What’s a winning strategy? GOP, Dems use different approaches

By Car­son Swick | UConn Jour­nal­ism
Oct. 22, 2022 

Abor­tion. Infla­tion. The econ­o­my. Threats to democracy. 

In many ways, these sim­ple yet charged terms char­ac­ter­ize both Democ­rats’ and Repub­li­cans’ approach­es to mes­sag­ing ahead of the 2022 midterm elec­tions: Hone in on spe­cif­ic “win­ning” issues while for­get­ting the incon­ve­nient ones. In what is shap­ing up to be an extreme­ly close nation­al envi­ron­ment, mes­sag­ing could make all the dif­fer­ence in decid­ing which par­ty con­trols Con­gress next year. 

Con­ven­tion­al wis­dom would sug­gest big Repub­li­can vic­to­ries in Novem­ber, as Biden remains unpop­u­lar and his pres­i­den­cy has been char­ac­ter­ized by eco­nom­ic turmoil. 

In May, Con­necti­cut GOP chair Ben Pro­to called Biden “the gift that keeps on giv­ing for the Repub­li­can Par­ty.” Pro­to explained the ratio­nale behind this mes­sag­ing in a recent pan­el-style inter­view with Uni­ver­si­ty of Con­necti­cut jour­nal­ism students. 

We know where we were on 11:59 [a.m.] on Jan. 20, 2021 from an eco­nom­ic and finan­cial per­spec­tive in this coun­try, and we know where we are today,” Pro­to said. “Infla­tion is try­ing to get to 9%, inter­est rates are climb­ing ever-high­er [and] mort­gage rates have bro­ken the 6% bar­ri­er… As a result, fam­i­lies in August in the state of Con­necti­cut paid over $700 more for neces­si­ties than they did in Jan­u­ary 2021.” 

Uncer­tain eco­nom­ic con­di­tions and fears of a wors­en­ing reces­sion after two con­sec­u­tive quar­ters of neg­a­tive eco­nom­ic growth this year have kept Repub­li­cans com­pet­i­tive nation­al­ly and favored to win a House major­i­ty for the first time since 2016. The party’s strong mes­sag­ing on eco­nom­ic issues has wor­ried lead­ers across the aisle, includ­ing Con­necti­cut Demo­c­ra­t­ic chair Nan­cy DiNardo. 

I think the Repub­li­cans are very clever in talk­ing about infla­tion, but infla­tion is hap­pen­ing world­wide because of the war in Ukraine,” DiNar­do said. “Democ­rats are not good at get­ting the mes­sage out [on] the economy.” 

While Democ­rats are strug­gling with eco­nom­ic mes­sag­ing, the par­ty has large­ly suc­ceed­ed in fram­ing abor­tion as the biggest issue threat­en­ing the GOP’s chances of retak­ing Con­gress this year. For con­text, the Supreme Court’s deci­sion this sum­mer in Dobbs v. Jack­son Women’s Health Orga­ni­za­tion over­turned 49 years of prece­dent by return­ing the pow­er to pro­tect or restrict abor­tion rights to the states. 

While ini­tial­ly seen as a major vic­to­ry for con­ser­v­a­tive Repub­li­cans, the abor­tion rights deci­sion now trou­bles both mod­er­ate vot­ers and GOP strate­gists alike. 

“Repro­duc­tive Jus­tice at UConn” advo­cates hold signs demand­ing abor­tion access for col­lege stu­dents on Fair­field Way in Storrs, Conn., Thurs­day, Oct. 6, 2022. Wide­spread abor­tion rights advo­ca­cy has swept the nation ahead of next month’s midterm elec­tions, after a Supreme Court deci­sion over­turned Roe v. Wade this sum­mer and returned the right to restrict abor­tion pro­ce­dures to the states. (Pho­to by Car­son Swick/UConn Journalism)

Anabelle Bergstrom, a sopho­more polit­i­cal sci­ence major at UConn, is an unaf­fil­i­at­ed vot­er who describes her­self as mod­er­ate­ly left-lean­ing. While she has not always sup­port­ed Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­dates, the strug­gle for abor­tion rights has incen­tivized her to do so this year. 

As a woman with the expe­ri­ences I’ve had in my life, I am offend­ed that peo­ple [who] claim to rep­re­sent me and my fel­low cit­i­zens feel that they can put such a strong reg­u­la­tion on me with­out know­ing me,” Bergstrom said of restrict­ing access to abortion. 

The abor­tion issue has unit­ed vot­ers like Bergstrom behind the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, as polls now indi­cate that key House races once deemed like­ly pick­ups for the GOP con­gres­sion­al dis­tricts have turned into hot­ly con­test­ed toss-ups. 

Con­se­quent­ly, abor­tion has become a major mes­sag­ing hur­dle for Repub­li­can can­di­dates across the coun­try. In blue-lean­ing Con­necti­cut, Repub­li­cans hoped to cap­i­tal­ize on eco­nom­ic woes while down­play­ing their oppo­si­tion to — or mere­ly luke­warm sup­port for — abor­tion rights. 

It’s my per­cep­tion that abor­tion would not be as large of an issue as it cur­rent­ly is,” said Con­necti­cut GOP cam­paign man­ag­er Logan Williams. “The per­cep­tion was that the econ­o­my would over­shad­ow the issue of a woman’s right to choose… Many Repub­li­can can­di­dates thought that they could run an entire elec­tion cam­paign with­out dis­cussing abor­tion at all, [but] in hind­sight, that is not the case.” 

Williams, who has man­aged cam­paigns for both state and local offices and holds a rough­ly 70% win rate, not­ed the large “gen­der gap” between Demo­c­ra­t­ic Gov. Ned Lam­ont and his Repub­li­can chal­lenger, finan­cial exec­u­tive Bob Ste­fanows­ki. Though Ste­fanows­ki has described him­self as pro-choice, a Quin­nip­i­ac poll last month indi­cat­ed that he still trailed Lam­ont by dou­ble-dig­its over­all, and by near­ly 30 points among women voters. 

Inter­est­ing­ly, the poll also shows Repub­li­can Sen­ate can­di­date Leo­ra Levy (a woman) trail­ing incum­bent Demo­c­ra­t­ic Sen. Richard Blu­men­thal (a man) by sim­i­lar mar­gins among women voters. 

Accord­ing to DiNar­do, Levy’s issues may be because of anoth­er weak point in Repub­li­cans’ mes­sag­ing: So-called “threats to democ­ra­cy,” which are exem­pli­fied by for­mer Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s refusal to accept defeat in the 2020 pres­i­den­tial election. 

We do have a few peo­ple [in Con­necti­cut] who are elec­tion deniers,” DiNar­do said. “[Levy] is down at Mar-a-Lago now try­ing to raise mon­ey with Don­ald Trump.” 

DiNardo’s atti­tude toward Trump echoes the mes­sag­ing of nation­al fig­ures in her par­ty, includ­ing Pres­i­dent Joe Biden. In his “Soul of the Nation” speech on Sept. 1, Biden named Trump and “MAGA Repub­li­cans” as extrem­ists and threats to “the very foun­da­tions of our republic.” 

Accord­ing to UConn polit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor Ronald Schurin, Demo­c­ra­t­ic Sen­ate can­di­dates across the coun­try have made threats to democ­ra­cy a key com­po­nent of their messaging. 

You can pick almost any of the major con­test­ed Sen­ate races, but the ‘threats to democ­ra­cy’ issue is a main­stay of Sen. [Mag­gie] Hassan’s cam­paign,” Schurin said. “You have Neva­da, where that also is an issue for [Cather­ine Cortez-Masto’s] campaign.” 

The extent to which all of these issues will affect the out­come of the 2022 midterms remains to be seen, but vot­ers will have the pow­er to elect their rep­re­sen­ta­tives on Nov. 8. 

Carson Swick is a senior at UConn major­ing in Jour­nal­ism and Polit­i­cal Sci­ence. He report­ed this sto­ry for UConn Jour­nal­is­m’s Fall 2022 Pub­lic Affairs Report­ing course.

TOP IMAGE: A polling place in Orrstown, Penn­syl­va­nia. (AP File Photo)