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NBC THINK: Democrats lost the U.S. House but stopped a red wave. How?

Nov. 17, 2022 | Original Article

Since World War II, U.S. presidents have seen their parties lose seats in the House of Representatives in every midterm election but two. The losses have been, on average, 29 seats. And if the party has had control of the House, more often than not it has lost it. Add in low presidential approval ratings and rampant inflation and it’s easy to see why the 2022 midterms were seen as favoring the Republicans. While the GOP did still take the House, the close margin of victory was a performance well below what was possible. Here are eight perspectives from across the ideological spectrum on why the Democrats were able to make it so close.

Poll vault: Moderate and independent voters chose Biden over MAGA

Bradley Honan is the CEO an president of the Honan Strategy Group.

The GOP had all the downsides of former President Donald Trump, but without him specifically on the ballot, which meant that the pulling power of the Trump brand was limited — a significant plus for the Democrats.

But what also came in handy was the party’s surprising strength with the moderate and independent middle-of-the-road voters. Despite concerns that the Democratic Party has moved too far to the left (with the emergence of its progressive wing), when presented with a choice between President Joe Biden’s Democratic Party and many of the MAGA-aligned fringe candidates, swing voter groups chose the former.  

And this reality was essential given the defection of Black and Latino voters to the Republican Party and its candidates.

Indeed, according to the NBC News’ Exit Poll, the 31% of voters nationally who are independent or not registered with a political party preferred Democrats by 2 points, 49% versus 47% for the GOP. And the 40% of voters who considered themselves ideologically moderate favored Democrats 56%, compared to 41% for the GOP.

This strength was vital to offset the 10-point and 4-point growth that the GOP saw among Latino and Black voters, respectively, compared to four years ago.

Abortion: Voters want to choose what to do with their bodies

Ana Marie Cox is a political journalist and author.

The blood moon turned out to be a weak force in attracting Republicans’ red tide. Perhaps the eclipse that accompanied it — blotting out one of our most ancient symbols of fertility — just reminded voters that reproductive rights were at stake in every race. Certainly, the independents who usually swing toward the opposition party by double digits in a midterm election seemed led more by their support for abortion rights than by their historical partisan tendency. Whatever brought to mind the threat Republicans pose to bodily autonomy, it wasn’t the media. In the month leading up to the election, mainstream and supposedly impartial outlets succumbed to the narrative — pushed by Republicans — that focusing on the Dobbs decision was a mistake for Democrats, as “the economy” and “crime” would matter more to voters. 

In the end, however, you can draw a straight line from the Democrats’ decision to emphasize the Dobbs ruling overturning Roe v. Wade to how they outperformed expectations in many key races. Democrats also took at least one race that might as well have been a referendum in a toss-up district on the toxicity of extreme anti-choice policies: North Carolina state Sen. Wiley Nickel defeated Bo Hines, a Republican who once suggested that rape survivors ought to have to get permission to terminate a pregnancy via what local political reporters described as “a community-level review process.”

The assumption that abortion would not be top of mind for voters wasn’t wrong in a strict factual sense; polls did show that abortion rights had fallen as a stated issue of concern. Pundits’ mistake was forgetting that only a narrow slice of the electorate are true single-issue voters. In real life, concern about “the economy” can encompass one’s fears about the fallout from an unplanned pregnancy and anxiety about “crime” might extend to becoming a criminal because abortion is outlawed.

Personality over policyDemocrats distracted voters from the GOP’s winning positions

Carrie Sheffield is a policy analyst, columnist and broadcaster in Washington, D.C.

Although Republicans didn’t get the red wave we hoped for, we will be waving goodbye to the gaveling of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Another important win is that Rep. Sean Maloney, who led the Democrats’ campaign arm, suffered an embarrassing personal loss — in a district that President Joe Biden won by an estimated 10 points in 2020 — to Republican Mike Lawler. 

Even with these victories, GOP candidates underperformed expectations. Part of this was because Democrats did so poorly in 2020, losing House seats under weak Biden coattails, so there was less room to grow. But Republicans also let the left shift the focus to personalities instead of successful “America First” policies. 

For example, Democrats hammered away at the plainspoken way Georgia Senate candidate Herschel Walker communicated and at Michigan House candidate John Gibbs’ satirical college website from over 20 years ago that said women shouldn’t be allowed to vote. (His campaign clarified that, yes, he does believe in women’s suffrage.) Those attacks took center stage instead of the candidates’ commitment to supporting small businesses, bringing America’s jobs back from overseas and securing our borders.

Conservative policies like these attracted Latino voters, many of whom make up the working class. Ahead of the midterms, an NBC News/Telemundo poll showed that Republican control of Congress had received increasing support from the voting bloc. Ten years ago, Democrats enjoyed a 42-point lead, but now the gap has whittled down to 21 points, a big factor in Gov. Ron DeSantis’ easy re-election in Florida. 

Under progressive ideology, American families, decimated by soaring inflation and energy prices, saw trillions of dollars in household wealth evaporate. Not to mention the rise in overall crime in major cities that’s disproportionately hurting people of color. Republicans will be able to work on meaningfully addressing these concerns by winning more. To do that, they must remind voters to focus on policy over personality.

Political messaging: Democrats lacked a strong messaging strategy. But voters cared more about other things.

Tara Setmayer is a senior adviser at The Lincoln Project.

Given the incredible political headwinds facing Democrats in this year’s midterms, many were ready to write the political obituary for the party for not focusing enough on its economic accomplishments or solutions to rising inflation. According to polling, those two things were top of mind for many voters.

But, clearly, those issues weren’t the only motivating factors in races across the country. Voters rejected many extreme Republican candidates in key swing states up and down the ballot. Voters in those states said “no” to election deniers and reaffirmed women’s right to choose. It appears both issues helped Democrats turn a predicted red wave into more of a red trickle.

Keeping the House was always a long-shot prospect, given the challenging economic environment, the unpopularity of the sitting president and the fallout from biennial redistricting. However, the Democrats’ ability to stave off a “red wave” despite not having a more clearly defined, unified messaging strategy was buoyed by the threat to women’s rights post Dobbs and the threat to democracy posed by MAGA Republicans. Trump-endorsed candidates and his expected presidential run seemed to have been albatrosses around the necks of Republicans in many races.

Although the margin of victory for the GOP isn’t as large as many expected, there are enough MAGA Republicans now in elected office to be democracy disruptors. Democrats should remain steadfast in their commitment to defending democracy, as President Joe Biden passionately advocated.

As we head into the 2024 campaign, it’s imperative Democrats do not allow the Republicans to control the narrative or exploit manufactured culture war grievances to put the party on defense as they did in the final weeks of the midterms. Defense may win championships, but offense wins elections.

Joe Manchin: The West Virginia senator is responsible for Republican House

Adam Green is a co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and co-founder of the Progressive Change Institute.

America can credit Democratic West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin’s obstruction of a democracy bill and an economic bill for the narrow Republican House majority.

The Brennan Center made clear in early 2021 that “the upcoming redistricting cycle threatens to once again be marred by extreme partisan gerrymandering,” but the For the People Act then championed by Democrats “would outlaw partisan gerrymandering.” Manchin obstructed the bill.

Without that federal legislation in place, state legislators were free to redraw congressional districts their way. As MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki said on election night, “Republicans need a net gain of five seats … Republicans had basically drawn themselves five seats.” 

Democratic candidates across the nation were further hurt by Manchin stalling the party’s economic agenda for a year before the trimmed-down Inflation Reduction Act finally passed in August. 

The Washington Post reported swing-district House Democrats Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich. and Kim Schrier, D-Wash., were on the campaign trail “touting the Inflation Reduction Act … But selling the benefits is difficult since voters have yet to feel their impact.” In his first speech after the election, President Joe Biden echoed that “it’s hard to see the results” now, but it would “really come into clear view for people” in the new year.

Manchin’s culpability would have likely gone unnoticed if Republicans won big last Tuesday. But Democrats benefited from an organic uprising of Americans across the ideological spectrum who saw fundamental rights under assault by Republican politicians. 

Despite their low approval of Biden, young voters supported Democrats by a whopping 28 points. With abortion rights, democratic rights, economic rights and the right to exist on this planet in the news, voters seemed to understand the stakes and turned to Democrats as the only hope.

Voters gave democracy a two-year lease on life, and gave Democrats more power than expected. But now, America needs to deal with a Republican House, thanks in good part to Manchin’s obstruction.

Bad GOP Candidates: The Republicans acted like they could run any pro-Trump cadidate and win. They couldn’t.

W. James Antle III is the Washington Examiner’s politics editor and the author of “Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?”

In the span of a few hours, Republicans went from riding a red wave of Election Day success to fears of waving goodbye to their long-anticipated House majority. The fundamentals favored them: President Joe Biden’s approval ratings are not good, inflation has been running at 8%, and crime and immigration are issues on which voters have more confidence in Republicans than Democrats.

But the fundamentals did not favor Republicans to such a degree that they could run literally anyone against the Democrats in competitive districts and hope to win. People who traveled to Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, in support of outgoing President Donald Trump, people more focused on what happened in 2020 than the future, neophyte candidates who were not very skilled regardless of their issue stances, and candidates who were poor fits for their specific districts played right into the Democrats’ hands. Not all of them lost, of course. But a true red wave required the GOP to come close to running the table.

The long shadow of Trump kept many Republicans from getting a clean shot at Biden and the Democrats, as the former president remains toxic in the suburbs. This was not a good place to run MAGA types, but the former president (often with the help of Democrats who understood the stakes) aided such candidates in winning their primaries. 

The challenge for the GOP is winning back suburbanites who voted for 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, while retaining working-class voters drawn by Trump. Republican Govs. Ron DeSantis, Brian Kemp and Glenn Youngkin show that it’s possible. The House results prove it’s not guaranteed.

The economy: It wasn’t the economy, stupid

Harold Meyerson is the editor-at-large of The American Prospect.

The story of the 2022 midterm election is the story of the Republican wave that wasn’t — and for that matter, of the normal midterm rejection of the party in power that also wasn’t. Despite the fact that Republicans outnumber Democrats by 4 percentage points, there was enough resistance in the ranks of Republicans and independents to MAGAism, combined with a more nuanced experience of the economy, that many House MAGA candidates didn’t make it.

That resistance no doubt offset the widespread unhappiness about inflation and the administration’s inability to do much about it — an inability that’s shared by governments in virtually every other nation but which still generally gets blamed on the person in the Oval Office. The intensity of voters’ economic woes may also have been overstated.

According to The Associated Press’ exit poll, voters said they were confident they could both find a good job and keep up with expenses by roughly a 2 to 1  margin, which reflects the unacknowledged plus side of Bidenomics: low unemployment and plentiful job openings. For that matter, the midterm electorate said it favored a government that did more to solve problems over one that did less, and deferred to businesses and individuals by a 53-47 margin.

For all the manifest economic discontent then, voters were no more inclined to bring back the economics of former President Ronald Reagan than the British have been to bring back the economics of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. In the absence of majority support for right-wing economics, and given moderate voters’ repudiation of the MAGA madness, Republicans signally underperformed in the midterms.

Facts vs. fearmongering: The boring strategy Democrats used to defy the polls

Kurt Bardella is an adviser to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He is a former spokesperson and senior adviser for Republicans on the House Oversight Committee.

It is very clear to me that voters across this country didn’t buy into the Republican fearmongering. And if the GOP’s takeaway from this election is to launch a series of witch hunts against the Biden administration and the president’s family, they are severely misreading what the American people really want. 

When you get things done, when you deliver for the American people, when you give candidates an agenda of accomplishment, you can defy the odds, defy expectations, and the American people will respond. 

And that’s what Democrats did. Polls show President Joe Biden isn’t the most popular president. That’s a narrative. But he made infrastructure a reality instead of a punchline. That’s a fact. Democrats made the largest investment in combating the climate crisis in history. That’s another fact. They passed the first gun-reform legislation in three decades. They protected small businesses, the engine of our economy, from the Covid crisis. They revitalized manufacturing in America with the passage of the CHIPS bill. They restored our credibility on the global stage by standing with Ukraine and refusing to let Russian President Vladimir Putin upend the global order. 

Voters need to turn off the noise, the predictions, the polls, and instead get involved. So much of the stuff we see on cable news and social media isn’t real life. If it were, we’d all be standing here today talking about a red wave.

The bottom line is that candidates matter. The quality of your campaign matters. You have to give voters more than just anger and fear and conspiracy theories. You have to do more than just attack the other side and offer up blame. Abortion is popular. So is helping people with their crippling student debt. So is standing up to tyrants — at home and abroad. Democrats didn’t win everything, but they stuck to the facts, not fear. And it worked a lot better than Republicans thought it would.