Some late predictions said it would be a “red tsunami” — that Republicans would sweep the midterm elections, putting many GOP candidates who campaigned on culture war issues instead of specific policy proposals into both chambers of Congress and into critical positions in states across the country.
Culture warriors are the type of candidates who use white grievance, fearmongering and moral panics about the topic du jour to whip up a frenzy among voters. These politics have increasingly become the cornerstone of the GOP, particularly since Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign for president. Two years ago, these conservatives criticized public health policies and “critical race theory,” and they have since shifted to banning books, a rabidly anti-LGBTQ worldview and racist insinuations about crime.
Despite the embrace of Trumpism costing Republicans the 2018 and 2020 elections, many candidates leaned heavily into their culture warrior personas this year. Doug Mastriano and Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, Paul LePage in Maine, Lee Zeldin in New York, and Tudor Dixon in Michigan represent just a sampling of candidates who thought relying on grievances in substitute of actual policies would lead to victory.
They were wrong.
In Pennsylvania’s race for governor, Mastriano — a far-right state senator who was outside the U.S. Capitol during last year’s Jan. 6 riot — lost to Josh Shapiro, the state’s attorney general. A Christian nationalist, Mastriano said he wanted to ban transgender people from accessing bathrooms that match their gender identity and closed out his campaign by promising to remove sexually explicit material from school libraries. Shapiro campaigned on equality for the entire LGBTQ community.
Oz, the celebrity doctor hand-picked by Trump, was defeated in his Senate race by Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, even after Oz attacked him for having an “extensive soft-on-crime agenda.” Fetterman, who is on the state’s Board of Pardons and has voted to commute prison sentences, advocates for reducing prison terms for some people convicted of murder and against mandatory life sentences. To Oz, that meant his opponent was “the most pro-murderer candidate in America.”
Herschel Walker, another candidate with Trump’s support, is headed to a runoff in Georgia with Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock after neither candidate successfully reached the 50% threshold to win their Senate contest. Walker has said that transgender children won’t go to heaven, complained that the Pentagon is “bringing wokeness in our military” and said that the federal government doesn’t need to do much to stop racism and discrimination because the U.S. Constitution already does that.
In Michigan, the far-right Dixon lost handily to incumbent Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. During her campaign, Dixon jumped on the conservative bandwagon against drag performances; libraries and other venues across the country have faced protests over family-friendly events like “drag queen story hours.” The candidate promised to make it a crime to bring minors to drag shows, saying the events “normalize the sexualization of children.”
Whitmer beat Dixon 55% to 44%.
LePage, the former governor of Maine who once referred to himself as “Donald Trump before Donald Trump became popular,” attempted to stage a comeback this year. During his two terms in office, LePage frequently made headlines for racist comments about Black and brown people. His 2022 campaign for governor featured an education plan that resembled Florida’s anti-gay and anti-trans agenda, and he accused his opponent, Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, of “woke” policies that fuel out-of-control crime. “Janet Mills is using taxpayer money to send people to places where they can get free crack pipes,” he once said.
Mills defeated LePage by 13 points.
The gubernatorial campaign of Zeldin, a congressman from New York, fell flat after several breathless reports in the media said his fear-based message was resonating with voters. Zeldin made crime central to his platform — which also included issues like “ending all COVID-19 mandates” and banning “indoctrination and brainwashing” in schools — and he has placed blame for increasing crime numbers directly on Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul. “This is the reality of life in Kathy Hochul’s New York,” he said when a jogger was raped in New York City. “Vote like your life depends on it, because it does.”
The country has seen a rise in homicides in the past few years, but there is no evidence that this increase has been caused by Democratic policies. And as Bloomberg’s Justin Fox noted in June, New York City has actually seen less of a post-pandemic crime spike than other major cities, and it is nowhere near as dangerous as it was in the 1990s.
Voters chose Hochul over Zeldin by nearly 6 points.
Culture war campaigns even failed in some reliable red states.
Republican Gov. Greg Abbott easily won another term in Texas, but House candidates like Mayra Flores and Cassy Garcia failed to win after campaigning largely on the culture war issues that have animated the GOP base in the Lone Star State. And in Virginia, where Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin has lifted up “parental rights” — typically code for school policies that ban discussion of racism and promote anti-LGBTQ ideology — conservative Yesli Vega failed to oust Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger.
A lot still hangs in the balance. And this election certainly doesn’t mean the GOP has completely veered away from the culture war or that Republican candidates will change their strategy before the next election. Ohio’s J.D. Vance, who said during his campaign that his opponent was aiming to “[flood] America with illegal aliens” and then use tax dollars to “fund gender reassignment surgeries for those aliens,” is headed to the Senate after defeating Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan, who notably tried to distance himself from his own party and appeal to Republicans in the state.
And it’s widely speculated that Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis — who easily won reelection Tuesday after a first term defined by anti-LGBTQ policies — will declare he’s running for president in 2024 and fight to be the culture warrior-in-chief. But we can now be certain that the supposed sea of conservatism that had washed over America and would only become visible after the election was actually just a pipe dream.