There are two things that political campaigns can never have enough of — time and money. Both are used to the maximum in modern, American political operations, and 2022 was no exception.
$16.7 billion. According to campaign finance watchdog Open Secrets, that was the total amount spent on federal and state campaigns in 2022. While an epic battle between Republicans and Democrats played out across the country for Senate seats and newly redrawn House districts, much of that money was concentrated in the five key states – Pennsylvania ($312 million), Georgia ($255 million), Arizona ($202 million), Nevada ($187 million) and Wisconsin ($186 million). In those states, Republicans went 1-for-5, so it was the Democrats that had the better ROI this cycle.
Going into the 2022 cycle and even into the last few weeks of the campaign, it wasn’t the Democrats that were expected to do well. The President’s poor approval ratings, epic inflation, an unstable labor market and historic precedent all pointed to success for Republicans.
However, there were some issues that swung independent voters towards the Democrats and away from Republicans that essentially changed historic patterns. In July, the Dobbs decision began to energize the Democratic base, that up until that point, was experiencing low enthusiasm for their party’s candidates. While polling initially showed an uptick in Democratic intensity, by September it fell to mid-pack on issues voters cared about. This was clearly an issue that too many ignored.
Democrats in swing Senate seats and other challenging races across the country went all in on the abortion issue (particularly with suburban women) and it worked.
Second, considering the Jan. 6 hearings and the raid on former President Trump’s home in August, Democrats made a pitch to independents that the democracy itself was at stake. Democrats were able to convince many independent voters that if they did not keep the reigns of power, democracy would cease to exist. To reinforce this argument, they pointed to several statewide GOP candidates that publicly stated that the 2020 election was stolen. This also worked. What is confounding to many political pundits is that these issues overcame the Democrats’ huge deficit on economic issues that cut across socioeconomic lines.
Senate: Some will also point to candidate quality as to why Republicans underperformed. In Pennsylvania, Dr. Mehmet Oz took some initial political hits for having recently moved from New Jersey, 30 years of remedies he advocated for on television, and his terminology for a vegetable (crudité) platter all caused him to stumble out of the gate. Even with the endorsement of Donald Trump in the primary, Oz barely won and started off with a money deficit and an unclear message. He later fixed many of these issues but was never able to get back on track. Lt. Gov. John Fetterman was a known quantity to Pennsylvanians and even after he suffered a stroke that took him off the campaign trail for a time, 300,000 voters (especially independents) trusted him more than Oz. Oz also had the challenge of running with an unpopular GOP nominee for governor in Doug Mastriano. Mastriano was defeated by Democrat Josh Shapiro by 15 points – a result that did not help voter turnout for Republicans.
Georgia was another Senate race where the top of the ticket mattered. Sen. Raphael Warnock (D) was seeking re-election only two years after winning a special election in 2020. He faced the formidable Georgia football legend Herschel Walker. Walker was almost invulnerable to allegations of mental health challenges, paying for women’s abortions, domestic violence and other issues. While his star power partially helped him to overcome this, he was also running at the top of the ticket with popular Republican Gov. Brian Kemp. Gov. Kemp was in a rematch with formidable Democrat, Stacy Abrams.
Before the 2020 election, Gov. Kemp was one of the most popular governors in the country. After that election, Kemp took a political hit from his base when former President Trump highlighted his resistance to overturn votes in Georgia. Due to this, Kemp was able to appeal to independents and moderate Democrats to easily dispatch Abrams by 7 points. This may have provided some of the boost that Walker needed to keep Warnock under 50% and force a runoff. In the runoff election, Gov. Kemp’s voter turnout operation was handed over to Walker, but in the end, it wasn’t enough. Warnock had the power of incumbency, is a prolific fundraiser and had the benefit of several Democrats coming to campaign for him – including former President Obama – and with that, was able to seal a 2-point victory.
Why were the results of this election so shocking? Polling. Public polling continues to suffer from ongoing inaccuracy. Some of the problems can be attributed to people not having landlines anymore. Some can point to under-sampling of certain age or partisan demographics. The day before the election, polling averages showed in Arizona that Republican Senate candidate Doug Masters had a 1-point advantage and Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake was up 3.5%. Masters lost by 4 points to Sen. Mark Kelly (D) and Lake lost to Gov.-Elect Katie Hobbs by 0.7% (within the margin of error). In Pennsylvania, polling had Oz up by half a point, he lost by 5 points. As mentioned before, gubernatorial candidate Mastriano lost by 15 points, polling had him down 8.
House: Republicans were able to increase their majority, with 222 seats in the House. While this wasn’t the massive accumulation of seats many political watchers expected, they were able to pull off some key victories, including the defeat of the head of the Democratic campaign committee (DCCC), Sean Patrick Maloney in NY-17. The GOP picked up 4 seats in New York overall. Republicans in the House were also able to do well in other blue states and suburban areas. Republican California Reps. Mike Garcia, David Valadao, Michelle Steel, Young Kim, (as well as Reps.-Elect Kevin Kiley and John Duarte) were able to emerge victorious in a state that has been hostile to Republicans for decades. There was a net gain of 4 seats in Florida, with Republicans riding the impressive red wave in the Sunshine State, led by the 17-point victory of Sen. Marco Rubio and 19-point win of Gov. Ron DeSantis.
As both parties have already turned their attention to 2024, there are some lessons that will no doubt be employed. Candidate quality matters: If voters are unable to identify with a candidate and trust that they will represent them to the best of their ability - star quality, money and endorsements do not mean a thing. Issues matter: while both parties tend to focus on speaking to their respective bases, it’s the voters in the middle that determine election success. Historically, candidates would appeal to their bases in the primary and quickly move to the center, once securing their party’s nomination. This has become a lost art in many instances with messaging often stuck in primary mode. This, too, may change.
2024: The next cycle will see Democrats having to defend the White House and 23 Senate seats, while trying to take back the 9-seat Republican majority in the House. With partisan control divided in Congress, it is unlikely that President Biden will continue with his current string of legislative successes. As this goes to print, it appears that many of his potential challengers have stood down (including California Gov. Gavin Newsom), allowing President Biden to have an easy run to the nomination.
On the Republican side, the party is in a good position to take the Senate majority while the party decides on its nominee. Former President Donald Trump has already announced his candidacy, while Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis appears the current frontrunner. Republicans have a deep bench with which to challenge Biden. Former Vice President Mike Pence (IN), Sen. Tim Scott (SC), Sen. Ted Cruz (TX), Gov. Glenn Youngkin (VA), Gov. Chris Sununu (NH), Former Amb. and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley – the list goes on.
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