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Midterms’ final stretch marked by fights in unexpected places

As some candidates suddenly scramble, others unexpectedly look safe

A redrawn district made Ohio Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur's reelection competitive, but a far-right Republican nominee has helped buoy her chances.
A redrawn district made Ohio Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur's reelection competitive, but a far-right Republican nominee has helped buoy her chances. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

At the outset of this election cycle, Oregon’s new 6th District was considered such a good opportunity for Democrats to pick up a House seat that outside groups invested $16.7 million to influence their party’s primary. 

Now, with the general election six days away, Democratic nominee Andrea Salinas, a state lawmaker, finds herself in a toss-up race against Republican businessman Mike Erickson, who is hardly a baggage-free candidate.

The race illustrates a theme running through many competitive House and Senate races this year: Some voters do not appear to be acting as political operatives expected, forcing candidates and outside groups to spend big money in some unexpected places — or to give up the fight in certain districts altogether. 

Independent Senate candidate Evan McMullin’s challenge to Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee has some of Lee’s supporters making late expenditures to shore up the incumbent. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Though Republicans are likely to win control of the House, the unusual dynamics in some enclaves aren’t exclusively leaning in the GOP’s favor. Races where Republicans were viewed as having a clear advantage now appear as heavy lifts or even long shots because of controversial candidates. 

Even experienced politicians who were never on the radar when the cycle began, like Sens. Charles E. Grassley in Iowa and Mike Lee in Utah, face competition. Grassley has confronted polling numbers that are much tighter than expected as he seeks an eighth term against Democrat Mike Franken, a retired admiral. In Utah, a challenge from independent Evan McMullin and Democrats’ decision not to field a candidate has led groups, such as the conservative Club for Growth, to jump in with big money to help Lee, who is among the 10 most vulnerable senators. 

Races across the battlefield that once were expected to be on the razor’s edge have been downgraded. California Republican Rep. Mike Garcia, whose constituents voted for Joe Biden by 13 points in 2020, has not faced any outside spending from Democrats’ House campaign arm or the party’s biggest House super PAC. Meanwhile, controversial GOP nominees have helped buoy otherwise vulnerable Democrats, as is the case with J.R. Majewski, who is challenging Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur in Ohio’s 9th District.

The unusual and seemingly unpredictable patterns in pockets around the nation have political insiders searching for answers: Bad candidates, errant polling, economic volatility and high inflation, and coattails or drag from the top of the ticket are just part of the list.

It is also true that no matter how nationalized House and Senate races have become, voters have had divergent experiences when it comes to abortion rights after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, or their attitudes toward the pandemic where some states instituted more aggressive mitigation steps, such as closing school buildings, than others. 

‘Country club to country’

Some, also, say they believe they are observing a political realignment happening in real time. 

“Generally, realignments occur by inches, not yards,” said former Republican Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, who ran his party’s House campaign arm from 1999 to 2002. “I think we’re seeing a larger realignment, as the Republican base migrated from the country club to the country.”

The economic environment, he added, “gives Republicans a way in” with voters of color and independent voters “they might not have had in ordinary times.” 

Not only is Oregon’s 6th District, which Biden would have won in 2020 by more than 13 points, surprisingly competitive, numerous districts along the West Coast have raised alarms for Democrats. They include the races featuring incumbent Reps. Mike Levin and Katie Porter of California and Kim Schrier of Washington. Oregon’s 5th District, where incumbent Democrat Kurt Schrader lost his primary, appears increasingly difficult for Democrats to hold. 

Across the country, Rhode Island’s open 2nd District may provide Republicans an unexpected pickup opportunity

‘Opportunity in blue states’

As bullish as Republicans are on some blue seats, it is worth noting that in 2020 Democrats, too, talked about an expanded map that included the race for Montana’s at-large House seat — which went comfortably, by 12 points, to a Republican.

Calvin Moore of the GOP super PAC Congressional Leadership Fund, which has said it plans to spend more than $215 million across the House battlefield this cycle, said some of the issues driving voters in Democratic-leaning states and districts include crime and the rising cost of living. Those are among the messages in the super PACs’ TV spots. 

“We see increasing opportunity in blue states because voters are feeling the pain of failed liberal policies all the more,” he said, adding that New York “has become increasingly fertile ground,” in part, because of “how poorly Democrats have handled rising crime.”

In Oregon, “discontent over public safety has dominated the governor’s race, and it’s had a real effect down ballot,” Moore said.

“We don’t have national elections in this country,” noted Nathan L. Gonzales, a CQ Roll Call elections analyst. “Every two years, we should remind ourselves that this is a series of state-by-state and district-by-district battles.

“A slew of competitive races in Oregon, New York and New England are great examples that unique and local circumstances are key factors in the race,” he said. “Anything from candidate quality to salient local issues such as crime can magnify the national political environment and create opportunities in places where we don’t typically see competitive races.” 

Republicans running in Washington state — such as Senate nominee Tiffany Smiley, who is giving Democratic Sen. Patty Murray a tougher-than-usual reelection fight — are also running on a message of lawlessness and inflation. 

Democratic groups such as Women Vote!, the super PAC connected to EMILY’s List, have invested millions in Murray’s race, according to Federal Election Commission reports. The group is helping candidates in Senate and House races around the country where Democratic women who support abortion rights are on the ballot. 

“It is unavoidably true that there is no rule that says voters have to act in a consistent, internally logical method across the country,” said Benjamin Ray, senior director of campaign communications for EMILY’s List. “Party coalitions are always changing, but we’re at a time when party coalitions are changing more than their historic norm.”

Bias toward past elections

Democrats have gained support among more college-educated and affluent voters, as Republicans have made inroads with working-class voters, including minority voters. And House Republicans may expand their number of members who are Black, Hispanic and Asian American, as the party has more minority House candidates (77, including incumbents) than in any previous cycle. Some of those candidates, such as Wesley Hunt in Texas’ new 38th District, are all but certain to come to Congress.

Others, such as Jennifer-Ruth Green, who like Hunt is Black and a military veteran, is in a competitive race against Democratic Rep. Frank Mrvan in Indiana’s 1st District.

Salinas, the Democrat in Oregon’s 6th District, said recently that she was focusing on inflation and abortion rights in the campaign’s final stretch. Erickson, her opponent, opposes abortion rights with some exceptions, such as for rape; a former romantic partner has said he once paid for her to have an abortion.    

Davis, the former Virginia lawmaker who is now a partner at the lobbying and law firm Holland & Knight, said the surprisingly close races may reflect politicians’ bias for looking to past campaigns and not seeing emerging priorities quickly enough.  

“There’s always a tendency of generals to fight the last war. In politics, people like to fight the last election,” he said. “Yet coalitions are constantly changing. They’re constantly mutating.”

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