Democrats defied expectations up and down the ballot in 2022 despite facing historic headwinds and other challenges going into the midterms.
Throughout the year, Democrats braced for losses as Republicans worked to tie the party’s candidates over a plethora of issues including rising inflation, crime and the flow of migrants over the southern border. President Biden was also seen as a liability for Democrats as he suffered low approval ratings.
However, Democrats were able to grow their majority in the Senate, retain and win a number of gubernatorial and state-level races, and temper their losses in the House.
While Republicans are blaming the GOP’s losses on former President Trump and poor GOP candidates, many Democrats argue that their candidates’ wins came down to their party’s messaging.
On Wednesday morning, Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) credited the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade and the House Jan. 6 Committee hearings as factors in his party expanding its majority this election.
“In May and June, the public began to realize how far right these MAGA Republicans had gone. The Dobbs decision was the crystallization of that, of course, when people said, ‘Wow these MAGA Republicans are serious about turning the clock all the way back,’ ” Schumer told reporters.
Democratic strategists and operatives agree that abortion access and the Supreme Court striking down the federal right to an abortion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization played a pivotal role in turning the tide for the party, despite skepticism that either issue would trump concerns about rising inflation.
“A huge part of the Democratic message that I think sunk in, that worked so well also because it was the reality that Americans were facing, is that abortion rights is an economic issue,” said Christina Polizzi, communications director at the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.
“You are not fully in control of your financial future if you cannot decide when to start a family, how to start a family, how to expand your family. All of those things matter to your finances,” she added.
And exit polling shows that abortion proved to be a top priority for voters in a number of competitive races. Twenty-seven percent of voters said that abortion was the most important issue in deciding their vote, only behind inflation at 31 percent.
Meanwhile, voters in California, Kentucky, Michigan, Montana and Vermont weighed on abortion ballot measures in their states and the abortion rights side came out victorious.
“Not only did Dobbs play a role but the Republican response to Dobbs when they introduced things like a national abortion ban [and] when these states moved quickly to try to limit peoples’ reproductive freedoms,” Antjuan Seawright, Democratic strategist and senior adviser to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said. “I think that that collectively made a heck of a difference, and it gave us a unique constituency that made up a unique coalition to give us the chance of a 50-50 jump ball.”
Additionally, Democrats say they delivered on financial relief for voters through legislation passed by lawmakers in state legislatures and in Congress, including the Inflation Reduction Act and COVID-19 stimulus measures.
“Republicans were screaming their heads off about these issues but they weren’t actually offering any solutions,” Polizzi said.
In competitive governor’s races, Democrats point to incumbent governors like Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) and Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly (D) as taking the economy and inflation head-on in their messaging.
“A lot of our incumbents were successful because they were able to communicate that they understand the tough economic times that families were facing and that they were actually doing things about it,” said Noam Lee, executive director at the Democratic Governors Association.
Seawright echoed this sentiment.
“The Republicans had no ability to be able to define us from a policy perspective because every single legislative item that has passed the House and the Senate, signed into law by the president, has had bipartisan applause and approval all across the country,” he said.
Democrats have also touted what they say was their high candidate quality and the GOP’s poor candidate quality, pointing to Trump-backed candidates like Senate candidates Herschel Walker and Mehmet Oz and gubernatorial candidates Doug Mastriano and Kari Lake.
“The American people rejected the right-wing, MAGA, election-denying extremists who now have a large say so and chemically make up the Republican Party,” Seawright said.
But Democrats push back on the notion that their candidates performed better than expected due to Republicans running bad candidates, noting that it’s the Republican base that elects these candidates in the primaries in the first place.
“It is right to ask that question but essentially it’s sort of almost a moot point because Republicans cannot get themselves out of this cycle where they are running more extreme candidates because it’s the way they’ve allowed their party to drift,” Polizzi said.
From a logistical standpoint, Democrats say a lot of credit is due to early investments in the campaigns. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee put more money into its ground game than it did into television and other media. The DCCC launched seven-figure advertising investments to galvanize Latino and AAPI voters and rolled out its earliest-ever radio and print outreach campaign to Black voters.
“There was a real concentration not just on registration but on engagement, motivation, and then in the end participation,” Seawright said.
Polizzi called for further investment for Democrats in state legislature races.
“We can win big at the state legislative level of the ballot and we need investments that allow us to do that,” she said. “I think Democrats have a tendency to look at state legislatures and think oh well this problem is really big and it’s really hard, so let’s just focus on federal power. But I think what this election showed is that if you hone in on state legislature chambers, you can win them.”
Still, some of the Democrats’ biggest victories were won by relatively narrow margins. Incumbent Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock (D) defeated Walker by just under 3 points, while incumbent Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D) defeated Republican Adam Laxalt by roughly 1 point.
While Democrats are taking a moment to celebrate their victories after a contentious midterm cycle, the party will still face tough contests going into 2023 and 2024.
“Voters do not want extreme elected officials, they want elected officials that are going to focus on the issues that matter to them,” Polizzi said. “Democrats need to continue focusing on those issues [and] talk about our policies because the reality is when we run on what Democrats actually want to do, we win.”