The Inaugural Americana Awards
What changed, exactly, after the most expensive midterm elections in American history?
Well: Republicans replaced the narrowest Democratic House majority in decades with the narrowest GOP majority ever. Democrats gained one Senate seat as no senator, from either party, lost re-election. The GOP expanded its legislative majorities in red states, while losing one or both Houses of the legislature in three swing states: Michigan, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania.
Nearly $17 billion was spent on a stalemate. Republicans started the cycle with breakneck momentum, and lost it after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Instead of a red wave, we saw the party coalitions that formed after 2016 lock in — Republicans struggling in most cities and suburbs, Democrats still hopeless outside of them. But some people had a very good year, and with 2022 coming to a close, this is a place to celebrate them. Welcome to the inaugural Americana Awards for achievement in political campaigning.
Best U.S. Senate campaign: John Fetterman in Pennsylvania. Did he get an assist when Donald Trump lifted Mehmet Oz to win the GOP primary? Obviously. Did a decade-plus of ad campaigns, TED Talks, and media profiles of the 6’8’’ mayor of a left-for-dead town help him? Yes, but that wasn’t luck, and he’d already run for Senate and lost before, in 2016.
This year’s Fetterman campaign excelled at everything, convincing Democratic primary voters that a candidate Republicans would call “socialist” was electable, then pummeling Oz while its own candidate recovered from a stroke. The best Fetterman gimmicks — like his constant Twitter trolling of Oz, largely for his living until recently in New Jersey — probably wouldn’t work for other candidates, which was the point. He spent years developing a style and record that could appeal to non-Democrats, which the campaign boiled into “no county left behind,” sending the candidate to places where his party was toxically unpopular and spending in underserved markets like Erie.
Best gubernatorial campaign: Joe Lombardo in Nevada. He did what no other Republican could pull off this year, unseating a Democratic governor by indicting his record during the pandemic and the 2021 crime spike. Lombardo pocketed an endorsement from Donald Trump, then never talked about the ex-president, separating himself from a statewide ticket obsessed with re-fighting 2020.
Best congressional campaign: George Santos in New York. If his luck is running out now, and bizarre inconsistencies and lies about his background end his career in the House, it can’t erase what he pulled off. He ran as a sacrificial lamb in 2020, lost by 12.5 points, fashionably suggested that the election was stolen, and immediately started running again. He stayed under the radar, filed his financial disclosure 20 months after the deadline, and wasted tens-of-thousands of dollars on baffling expenses. Then he won by 8.2 points, zooming along with the Long Island GOP wave. Other candidates ran more, let’s say, sustainable campaigns, but nobody beat the system like Santos, a.k.a. Zabrovsky.
Best state party: The Republican Party of Florida. It set the standard for raising money, finding new voters, and building a flywheel for its statewide dominance. This was less of a breakthrough year than a culmination, with three long-term decisions paying off for Gov. Ron DeSantis and the RPOF.
First: DeSantis appointed conservative judges to state courts, which dramatically reduced the risk of Republican-drafted maps or voting laws being struck down. Second: DeSantis raised more money than any candidate for governor ever had, in a state where there are no limits on donations to political committees, which helped Republicans take their first-ever lead over Democrats in voter registration. Third: DeSantis took control of the redistricting process and substituted a map that had included several opportunities for Democrats with one that would give them just eight of 28 House seats.
Best return on investment: The $60 million spread across the country by the States Project, a progressive effort to flip state legislatures and deny Republicans the power to shape key election rules going forward. Progressive donors had tried that and failed in 2020, casting a pall over the whole idea. But in 2022 the strategy paid off.
Even in Arizona, where the extra money didn’t switch control of the state Senate, it helped the party win down-ballot races after the GOP picked weak MAGA candidates (a bit like what happened in the state’s contest for governor). The coalition of “America First Secretary of State candidates” nearly got wiped out, reduced to one win in Indiana, thanks in part to all the new progressive money highlighting races that voters usually pay less attention to.
Best luck: Ohio Rep. Marcy Kaptur, a Democrat whom Republicans drew into a seat designed to elect whoever got out of their primary. Two GOP state legislators battled it out for the right to face her; both lost to J.R. Majewski, described by one publication as a “novelty-rapping, QAnon-curious Air Force veteran,” who’d traveled to D.C. for the Jan. 6 insurrection and gotten some local attention for painting a 19,000 square foot Trump banner on his lawn.
Best Ad (Primary): J.D. Vance for Senate, “Are You a Racist?” They knew who’d make fun of it, and that was why it would work. Vance, who spent a whole campaign breaking the hearts of liberals who’d bought “Hillbilly Elegy,” was losing the Ohio U.S. Senate primary when he put this out. “Do you hate Mexicans?” Vance asked sarcastically, telling primary voters that they should be able to talk about drug trafficking without being canceled.
Best Ad (General): Mary Peltola, “Don Young’s Legacy.” Helped by Alaska’s new top-four runoff system, Peltola ran further ahead of Joe Biden’s 2020 numbers than any other Democrat in the country. Her memorable ads talked about her support for the fishing industry, her support for abortion rights, and her political independence, positioning her as the heir to 49-year GOP incumbent Don Young after his death.
Best pollster: We’ve got a dramatic, academic tie here: New York’s Siena College and Boston’s Suffolk University, both of which accurately snapshotted the electorate even as punditry and bad polling foresaw a GOP wave. In Arizona and Pennsylvania, Siena put Mark Kelly up by 6 points and John Fetterman up by 5 points; both won by 4.9 points. A Suffolk poll conducted for USA Today gave Catherine Cortez Masto a 1-point lead, and she won by 0.9 points.
The 2020 election was rough for traditional pollsters, constantly adjusting to lower and lower response rates. But they nailed 2022, and walked away with more credibility than partisan outfits who predicted everything breaking towards Republicans. Some pollsters saw exactly what was happening; some saw a single-digit race for U.S. Senate in Vermont, where Democrat Peter Welch ended up winning by 39.5 points.
Best campaign podcast: Steve Bannon’s War Room Radio, whose influence grew even as its most frequent guests got turfed by voters. No subpoena or criminal conviction could stop Bannon from turning his show into Radio Londres for the MAGA movement, a waiting room for the next Republican majority, embodied by characters like Blake Masters, Joe Kent, and Kari Lake. Candidates who don’t talk to legacy media, as a rule, shared their strategies and agendas (including the revenge they’d seek over the 2020 election) with Bannon. In the words of Sun Tzu, one may know how to conquer without being able to do it.
The Houdini prize for escaping potential disaster: Oregon Democrats, who did not nominate Carrick Flynn for Congress. Sam Bankman-Fried, the disgraced cryptocurrency exchange founder and an investor in Semafor, put $27 million into the Protect Our Future PAC, which spread it to 19 Democratic candidates. Flynn, a pandemic researcher with ties to Bankman-Fried, got nearly $10.5 million worth of help from the PAC. The House Democrats’ super PAC flew in to help, signaling that the party wanted to stay on Bankman-Fried’s good side. All of that backfired, with Flynn’s rivals uniting to criticize the outside money, and Rep.-elect Andrea Salinas winning the primary by 18 points — thus sparing her party the potential headache of having to welcome SBF’s handpicked congressman into their caucus.
The Cassandra prize for best unheeded warning: The North Shore Leader, a Long Island newspaper that published numerous stories questioning the resume that George Santos was offering voters in New York’s 3rd congressional district. Its reporting on the candidate’s (very late) personal campaign finance statement asked why “a man of such alleged wealth” lived in a rented apartment and took out a five-figure car loan to drive a Nissan. Good question!