Democrats saw surprising success in 2022 Midterms, Chatham panel explains why

“How were the Democrats able to overcome history?” asked Dana Brown, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics (PCWP). “In the last 22 midterm elections between 1934 and 2018, the President’s party has on average lost 28 seats in the House and four seats in the Senate.” This year, Democrats lost just a net of six congresspeople. “The big question is: Why?”
On Wednesday, Brown moderated a post-election analysis event hosted by the PCWP at Chatham. PUMP and Coro Pittsburgh were partners for the nonpartisan four-person panel and 90.5 WESA was the media sponsor.

Between the 2018 and 2022 midterms, voter turnout dipped from 49 percent to 47 percent. This is still a significant amount compared to the 2014 rate of 36 percent. Among eligible 18- to 29-year-old voters, 27 percent cast their ballot this midterm cycle. In swing states percent jumped to 31, the same as young voters’ historic 2018 turnout rate.

Brown noted that over 170 Republicans in the incoming Congress cast doubt on or denied the 2020 Presidential election results. “Still, election deniers lost statewide in six states,” she said.

WESA Government and Accountability Editor Chris Potter said that election results suggested that “being normal was actually maybe a good thing.” This meant voters held candidates to higher standards and “that people, very broadly, are tired of a certain kind of fever that I think is really taking root in the electorate.”

Republican National Committeewoman Christine Toretti expected Shapiro’s gubernatorial win but said she was shocked by the PA Senate results. As a leader in the state’s Republican party, Toretti said the RNC could have selected better candidates. She also said she was frustrated by the amount of out-of-state money that poured into the PA midterms from donors who “didn’t really understand Pennsylvania and understand what’s important to us.”

PA Republican Senate candidate Mehmet Oz said he moved from New Jersey to Pennsylvania in late 2020.

Panelists speculated that polls were off because they overlooked people for pundit expertise. According to Vanessa Williams, Deputy National Political Editor at The Washington Post, after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, The Post focused election predictions on what voters were saying. “But then we stopped talking to them and started listening to the consultants,” who shifted the narrative about voters’ priorities.

Williams said she doubted the idea that voters could pivot so quickly from reproductive autonomy to crime and the economy. “I don’t think it gave voters enough credit for being smart enough and complex enough to care about more than one thing at a time,” she said.

Larry Hailsham, Political Director of Shapiro for Pennsylvania, said that the division in politics was too polarizing for many voters. Hailsham said that while he was on the campaign trail, Pennsylvanians said they wanted a governor who could get things done in Harrisburg. “Everywhere we went, we’ve met somebody that said, ‘I was a Republican, but I’m voting for Josh,’” Hailsham recounted.

According to Potter, policing was one of the issues Shapiro handled most deftly. He promised to increase the police force while also signaling to progressives that he would reform policing. “There are very few people more accomplished at threading that needle than Josh Shapiro. And that is what makes him a political juggernaut amongst Democrats. It’s one of the reasons why he didn’t have any kind of primary opposition. That, and he just raises more money than God,” Potter said.

Williams said that voters of color who are frustrated by Republican opposition to gun control “aren’t anti-police. They say, ‘No, we want police, we want more police, we want them to protect us, but we also don’t want them to kill us.” She said policing is a complicated issue that is dismissed and oversimplified as a “wedge issue.” According to Williams, a Washington Post report found that neither side of the aisle addresses crime in the terms voters want to see.

Brown noted that of the 11 percent of Pennsylvanians who said crime was a key voting issue, 51 percent indicated that they voted for the Democrat.

According to Brown, exit polls showed that of the 37 percent of Pennsylvanians who said abortion was a key issue, 78 percent voted for the Democrat. She asked panelists what role abortion plated in the 2022 midterms.

Williams said she doubts voters’ support for abortion rights — including in the six related ballot initiatives — is what the conservative Supreme Court Justices expected when they gave states the power to choose. “It went beyond just abortion rights to the notion of, ‘Who are these people to tell me what I can do?’” Williams explained. Exit polls suggested that the consensus among voters was: “The government shouldn’t tell people what to do,” especially not “these guys telling us what we can do with our lives.”

Despite leading anti-abortion efforts in the Pennsylvania State Senate, Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano did not take a strong stance on abortion in his campaign. “It was palpable that there was this concern amongst Republicans about this issue,” Potter said. “And yes, I think the pundit class played it down.”

Potter thought it was “patronizing” of pundits to assume that voters would forget about the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. He said that returning abortion decisions to states “metastasized the issue; now it becomes a thing for everybody.”

To Republicans, Potter said abortion was a can they could kick down the road. Then the road ended, and they realized they may have misread what their constituents wanted.

Toretti said that abortion is a difficult subject to engage within the RNC. “I understand the need to protect the life of the unborn,” she said. Yet Toretti also questions if “the Republican party has really thought this through other than to just roll over and say we protect the lives of the unborn.” She said that they need to emphasize their respect for women’s “control of their body and their space.”

Until Republicans can figure out how to communicate that message, Toerriti said abortion is going to “be a bigger problem moving forward.”

While Shapiro may have been the only candidate with a BeReal, Senate candidate John Fetterman capitalized on social media platforms like TikTok and Twitter that gave his campaign a “viral quality,” Potter said.

Republicans do not campaign on TikTok “because of the Chinese connection,” Toretti said. “We’re really shooting ourselves in the foot with that one.”

According to Potter, some voters may have felt “bored to tears by Josh Shapiro,” but it helped his campaign come out on top compared to his opponent, Doug Mastriano, who proffered an extreme conservative platform. “Shapiro felt like the only candidate whose campaign I would’ve recognized from 2010.”