Republicans' underwhelming midterm sparks blame game, calls for 'soul searching'

One donor said: "I am gobsmacked."

Republicans are sifting through the reality of a disappointing midterm election night -- as a widely predicted "red wave" ebbed away, if not evaporated -- and the knives are out for who in the party may be to blame for candidates failing to match expectations.

The GOP entered Election Day with a head full of steam, boasting of netting roughly two dozen House flips and coasting to a Senate majority, given months of polls that the public had soured on President Joe Biden and fretted the economy, inflation and crime.

But the results showed voters bucking those surveys and historical trends to favor more Democrats than expected, with the party winning a key Senate flip in Pennsylvania.

Though dozens of House races and key Senate contests remain unprojected as of Wednesday, ABC News estimates at most a 52-seat GOP majority in the Senate and about a roughly 15-seat swing toward conservatives, which pales compared to past midterm wave years, in 2018, 2010 and 1994.

"I am gobsmacked," GOP donor Dan Eberhart said.

The GOP did see some notable successes, including rightward shifts in Florida and New York, and uncertainty remains over the congressional majorities.

Georgia's Senate race is headed to a runoff, and competitive contests in Arizona and Nevada leave the party with a path for a narrow majority in the upper chamber. Republicans could well still win the House, according to ABC News' estimates.

Yet as the calendar turned from Tuesday to Wednesday, Republican lawmakers, strategists and other operatives who hours earlier crowed of a looming rout lamented what they viewed as a drastic underperformance.

"Still a narrow path here on Nevada and Georgia, but nobody feels good about election night," said GOP strategist Scott Jennings, an ally of Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. Jennings had earlier boasted of a successful campaign formula based on inflation, immigration and crime -- with exit polling later showing many voters also cared strongly about abortion access while disapproving of Trump-brand election denialism.

Jennings told ABC News of Tuesday's results, "There's a glimmer of hope. But overall, Republicans have to look at this and wonder: What is the path forward with independent voters?"

Several in the GOP pointed to what they said was a miscalculation of the political environment: that Democrats' fury over the scrapping of constitutional abortion protections had dulled in the home stretch.

Exit surveys indicated that inflation and abortion were the top two issues in the cycle, while public safety, the focus of a relentless GOP ad campaign in the run-up to Election Day, trailed in importance in the minds of voters.

The exit polls showed that 32% of voters said inflation was the most important issue, followed by 27% who said the same of abortion. In key states like Pennsylvania and Michigan, which voted Democratic, the voters who considered abortion as the most important issue outweighed those who said the same of inflation.

"I think the postmortem in this election will reveal that the fallout from the Dobbs decision [overturning the constitutional abortion right] ultimately dictated the outcome of a vast majority of the contested races across the country," said former Rep. Mike Bishop, R-Mich. "The visceral electoral backlash against Republicans, led by the same suburban women who repelled the Republican Party in 2018, single-handedly defused an almost certain red wave."

More tactically, several Republicans shot barbs toward former President Donald Trump, saying his style of politics and involvement in the midterms helped Republicans snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Strategists noted the positive vibes they were feeling in the run-up to the election before Trump went on a multi-state campaign blitz, which they said reinserted him into the national conversation -- even as exit polls show he remains unpopular -- and fired up a depressed Democratic base.

"A couple of weeks ago, everybody's feeling really good. Everybody was focused on the economy and inflation and crime," said one GOP strategist. "And then, it was kind of funny, we all talked amongst ourselves, 'Trump's been kinda quiet.' And he did a little bit of a victory tour the week before because he wanted to get credit … and I think he just reengaged and everybody was like, 'What?'"

"Most of what I am hearing from members, staff and others is a combination of abortion and overlay of Trump. If he had kept his mouth shut the last 10 days about the 2024 presidential race, several races could have been different today," added GOP lobbyist and fundraiser T.J. Petrizzo.

Trump also muscled his way into primary races earlier this year, nudging out more establishment-aligned candidates in favor of those like Don Bolduc, Tudor Dixor and Herschel Walker who were supportive of his stances but who either lost or are now struggling.

"There will be a lot of finger-pointing and it starts with, as Mitch McConnell very accurately predicted, quality of candidates. The MyPillow-ization of the GOP has been a disaster and has cost us a Senate majority, potentially twice, and a lot of seats in the House," said veteran GOP strategist Doug Heye, referencing Mike Lindell, the controversial, Trump-aligned CEO of MyPillow.

In a Wednesday interview with Fox News, Trump touted the success of his endorsed candidates, bragging that "all these guys that are winning are my people," even though he made endorsements in several noncompetitive races.

But even those in Trump's orbit bemoaned the results.

"This is a sinking ship," one top Trump adviser told ABC News.

Republicans also had arrows to fire at Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Among what they claim were missteps include rolling out his own agenda, which included sunsetting all government funding including for Social Security and Medicare after five years.

"A massive percentage of Democrat attack ads were underpinned by Rick Scott's 'agenda.' Turns out putting your personal ambition ahead of what's best for the team [hurts] the team," Jennings said.

The Republicans who spoke with ABC News for this story also accused Scott of treating controversial candidates with kid gloves.

"The party has a lot of soul searching to do about what kind of candidates it's putting forward and the races they run, because it's clearly not working as is," said one national GOP strategist, bashing what they called the NRSC's "dovish strategy" of "Scott going around calling every candidate a great candidate when that was clearly not the case."

Chris Hartline, a spokesperson for Scott, insisted that the Florida senator is not focused on the barbs and instead focusing on races that have yet to be called and Georgia's projected Dec. 6 runoff between Walker and Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock.

"We are in a great position to win the majority," Hartline said. "The NRSC is closely monitoring the incoming results in Nevada and Arizona and working with [Walker] on the runoff."

Other Republican strategists cast a wider net of blame, saying Republican leaders in both chambers should have better articulated a specific agenda beyond opposing White House policies and broad platitudes.

"The old adage that you can't beat something with nothing was proven correct yesterday, because Republicans did not campaign on a discernible agenda for change. You can't be a change agent without mapping out specific policy changes," said former GOP Senate aide Brian Darling. "People want to blame Trump, but Trump is out of their control. The messaging is 100% within their control."

Looking beyond 2022, Tuesday's showing already sparked speculation over the 2024 presidential cycle, particularly after Florida's Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, seen as Trump's main rival in a potential primary, romped to reelection by nearly 20 points, a stunning margin in a state known for its history of wafer-thin margins.

Other Republicans with distinct brands, like Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, also won key races.

"He's the anointed one," former Rep. David Jolly, R-Fla., said of DeSantis.

"The huge win ... puts an exclamation point on the big story. DeSantis looks like the future. Trump looks like the past," added one GOP strategist with experience on presidential campaigns.

But for now, Republicans are mostly focused on next month's potentially decisive Georgia runoff -- and sweating a repeat of 2021, when Trump's intervention in a pair of runoffs in the state cost the GOP two Senate seats there, and their majority.

"As we look at the Georgia runoff, let's get Kemp, DeSantis and Herschel on a stump," Petrizzo said, "and Trump on vacation in Australia."