Who Should You Back in the Midterm Elections?

Deciding what to do with your time and money is the rare instance where speculating about the political horse race makes sense.

One of things I criticize most about American media’s coverage of politics is the endless horse-race speculation: Who’s going to run? Who can win? What issues will the voters respond to, and what positions will they support? What do the polls say about elections that won’t be held until after a whole lot of things have changed?

Speculating about the future is engaging and easy. It fills airtime cheaply, and nobody ever suffers for being wrong.

Endless conversation about things that might never happen is an entertaining way to cover sports, where fans love to argue about who should be traded for who, or where some hot free agent will land. But sports are fundamentally about entertainment; politics shouldn’t be. For the most part, the time we spend speculating about the future draws our attention away from what is happening here and now, and what our leaders are doing about it.

There is one exception, though, and I’m about to invoke it. In every election cycle, people who want to affect the direction of the country have to decide who they’re going to support with their time and/or money. You can’t work for everybody and you can’t give to everybody, so you have to make choices.

One way to choose is to follow your heart; if some candidate inspires you, devote your resources to helping them. Another strategy is to take a pragmatic approach more like triage: There are inspiring candidates who are going to win with or without the help of people like you. (AOC has gotten over 75% of the vote in both of her races.) Other races are lost causes. (It would be great to beat Republican Speaker-in-waiting Kevin McCarthy, but he won by nearly 25 points in 2020, and every prognosticating outlet rates his seat as safe.) So you want to give a push to candidates who might or might not win, depending on whether people like you rally around them.

Most of us do something in between. We’d like to simultaneously feel good about our candidates and make a difference in the outcome. That means looking at races that could go either way and seeing how we feel about the candidates involved.

Figuring out which races those are requires speculation. So that’s what we’ll do this week. (But I’ll try not to make a habit of it.)

The overall climate. Conventional wisdom says that 2022 is going to be a bad year for Democrats, for a number of reasons:

  • Off-year elections usually go badly for the party in power.
  • The marginal voters Democrats depend on are less likely to show up in non-presidential cycles.
  • Biden’s popularity is low.

The current generic-ballot polls (would you rather vote for a Republican or a Democrat?) have the GOP ahead by 3.3%. If that holds up, gerrymandering produces a substantial Republican majority in the House. Generally, Democrats have to win nationally by at least 3% to break even. In 2020, they won nationally by 3.1%, which netted them a narrow 9-vote House majority. By contrast, a 1.1% Republican win in 2016 produced a 47-seat majority. (So Republicans are right when they say the system is rigged. It’s rigged in their favor.)

And who knows, things might play out that way. But November is still 9 months off, and there are other factors that could turn the situation around.

  • The Republican primaries may fracture the party, producing damaged candidates either too Trumpy to win or not Trumpy enough to mobilize the base. Nominating bad candidates lost the Republicans Senate seats they should have won in Missouri in 2012 and in Alabama in 2017, just to name the two most obvious cases.
  • The GOP has no agenda, which should become more apparent as election day approaches. In general, Democrats are running to do good things, while Republicans are running to stop bad things. Republicans only win if the public is in a sour mood, which it currently is, but may not be in a few months.
  • A lot of that sour mood is the public’s frustration with Covid, which might not be as big a factor by November.
  • By November, inflation should be slowing down, but Biden’s job growth numbers will still be something to brag about. Moody Analytics Chief Economist Mark Zandi writes: “The hair-on-fire discourse over high inflation is understandable, but it’s overdone.”
  • The Democratic base could get energized if the Supreme Court reverses Roe in June, as it seems they will.
  • As the legal net closes around Donald Trump, he may decide to take the GOP down with him.

Summary: As you go into the midterm elections, be realistic but not fatalistic. The future isn’t written yet.

The Senate. The current Senate has 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans. 34 seats are up for election in 2022; 14 held by Democrats and 20 held by Republicans. Wikipedia has a table of how four different well-regarded sites rate the elections. They don’t all agree, but most tilt slightly towards Republican control. The most pessimistic is Inside Elections, which favors Republicans in all their current seats, but thinks three Democratic seats are toss-ups: Catherine Cortez Masto in Nevada, Raphael Warnock in Georgia, and Mark Kelly in Arizona. Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire also faces a tight race, though she’s currently favored to win.

All these predictions are subject to the same possible turns of the tide that I listed above. Raphael Warnock’s seat in Georgia is a good example. Current polling has Trump-endorsed Republican candidate Herschel Walker ahead of Warnock by 1%. But other than his name recognition from winning the Heisman playing football at University of Georgia in 1982, Walker is a terrible candidate. He’s not very articulate (especially if you put him on a stage next to Warnock, who is extraordinary), he has no political philosophy to speak of beyond loyalty to Trump, and he has a history of violence, domestic abuse, and mental illness. (No wonder Trump likes him.)

And finally, let’s be honest: A lot of the White racist voters Republicans need are going to lose interest in a contest between two Black guys. Republicans have a history of fantasizing about Black candidates like Colin Powell, Herman Cain, and Ben Carson, but changing their minds sometime before election day. Right now, when all most voters know about Walker is his name and his football career, is probably Walker’s peak.

But anyway, if you’re inclined to play defense, look at Warnock, Kelly, Cortez Masto, and Hassan to see who you feel best about. Warnock would be my choice, though I have supported Hassan in the past when I lived in New Hampshire.

If you expect Democrats’ fortunes to improve and want to play offense, the states to look at are Wisconsin (Ron Johnson), Pennsylvania (Pat Toomey is retiring), and North Carolina (Richard Burr is retiring). Of these, the most satisfying outcome would be to boot Covid-misinforming, coup-sympathizing Ron Johnson out of the Senate. The problem is that the Democratic challenger won’t be chosen until the August 9 primary. The current front-runner is Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes. I worry a little about the rural Republican base getting energized to fight a Black candidate from Milwaukee, but my quick look at Barnes suggested an Obama-like charm that might protect him. He did win statewide office as Tony Evers’ running mate in 2018.

Pennsylvania’s primary won’t be until May, and there is still a large field. But to me the promising candidate is Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman. He’s a little off-the-wall, but in a folksy way that should make him hard to demonize. (“John and Gisele have chosen not to settle in the Lt. Governor’s Mansion, instead opening up the pool in the official residence to children who typically wouldn’t have access to one. They live with their three children Karl, 12, Gracie, 10, and August, 7, in a restored car dealership in Braddock with the family dog, Levi.”) But if you hold the run-a-moderate-in-swing-states theory, Rep. Conor Lamb is probably your best bet.

In North Carolina, the field is wide and the primary is in May. The current favorite is Cheri Beasley, who was the first Black woman to be chief justice of the state supreme court. She narrowly lost a re-election campaign in 2020.

If you’re really ambitious, you might hope to knock off Marco Rubio in Florida. You’ve got a strong candidate to work with: Rep. Val Demings, who was on the short list to be Biden’s vice president.

The House. House races don’t get as much national attention as Senate races, so finding one you want to get involved in is harder (unless you happen to live a swing district with a good candidate). On the other hand, you’re more likely to have an influence on a smaller race.

In general, the people you would feel best about beating — Marjorie Taylor Green, Matt Gaetz, Jim Jordan, Paul Gosar, etc. — are in very safe Republican districts. (That’s why they can be as extreme as they are.) I keep getting email from a Democratic guy running for MTG’s seat, and I definitely feel the temptation, but I keep reminding myself that there are more effective things to do than tilt at that particular windmill.

If you don’t have a good local candidate to support, take a look at the 16 crossover districts identified by Sabato’s Crystal Ball. These are House districts that elected a representative from one party, but voted for the other presidential nominee. In other words, they seem like races that could go either way, and so are obvious places to attack or defend.

In Maine-2, for example, Democrat Jared Golden was re-elected by 6.1% in 2020, while Biden was losing the district by 7.4%. In New York-24, Republican John Katko won by 10.2% while Biden was winning by 9.1%.

Sadly, the crossover Republicans tend to be the most reasonable people in their conference, so beating them won’t be all that satisfying. Katko, for example, voted to impeach Trump and negotiated the deal for a bipartisan January 6 commission that the rest of his party rejected. Possibly seeing the handwriting on the wall from both left and right, he’s retiring.

Likewise, if you’re on the leftward wing of the Democratic Party, the crossover Democrats aren’t likely to make your heart beat faster. Ron Kind is retiring, and of the remaining six, only Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania-8 has a 2020 GovTrack ideology rating more liberal than Nancy Pelosi; he was the 58th most conservative of 237 House Democrats while Pelosi was 48th.

Other seats rated as toss-ups are CA-22, CA-27, CA-45, CO-8, IL-17, IA-3, KS-3, MI-3, MI-7, MI-8, NM-2, NY-11, VA-2, and WA-8.

Governorships and other state offices. At this distance from November, it’s hard to guess which governor’s races will be competitive. For what it’s worth, the races that look close to outside experts are: Arizona, Georgia, Kansas, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

Other than Kansas, those are precisely the Biden states Trump tried to steal, so having a Democratic governor in place in 2024 might be pretty important. Other than Arizona, where Gov. Ducey has been term-limited out, they all have Democratic governors now. Republican primary candidates are competing to see who can take the most extreme positions about the 2020 election, with most saying they would not have certified the results. (In Arizona, Trump-endorsed Kari Lake has pushed it even further: She said “I agree” when a crowd of her supporters chanted “Lock her up” about Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs.)

For similar reasons, you might want to support Democratic candidates in purple-state Secretary of State races that you’ve never cared about before. Republican candidates are basically promising to cheat, if that’s what it takes to put their favorite fascist back in the White House.

Two gubernatorial races that seem like long shots would be very satisfying to win: booting out Ron DeSantis in Florida and Greg Abbott in Texas. Abbott’s approval ratings are negative, but it remains to be seen whether Beto O’Rourke can cash in on that. DeSantis seems to be in better shape.

Local races. As we’ve seen in recent weeks, state legislatures and local school boards make important decisions. And as the Supreme Court whittles away at the power of the federal government (at least until Republicans can get back in control), that trend will only increase.

Local races are often the most satisfying to work on. You’re shoulder-to-shoulder with the candidate and working with your neighbors. And who knows? Once you get involved in local politics, you might find yourself running for office yourself someday.

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  • Creigh Gordon  On February 14, 2022 at 11:36 am

    AOC might be cruising to another easy win, but she has a PAC that I contribute to that supports other candidates. I trust her political judgement more than mine.

  • Josh  On February 14, 2022 at 11:57 am

    I recently moved out of NY-11, one of the seats mentioned as a toss-up. With the new maps that were enacted by the NYS government a couple of weeks ago, this district has been re-drawn to group some strongly D-leaning parts of central Brooklyn with R-leaning southern Brooklyn and Staten Island. 538 rates the new district as having a D+7 partisan lean where the old district was R+13.

    To me, the really interesting possible matchup is in the D primary. Max Rose, a centrist in the Conor Lamb mold who held the seat between 2018 and 2020, has declared his candidacy and was almost certainly the best shot with the old maps. He would likely carry the new district handily. With the new map, though, the possibility has been floated that former NYC mayor Bill DeBlasio, who resides in one of the neighborhoods that was redistricted into NY-11, may run as well. DeBlasio, whom you may remember from such vanity projects as “DeBlasio for President,” is pretty strongly unpopular in the old NY-11 (that’s my sense of it anyway, though I don’t have data to back that up), and I’m concerned he’d find a way to lose.

    Possibly also interesting: if DeBlasio were to come out of the primary, the election against incumbent Nicole Malliotakis would be a rematch of the 2017 NYC mayoral election.

  • JP  On February 14, 2022 at 12:57 pm

    I think you might be overstating the Republican bias in the House in 2022, as redistricting will alter the picture from 2020 substantially. Stronger Democratic gerrymanders in Illinois, New York, New Mexico, Nevada, and Oregon, plus more neutral maps replacing GOP gerrymanders in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and possibly North Carolina and Ohio once the lawsuits are done. This will probably move the median district in the nation to the left on net compared to 2016 and 2020. My guess it Democrats would be competitive for a majority with a neutral-ish generic ballot.

    With respect to local races, there is a group called The States Project that focuses on trying to protect and expand Democratic power in state legislatures, and they have a program called Give Smart where they try to identify marginal districts where donations and volunteer efforts will have the biggest impact. Small donations go a much longer way in low-dollar local races, since every federal race is a million+ dollar affair at this point, so I would recommend people look them up.

  • Laura  On February 14, 2022 at 1:29 pm

    What do you think about Emily’s list or Stacey Abrams’ Fair Fight as places to donate or join?

    • Anonymous  On February 20, 2022 at 4:18 pm

      Both are good organizations, in my opinion.

  • Dennis Maher  On February 14, 2022 at 2:29 pm

    A real service to Democrats would be an analysis of where to give this year, to the party groups, PACs, or individual candidates. I have given to DSSC and DSSS, DGA, and DNC, and Move On, but what about Obama’s PAC, or the States Project and Give Smart, mentioned by a commenter above. If you give $1 to the DNC, every Dem running for office will come after you….

  • anonymous  On February 14, 2022 at 2:38 pm

    During the last election cycle I tried to make most of my donations in a pragmatic manner. Being in a very Red state I try to give minimal complementary support to local races and give donations to those races where it is hoped the funds, however meager, might make a difference. The senatorial races gave me my most interest and I tried to give to those whose consensus poll numbers were either two points ahead or three behind. Unfortunately, as you know the polls were wrong and IIRC I (and the country) lost most of those races leaving us with a so-called 50-50 senate. I was hoping, and I believe the polls showed, a good prospect of a 52-53 Democratic senate prior to the election. Manchin and Sinema wouldn’t matter.
    I am anxious to see what the pollsters are doing to improve their projections before November.

    • reverendsax  On February 14, 2022 at 5:32 pm

      Helpful. I think we are being scammed by many of the movements and PACS, which don’t really tell us what they do with their money. Some give to the candidates but keep some for salaries of those who run the organizations.

  • Dan Cusher  On February 18, 2022 at 11:37 am

    Massachusetts is basically a one-party state, as far as the state legislature is concerned, but that’s actually not a good thing for Democrats. The Democrats in the legislature have a veto-proof supermajority in both houses, yet obvious wins with majority support from the people – and sometimes support from the moderate Republican governor – can’t get through because the centrists in charge care more about holding onto their power than advancing Democratic values.

    I’d recommend checking out the Progressive Mass Legislator Scorecard to see where our state legislators really stand relative to each other: http://scorecard.progressivemass.com

  • Anonymous  On February 20, 2022 at 4:06 pm

    And then that’s the somewhat contrarian view:
    “Why We Need to Fund ‘Losing’ Races”


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