Updated Oct 25, 2022 - Politics & Policy

The 11th-hour midterm shifts

Illustration of a stopwatch with ballot elements and shapes behind it

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

Two weeks from Election Day, Democrats are reallocating resources and retooling their messages as polling gives Republicans the momentum in congressional races.

The big picture: Republicans — bullish they can score a big House takeover and flip the Senate — are zeroing in on more Democratic strongholds.

  • Democrats are recasting their closing message with more emphasis on the economy and health care, saying a Republican takeover would pose risks on both fronts. They're deploying Bernie Sanders, Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama as big-name closers, along with calculated Biden cameos.
  • Republicans are doubling down on messaging on crime and inflation. This has helped them make notable inroads in the Wisconsin and Pennsylvania Senate races as well as the Oregon and New York governor's races.

What we’re watching: Outside Republican groups have spent or reserved over $7 million against Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, the chair of House Democrats' campaign arm.

  • If Maloney loses, it'd be the first time either party has taken out the other party's House campaign chief since 1980.
  • In a surprising move, the DCCC is now spending on behalf of its leader, directing $605,000 for an attack ad — which will inevitably mean Democrats will need to cut resources from other vulnerable members.

Zoom out: House Dems are triaging resources to defend candidates in solidly blue territory. Last week, the Democrats' House Majority PAC moved funds from an Oregon district Biden carried by nine points to salvage a suburban Portland district Biden won by 13 points.

  • One national Democratic official told Axios they're "very pessimistic" about the prospects of Oregon Democrat Jamie McLeod-Skinner, who ousted moderate Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) in the primary. In 2020, Schrader won re-election by six points.
  • After spending the bulk of the fall attacking Republicans over abortion, Democrats are now recalibrating their messaging to tout the cost-saving government benefits the White House secured for Americans -- even as they continue to raise the salience of the abortion debate.

Republicans: House Republicans are getting aggressive, while Senate Republicans‘ approach remains more cautious.

  • Senate Republicans' campaign arm wants to begin drawing attention away from states they think they'll easily win — like Ohio and North Carolina — and putting more focus on battlegrounds where Republicans nominated MAGA-oriented candidates, like Arizona and New Hampshire.
  • “It’s an attitude shift” away from the defensive posture and toward a more aggressive, riskier one to maximize chances at expanding the map, NRSC spokesman Chris Hartline told Axios. "At a certain point you have to make decisions on spending and decisions on strategy based on what you know about voter behavior."
  • The House GOP Congressional Leadership Fund has spent or reserved over $23 million on ads in eight Democratic-held districts that President Biden carried by double-digit margins.

Yes, but: The McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund is taking fewer risks. SLF announced Friday it was cutting $5.6 million intended to help Republican Don Bolduc in New Hampshire, earmarking it for Pennsylvania, where Dr. Mehmet Oz is gaining in the campaign's final weeks.

  • The thinking at the GOP super PAC: Bolduc is underperforming in the New Hampshire Senate race, and the money would be better utilized to try and lock down a race that's a must-win for the party to win back a Senate majority.

One big question: Will Democrats cut back spending further for embattled incumbents, as they face a late cash crunch?

  • Republicans have traditionally held onto their money until as late as possible. But the NRSC took a more aggressive approach this year, spending earlier than they ever have before — but still later than Democrats.
  • That caused challenges for the NRSC, which ran low on cash as the campaigns just started to heat up. SLF has been spending the bulk of outside Republican money down the home stretch.
  • Democrats face a related challenge, party strategists tell Axios: By focusing on abortion so aggressively after Roe v. Wade was overturned, the issue doesn't have the same degree of urgency now as it did over the summer.
  • “They throw everything they can very hard, very heavy, very early. And it almost sort of inoculates voters from the attacks ... when voters are actually making their decision," one Republican strategist said.
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