So much for the “red wave.” Republicans expected sweeping victories in last week’s midterm elections that never materialized. Instead, Democrats outperformed expectations by maintaining control of the Senate and holding Republicans to a razor-thin majority in the House of Representatives.
A panel of education scholars met at the American Enterprise Institute a day after the elections to make sense of the outcome. Still bleary-eyed from a long night of watching results trickle in, they predicted what the next two years will hold for education policy.
The panel agreed on one important point. “Pragmatism won,” declared Andy Rotherham, the co-founder of Bellwether Education Partners. Bethany Little, a principal at EducationCounsel, LLC concurred: “Voters are not into extremism,” regardless of their political learnings. While partisan debates on Twitter might inflame passions, they don’t seem to push voters to the polls. Candidates that embraced these radical views were defeated across the country.
Derrell Bradford of 50CAN hoped that Republicans would be chastened by their disappointing showing. Despite winning the House, they would still be short of a “mandate-worthy” majority. Bradford wanted Republicans to learn from the mistakes of Democrats, who pursued a far-left agenda after winning the White House and Congress in 2020. He predicted that Republicans would hold Congressional hearings on the last two years of education policy, but would refrain from a more radical agenda.
However, Rick Hess, a senior fellow and director of education policy studies at AEI, predicted the Republicans’ slim majority would empower its fringe members. Needing every vote possible to pass legislation, the caucus would cater to far-right pols like Marjorie Taylor Greene to ensure their support.
The panel was surprised that education issues failed to motivate voters. Earlier this year, the Biden administration’s student loan forgiveness plan drew ire from conservatives who saw it as a government handout to the middle and upper classes. But the plan failed to trigger a populist revolt on election day.
Likewise, Republican candidates who modeled their campaigns on Glenn Youngkin’s successful bid for Virginia governor came up short. Youngkin made school re-openings, parents’ rights, and anti-CRT rhetoric central to his message. That playbook failed other Republicans in 2022.
Another takeaway: Candidate quality matters. Many untested candidates—particularly those endorsed by former president Donald Trump—went down in flames. In Pennsylvania, both Doug Mastriano and Mehmet Oz lost winnable seats. In Arizona, Blake Masters failed to beat incumbent Senator Mark Kelly. Kari Lake, the former television news anchor who embraced Trump’s style of bombastic rhetoric, could not overcome Katie Hobbs’s somewhat anemic campaign in that same state’s race for governor. While Hershel Walker hasn’t lost in the Georgia Senate race yet, he couldn’t muster the votes to unseat Raphael Warnock, and is set for a runoff election in December.
Despite these high-profile losses, Republicans found success at the state level. Governor Ron DeSantis romped in Florida, as did Mike DeWine in Ohio. In Texas, Greg Abbott easily handled a well-funded Beto O’Rouke, whose platform included eliminating state testing for K–12 students. Brian Kemp defeated Stacy Abrams, a Democratic celebrity, in Georgia. These Republicans’ large margins of victory suggest that voters see them as effective leaders. DeWine, who racked up 62.8 percent of the vote, was praised by both Democrats and Republicans for his cautious handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and for bringing a major computer-chip plant to the state. And as populations decline in states like New York and California, domestic migration has caused Florida’s to surge, thanks in part to the policies of DeSantis.
Looking forward to the 2024 presidential election, Rotherham hoped that both parties would recognize the sophistication of the electorate. He cited the public’s view on gender ideology as an example of this sophistication. Polling shows that a majority of Americans want classrooms to welcome all students, but still aren’t comfortable with gender ideology being explicitly taught in schools, especially at the elementary level. Navigating thorny issues like these will require parties to moderate and develop more nuanced policies.
That moderation and nuance might be hard to find. A day after the election, a reporter asked President Biden what he might do differently in the next two years. Biden responded: “Nothing.” And just a week after many of his hand-picked candidates lost, Trump announced his third presidential campaign from Mar-a-Lago, ensuring that his brand of populism and divisive rhetoric will stay with us. This stubborn adherence to the status quo could hurt both parties in 2024. The party that shifts toward the center, tones down the rhetoric, and convinces voters they will govern well might be primed for a big victory.