Days after Republicans dramatically underperformed in the midterms, but even as control of Congress remains too close to call, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., completed his autopsy and offered it to his party’s leaders for consideration. The topline: The failure is all their fault.
The Missouri populist said he believes the Republican Party offered voters plenty in the way of generalized gripes about Democrats and President Joe Biden—but no actionable alternative.
Hawley blames that on what he calls “Washington Republicanism,” specifically Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. He also thinks it was a bad idea to talk about making changes to Social Security and Medicare.
“Republicans just said, ‘Well, the other side sucks, and Biden sucks.’ Well, no doubt. But it’s pretty hard to convince folks, particularly independent-minded ones who don’t tend to trust the process much, to vote for you if you don’t have something affirmative to say and offer,” Hawley said in a Friday interview.
“I lay that at the feet of the Washington establishment that set the tone for these races,” he added. “They failed to offer that kind of vision.”
Republicans certainly placed their hopes in voter resentment. They banked on the electorate’s rebuking a less-than-popular president overseeing historic inflation rates and high gasoline and food prices. And a policy prescription-free midterm was what McConnell wanted.
After President Donald Trump ran for reelection in 2020 without so much as releasing a party platform at the Republican National Convention, McConnell was asked whether the GOP would lay out priorities should it retake the Senate majority.
“That is a very good question. And I’ll let you know when we take it back,” McConnell told NBC News in January. “This midterm election will be a report card on the performance of this entire Democratic government: the president, the House, and the Senate.”
That strategy “was a pretty serious mistake,” Hawley said in the interview. He said many voters, particularly “Obama-Trump voters,” just stayed home, essentially reporting back to both parties in Washington through their nonparticipation that “‘I just don’t trust either of you guys.’”
The U.S. electorate still is filling out the report card McConnell mentioned months ago. Judging by early returns, even if Republicans did manage to take the Senate, their margins would be exceptionally slim. A McConnell spokesman did not return RealClear Politics’ request for comment.
Republicans did not go into November completely without a plan. The party just didn’t have an official one.
Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., released a 60-page, “11-point plan to rescue America” that offered 128 proposals. One proposal was to sunset all federal programs. Scott reasoned that “if a law is worth keeping, Congress can pass it again.”
There was no caveat that would’ve spared Social Security or Medicare. The White House pounced. Even though the plan was not an official document, Biden hammered it like it was party orthodoxy and claimed that Republicans wanted to cut the popular programs.
And when previewing a looming showdown over spending, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy in October would not rule out changes to entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security as part of those negotiations.
Hawley pronounced that kind of talk “nuts.”
“This does not address any of the felt concerns of voters, particularly voters who are struggling economically, who are struggling with rising prices, who have paid into those systems, by the way, with their wages, their entire working lives,” the Missouri Republican said.
“I don’t understand why in the world Republicans would say, ‘Oh, yeah, let’s first when we get back to the majority, let’s go fiddle with those programs that you’ve paid into, and that you are going to depend on for your livelihood in retirement.’ I think it’s nuts,” Hawley added.
Hawley took issue in particular with an op-ed published in The Wall Street Journal by Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, in which he argued that it was time for Republicans to get serious about excessive spending, including “nondiscretionary spending on entitlements, such as Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid, and on servicing the debt.”
A better platform, Hawley argued, would’ve been for Republicans to run on issues such as “tougher tariffs on China, reshoring American jobs, opening up American energy full-throttle, and putting 100,000 new cops on the street.”
Mostly, Hawley blames McConnell. He told RealClear Politics that he will not vote for the Kentuckian as Republican leader, regardless of which party controls the Senate.
“I’m not going to support the current leadership in the party,” he said, citing “key decisions” made over the past two years.
“I did not agree with the decision to take away the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens in the form of the big gun control bill,” Hawley said, referring to bipartisan gun reform legislation passed in June. “I thought that was a mistake.”
“I did not agree with spending billions and billions of dollars of taxpayer money on climate initiatives that was billed as infrastructure. I thought that was a mistake,” he continued, adding: “We surrendered when we should’ve fought.”
“I did not agree with failing to have any kind of an agenda to run on in these midterms. I did not agree with the decision to bad-mouth our candidates in the middle of the campaign, I did not agree with the decision to leave [GOP Senate nominee] Blake Masters for dead in Arizona.”
That last charge was a reference to a McConnell-aligned super PAC’s pulling millions in spending meant to support Masters, the Republican challenger who took on the incumbent Democrat, Sen. Mark Kelly.
Masters didn’t endear himself to leadership by hedging publicly on whether he would back McConnell as Senate majority leader. A sister PAC, however, spent over $13 million in Arizona, a McConnell spokesman previously told The Wall Street Journal.
Gripes about GOP brass are nothing new, and McConnell has staved off challenges before. The recent chatter on Capitol Hill is that Scott might run against McConnell, a possibility that the Florida Republican did not dispute Sunday during an interview on NBC News’ “Meet the Press.”
Much of the conversation about what went wrong has centered on candidate quality. Republicans ran up the score in Florida, with Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sen. Marco Rubio delivering double-digit victories and coattails long enough for others to ride to down-ballot wins.
Rep. Lee Zeldin, the Republican challenger, lost the race for governor in New York, but his strong showing helped carry congressional candidates across the finish line there. The GOP was not as lucky in Pennsylvania, where Trump-endorsed Doug Mastriano lost by double digits to Democrat Josh Shapiro in the governor’s race.
“Candidate quality matters, but top-of-the-ticket quality matters even more,” a senior GOP official said. “House Republicans got crushed in Pennsylvania and Kansas, but thrived in New York and Florida.”
Although he defended Trump’s backing of unconventional candidates—for instance, the former president endorsed both Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania’s Senate race and Herschel Walker in Georgia’s—Hawley said he agreed with the GOP official who lauded the party’s New York and Florida gubernatorial candidates.
“The DeSantis campaign was about something,” Hawley said. “Lee Zeldin’s campaign was about something.”
Those two races “bucked the trend” by giving independent voters a reason other than just resentment to cast their ballot, he said. “That was not the case, though, nationwide.”
What comes next? Hawley said he hopes the midterm losses “mean that Republicans in leadership will learn their lesson on this, and they will oppose the Biden agenda more effectively.” To do that, he continued, GOP leaders need “to actually offer an alternative.”
Asked if the senator was considering a challenge of McConnell, a Hawley spokesman told RealClear Politics that the Missouri Republican “has no such plans.”
Originally published by RealClearPolitics and distributed by RealClearWire.
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