The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Once sprawling, congressional battle maps are shrinking to key races

As hopes for political waves fade, the fortunes of both Democrats and Republicans to control the House and Senate may come down to a handful of contests

Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) walks through a phalanx of reporters as he exits a Senate leadership meeting, during which he challenged Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) grew boastful about how GOP candidates were faring in the most critical races, eventually predicting a “52-plus” Senate majority with a couple of victories deep in Democratic territory.

Then the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee caught himself, realizing that it’s still a reach to think about Republican wins in blue-leaning states like Colorado and Washington. His committee has yet to put a large infusion of cash into an ad campaign in either state.

“You’ve got to really work on allocating your resources — to where you get the biggest bang. It is work, so you do your best,” Scott told reporters Thursday.

It’s one of the key questions in the final five weeks of the midterm elections, as strategists decide whether to give in to temptation and pour somewhat limited resources into states and districts that look good but represent a political stretch. These seats, in the Senate and the House, fall in territory that is not usually competitive and, ultimately, they won’t serve as the tipping points for winning the majority.

In Senate races, the two party campaign committees have taken very disciplined approaches, with Republicans needing just one net gain to flip the current 50-50 chamber.

Since early 2021, both the NRSC and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee have focused on four seats held by Democrats — in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and New Hampshire — and two held by Republicans, in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Scott’s initial comments echo other bullish assertions from GOP strategists that Tiffany Smiley and Joe O’Dea are on the cusp of defeating Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.), respectively.

Among Democrats, the Senate campaigns of Reps. Valerie Demings (Fla.) and Tim Ryan (Ohio) have drawn huge interest from liberal activists and online donors, hoping for victories in two states that have tilted from Democrats over the past decade.

But neither the NRSC nor DSCC has launched big advertising campaigns in those four states, leaving the airwaves to the candidates themselves and, in some cases, outside groups that have raised big checks from wealthy supporters of those longer-shot candidates.

There’s a cold, hardheaded reality in those decisions.

Democrats have not lost a Senate race in Washington state since 1994, and Democrats have won five of the past six Senate contests in Colorado. Republicans have won four of the past six Senate races in Florida, as well as all five governor’s races this century, and Sen. Sherrod Brown is the only Democrat to win a Senate race in Ohio since 1992.

Instead, with little more than five weeks until Election Day, the two committees are still laser focused on largely the same battleground states they focused on early last year.

For Sen. Gary Peters (Mich.), chairman of the DSCC, that’s been the strategy all along. In an interview in June 2021, Peters recalled how much he felt abandoned for a long stretch of his own reelection in 2020, as Democrats chased wins in Alaska, Kansas, South Carolina and Texas.

Donald Trump ended up winning all four of those states comfortably that year, and the Republican Senate candidates won each race by more than 10 percentage points.

Peters, who eventually saw the financial cavalry return to Michigan, eked out a win by less than two percentage points. So once he took over the DSCC, he told everyone that “expanding the map” was “not a strategy that I feel comfortable with.”

“I want to know,” he said in the interview last year, “where am I truly on the edge? Where can I truly win?”

Democratic strategists believe their focus on the “core four,” as they call their four incumbents in the battleground races, has proved successful, as Sens. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) and Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) have moved into steady leads in their races.

Some Republicans have acknowledged that their quest for a Senate majority might simply come down to Georgia, Nevada and Pennsylvania, with the party winning two of those three coming out on top.

Democrats, meanwhile, cannot decide whether to go all-in on North Carolina, where Cheri Beasley, the first Black chief justice of the state Supreme Court, has been tantalizingly close to Rep. Ted Budd (R) in public and private polling.

Senate Majority, the super PAC aligned with Democratic leaders, has been on air boosting Beasley since late August. The DSCC has been helping the Beasley campaign, but its advertising unit has not jumped into North Carolina with a multimillion-dollar campaign.

Veterans of past campaigns know how tough the state is. In 2020, 2016 and 2014, Democrats poured tens of millions into North Carolina, only to lose close races each time, their candidates never receiving more than 47 percent. Democrats narrowly lost the last three presidential elections there as well, never getting higher than 48 percent.

Last week, Democratic Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.), Chris Murphy (Conn.) and Brian Schatz (Hawaii) launched a social media campaign to drive online money into the Beasley campaign coffers.

In an interview Thursday, Murphy said the trio wanted to “get a little extra attention” on North Carolina, but they were not “second guessing” any strategy by Peters and party leaders.

In the battle for the House, each party has gone with the expand-the-map strategy, drawing some criticism.

Rep. Tom O’Halleran (Ariz.), who holds the most Trump-friendly district of any Democrat running for reelection, told supporters that Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee strategists “spread their wings too far.” In a Zoom call first obtained by Punchbowl News, he said the DCCC was steering donors toward nearly 80 races, including incumbents and challengers, some of which were not realistic.

In a brief interview Friday, O’Halleran touted his own record of winning in tough races, noting that other Democrats do not have such political gravitas.

“That’s what risk is about,” he said, adding he is “still negotiating” with the DCCC to come in to defend him with a big ad campaign. “I have a proven track record. I have only been in Republican-plus districts, and my track record says I can win.”

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), a member of Democratic leadership, suggested that incumbents like O’Halleran, part of the DCCC’s Frontline campaign, deserve first preference in ad campaigns.

“This is an all-hands-on-deck effort because of the fragile nature of our democracy, but the first among equals should continue to be our vulnerable Frontline members,” Jeffries said.

But the tough political environment forced the DCCC’s hand to try to find other seats that might seem like a reach to make up for expected losses, he said. “Redistricting and retirements have created an expanded battlefield that necessitates us to go into other districts.”

Republicans have their own political reaches that they are placing bets on, with an original target list of nearly 75 Democratic seats — two-thirds of them coming in districts that President Biden won by more than five percentage points two years ago.

Throughout the summer, the political winds for Republicans shifted, or at least stalled, after the Supreme Court’s unpopular abortion rights decision and overturning of Roe v. Wade, falling gasoline prices and a series of legislative wins for Biden.

Special elections for House seats in New York and Alaska in August that Republicans were expected to win instead went to Democrats. Those GOP targets, including 31 that Biden won by more than 10 percentage points, now mostly look like long shots.

Last week, Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales, an independent handicapper, downgraded the Republican expectations to a window of eight to 20 seats, enough to win the House majority but possibly with just a single-digit margin.

When push comes to shove, the real map for control of Congress might be a lot more narrow than some of the boasting on each side indicates.

“Michigan is still Michigan and Alaska is still Alaska,” Murphy said. “These states tend to return to form.”

Loading...