A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Bill Straub: Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose — but big loser Tuesday was definitely Donald Trump

WASHINGTON – The late Al Smith, my old mentor, and a renowned raconteur used to tell a story about Frank Albert Stubblefield’s upstart campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives in Kentucky’s First Congressional District in 1958.

On primary election night, Stubblefield called the political boss of Logan County, Emerson “Doc” Beauchamp, one of his most influential supporters, to advise him that the returns had come in from a certain Western Kentucky county, that he had lost it, and that he was going to contact the incumbent Democrat, Noble Jones Gregory, and concede.

Beauchamp, realizing Stubblefield was doomed to lose that county anyway, determined that he had performed better than expected and that his victory was sealed.

“You don’t understand,” Beauchamp told Stubblefield. “If you lost, you won.”

Stubblefield served seven terms.

The NKyTribune’s Washington columnist Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com

That pretty much sums up the outcome of Tuesday’s election as far as the Democrats are concerned. Though it’s a fool’s errand to assess the upshot with so many results still in doubt, the party is parading like a peacock despite what can best be described as a mixed bag.

They may lose, but they won. It’s like the Phillies celebrating two World Series victories when it takes four.

Democrats at this stage appear likely to lose their tenuous control of the House, although there are signs, unsettling to Republicans, that they could still squeeze out an infinitesimal majority in the lower chamber. The Senate, likewise, remains up in the air with three states – Arizona, Nevada, and Georgia – still unsettled. Control depends on one party or the other winning at least two of the three. If projections hold, Democrats could sweep.

What is clear is that the vaunted “red tide,” cited by analysts to describe what was expected to be an overwhelming Republican conquest from sea to shining sea, didn’t materialize. Instead, Democrats are heaving a huge sigh of relief, a bit premature, perhaps, if the party winds up losing both legislative chambers. But the consensus maintains that the party somehow has managed to hold its own in the face of high inflation and disaffection for President Biden, a Democrat.

Generally speaking, the party that holds the White House, in this case, the Democrats, loses House and Senate seats in mid-term elections. Sometimes the turnover is huge – Democrats lost 68 House seats in 2010, midway through President Barack Obama’s first term. This year it’s beginning to look like Democrats will face the lowest turnover rate for the party in power since 2002.

Republicans thought they had it made. Inflation initially thought to be temporary, has proven a stubborn house guest. They offered a racist message on immigration, holding undocumented brown people responsible for the fentanyl scourge. They ridiculed trans kids. Crime was kicking up and Biden’s approval settled in the low forties.

While voters had all or most of those issues on their minds, other matters intruded. Topping the list, it appears, was abortion. When the Supreme Court earlier this year turned tail and declared that abortion was no longer a guaranteed right, disaffected women made it known they would take their anger out in the voting booth. And they did. Polls generally failed to account for that undercurrent of discontent, leading Republicans to overestimate their good fortune.

Exit polls also showed that young voters, unhappy with the nation’s direction, turned out in unexpected — and extraordinary — numbers. The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University said the November election provided the second-highest youth turnout – those 18 to 29 — in the past 30 years. The Center’s analysis further determined that exit polling from the Edison Research National Election Pool showed 63 percent of those young Americans voted for House Democratic candidates while 35 percent went for Republicans.

The kids may have saved the Democrat bacon. Polls showed young voters were concerned about abortion, especially the prospects of a Republican legislative majority instituting a national ban. Climate change played a role and there was concern about the number of GOP candidates who were election deniers – those who claimed that the 2020 election was rigged and that former President Donald J. Trump, not Biden, is the rightfully elected president.

It might also be that while voters are apprehensive about inflation, the low unemployment rate under Biden eases their concerns. If the choice is between having a job during times of high inflation or finding yourself unemployed during a period of low inflation, the decision is pretty easy.

So, Republicans may have won in some spots — particularly in Florida where they ran world without end and Gov. Ron DeSantis, from the party’s neo-Fascist wing, emerged as a budding star with presidential aspirations – but they lost by failing to take advantage of the welcoming turf they were playing on. Democrats won by exceeding expectations.

The loser here, and this is coming from both sides of the aisle, is Trump, who is nonetheless expected to announce on Nov. 15 that he is once again running for president, God save us all. The man who says he has a magic touch when it comes to backing candidates invested heavily in a bunch of losers this go-round – Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, Dan Buldoc in New Hampshire, both running for Senate, for instance – and his failure to bring home the goods hasn’t escaped notice. Election deniers, of which he is the grand poohbah, are falling like raindrops, including among those seeking to run elections in their respective states.

It could be that voters have either grown tired of the scam or have finally caught on. This walking, talking joke of a man might still prevail in becoming the Republican presidential nominee in 2024, but it’s no sure thing given DeSantis’ success. Regardless, if he should succeed, somehow escaping indictment along the way, these results indicate he doesn’t have a sloth’s chance of winning the Kentucky Derby.

Another loser is Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, of Louisville. It appears, if projections prove accurate, that the Democrats will once again gain control of the upper chamber, thus depriving him of an opportunity to serve once again as majority leader. At the age of 80, this might be his last shot at the title.

And he may unexpectedly be facing competition for the leadership spot he has held for a record 15 years. Appearing on Meet the Press on Sunday, Sen. Rick Scott, R-FL, refused to rule out the possibility of challenging McConnell for the job. Scott, who was McConnell’s choice to chair the National Republican Senatorial Committee this campaign, has openly feuded with McConnell over money and strategy.

McConnell, who has never been popular with the GOP rank and file, has come under increased attack since the election. Questions have been raised about the Senate candidates he backed – McConnell himself questioned the quality of some of the contenders, attracting scorn – and the money he has spent.

The McConnell-affiliated super PAC, the Senate Leadership Fund, has poured millions of dollars into various races but the organization’s judgment has attracted scrutiny. The PAC, for instance, has run numerous television ads in support of Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-AK, who finds herself in a tight re-election campaign. The problem is Murkowski doesn’t have the backing of the Alaska Republican Party. That honor goes to Kelly Tshibaka, an attorney and former federal government official. Both are on the ballot as a result of Alaska’s unusual election laws.

McConnell has therefore been censured by the Alaska Republican Party for what it called “divisive and misleading statements” about its endorsed candidate. In a tweet, former Trump aide Stephen Miller asserted that McConnell left other Republican candidates hanging to help Murkowski.

“If Mitch had spent in Arizona – instead of blackballing (Blake) Masters and funneling money in Alaska to defeat the de facto GOP nominee – Blake would have already won handily. This was a deliberate choice.”

Working in McConnell’s favor is that Scott is just as, if not more, responsible for the party’s electoral shortcomings than he is.

At any rate, it’s still early and the final results remain shrouded in fog. The worm may have turned toward the Democrats but the worm is moving very slowly.

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