The 2022 midterms were as much an indictment of bloated national leadership on both sides of the aisle as they were of anything. People didn’t vote overwhelmingly for incumbents because they think the country is headed in a good direction (more than 7 in 10 Americans say it isn’t).
Many Democrats voted for Democrats because they were told Republicans will destroy democracy and practically enslave women. Republicans largely voted for Republicans because they were fed up with the Biden administration’s results, from inflation to transgendering kids. Mainstream Americans have lost faith in Washington — it’s what propelled Trump’s outsider win in 2016 and now what’s materialized in the heels-dug-in results of last week’s election.
None of the GOP Midterm Momentum Was National
The most interesting elements of the midterms weren’t in the fight over control in Congress (no one has much faith in Mitch McConnell, least of all many in his own coalition). They were the elections for state office that saw massive momentum build around longshot Republican challengers from New York to Michigan to even Oregon. Even though GOP gubernatorial candidates in those states didn’t oust their incumbent-party opponents, they tapped into an energy that national Republicans have failed to generate.
In the weeks before the election, Politico observed that gubernatorial candidates were helping to carry their Senate counterparts, from Republican Brian Kemp in Georgia to Democrat Josh Shapiro in Pennsylvania. The most momentum anywhere, of course, was behind Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — who has built his brand on proactive state leadership and pitting his state’s successes against the Biden administration and particularly its Covid bureaucracy.
There was no singular reason for the GOP to flail in the midterms, but the election did make at least these two things clear: The national, establishment GOP has failed to rally behind a resonant, positive national agenda that motivates voters, and it failed to fight effectively enough against the Democrat vote-harvesting machinery that’s been put in place in states that were, until recently, swing states.
Republicans in Congress and especially in leadership have joined with Democrats to pass leftist wishlists, from gun control to gay marriage. Meanwhile, they’ve continued to pump dollars toward GOP consultants while failing to match Democrats’ ground game in elections — perhaps the largest cause of Republicans’ disappointing midterm results.
Arguably, the GOP will either have to reform election laws (banning no-excuse mail-in voting, ballot harvesting and curing, etc.), or match Democrats’ efforts to harvest ballots where it’s legal, before a Republican can hope to win the White House again. If Republicans stand idle while Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Michigan continue to let Democrats abuse election laws to collect more ballots, a Republican nominee will have practically no shot at gaining 270 electoral votes. And strengthening the integrity of elections begins by advancing state-level candidates who will pass and implement strong election laws.
Covid Exposed the Importance of State Governance
Voters also appear to place more hope and enthusiasm in state-level leaders than in Washington. (Donald Trump in 2016 is a clear outlier, but he explicitly ran as the opposite of an “insider” and was more exciting and relatable as a result.) Credit a myriad of factors for DeSantis’s blowout win in Florida earlier this month, but he’s certainly become a model figure for strong state leadership that reminds the federal government: Checks and balances work between states and Washington too.
Covid lockdowns showed voters more clearly than they’d seen in years how critical state governance is. Blue states shuttered church services, stole years of children’s education, and imprisoned nursing home residents, while red states offered freer communities. Many people packed up and moved as a result.
In Virginia and nationwide, scandal after scandal in the classroom awakened many parents to realize how important their local school boards were. Americans learned (or remembered) that local politics — from school boards to governors’ mansions — can affect their daily lives just as much or more than who occupies the White House. While Republicans should still fight for influence in Washington to slow the advance of far-left agenda items and to make progress on breaking up the bureaucratic cartel, the reality of national politics is often gridlock. That’s by design, and a good thing; we call it checks and balances.
In Politics, Change Comes from Without
But in our current political climate, at least, it also means that Republicans are never going to save the country by winning majorities that put McConnell in charge of the Senate. The most momentous way forward against the excesses of our gargantuan national government right now is from Main Street to 50 different state capitals, not Pennsylvania Avenue.
With respect for the true conservatives doing badly needed maintenance and damage control in Congress, the best way to fix the system is from outside, via steady pressure from states reminding the federal government it can’t boss their citizens around. That’s why, arguably, DeSantis has done more good for conservatives as a governor than national Republican leaders have in the past two years. Imagine if the 26 states that emerged from the midterms with Republican governors were each led by a DeSantis-style Republican who directed coordinating fire at federal powermongers.
Conservative strategists and donors should gear their efforts toward boosting strong state leaders who aren’t afraid to push back against big bureaucracy, big corporate, Big Tech, and big media. That’s not limited to governors: Secretaries of state and attorneys general are vital for administering strong elections and fighting back against federal excesses, respectively. Voters should demand conservative state leaders go to bat for their interests against the Washington machine, not the other way around.
In Federalist No. 45, James Madison wrote:
The State governments may be regarded as constituent and essential parts of the federal government; whilst the latter is nowise essential to the operation or organization of the former. … [E]ach of the principal branches of the federal government will owe its existence more or less to the favor of the State governments, and must consequently feel a dependence [on them]…
Madison argued that dependence was “much more likely to beget a disposition too obsequious than too overbearing” from the federal to state governments. That hope is laughable in our current balance of power.
Even relentless effort from state leaders to reestablish the authority and leverage over the federal government their constituents once had might not be feasible. The divide between red states and blue states that it would deepen might break the country apart. There may not be enough freedom-loving citizens left to vote for reembracing responsibilities long pawned off on federal grifters. But it’s a better bet than ever expecting the rot in Washington to see itself out.
Elle Purnell is an assistant editor at The Federalist, and received her B.A. in government from Patrick Henry College with a minor in journalism. Follow her work on Twitter @_etreynolds.