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How Democrats let blue states become GOP targets in the midterms

If there’s a “red wave,” it could come from Republican pickups in states like Oregon and New York.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul speaks during a Get Out The Vote event at Barnard College in New York City on November 3.
Anthony Behar/Sipa/Bloomberg via Getty Images

If Republicans have a good night on Tuesday and win a big majority in the House of Representatives, their gains won’t necessarily come from the swing districts that have been perennial battlegrounds in recent elections. Instead, much of a “red wave” could come from blue states, with Republicans poised to pick up multiple seats in states like Oregon and New York, while Democrats in states that are less favorable political terrain might hold on.

It’s a surprising turn of events that’s largely rooted in self-inflicted injuries. The 2020 census meant this election cycle was the first with new congressional maps, and while Republicans were able to successfully gerrymander many of the states they controlled to their advantage, Democrats mostly failed to do the same.

Similarly, Democrats thought focusing on abortion rights would pay off in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision in June reversing Roe v. Wade, particularly after they won special elections in upstate New York and Alaska. However, in states where abortion rights are protected under state law, the issue hasn’t resonated with voters. Instead, Democrats have suffered as Republicans focused on issues like the economy and crime.

Finally, the party is losing a number of lawmakers due to attrition. That’s not anyone’s fault, really — incumbents leave Congress every cycle for a variety of reasons. Some reasons are political: they run for higher office or lose their primaries. Others are personal: they want to make money in the private sector or are sick of being an elected official. But first-time candidates always start at a disadvantage. This year, 19 open seats are considered competitive, and a majority of them were previously held by Democrats.

All that is adding up to a difficult cycle for Democrats. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report has rated 10 seats currently held by the party as leaning or likely Republican (and the GOP needs to net only five for control of the House).

Redistricting didn’t go Democrats’ way — and that’s partly their fault

Willie Sutton famously said he robbed banks because “that’s where the money is.” Blue states are where the swing districts are this cycle.

A large part of that is because districts in many of these states are not gerrymandered. While many Democrats have been vocal supporters of redistricting reform — particularly after Republicans used gerrymandered maps in states like Pennsylvania and Texas to cement their control of Congress in the 2010s — it’s led to them being politically disadvantaged in some states, with independent commissions drawing maps in states like Colorado, where Democrats control the governor’s mansion and both chambers of the state house.

In Virginia, the nonpartisan process put in place by a 2020 ballot measure ended after legal wrangling with two incumbents who suffered under the new maps. As a result, Democratic Rep. Elaine Luria was put in a more Republican district and Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger’s district became more Democratic, though much of it was territory that she had not previously represented before.

In New York and Maryland, court cases against partisan gerrymanders have hurt Democrats. In Maryland, a legal battle meant Republican Rep. Andy Harris got a safe seat and Democratic Rep. David Trone will face a competitive race. In New York, a legal loss has led to disaster for Democrats. A carefully crafted gerrymander that would have given Democrats 22 of the state’s 26 congressional seats was thrown out by the courts, and a replacement map drawn by a special master created chaos, pitting incumbents against each other in primaries and creating a host of competitive races. According to the Cook Political Report, five congressional seats in the state are currently toss-ups, four of which are currently held by Democrats.

In contrast, in Illinois, a state where a gerrymander was left in place, Democrats are in much better shape, and Republicans are likely to be left with only three or four seats.

Republican-held states managed to have far more efficient partisan gerrymandering processes. Republicans are likely to pick up at least four seats due to gerrymandering in Florida, whereas in Texas, the state legislature shored up vulnerable incumbents by preserving a gerrymander that gave the GOP dominance in the state’s congressional delegation.

Abortion wasn’t the silver bullet Democrats thought it would be

Tip O’Neill reportedly said, “All politics is local.” That’s been true this time around.

Nationally, Democrats believed abortion access would supercharge engagement, and in some states, like Kansas, that seemed to be the case. But abortion is a less notable issue in some blue states because voters feel more complacent about the issue in a state where there are legal protections in place.

Although Democrats in races across the country have harped on proposals from national Republicans like South Carolina’s Sen. Lindsey Graham to pass federal restrictions, the issue has proved less successful in motivating voters in blue states.

It has been salient in places where abortion rights are at risk. In Kansas, where voters rejected a ballot question that would allow the state legislature to restrict abortion, two-term incumbent Democratic Rep. Sharice Davids is ahead by 15 points, according to a poll from Siena College and the New York Times, in a district that Trump won in 2016.

But it isn’t helping candidates like New York Gov. Kathy Hochul.

In New York, as in other states, concerns about rising crime are helping Republican gubernatorial hopeful Lee Zeldin at the top of the ticket against Hochul. The incumbent Democrat, who became governor after Andrew Cuomo’s resignation, has run a lackluster campaign and has only recently started to refocus her campaign on addressing crime and public safety. Zeldin’s strong performance is helping boost the fortunes of Republican candidates running outside of New York City on Long Island and upstate.

A similar scenario is playing out in Oregon, where Republican Christine Drazan is neck and neck with Democrat Tina Kotek in a state where incumbent Democratic Gov. Kate Brown’s inability to address rising crime and homelessness in Portland has become a key campaign issue.

Democrats have an incumbency shortage

One advantage of incumbency is that Democrats in more competitive seats are better candidates and more prepared for tough races. Incumbents like Reps. Matt Cartwright in northeastern Pennsylvania or Jared Golden in Maine can’t be caught napping because every campaign is competitive for them regardless of the national political environment. Democrats are facing especially tough races in tight districts this year thanks to recent history. Republicans flipped 14 Democratic-held seats in 2020, picking up some of the lowest-hanging fruit in red states like Utah and South Carolina.

In contrast, many of the opportunities for Republicans in blue states are coming in open seats like the two on Long Island or three in Oregon. Democrats in those races don’t have incumbents’ built-in advantage in running for Congress — high name ID, large war chests, and an easy primary. That’s left them more susceptible to negative ads by their GOP opponents and to national trends, like increased Republican momentum.

Again, the GOP only needs five seats for a majority. Taking even some of these open swing districts in blue states would put them well on the path to getting there.