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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

December 21: Don’t Overthink the Midterms In Search of a Single Narrative

The more I stare at 2022 election results, the more it is becoming clear that they resist an easy explanation, and I wrote about that at New York:

After the dust has settled on any election cycle, there’s a natural interest in deriving future lessons for the two major political parties. Democrats are interested in bottling and then mass-producing whatever formula enabled them to avoid an apparent oncoming Republican freight train of a midterm and instead gain a U.S. Senate seat while holding the GOP to House gains that are almost (I said almost) more trouble than they are worth.

Data points are still being collected and assessed at this point, but a very strong effort by FiveThirtyEight’s Geoffrey Skelley to examine four big Senate races that Democrats won but were at various points in doubt (in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and Pennsylvania) shows us that the search for some simple, overriding explanation may not be terribly fruitful.

Using county-level and in some cases precinct-level results, Skelley explains that the winning formula for Mark KellyRaphael WarnockCatherine Cortez Masto, and John Fetterman varied significantly. To oversimplify it, Kelly beat Blake Masters mostly thanks to overperformance among Latino voters; Warnock beat Herschel Walker via impressive margins in Atlanta’s urban core and suburbs; Cortez Masto (the one Democrat in these states to run a bit behind Joe Biden’s 2020 performance) held on against Adam Laxalt by a slightly inflated vote among white college-educated voters; and Fetterman dispatched Mehmet Oz pretty clearly by cutting into the recent Republican margins among white working-class voters.

Now it’s also true that all four of these winners more or less held on to the vast majority of Biden 2020 voters as well. But in an apparent era of very close partisan balance, gains and losses beyond rigid partisan bases are probably what matter most. It’s also true that all four candidates, and the Democratic Party as a whole, benefitted from certain unique developments that helped make the usual midterm referendum on the president more of a “choice” election, namely the reversal of Roe v. Wade by the U.S. Supreme Court and high-profile meddling in the election by Donald Trump. And, finally, Kelly, Warnock, and Fetterman — and arguably Cortez Masto as well — got lucky by drawing relatively weak Republican opponents.

So what does all this add up to as a lesson for Democrats going forward? Probably nothing in particular. They certainly cannot count on an epochal development in the judicial system at the very moment an election cycle is heating up to occur on schedule. And there’s only so much you can do to dial up bad opponents. It’s noteworthy that none of the four Senate races in question were among those in which Democrats played the dangerous but occasionally successful game of running ads attacking the most extremist Republican candidates to boost their prospects of winning GOP primaries. Two of the “bad” Republican Senate nominees in the states Skelley analyzed (Laxalt and Walker) were runaway favorites among GOP primary voters. The most prominent alternative to Masters in Arizona (Jim Lamont) was as out there ideologically as Masters himself. And the characteristics that made Oz a stone loser were not nearly as apparent in the primary season as they were when he suddenly started talking about the price of crudités.

It probably is noteworthy that three of the four Democratic Senate candidates in question (all incumbents) were unopposed in their own primaries, and the fourth, Fetterman, won his primary easily. And all of them raised money at a very good clip. But those are always positive candidate qualities in any election. That’s true as well of the successful microstrategies including Warnock’s early-voting blitz prior to the December 6 primary in Georgia, which we will likely learn more about as the story of 2022 becomes more fully available.

At this point, the closest you can come to a general lesson for Democrats in 2022 is that it’s a good idea to stay united, raise money feverishly, prepare for whatever opportunities the campaign offers, and choose candidates with the strength to endure the rolling nightmare that contemporary high-profile contests often produce. You cannot simply dial up candidates with the incredible stamina of Warnock or the amazing courage of Fetterman. But without question, in a period of electoral gridlock, 2022 did establish that, on the crucial margins, candidates and campaigns still matter. And in politics as in football, sometimes the key to victory is to set aside any predetermined grand strategy and simply take what each opponent gives you.

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