Clip: Why the red wave fell flat and what the election results mean for the Biden agenda

Nov. 11, 2022 AT 2:25 a.m. EST

While it’s still unclear at this time which party will control the House or the Senate, what is certain is that the Republican red wave simply did not happen. The panel discusses why it fell flat and what it means for the Biden administration's agenda for the next two years.

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Yamiche Alcindor: Election Day has stretched into election week. And at this hour, it is still unclear which party will control the House or the Senate. In several key races, votes are still being counted. Some of those results could take weeks, that's right, weeks.

Currently, Republicans are expected to hold a slim majority in the House. 28 races are still undecided. In the Senate, three races are still undecided. And next month, the high-profile Georgia Senate race between Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker will go to a runoff. That race could end up determining which party controls the Senate.

And while there is a lot of uncertainty, what is clear is that the Republican red wave, it simply did not happen. Many of former President Trump's highest profile endorsements ultimately lost their races. That's led some in the GOP to question whether Trump is a drag on the party while still celebrating party wins. Meanwhile, Democrats, including the president, are praising the results.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) : Two years ago when I became leader, Republicans had less than 200 seats in the House. That cycle, we picked up 14 seats. Tonight, we built upon those gains two years ago. And it is clear that we are going to take the House back.

Joe Biden: We lost fewer seats in the House of Representatives than any Democratic presidents first elected midterm, at least 40 years. And experts said we couldn't beat the odds but we did beat the odds.

Yamiche Alcindor: Joining me to discuss all this and more, Dan Balz, Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post, Weijia Jiang, Senior White House Correspondent for CBS News, Jonathan Martin, I call him J. Mart, Politics Bureau Chief at Politico, Ayesha Rascoe, Host a Weekend Edition Sunday on NPR. Thanks to all of you for being here around the table. I love to have everyone here.

Dan, you have covered politics longer than all of us, so I'm going to start with you. It was the red wave that wasn't. The GOP, even if they take back the House, this could be the best midterm election of any president at least in the last two decades. What are your biggest takeaways for what the election tells us and the lessons here?

Dan Balz, Chief Correspondent, The Washington Post: Well, having covered a lot of these election nights, this was one of the most astonishing, certainly for a midterm, because it defied almost all the elements of history that we use as guides to let us give a sense of where things are going.

I think one of the big takeaways is that Donald Trump has created a different electorate in this country. In 2018, we had record turnout. In 2020, we had record turnout. And in 2022, we had near record turnout. Normally, the party that holds the White House has trouble getting its voters out in a midterm election like this. But in this case, they came in droves, and it defied the expectations. And so as a result of that, you have the party that may well capture control of the House disappointed and fighting among themselves, and the party that could lose the House quite jubilant that they are as close as they are.

The Senate is still up for grabs. It is very possible, maybe even likely at this point, that the Democrats hold that. So, it is just a year in which it really was a choice and not a referendum on the party in power.

Yamiche Alcindor: And,, Jonathan, J. Mart, there are a number of races that we said are still not likely to be called, but there is Nevada and Arizona that are those key Senate races. Tell me a little bit about what you are thinking and seeing both on the House and but also on the Senate side in terms of where things are heading.

Jonathan Martin, Politics Bureau Chief, Politico: Well, I think we are coming on the air tonight, and your viewers should know that there have just been thousands of votes counted in Nevada. And it looks increasingly like Senator Masto, who is the incumbent Democrat there, is probably going to find a path to reelection. She is only down under 1,000 votes statewide and there are still 40,000 more votes to come just from Las Vegas and Reno alone, those metro areas. So, she appears to be on track.

That is important, because if she does close that gap and overtake her GOP challenger, that all but guarantees Democrats will hold the Senate, because Mark Kelly in Arizona is even better shaped right now than her. And, Yamiche, that would make Georgia for those watching at home only relevant as the Dems would have a one-seat majority or a zero-seat majority with the V.P. breaking the tie. So, Nevada is the key tonight. It looks like Masto is going to be able to hold on.

Yamiche Alcindor: And there's a lot going on in the House side too.

Jonathan Martin: Yes, absolutely. And what's fascinating about the House is that there is drama in terms of both sides of the aisle, in terms of who is going to be in charge. Usually after a House election, at least one part that we know who is going to be leading the caucus, it is now uncertain. I spoke to Speaker Pelosi, if Democrats do go in the minority, where or not she would stay, resign, or perhaps stay and serve I the minority, or perhaps stay and try and serve as minority leader. So, she has three options that are sort of that are sort of fascinating to watch.

There is intense hope among a lot of younger Democrats in the House. There is going to be a passing of the baton to that next generation, but they weren't expecting this election to be so close. And now, Pelosi, I think it is more of an open question as to whether or not she will move on.

It is a mess with the House GOP because of the opposite. They had high hopes for this election. And now it seems like if they do have the majority, Yamiche, it is only going to be three or four-seat majority, which is so darned close, it could be even closer than that. And so if that is the case, Kevin McCarthy is going to have a really hard time finding the votes to become speaker, because he has critics on the far-right of his caucus that are not vote for him for speaker. That could create an extraordinary story on the floor of the House in January, because you have to get 218 votes in the floor of the House to be speaker. And if he can't find his entire party unified, those Democrats are not going to bail him out.

Yamiche Alcindor: No, those Democrats are definitely not going to bail him out.

Weijia, one of the happiest people I have seen this week is on your beat, President Biden is chipper, I think. Tell me what you are hearing at the White House behind closed doors and what they're saying, and what also they think this says about the message that Democrats are putting out there that really was also about democracy in threat, inflation and abortion. It was sort of a trifecta. Some people thought it was sort of messy, but it worked in some ways.

Weijia Jiang, Senior White House Correspondent, CBS News: Right. And it is not in this administration's DNA to gloat and to say, I told you so, but, basically, behind the scenes, they are saying, I told you so, because there was so much criticism against their strategy to focus on a variety of issues, and not just the economy. In fact, the president's last primetime address was about the threat to democracy. And he made that just a few days before Election Day, and a lot of Republicans said this shows that he is out of touch because people are really just so stressed about paying their bills, that he's choosing to focus on something that is not what is top of mind for people.

But we just saw that is not true. Abortion was a factor. Yes, the economy was a factor, the threat to democracy was a factor. And so that is what we heard from the White House from the very beginning, that they were going to focus on these issues and on the president's accomplishments because they wanted this to be a policy-driven campaign, not a personality-driven campaign. Which is why the president did not do a lot of the big campaign rallies that previous presidents had done until the very end, when he wanted to make sure it would drum up enthusiasm to get people out to vote.

And to Jonathan's point, the other reason why he's very happy is even though the Republicans look like they are poised to take over, the White House feels that there is enough wiggle room, there is enough fractures within the party, that they will still be able to accomplish things on his agenda. It's going to be tough. They acknowledge that. But they are certainly much more optimistic than they would have been if that so-called the red wave had happened.

Yamiche Alcindor: Yes. And, Ayesha, we were just talking about personality not being at the forefront, and I think that that is very much true and that's what I'm hearing from I sources. But there's also this idea that candidates do matter in some ways. How much did candidate quality matter when you look at these election results, especially even in a place like Pennsylvania, where John Fetterman bested out Dr. Oz, who was this Trump-backed candidate, that some just saw as simply unqualified?

Ayesha Rascoe, Host of Weekend Edition Sunday, NPR: Well, here is the thing. I mean, I think this election was a real test of whether races had been nationalized to the point, and whether the electorate was so polarized, that, basically, if you had an R and you were a Republican, they would vote for you. If you were Democrat, they would vote for you.

I think what this shows is it matters who you are because you saw those split tickets, you saw in Georgia where you had Governor Kemp get re-elected, right, but then you have Herschel Walker. They were people that voted for Kemp, they did not vote for Walker, right? They did not. And then you see in Pennsylvania, where you had Oz, you had someone where Trump put that thumb on the scale and you got Oz, but people did not glean to him. People felt like he was a carpetbagger, he was kind of a snake oil salesman. That is what people felt. I'm not saying that's who he is, but that is the way people felt, and that is what happens when it came to, and you saw the results of that. And it really hurt the Republicans.

Yamiche Alcindor: Certainly. And, Dan, you are also hearing some in the GOP say now out loud their criticisms of Trump, some of the things that people would only say on background are now somehow materializing on national news. And for me, it strikes me that the Capitol attack, where you saw people ran from Trump and ran right back. I wonder how much you think people are going to run from Trump and run right back, or if this is really a real sort of test and a real sort of example of people saying this is the limit for us.

Dan Balz: It may be an inflection point for Donald Trump. We've said that a lot of times over the last six years, and I would say almost every time, we have been proving wrong. So, I don't want to go too far out on that limb. But there is something materially different about this.

I think after 2020 and after the attack on the Capitol, despite the attack on the Capitol, I think Republicans felt that they could not win and they could not win this year without Trump being in the tent and part of it, that they needed his voters. But in getting those voters, they also got Donald Trump meddling in these elections. And to look at the Senate, you can argue that had they had different candidates in Georgia and in Pennsylvania, they would have one those two races, in which case they would have the Senate.

So, I think that the issue now is, will they conclude from this that instead of thinking they can't win without Trump, that now they can't win with him.

Weijia Jiang:  That's exactly what I was going to say. It's because for the past two years, the open ended question that we have talked about so much is what power does Trump still has within the GOP. And I think a lot of candidates were concerned that remained a lot of power. And now they see the results, and that is just not the case, because those candidates who he endorsed actually underperformed.

On the flipside, the president was trying to avoid the areas where there are really tight races, President Biden, that is. And it turns out that the places where he did go, those candidates overperformed. And so you're right, Dan. I think now the question, it was always, how much Trump could help a candidate, now, it's how much can he hurt them.

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