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Semafor LogoDavid Weigel
David Weigel
politics

Red Ripple: Democrats surprise themselves with their own strength

David is a Political Reporter for Semafor, joining us from the Washington Post. Sign up for Americana to get his coverage of the national political scene in your inbox twice a week.

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Democrats woke up on Tuesday bracing for a 2010-level wipeout, losing seats they’d held for generations. They entered Wednesday morning surprised by how well their 2020 coalition was holding together.

In New Hampshire, Sen. Maggie Hassan won a race that Republicans hoped was breaking their way. In Cincinnati, Democrats unseated Rep. Steve Chabot, a member of the 1994 “Republican Revolution” who’d helped impeach Bill Clinton. And in Washington, D.C. a stage that had been set for Kevin McCarthy to celebrate a new Republican majority stood empty, well after midnight.

“So far, this isn’t a wave,” said Pennsylvania Rep. Brendan Boyle, as early results in his state showed Republicans struggling to flip the four districts they’d targeted. “It’s a ripple.”

Republicans were still on track to flip the House, aided by a friendly gerrymander in Florida and a court-drawn New York map that created half a dozen winnable seats.

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Late in the night, after polls had closed in every state, they’d flipped a number of seats President Joe Biden won by single digits. In Virginia Beach, they ousted Rep. Elaine Luria, a member of the Jan. 6 commission. In northern New Jersey, where Rep. Tom Malinowski looked vulnerable all cycle, he fell to Tom Kean, Jr. in a rematch of their 2020 race.

But Republicans shot the moon this cycle, talking confidently about a “red wave,” then a “red tsunami.” Former President Donald Trump hoped for a “humiliating rebuke” of the man who defeated him. Sen. Ted Cruz stumped across the Rio Grande Valley, telling audiences that they could sweep all three House seats in a region Democrats had won for more than a century.

They wound up with just one of those seats, as one of the Republicans who lost asked why the wave never materialized.

The Democrats’ surprising strength showed up early in the night. So did the problems with weak nominees that Republicans had worried about all year. In New Hampshire, where Donald Trump had endorsed former White House staffer Karoline Leavitt over a candidate favored by House GOP leaders, the first towns to report their votes found her losing where moderate Republicans usually won. Leavitt, who’d claimed that the 2020 election was rigged against Trump, quickly fell to Rep. Chris Pappas.

“Great night to be a moderate in a moment when politics looks insane,” said Matt Bennett, the co-founder of the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way – which had published a Monday memo warning that voters saw both parties as equally extreme.

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Flush with cash in both their campaign committee and their affiliated super PAC, Republicans had expanded their target list all year, into places that Biden won by as much as 20 points. But they struggled to win much softer targets, with both Trump-backed MAGA candidates and more moderate Republicans. In Rhode Island, the GOP had recruited Allan Fung, who mocked Democratic ads that called him an extremist. He lost by 3 points to state Treasurer Seth Magaziner. In northwest Ohio, MAGA activist J.R. Majewski lost by double digits in a seat Trump had carried by 3 points. Democrats who worried that a GOP gerrymander would reduce them to just two House seats walked away with five of them.

With a few exceptions, like New York City’s suburbs and majority-Latino parts of Florida, Democrats held on by winning the suburban voters who flipped their way after 2016. Across the Midwest, Republicans got less than they needed in suburban counties where they’d blamed Democrats for increased crime. It was a potent message in Long Island. But it didn’t connect outside of Milwaukee, where statewide GOP nominees ran behind the 2020 Trump vote, or outside of Pittsburgh, where Democrats were on track to hold two seats where Republicans tied their nominees to the “defund the police” movement.

undefined headshotDavid 's view

I can’t overstate how confident Republicans were when the polls closed today. There was talk of a 54-seat Senate majority, the biggest House majority in a century, new supermajorities in state legislatures. Lots of people who watched these races closely, including me, were looking for upsets in places Democrats never have to worry about. That didn’t happen. Democrats clearly turned out their base and kept some swing voters in line by highlighting the most right-wing, pro-Trump leanings of candidates who had wanted the race to be a clear Biden referendum.

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