Republicans continue to digest a disappointing midterm election. With the highest inflation in 40 years, escalating crime (including, for example, the highest murder count in Philadelphia’s history), a porous southern border fueling an overdose crisis, and a majority of the country believing that we’re on the wrong track, the GOP was poised for significant electoral gains. While Republicans barely won a majority in the House of Representatives, the overall expectations across the country, with one obvious exception, fell short of the predictions. There are a lot of lessons to be learned, but, in the end, it remains fundamental to elections that candidates matter. Nowhere is this maxim evidenced more clearly than in a comparison of the Pennsylvania and Florida results.
In the Keystone State, Republicans lost the races for governor and U.S. senator as well as their state House majority, although they held on to the state Senate. The liberal Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s congressional map left Democrats with a 9–8 advantage in the new congressional delegation. Pennsylvania Republicans are asking: What happened to the “red wave”?
On a preliminary note, running statewide in Pennsylvania is challenging for Republicans. In the 2010 Republican wave year, while Tom Corbett won the governor’s race by 358,000 votes, Pat Toomey won his Senate race by only 80,000. Toomey won reelection six years later by 86,000 votes, and presidential candidate Donald Trump won the state that same year by just 44,000 votes (against arguably the most unpopular person ever to run for the office). With these margins, a Keystone State Republican needs to run a nearly flawless campaign and have negatives at least no worse than his or her opponent.
This year, the GOP’s candidate for governor, Doug Mastriano, had a convincing primary win. Mastriano even boasted that he would make Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis “look like an amateur.” Throughout the general election campaign, however, Mastriano struggled to connect beyond his base. While he avoided mainstream press outlets, Mastriano’s bigger problem was failing to raise the money needed for an effective advertising campaign.
Democrat and Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro, on the other hand, raised a staggering $64 million, allowing him to define himself as a moderate, notwithstanding his failure to address Philadelphia’s crime crisis, his threats to Catholic groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor, and his enabling of outgoing Gov. Tom Wolf’s lockdowns and anti-Pennsylvania energy policies. Shapiro also was able to define his opponent as being outside the mainstream, charges that Mastriano did not have the resources to counter. Most Pennsylvania voters’ view of Mastriano was the one Shapiro constructed. The results were not close, with Mastriano losing by more than 700,000 votes. You cannot win an election if you cede the airwaves to your opponent.
Regarding the Senate, Republican Dr. Mehmet Oz took months to overcome a brutal primary that raised his negatives. Oz clearly won the end-of-October debate, but, by then, voting had already been underway for weeks. In the end, Democrat John Fetterman’s anti-establishment campaign (though his views align perfectly with the liberal establishment), enabled by his massive national fundraising operation, carried the day.
Things were quite different at the southern end of I-95. The electoral blowout that DeSantis led in Florida is one for the ages. DeSantis, with family roots in western Pennsylvania, was elected four years ago by just 32,000 votes. In his reelection, he grew that by a million and a half votes, resulting in a remarkable 19-point win.
DeSantis proved himself through a tough four years. Despite relentless opposition and ridicule from the media and political opponents, he bucked establishment wisdom and began lifting COVID restrictions earlier than other states, helping small businesses and significantly mitigating the pandemic’s impact on children’s education. Following Hurricane Ian, his leadership had electricity back on in days for most Floridians and bridges to barrier islands restored with remarkable speed.
DeSantis took on woke education and woke corporations, signed legislation that prohibits late-term abortions after the point when babies demonstrably feel pain, and managed Florida’s water resources in a manner that earned support from conservation groups. And, importantly, DeSantis raised the money necessary to communicate his message. The result? A landslide in which he carried even Democratic Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties, achieved a supermajority in the state legislature, and, because of the redistricting map DeSantis insisted upon, picked up additional seats needed to flip the U.S. House to the GOP.
So, what can Pennsylvania and Republicans across the country learn from the midterms? It turns out that while Trump’s endorsement may have helped candidates like Oz and Mastriano win primaries, it proved worthless in the general election. DeSantis’ triumph in Florida has reset the standard. If Republicans want to win, they should follow not only DeSantis’ playbook but, more importantly, DeSantis’ model of courage, conviction, and competence.
Keith Rothfus represented Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District between 2013 and 2019. He currently is an attorney living in Allegheny County.