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.
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)