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How the 2022 midterms became a squeaker


President Joe Biden appears at a political event at the Howard Theatre in Washington on Nov. 10, 2022.

By Shane Goldmacher


Late one mid-September evening, the leaders of the House Democratic campaign arm were in the middle of a marathon meeting, grappling with an increasingly hostile midterm landscape. Two choices were on the table: a more defensive posture to limit their losses in the face of a potential red wave or a more aggressive approach in hopes of saving their paper-thin majority.


The decision was made. They would go all-in for the majority — the pundits, polling and punishing political environment be damned. Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, the chair of the group, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, walked to the whiteboard and scrawled a single word.


BELIEVE.


The man who made that Ted Lasso-style exhortation went down to defeat Tuesday. And Democrats are still facing the likelihood of ceding control of the House of Representatives to Republicans.


Yet Democrats turned in the strongest midterm showing in two decades for a party holding the White House, keeping the House on such a razor’s edge that control is still up for grabs days after the polls closed. In the Senate, Democrats not only defended their 50-50 control, after the Nevada Senate race was called late Saturday, but even have a path to expand it if the party prevails in a Georgia runoff.


All the conditions appeared to have been set for a Democratic wipeout: inflation at 40-year highs, concerns about crime, elevated gas prices, the typical thrust for change.


How the midterms turned out so improbably was, in many ways, a function of forces beyond Democrats’ control. A Supreme Court decision that stripped away a half-century of abortion rights galvanized their base. A polarizing, unpopular and ever-present former president, Donald Trump, provided the type of ready-made foil whom White Houses rarely enjoy.


But interviews with party strategists, lawmakers and current and former White House officials also revealed crucial tactical decisions, strategic miscalculations, misreading of polls, infighting and behind-the-scenes maneuvering in both parties that led the GOP to blow its chance at a blowout.


In the end, Democrats defied both history and the political gravity of President Joe Biden’s low approval ratings, while Republicans squandered what some saw as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to seize power.


In an interview days before the election, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader, said it looked “like a perfect storm” was brewing. “I call this a hinge election,” he said. “This is the year that you go take market share.” Instead, his party is limping toward a majority so tenuous it could make governance next to impossible.


Biden and the Democrats spent months unrelentingly defining their Republican opposition as extremists in the thrall of Trump, ignoring internal Democratic second-guessing and demands to focus more heavily on the economy. It seems to have worked: Democrats won a crucial slice of voters who were otherwise displeased with the president, breaking with historical precedent in midterms.


Republicans might not have had a shot at the House at all if not for a court ruling that let stand a Republican gerrymander in Florida and another that tossed a Democratic gerrymander in New York. Those two decisions swung as many as six seats — potentially the entire GOP margin.


Republicans did score some tactical successes: A handful of recruiting coups and interventions in primaries could end up making all the difference, given the narrowness of the margin. But House Republicans also misinterpreted late movement in polling as forecasting a wave that never materialized, and Senate Republicans were waylaid by backbiting and disagreements at the highest ranks.


The former president


From start to finish, Trump was a recurring distraction for party leaders trying to engineer a congressional takeover. He turned the acceptance of his lie about the 2020 election into a litmus test and prized displays of loyalty over political skill. The scramble among senior Republicans to harness Trump as a force for good and not for chaos continued through the hours before Election Day, to head off a preelection announcement of a 2024 presidential run.


Complicating matters in the Senate was the fact that Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, and Trump are not on speaking terms. After several first-time, Trump-backed candidates won primaries, McConnell complained over the summer about his party’s “candidate quality.”


Among his targets was Arizona’s Blake Masters.


During the summer, Steven Law, the head of a McConnell-aligned super political action committee, told financier Peter Thiel, who had spent millions supporting Masters, that Masters had scored the worst focus group results of any candidate he had ever seen, according to people familiar with the conversation.


Law’s group later canceled all of its Arizona television reservations. On Friday evening, Masters lost as the race was called for his Democratic opponent, Sen. Mark Kelly.


The super PAC’s budget had been sapped by the need to prop up another Trump-backed candidate, J.D. Vance, who emerged from the Ohio primary bruised and broke.


“It just didn’t look like Vance was going to have the critical mass of resources to play a major factor in his own race,” said Law, whose super PAC redirected $32 million to Ohio. Vance won.


How Democrats embraced ‘MAGA’


For years, Biden has been fond of saying that “this is not your father’s Republican Party” to highlight the GOP’s rightward drift. But the consensus-seeking former senator was loath to paint with too broad a brush.


Informal conversations with historians helped change his mind.


The historians explained to Biden the power of labels and how they had been used in the past to successfully confront far-right factions, helping him gain comfort in publicly tagging Republican extremism as “MAGA Republicans,” according to a White House official who discussed the issue with him. A study by Biden allies identified “MAGA” as the most effective label — a phrase connoting “extreme,” “power-hungry” and “radical” for some voters.


The president’s initial rollout of “ultra-MAGA” — in a speech about the economy — was met with derision, even from some Democrats.


But Biden and the Democrats stuck with it, pressing voters to render a verdict on something other than Democrats’ handling of the economy. The October assault on Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband punctuated the high price of extremism, and Biden delivered an address on the threats to democracy to keep it at the fore.


Democrats actually won voters who “somewhat disapproved” of Biden, according to initial exit polling, by a margin of 49% to 45%. That is a far cry from the 2010 and 2018 midterms, when voters who somewhat disapproved of Barack Obama and Trump overwhelmingly backed the opposing party — by margins of 40 points and nearly 30 points.


The abortion and money factor


The first reverberations of the biggest political earthquake of the cycle were felt online. The Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, upending a half-century of federally guaranteed abortion rights. Almost immediately, money came pouring into ActBlue, the Democratic online donation site.


An analysis of federal records showed that since the fall of Roe, Democrats had raised $627.7 million through ActBlue — more than 2 1/2 times the $239.3 million Republican haul on WinRed, the GOP donation portal — expanding an existing money edge.


The cash disparity served as an early warning sign for Republican enthusiasm. In contrast to other midterms, the party in power was the one most energized by what was being taken away from it. From coast to coast, Democratic campaigns ran abortion ads over the summer, casting Republicans as extremists.


In late August, the Republican National Committee gathered its biggest donors for an emergency call. Money and morale were down. Democratic poll numbers were up. “It was a moment we had to calm everybody down,” Ronna McDaniel, the party chair, said in an interview. “We were stopping the panic.”


The Republican financial cavalry soon arrived. The leading House and Senate GOP super PACs combined to spend more than $400 million after Sept 1.


Republicans used their financial might to stretch the House map deep into Democratic territory, though most of those races — outside New York — ended in losses. A House Republican strategist said private polling had showed their candidates surging late. They presumed a backlash to the president would push them over the finish line. It did not.

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