In this edition: What we learned from the midterm primaries, what’s showing up in campaign ads since Labor Day, and questions and answers with some of the people we’ve been checking in with on the trail.
This is the final edition of The Trailer. We’ve been delivering campaign news from across the country for four full years — a whole presidential term! — and hope that you enjoyed it as much as we did. We couldn’t have done it without the sharp editing of Terri Rupar, Cathy Decker, Vanessa Williams and Sean Sullivan.
Primary season is over. The general election tickets are set. And the voters who picked this year’s candidates set up dozens of competitive races, many in congressional districts brand new for the cycle — and a few probably harder for Republicans than they needed to be.
Our colleagues at The Washington Post will cover every angle of this election from here. But what did the primaries end up telling us? Five big things.
Democrats mostly got the candidates they wanted in swing-seat races. There were setbacks, like an ill-fated investment in a crypto-backed newcomer in Oregon. There were controversies, especially when Democratic committees spent to get far-right, “stop the steal”-minded Republicans through their primaries, viewing them as easier to defeat in November.
But in the big picture, Democrats headed toward the midterms with the candidates favored by the national party leadership. The one notable exception: Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), who was abandoned by local Democratic parties before he lost to challenger Jamie McLeod-Skinner. But national Democrats ignored his race, and the main party committees, entering the cycle after scrapping a “blacklist” against consultants who worked with challengers, stayed out of primaries as other groups got to meddling.
It was the same story in Senate races, where the closest anything got to a fracas was the primary in Pennsylvania. Lt. Gov. John Fetterman got in early, held a lead in public polls, and never gave it up, though early polling for Rep. Conor Lamb (D) showed a potentially close contest. If there was ever a race for Republicans or outside groups to interfere in, and weaken the eventual nominee, that was it; the Collective PAC, which supports Black candidates, hit Fetterman out of the gate with an ad buy focused on an incident when, with a shotgun in hand, he stopped an unarmed Black jogger
But the electability-focused Democratic electorate was convinced that Fetterman’s unique profile would be an asset, and even some middling debate performances didn’t stop him from sweeping every county in the May primary. In Wisconsin, where rivals to Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes (D) spent millions portraying themselves as more electable, every credible challenger folded up his or her campaign before the primary. The same thing happened in North Carolina and Florida, minus the wasted millions; North Carolina state Sen. Jeff Jackson quit his race and ran for a House seat, while Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.) opted not to challenge Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.).
There was more competition in the races for state office, with primaries in Hawaii, Oregon and Florida that got rough in the final weeks. But in federal races, even when enthusiasm about the Biden administration was lowest, Democrats were largely able to avoid pricey challenges and pile up money for November.
Republicans wanted a diverse candidate class, and they got it. Whether they win control of the House, Republicans have a candidate roster with more racial and gender diversity than ever. That’s the fruit of a multiyear, multi-PAC effort to change who wins nominations, including a recruiting effort by party leaders and interventions from members like Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), who closed out primary season with a boost for New Hampshire conservative Karoline Leavitt last week.
In the 74 seats targeted by the National Republican Congressional Committee, ranging from newly gerrymandered Trump districts to places President Biden won by 20 points, 25 of the party’s nominees are not White men. In Texas, Wesley Hunt is all but certain to become the state’s first Black Republican congressman; in Michigan, John James could add to the ranks of Black Republicans in the House, while the state sends no Black Democrats to Washington at all.
The other Black GOP nominee in Michigan is John Gibbs, who defeated Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Mich.) in a summer primary that focused on Meijer’s vote to impeach Trump in 2021 and his support for pro-LGBT legislation in the House. In Arkansas, where the Democratic Party has stopped fielding competitive statewide campaigns, Republicans are likely to elect Sarah Sanders as governor and Attorney Gen. Leslie Rutledge as lieutenant governor — the first time anywhere in the country both roles would be held concurrently by women.
Turnout was mostly high for a midterm, especially in MAGA country. It’s always tricky to make a year-to-year voter turnout comparison. Some states that have competitive races one cycle don’t have them the next; some open seats with expensive primaries in one year have sleepy, no-challenger races in another year.
But the pattern is clear: Voter turnout was comparable to the high-turnout 2018 primaries, and reliably higher in places where there’s been a lot of partisan turnover since 2016. That was clear very early in the cycle, when nearly 1.1 million votes were cast in Ohio’s GOP primary for U.S. Senate, and for the first time in a primary, Republican voting outpaced Democratic voting in the Mahoning Valley. In Mahoning County itself, where 11,554 GOP votes were cast in the 2018 primary, 20,484 GOP votes were cast this year, compared to 15,998 for Democrats.
In Ohio, voters don’t register by party; their partisanship is determined by which primary they choose to vote in. Republicans had strong turnout in a number of places with those rules, like South Texas. For much of the year, they were also building an advantage, or taking advantage of Democratic decline, in states with partisan voter registration.
Look at two of the biggest swing states. In November 2020, according to Pennsylvania’s registration report, nearly 4.2 million voters there were registered as Democrats, 3.5 million were registered as Republicans, and 1.3 million were registered with a third party or no party. By May, before the primary, Democrats had declined by 228,452; Republicans had declined by 92,781; and the rest of the electorate had declined by 31,296. At the end of 2021, Florida Republicans wiped out the Democrats’ traditional registration advantage, and by this summer, the GOP had a more than 200,000-registration advantage over Democrats.
Mixed record for Trump-backed candidates. Sure, the former president has a winning record overall — and he’ll be the first to tell you about it. According to NPR, which helpfully tracked every Trump endorsement, Trump-backed Republicans won in 41 of 45 open seats, and just one Trump-endorsed incumbent lost. And the defeat of North Carolina Rep. Madison Cawthorn had more to do with the freshman’s own callow behavior, and the enemies he made by making up smears against his colleagues, than with anything Trump did.
Most of those races were pretty easy for Trumpworld, and the leader of the Republican Party didn’t take many risks. He sat out New Hampshire’s primaries, even after near miss U.S. Senate primary loser Chuck Morse met with him personally. He endorsed both candidates named “Eric” in Missouri’s U.S. Senate primary, claiming credit when Attorney Gen. Eric Schmitt defeated ex-Gov. Eric Greitens. (This was easy, because both were eager to give him credit.) Trump’s early, on-record opposition to the Republicans who voted to impeach him after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob helped defeat most of them, and the only two (of 10) who’ll be on a ballot in November ran in states with top-two primaries, where they only needed to place second in a race with every candidate of every party to make a runoff.
Where did Trump lose? His support wasn’t enough to carry weak GOP nominees who were opposed by local party leaders — most notably in Georgia, where the ex-president’s frustration at a near-sweep for Gov. Brian Kemp and his allies led to him bragging about helping the nominee for lieutenant governor win his primary. (No offense to lieutenant governors, but it was genuinely odd to hear Trump talk about this when he was campaigning in Wyoming.) Where there was a strong local GOP disagreeing with Trump, it could hold him off. Where there wasn’t — think of Illinois and Maryland — Trump’s endorsement could anoint whoever he wanted.
Big spending chipped away at the Democratic Party’s left. In 2018 and 2020, multiple incumbent Democrats were ousted by candidates running to their left, helped by the infrastructure built after Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) first ran for president. In 2022, that only happened once, in Oregon, with Jamie McLeod-Skinner.
Across the country, the left lost as much as it gained. Two incumbents backed by liberal groups, Rep. Marie Newman (D-Ill.) and Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.), lost races against colleagues after redistricting packed them into the same seats. In 2023, the winners of those races will be working with Democrats who ran left — Greg Casar in Texas, Summer Lee in Pennsylvania, and Kina Collins in Illinois.
But the left had bigger ambitions, and was repeatedly stopped by campaign spending it struggled to respond to, typically from AIPAC’s new United Democracy PAC or the Democratic Majority for Israel. When those groups surged into places like Ohio’s 11th Congressional District, liberals pointed out that their messaging was not conservative; it characterized Democrats like Nina Turner as dangerous party-crashers who’d hurt the Biden agenda, poking at wounds from the 2016 Sanders-Clinton primary.
In Ohio, Maryland, and Texas, where Jessica Cisneros lost a rematch with Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.), the idea that safely Democratic seats would, and should, elect the most liberal candidate possible didn’t pan out. Had a few thousand more Democrats in Minneapolis rejected Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), the year might have been disastrous for the left’s long-term project of building a bench and expanding the boundaries of debate inside their party. As it stands, their year was a wash — and last week’s landslide defeat of Rhode Island candidates endorsed by Sanders pointed to the need for a new strategy, reflecting a political world where Democrats are largely happy with their leadership and the donors who want to beat the left have endless resources.
Not the midterm they wanted, but the midterm they got.
Inside the Sweet Florida phenomenon.
Declaring victory, election or no election.
The attorneys who want gerrymandered legislatures to defy state supreme courts make a blunder.
What just happened?
It’s not shocking because of how much it is.
The long tail of an election-stealing plot.
A conservative nightmare scenario: Democrats controlling the agenda in 2023.
Becoming a Stop the Steal pundit, for fun and profit.
Kaptur for Congress, “Extreme.” Ohio Democrat Marcy Kaptur didn’t meddle in the GOP primary for her new district, redrawn to pack liberal Toledo together with more conservative towns. But she drew MAGA activist J.R. Majewski as an opponent, and as the Republican nominee tries to rebrand himself, Kaptur’s ad points to the ideas he endorsed when he was an insurgent candidate donning QAnon gear. “Terrorism. Violence. Attacks on police. And Majewski believes all of it,” says a narrator. The ad leans on the FBI’s assessment of the domestic radical threat, which might not mean much to MAGA voters who think federal law enforcement is compromised.
Marco Rubio for Senate, “Radical Left.” Throughout his career as a Republican candidate, Rubio has warned that Democrats coming to power can send America on the same downward spiral as communists or socialists taking power in Latin America. This ad remixes the argument by adding gender ideology to the risk assessment: Democrats want not only to “flood” the country with crime and drugs, and censor their critics, but they want to “try to turn boys into girls.”
Val Demings for U.S. Senate, “A Crime.” Demings has represented the Orlando area for a decade, but she was a police officer for longer than that, and her ads call her “chief,” not “congresswoman.” Straight to the camera, she cites her credibility in law enforcement to attack Rubio’s support for an abortion ban as a deviation from real crime-fighting. “Rape is a crime,” she says. “Incest is a crime. Abortion is not.”
Lisa Murkowski for U.S. Senate, “Inflation.” Alaska’s senior senator got a break when voters passed a new ranked-choice election system, and the victory of Rep. Mary Peltola (D-Alaska) last month showed how more moderate candidates can benefit. This spot focuses on votes Murkowski cast with Republicans, votes broadly popular in Alaska — no on unspecified “wasteful spending,” yes on how to “expand Alaskan energy production,” illustrated by lots of images of the senator and pipelines.
The Dr. Scott Jensen for Governor Committee, “Viking/Packer.” Matt Birk, a former center for the Minnesota Vikings, is the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor. That’s the point of this ad, which introduces Birk next to his running mate and shows football players slamming into each other to dramatize their intensity in preventing another round of pandemic lockdowns or school closures.
Kathy Salvi for U.S. Senate, “Agents.” After Democrats resurrected some of their spending plans in the Inflation Reduction Act, Republicans homed in on one provision: New funding for the IRS, reversing years of cuts to the tax agency. Salvi, who’s challenging Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), dramatizes the new investment in the tax police by showing suit-clad agents rummaging around a family’s home. Polling has found voters to be less angry about the IRS funding than the GOP messaging might make it look. Most people simply have never been audited, with just one of out of every 400 individual tax returns getting that treatment in the last year we have data for.
NRSC, “NH: Lauren.” Lower gas prices have led to fewer mentions of the gas pump in TV ads — but no reduction in inflation talk. This is one of a series of NRSC spots arriving after Labor Day to recast the midterms as an economic referendum, with a vote against Democrats punishing the party that “sent inflation through the roof.” The validator in this spot is a woman introduced as a mother of four, a friendly face to contrast the Democrats’ focus on abortion rights, which has been helping the party recover with women voters in the suburbs.
Senate Leadership Fund, “Taxing Tim.” The Mitch McConnell-aligned super PAC is making the same argument as the party’s official committee, linking every Democrat to the Biden agenda — they voted for it, after all — and blaming the agenda for inflation while warning of tax hikes. This spot cites a CBO report requested by Republicans when they were trying to sink the Inflation Reduction Act, asking for an estimate of potential tax audit exposure for small businesses, and extrapolating that to mean that the middle class will face $20 billion in new taxes over 10 years. Because the IRA didn’t directly raise income taxes, Republicans have found other ways to say that the average American will end up paying more.
Positive: 42% (+2 since August)
Negative: 47% (-1)
Positive: 34% (-2 since August)
Negative: 54% (+0)
Joking with reporters in New Hampshire two weeks ago, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) said that the media had pushed a Biden comeback narrative before the facts aligned with it: “Everyone’s slapping their Biden signs back on because his approval rating went from 36 to 38.” It does sound ridiculous when put that way. But after Labor Day, with voters tuning in to the midterms, a series of polls have found Biden’s support rising to the low and mid-40s, right where Democrats want it to be to avoid disaster, despite awful numbers.
Wes Moore (D): 53%
Dan Cox (R): 31%
Voters often fall in love with outsiders, but that’s not happening in Maryland. Outgoing Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who is popular with Democrats, has refused to support Cox as his successor. Democratic voters, who dominate in Maryland, have followed his advice, and just 6 percent say they’ll vote for Cox, a right-wing candidate who falsely insists that the 2020 election was stolen in a state where Biden won by 33 points. Hogan-like candidates lost most of this summer’s primaries, and the Republican in the best position — Barry Glassman, who trails by just 12 points in the race for comptroller — has Hogan’s support.
Ron Johnson (R): 49% (+4 since August)
Mandela Barnes (D): 48% (-4)
The GOP’s campaigns for governor and Senate in Wisconsin have focused heavily on crime, and the riots that rocked Kenosha in 2020. That’s done some damage to Mandela Barnes’s image, and voters who’ve been reminded that he opposes cash bail — which GOP messaging incorrectly characterizes as supporting criminals quickly freed from prison — have moved away from the Democratic nominee.
“What do you think is the most important issue facing people in California today?” (PPIC, Sept. 2-11, 1060 likely voters)
Housing costs/availability: 11%
Environment/pollution/climate change: 11%
Government in general/problems with elected officials/political parties: 4%
State budget/deficit/taxes: 3%
Electricity costs/energy supply/energy crisis: 3%
Immigration/illegal immigration: 2%
Gasoline prices/oil prices: 2%
Defeating a recall attempt in 2021 has put Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) in an ideal position to win reelection, facing a Republican who few voters have heard of and the GOP has few resources to help. That’s happening despite an issue environment that should be giving the GOP more opportunities: inflation (which Newsom has responded to by issuing checks to Californians) is seen as a national problem not under his control, and Newsom’s Democrats have taken action on bills to expand housing development, giving them more space to campaign on that issue.
“Question 4 is a referendum to determine whether you approve or disapprove of a recent law passed by the state legislature allowing Massachusetts residents who cannot provide proof of lawful presence in the United States to obtain a standard driver’s license. Will you vote yes or no?” (Suffolk University/Boston Globe/NBC10 Boston/Telemundo, Sept. 10-13, 500 likely voters)
After last week’s primaries, Massachusetts is on track to elect Democrats to every statewide office, and by big margins. The advantage for each Democratic candidate in this poll is stronger than the lead for Question 4. A small share of no party and Democratic voters support the effort to approve driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants. It’s not enough to sink the measure, right now, but enough to keep it close, and the weak position of Republicans in this state incentivizes them to support the measure.
California. Developer Rick Caruso reserved $17 million in ads for the final stretch of his campaign for mayor of Los Angeles, after trailing Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) in the June primary. Caruso, a former Republican who joined the Democratic Party this year, dominated TV advertising during the primary, but went dark when it was over; polling taken in that period has found Bass building a double-digit lead, as she continues to portray Caruso as a thinly-disguised conservative who’s trying to buy the election.
Colorado. Rancher Steve Wells put $11 million behind a super PAC supporting GOP nominee Heidi Ganahl in her race against Democratic Gov. Jared Polis. That’s more than three times as much money as Polis, a wealthy tech entrepreneur who has self-funded his campaigns, reported at the start of this month. It’s nearly 60 times as much as Ganahl reported in that same period. Ganahl released internal polling, shortly before the donation, that showed her down by single digits in a race national Republicans see as tougher to win.
Iowa. Democratic U.S. Senate nominee Mike Franken denied an allegation from a former staffer who accused him of kissing her without permission. “It didn’t happen,” Franken told the Des Moines Register, after the paper found out that the accuser had filed a police report on the incident that was closed without any charges filed.
Since early 2021, The Trailer featured a weekly interview from the campaign trail as an edited Q&A. We talked with Howard Kohr, the president of AIPAC, who’d never given an interview to The Washington Post before; with Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Mich.), days before he lost one of 2022’s most closely-watched primaries; with whoever we thought had an interesting, talking point-free perspective on elections and the forces driving them.
For the final Trailer, we’ve decided to mix it up and present single questions and single answers with people who we’ve talked to across the country recently.
Jena Griswold, Colorado secretary of state, on the challenges facing election officials
The Trailer: In New Mexico, recently, there was an election that some county commissioners refused to sign off on. How much of a risk is that in your state? How are you preparing for it?
Jena Griswold: Here’s how I think: What threats are coming? If I was trying to destabilize things, what would I do? One of the things that we saw emerging in 2021 was some canvass board members refusing to sign off. In New Mexico, it’s county commissioners. In Colorado, it’s equal parts Republican canvass board, Democratic canvass board, and the clerk and the majority have to sign off to close out that county for me to be able to certify the election.
We started to see some of the Republicans refuse to sign off, but it didn’t matter as long as the county clerk would. But then you started seeing insider threats, and started seeing some of the county election officials embrace the conspiracies. There are candidates running for county clerk who are “big lie” candidates right now. So we built into the law the ability, if there is not a reasonable basis to not sign off on a county’s elections, and the canvassing board refuses, to either designate someone who will, or let me close the election.
We won’t allow conspiracies to stop the certification of the statewide election. If there is no basis for this except conspiracy theory, suddenly you’re opening a window to litigation. You’re opening a window for someone like Donald Trump to order DHS to seize voting equipment. You’re opening up the window for fake electors. They wanted time. They’re still trying to drag out the 2020 election to try to steal it.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), on the campaign trail in New Hampshire
The Trailer: In June, we saw a big special election win for Republicans in Texas. Last month, we see two big special election wins for Democrats — New York and Alaska. Has the tide shifted toward Democrats since the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision?
Ted Cruz: Look at the momentum we see nationally. Last year in Virginia, we saw a state that had gone for Biden by 10 points elect a Republican governor — Glenn Youngkin. I endorsed Glenn Youngkin early. I spent two days barnstorming the state of Virginia with Glenn, and he won a historic victory in bright blue Virginia. That was a heck of a warning sign.
You mentioned the special election in Texas. It is a district that has not elected a Republican since 1871. That’s a long time in that special election. The voters chose to elect a Republican, Mayra Flores, a Hispanic woman. That is history making. And I see that momentum still sweeping the country.
Look, I understand that that the national media is trying very hard to pitch a narrative that, gosh, the Democrats are doing great. Isn’t it hunky dory? Everyone slapping their Biden signs back on because his approval rating went from 36 to 38. And that’s really a powerful mandate to be reelected! Unless you watch MSNBC, you’re not persuaded by that, or by a couple of idiosyncratic examples. Yes, there was Alaska, which had their bizarre ranked choice voting system. So, 60 percent of the voters voted for a Republican, and what did their weird election system do? Give it to the Democrat. I don’t think that’s indicative of what’s to come in November.
Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, at the Net roots Nation conference
The Trailer: How have the last few months, where Democrats have actually been passing things and supporting organized labor, changed things ahead of November? What else do you think needs to be done?
Sara Nelson: The narrative is really important, because suddenly you have people in power saying unions are cool and you need to join one. That really changes things. There are corporations like Delta Air Lines that are so steeped in union busting that they have led their employees to believe that they are pitting themselves, essentially, against their own jobs if they’re supporting the union. And to have people in leadership saying, no, that’s not true, and you should have a voice on the job, is incredibly helpful.
But working people who are trying to do that, who are taking the president at his word, are getting killed. The president could be calling Howard Schultz to the White House and saying: ‘Hey, collective bargaining is where it’s at and I’m going to mediate discussions between you and the Starbucks union.’ There’s been there’s well over 200 stores now that have unionized, and it’s going to keep going. The Amazon labor union, to the firings that are taking place — you have to have wins in order to get the next wins. [Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.] We need to see some real action on helping to settle the strike at Warrior Coal in Alabama. It would just take a little bit of help from the administration to get that done. Working people have traditionally, historically, have really only won when the government gave them a fair chance to win.
Terry Schilling, president of the American Principles Project, discussing 2022 strategy at a D.C. steak house
The Trailer: If Republicans win the midterms, what do you think should the new Congress start doing on family policy, and on gender? What hearings should they hold in 2023?
Terry Schilling: I think it has to start with parental rights. I would put parents firmly in control of their kids’ education, including banning schools from referring to children as different pronouns or different names at the request of the child. I would do the Save Women’s Sports Act. I would I would pass liability protections for people who transition and end up regretting it so that they can hold those people who rushed them into it accountable.
That will never pass a Republican Congress, because Republicans are allergic to lawsuits and private rights of action. But I’d make it all about parents. That was why Glenn Youngkin won, right? Parents, even Democratic parents, want to be listened to. [For hearings], I would bring in Biden administration officials to testify on why they’re making decisions that would ban children from getting the proper care, why they’re pushing to ban conversion therapy.
Adam Conover, host of truTV’s “Adam Ruins Everything” and Netflix’s “The G Word,” at a rally for left-wing city council candidates in Los Angeles
The Trailer: Two years ago, you saw a lot of optimism about criminal justice reform in big cities. What’s happened since then to make a place like Los Angeles consider voting for a mayoral candidate like Rick Caruso?
Adam Conover: Honestly, I think it’s the pandemic. The pandemic drastically worsened conditions in America, and in Los Angeles specifically. Just regarding street homelessness — instantly, every public library closed. That was where people got out of the heat and where they went to the bathroom. At our homelessness outreach group, SELAH, we went from bringing water bottles to people, and telling them where they could go do a check-in, to just bringing them boxes of USDA food. People were thrown out of their apartments. Homelessness, which was already bad and growing in California because of the housing crisis became like more intense. And to the extent that there’s been an increase in crime, I think a lot of that is for the same reasons.
In L.A., [city council member] Nithya Raman is pioneering a really fantastic, compassionate, evidence-based approach to homelessness that is working in her district. But she’s just one council member. And there isn’t a media appetite to tell a story like, “Hey, we housed 20 people.” There is a media appetite to tell the story of homeowners who are frightened because there are homeless people on their block — stuff like that. I think we’ve seen like a backlash from the public that is not tuned in, and that is something that we’re just going to have to overcome.
… 49 days until the midterm elections
… 77 days until Georgia runoffs
… 158 days until Chicago’s mayoral election
… 196 days until Wisconsin’s state Supreme Court election
… 777 days until the 2024 presidential election