Two days after Republicans dramatically underperformed in the midterms, but even as control of Congress remains too close to call, Sen. Josh Hawley has completed his autopsy and offered it to his party’s leaders for consideration. The topline: The failure is all their fault.
The Missouri populist believes the Republican Party offered voters plenty in the way of generalized gripes about Democrats and President Biden – but no actionable alternative. Hawley blames that on what he calls “Washington Republicanism,” specifically Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. 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 rebuking a less-than-popular president overseeing historic inflation rates and high gasoline and food prices. And a policy prescription-free midterm was what Minority Leader Mitch McConnell wanted. After President Trump ran for reelection in 2020 without so much as releasing a party platform at the convention, McConnell was asked if the GOP would lay out their priorities should they 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.”
According to Hawley, that strategy “was a pretty serious mistake.” He says that many voters, particularly “Obama-Trump voters,” just stayed home, essentially reporting back to both parties in Washington through their non-participation that “‘I just don’t trust either of you guys.’”
The U.S. electorate is still filling out the report card McConnell mentioned months ago. Judging by early returns, even if Republicans do manage to take the Senate, their margins will be exceptionally slim. A McConnell spokesman did not return RCP’s request for comment.
Republicans did not go into November completely without a plan. The party just didn’t have an official one. Florida Sen. Rick Scott released a 60-page “11-point plan to rescue America” that offered 128 proposals. One of those proposals 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 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,” he 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,” he added.
Hawley took issue in particular with an op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal by Sen. Mitt Romney arguing 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 things like “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 RCP that he will not vote for him as Republican Senate 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” that were made over the last 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,” he 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 Blake Masters for dead in Arizona,” he concluded.
That last charge was a reference to a McConnell-aligned super PAC pulling millions in spending meant to support the Republican challenger taking on 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 on Sunday during an interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Much of the conversation about what went wrong has centered on candidate quality. Republicans ran up the score in the Sunshine State with Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sen. Marco Rubio delivering double-digit victories and coat tails long enough for others to ride to down-ballot wins. Republican Lee Zeldin lost the race for governor in New York, but a 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 told RCP. “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 and Herschel Walker in Georgia – Hawley agreed with the GOP official who lauded the party's New York and Florida gubernatorial candidates.
“The DeSantis campaign was about something,” he 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. “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, they need “to actually offer an alternative.”
Asked if the senator was considering a challenge against McConnell, a Hawley spokesman told RCP that the Missouri senator “has no such plans.”