Column: Republicans and Democrats battled to an even split. Can we call it a draw?

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Conservatives who want to blame Donald Trump for Republican failure to produce a red wave in Tuesday’s midterm elections face a tantalizing dilemma.

What to do about the former president?

Clearly the GOP’s smart move at this point would be to ditch Trump. He picked candidates to endorse based on loyalty to him and how likely they were to go along with his big lie that massive voter fraud cost him the 2020 presidential election.

His picks lost badly. Voters rejected candidates for governor and secretary of state who questioned the integrity of elections. Democrats won big in Michigan, Pennsylvania and other states Trump won in 2016.

Trump’s bad picks turned what should have been GOP slam dunks into close calls and cost Republicans races they should have won.

“Trump blasted across media spectrum over Republicans’ midterms performance: ‘Biggest loser tonight,’” Fox News declared in a headline.

But here’s the thing: Trump is not going to go quietly into the night. If Republican Party leaders abandon Trump he’s going to tell his supporters to stay home. He’ll tank the party’s chances in 2024 just like he tanked the two Georgia Senate races in 2020.

Trump cost Republicans control of the Senate then and he’ll cost them the presidency in 2024. That’s just how he rolls. The twice-impeached Trump’s brand is deeply damaged, despite efforts to dismiss the work of the Jan. 6 committee and the multiple criminal and civil cases pending against him.

Trump will not win the presidency if he’s the nominee and if he’s not nominated he’ll make sure the GOP candidate loses. Trump has already telegraphed that he intends to seek a third run for president in 2024 by teasing a big announcement on Nov. 15.

It would be a mistake to underestimate Trump’s ability to take the ship down with him. His supporters adore him with messiah-like loyalty. The only group they hate more than Democrats are “never Trumpers” they call Republicans In Name Only, or RINOs.

The party’s smart move would be to rally behind Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who won big Tuesday night. During a recent rally, Trump took aim at the Sunshine State governor, mocking him with the nickname, “Ron De-Sanctimonious.” It reminded people of how Trump destroyed Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush and other Republicans during his ascent to political power in 2016.

Trump causes Republicans to lose because he mobilizes Democrats and independents to turn out and vote against him. Sure, Trump is great at whipping up support among the GOP base. But a key lesson from Tuesday is that when a party appeases its base too much, it runs the risk of losing independent moderates in the middle.

Messaging that gins up supporters during primaries can repel crucial voters in general elections. The scenario reminds me of the Buffalo Bills during their NFL dynasty of the early 1990s. Sure, they made it to four straight Super Bowls, but they lost all four. Bills fans were bitterly disappointed despite the team’s success.

“How is this not a red wave?” a bewildered “Fox & Friends” host Ainsley Earhardt asked of her TV colleagues Wednesday morning. “I heard last night this is an indictment on the Republican Party. Is it?”

Many seem to have made the same mistake former U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski made two weeks before the election when he predicted a Republican tsunami. I warned readers that Lipinski’s prediction was based on flawed expectations that the party holding the White House would always lose a bunch of seats in Congress during midterms.

This year was different, I wrote, because of the Supreme Court’s ruling on abortion, the violent assault on the U.S. Capitol and other existential threats to democracy.

Many thought crime, inflation and immigration were issues that mattered most to voters. Those who were most stunned by Tuesday’s outcomes may have underestimated how the freedom to make personal health care decisions would motivate people to vote. People who value freedom tend to dislike it when a religious minority tries to impose their worldview upon them.

Republican leaders have to figure out how to deal with the Trump dilemma. They can’t win with him and they can’t win without him. The self-destructive setup may have saved American democracy by preventing election deniers from winning key contests in the midterms. They could have been in positions to disregard the rule of law and hand the presidency to someone other than the rightful person in 2024.

The Trump effect has got to have elite GOP donors fuming. They spent truckloads of money in this election cycle and have little to show for it. They had hoped for a big Republican majority in the House so they could slash Society Security and Medicare programs and use the savings to create more wealth for rich people.

Now those plans are in doubt. Uncertainty clouds the picture. No one knows what will happen during the next two years or in 2024. No amount of money can buy certainty with a wild card like Trump in the game.

The midterms weren’t all bad for Republicans. They won big in Florida and Ohio, proving once and for all that those are now red territories and no longer swing states.

Locally, the GOP made significant gains in Will County. Unofficial results showed Republicans flipping the offices of sheriff, treasurer and regional superintendent of schools. They may also pick up seats to create an even 11-11 split on the Will County Board, though the Democratic county executive will cast tiebreaking votes.

Will County races were close, but they showed that some suburban areas Democrats flipped in recent years can flip back to Republicans. Democrats have to deal with some serious brand damage of their own.

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Numerous Republicans who lost elections across the country conceded defeat to their Democratic opponents, and that was good to see. Midterm outcomes may not have killed election denial outright, but they dealt a blow to the movement.

The midterms are looking like a mixed bag. Both sides can point to some positives and some negatives. It looks like we’re in for at least another two years of extreme partisanship. The midterms proved party affiliation matters more than quality of candidates. Red states got redder and blue states got bluer.

I wish we would realize that no matter which party has a majority, we are evenly divided. Like Trump, the side on the short end is not going anywhere. When one side scores a slight advantage, the opposition doesn’t vanish.

We all need to live and work together and share in whatever pain or prosperity the nation experiences. Let’s call it a draw. Now, we can talk about something other than politics for a while?

On second thought, the 2023 consolidated elections are right around the corner.

Ted Slowik is a columnist for the Daily Southtown.

tslowik@tribpub.com

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November 10, 2022 at 07:00PM

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