one way “Republicans really have an advantage over the Democrats” is turnout.

“There’s an old saying in voting:  ‘A rainy day is a Republican day.’ In municipal elections especially, turnout is dismal. Republicans always turn out more than Democrats in off-year elections.”


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National GOP Chair Ronna McDaniel Visits Bucks County

Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel is bullish on her party’s chances both this year and in 2022.

Bucks County Republicans and Pennsylvania GOP Chairman Lawrence Tabas welcomed McDaniel to a get out the vote event at Bucks County Republican headquarters in Doylestown last week.

The current election “is helping us prepare for next year with our ground game,” McDaniel said. “It’s a test run, so it’s going to be critical with our turnout this November to measure and see how we’ll do in the midterms.”

In addition to congressional races and the governorship, Pennsylvania voters will be choosing a replacement for Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, who is not seeking another term. The GOP hopes to retake both the House and the Senate which Democrats now hold by narrow margins.

“What I’m seeing across the state and across the country is a huge enthusiasm for Republicans. With special elections this year, Republicans are outperforming the ticket from 2020 and Democrats are underperforming their ticket from 2020. And we’re hoping that will continue into this election,” said McDaniel.

“The midterms are always a referendum on the party that has the power,” she added. “That’s historically the way it is and the Democrats have the House and the Senate and the White House. As we are watching unemployment rise especially here in Pennsylvania, we’re watching more people leave the workforce, we’re watching the labor shortages, we’re watching inflation, energy prices going up, what’s happening at the border, all of that is a referendum on the Biden administration. And right now based on the polling that we’re seeing, the American people are not pleased.”

A recent poll average finds President Joe Biden with a 42 percent approval rating. It has fallen faster during his first nine months in office than any president in the modern era. But that doesn’t mean Republican candidates can coast and expect to win.

“I think my message to every Republican candidate is to know your district, know your community, invest in retail politicking, and don’t take anything for granted. And run on the issues that the people in your constituency believe in. And if you run your race and you really do that work, we’ll win,” she said.

One reason that former President Donald Trump lost the 2020 election was he lost the support of suburban women. But McDaniel believes women are coming back to the GOP in droves due to Democratic policies.

Republican Party of Pennsylvania Chairman Lawrence Tabas introduces judicial candidates Judge Drew Crompton, candidate for Commonwealth Court; Judge Kevin Brobson, candidate for Pennsylvania Supreme Court; Megan Sullivan, candidate for Superior Court, and Stacy Wallace, candidate for Commonwealth Court.

“We’re seeing women come back for a variety of reasons,” she noted. “A lot of it is having to do with the failed leadership of the Biden administration. We’re seeing gas prices go up. As moms, we understand what that means. I get that as a mom. We’re seeing our groceries cost more. We’re seeing everything cost more. And we know that inflation is affecting our families, and the border, national security and I think what’s happening in the schools, when you see in Virginia, a Democrat candidate say that parents have no right to have a say in their children’s education, that’s really resonating with women and moms across the country, especially in the suburbs. I know I’m one of them.  And what we’re seeing is a huge influx of people running for school board and it’s bringing women back to the Republican Party.”

Republican judicial candidates also attended the Doylestown event and were introduced to the party faithful.

The state Supreme Court, which now has a 5-2 Democrat majority, made several rulings regarding mail-in ballots in 2020 that some Republicans believe helped swing the presidential election to Joe Biden.

“I think that’s why these court races are very important,” said McDaniel. “Court races are critical because you can have a legislative session, one bad court ruling can overturn what happened legislatively. And a lot of times court races and judicial races are not given the attention they deserve, especially compared to the impact they can have on a state and no state understands that better than Pennsylvania. So every race is important. Obviously, these are the focus right now and the RNC is building a ground game to help the whole ticket.”

Commonwealth Court President Judge Kevin Brobson (R) and Superior Court Judge Maria McLaughlin are vying for the seat now held by Thomas Saylor (R). Under state law, Saylor must retire because he turns 75 this year.

McDaniel, a Michigan resident, has two children, one a junior in high school and one who just left for college.

“They were both pandemic kids. She was a pandemic senior,” said McDaniel. “It’s so hard and she did not get a senior year like so many kids. We really watched our kids struggle. We’re all navigating it. But I certainly do not think I should not have a say in my kids’ education. And my voice matters, just like every other parent across this country.”

McDaniel, 48, has been the National Committee Chair since 2017 and enjoys the job.

“I love traveling the country and meeting people, being in Bucks County today and meeting your county Chair Pat Poprik, seeing her and how hard she works. Everywhere I go, I get to meet amazing people. I love that. It’s also the thing that’s the hardest, traveling and being away from my family. I love seeing the whole great nation that we live in and the variety and the difference in every single state,” McDaniel said.