Erickson: After Midterm Flop, Republicans Must Learn the Lessons of 1998


In 1998, then-Gov. George W. Bush faced re-election in Texas.

The Democrats controlled the U.S. House delegation and most statewide offices. The GOP had been making inroads but had not taken over statewide.

Bush, elected in 1994 against Anne Richards, was running with a Democrat-turned-Republican named Rick Perry. Perry, the commissioner of agriculture, had blazed a trail for the GOP into statewide office in Texas in 1990, facing incumbent Jim Hightower, then embroiled in an FBI investigation.

Bush added to the ranks of statewide Republicans in 1994. In 1998, Perry sought the lieutenant governor’s seat after long-serving and very powerful Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, a Democrat, announced he would retire.

That year, Perry crossed the finish line with just over 50 percent of the vote, and Bush won re-election with 68 percent of the vote. Democrats down the ballot were crushed, and the GOP would go on to redraw Texas’ congressional lines to set up a GOP majority we still have.

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The echoes of 1998 run through Florida.

Gov. Ron DeSantis just saw a massive GOP wave in Florida while Republicans elsewhere saw maybe ripples. In 1998, Republicans nationally expected a good Election Day. Instead, it was a disaster.

Coming after the Clinton impeachment, voters determined the GOP was more interested in battling the president than fighting for voters. The Democrats added five to the House and the Senate was unchanged. For a second-term midterm, it was one of the best presidential party performances in modern history.

Republicans in Washington went into rebellion against House Speaker Newt Gingrich, tossing him overboard. Republicans nationally gravitated toward the guy in Texas who’d just taken a purple state and locked it in bright red. Big-dollar donors signaled they liked the guy. Small-dollar donors did too. Bush running for president was one of the worst-kept secrets in American politics.

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Now, in 2022, Republicans in Washington who were expecting a wave may throw House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy overboard. DeSantis made waves where few others did. Already, Ken Griffin, a major GOP donor, is Team DeSantis 2024.

If, like in 1998, the base starts drifting organically to DeSantis and the large and midsize donors move his way, that sets the stage for a 2024 battle with President Joe Biden. The Democrats’ performance in the 2022 midterms means they can’t toss Biden. They will have to prop up an octogenarian whose frailties are becoming harder and harder to hide.

The big difference between 1998 and 2022 is Bush’s dad, the last one-term president, wasn’t out to sabotage his son before 2000. Donald Trump clearly is out to sabotage DeSantis before 2024.

But that might do more harm to Trump. Trump, like Smaug the dragon, wants to lie on his gold and never use it. If the GOP donors show him that he’d have to spend his own money, that might change things.

While there are a lot of really good candidates for the GOP in 2024, Tuesday night puts DeSantis front and center. Can he maintain the aura for two more years? Bush did in 1998 and became a two-term president.

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Republicans have many silver linings even in the dismal performance. They made up ground in deep-blue New York. They are on track to take the House of Representatives. But they lost independent voters who are really tired of the Trump schtick. The GOP needs a positive contrast between itself and the wokes of the left.

The GOP needs to get familiar with its not-so-great midterm of 1998 for some lessons on how to proceed. It needs to remember the first party back to sanity will win big in 2024. Sanity must come with some cleanup of the party’s internal crazy.


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