Extreme candidates and positions came back to bite in midterms
By Jonathan Weisman and Katie Glueck
A surprisingly nuanced verdict in the midterm elections has delivered at least one important conclusion about the state of the national mood: In battleground states and swing districts across the country, voters voiced their support for moderation.
That happened in Nevada’s Senate race, where Catherine Cortez Masto, an unassuming incumbent Democrat occupying one of the party’s most endangered seats, overcame voters’ economic fears and won reelection, highlighting her Republican opponent’s embrace of Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election and his denigration of abortion rights.
It happened in Pennsylvania, where Josh Shapiro, facing the far-right Doug Mastriano, won the governor’s office in the biggest landslide for a non-incumbent in the state since 1946.
And it happened Sunday, when a liberal Democrat in Oregon who beat a veteran centrist House Democrat in the primary, Rep. Kurt Schrader, lost the seat for her party to the GOP, a stinging blow to the Democrats’ chances of holding their majority.
In contests up and down the ballot, Republicans betting on a red wave instead received a sweeping rebuke from Americans who, for all the qualms polls show they have about Democratic governance, made clear they believe that the GOP has become unacceptably extreme.
On a smaller scale, a similar dynamic could be discerned on the left: After Democratic primary voters chose more progressive nominees over moderates in a handful of House races including in Oregon, Texas and California, those left-leaning candidates were defeated or are at risk of losing seats that could have helped preserve a narrow Democratic majority.
But the 2022 midterm was the third consecutive federal election in which the march of many Republican candidates into a morass of conspiracy theories and far-right policy positions had grave electoral consequences for the GOP.
“The message on Tuesday was the average person is done voting for extremism,” said Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a Democrat who ran for reelection in a Republican-leaning district in central Michigan on an explicitly centrist message, with the backing of a Republican, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming. “They’re done with voting for people who just want to blow up the system.”
Republicans not only collapsed in governor’s races from Pennsylvania to Minnesota, but also lost House races they had targeted in those states, reflecting the political dangers of top-of-the-ticket candidates perceived as extreme or unserious, party strategists said.
And while Republicans may still capture the House, their efforts to win back the districts that powered the 2018 Democratic takeover of the chamber fell short in many races, while Democrats flipped a Senate seat in Pennsylvania.
“Many Republicans know democracy’s at risk and that these extreme candidates are the reason,” said Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina, chair of the Democratic Governors Association.
Democrats had their share of missed opportunities, including in cases where their primary voters had elevated candidates from the liberal wing of their party instead of from the center.
In a competitive district outside Portland, Oregon, Democratic primary voters in May turned out Schrader, a seven-term moderate incumbent, in favor of a considerably more liberal candidate, Jamie McLeod-Skinner. On Sunday, The Associated Press called the race for the Republican, Lori Chavez-DeRemer.
“We’re more divided than ever,” Schrader said in an interview Sunday evening. “People are reverting to their tribal allegiances that are getting further right and further left. It’s not healthy for the country.”
Underscoring that message, Adam Frisch, an independent-turned-Democrat from Aspen, Colorado, squeaked by a much more liberal Democrat, Sol Sandoval, by 290 votes to challenge Rep. Lauren Boebert, one of the most flamboyant torchbearers of Trumpism. Frisch is now within range of pulling off the biggest upset of the campaign after running as a pro-business, pro-energy production, “pro-normal party” moderate.
“The pro-normal party had legs all across the country,” Frisch said in an interview Sunday. “People really want their representatives to play between the 30-yard lines,” not on the extremes.
Certainly, plenty of candidates roots on the left or right prevailed. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis flipped Miami-Dade County, which had not voted for a Republican candidate for governor in two decades, while Gov. Brian Kemp easily won reelection in Georgia. Neither man is closely tied to Trump — DeSantis is often mentioned as the leading alternative for the Republican presidential nomination — but both are staunch conservatives. And John Fetterman, the Pennsylvania Democrat who beat Mehmet Oz for a Senate seat, staked out a number of middle-of-the-road positions during the campaign, but as a 2016 supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders, he has long had credibility on the left.
For months before the 2022 midterm elections, Sarah Longwell, an anti-Trump Republican strategist, would ask her focus groups how they felt the nation was doing. Terribly, they’d say, citing the lingering pandemic, crime and the worst inflation rate in 40 years.
“Then I’d say, ‘Who are you going to vote for, Mark Kelly or Blake Masters?’ ” she said, referring to the Democratic and Republican Senate candidates in Arizona. “And they’d say, ‘Oh, Blake Masters is insane.’ ”
Republicans remain bullish on their chances of retaking the House, even if by a narrower margin than many had predicted.
“House Republicans are pleased with the inroads we made in New York, the tough seats we held in California and the fact that we went from holding one seat in Iowa to holding all four seats in just two cycles,” Mike Berg, a spokesperson for the House Republican campaign arm, said in a statement, as California results continued to be counted.
But in most battlegrounds, the vaunted red wave failed to materialize.
In Nevada, Democrats pounded Republican Senate candidate Adam Laxalt for saying the Roe v. Wade decision that protected federal abortion rights was “a joke.”
“Abortion certainly was a factor in Nevada, but so was the economy,” said Rep. Dina Titus, a Democrat who won a tough reelection battle in her Las Vegas-area district. “We talked a lot in all our races about the things that we had done over the last two years to bring this economy back.”
Slotkin of Michigan was facing voters in a newly drawn district that leaned more Republican than before. Her Republican opponent, state Sen. Tom Barrett, tried to temper his views on abortion and tamped down questions he had earlier raised over the 2020 election.
But Slotkin tarred him with what she characterized as the extremism of the Republicans running for governor, secretary of state and attorney general.
“He was smart enough to know that extreme views wouldn’t fly in a swing district like ours, but he had a record,” she said in an interview.
Jason Cabel Roe, a Republican strategist who consulted for Barrett, acknowledged Republican problems with independent voters.
“The Dobbs decision, you take the Jan. 6 stuff, you take the election denialism and wrap it all together, it’s not a good look for us,” he said.”