Emboldened GOP looks to expand midterm battleground map
Republicans are looking to expand the battleground map ahead of the November midterms, eyeing gubernatorial, Senate and House races outside of traditional swing states in the middle of a favorable political atmosphere.
Republicans boast that gubernatorial races in New Mexico and Connecticut, Senate races in Colorado and Washington state, and House races in blue districts are now in play, pointing to President Biden’s low approval ratings and Democratic hurdles on issues like inflation and mask and vaccine mandates.
The increased involvement in those blue-tinted states marks an ambitious ploy by the GOP to compete in places where it has struggled in recent cycles — and winning statewide races there could still very well be out of reach. But after strong showings in New Jersey’s and Virginia’s gubernatorial races last year, combined with continued grumblings with the White House, Republicans are feeling their oats beyond just swing states.
“This year, the first midterm after a president’s been elected with both houses of Congress, it sets up really well,” said one GOP strategist with experience working in Colorado. “And there’s been nothing, literally nothing to date, that looks to disrupt a really, really positive environment for candidates running in red, purple and blue areas. That’s why the map has a really huge opportunity to stretch.”
To be sure, Republicans and Democrats alike are anticipated to spend the bulk of their time and money on key battleground states like Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and Pennsylvania in a cycle in which both chambers of Congress are up for grabs and 36 states hold gubernatorial races.
But signs are already showing that Republicans will invest elsewhere.
Republicans have already begun allocating staff and money for ad buys and touting strong candidate recruitment in states like New Mexico and Colorado, which are not at the core of the midterm fight but could be caught in a red wave if it rises high enough. Connecticut’s gubernatorial race and Washington state’s Senate election also fall in that expansion category, as do House races against some Democrats who saw double-digit wins in 2020.
On the gubernatorial side, Republicans say New Mexico and Connecticut offer the most fertile ground outside the main battlegrounds.
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D), who succeeded a Republican in 2018, is facing criticism over a $150,000 sexual harassment settlement she reached with a former male staffer, crime rates in Albuquerque and early coronavirus restrictions.
In a sign of the GOP’s eagerness to compete there, a group with ties to the Republican Governors Association (RGA) this month released an early ad hitting Lujan Grisham on crime.
“I think the way the governor has handled those issues really put the race into play,” one New Mexico GOP strategist said. “Obviously, it’s going to take the right candidate against her, it’s a Democratic state, but she’s incredibly vulnerable.”
And in Connecticut, Republicans are hopeful about a rematch between Gov. Ned Lamont (D) and Bob Stefanowski. Lamont narrowly won the seat by 3 points in 2018 over Stefanowski, a race largely fueled by economic frustrations and sky-high disapproval ratings of then-Gov. Dan Malloy (D).
On the Senate side, Colorado operatives point to a recent GOP poll showing two-term Sen. Michael Bennet (D) virtually tied with a generic Republican, though Democratic polls show him with a double-digit lead. Bennet also has never won more than 50 percent in his two Senate bids, and two of the leading GOP candidates are independently wealthy, meaning they can finance a bid by themselves if Republicans choose to spend resources elsewhere.
“You could see a dynamic in 2022 where, if you have a slight overperformance from a really good, compelling candidate that’s well-funded, that’s how you get into a coin-flip territory,” said the strategist with experience in Colorado. “By no means are we saying that Colorado is a coin flip. It’s simply that with the environment, with the right candidate, with the right resources drawing the right contrast against Bennet, this is very winnable.”
And in Washington state, Sen. Patty Murray (D) is running for a sixth term. She may be the toughest Democrat to beat among the statewide expansion targets, but Republicans are hopeful to compete there too. The party has largely closed ranks around former triage nurse Tiffany Smiley and is pointing to a spike in the number of voters self-identifying as Republicans. On top of that, a recent Democratic poll showed Murray with a single-digit lead.
“I think at this point in time, it is competitive. To use the parlance of the day, this is definitely a ‘lean D’ seat. Is it a ‘likely D’ seat? It may be tipping just a little bit,” said Washington GOP strategist Randy Pepple.
Yet while this year is anticipated to produce a red wave, Republicans face significant limitations.
The GOP remains riven with division over former President Trump, and while some expansion states have elected Republicans statewide in the recent past, their blue hues have grown deeper in the current era of hyper-partisanship. On top of that, Republicans are mired in several divisive primaries, while the Democratic incumbents they seek to topple have months to compile money and prepare for the general election.
Responding to the GOP boasts, several of the Democratic campaigns argued they’re in strong positions.
“Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham is in one of the strongest positions an incumbent governor of New Mexico has ever been in,” said campaign spokeswoman Kendall Witmer, who also noted Lujan Grisham’s family history in New Mexico predates statehood.
“Michael Bennet delivers for Colorado and is in a strong position to win in November,” added Justin Lamorte, Bennet’s campaign manager.
Lamont has also proposed hundreds of millions of dollars of tax cuts to help turn back the Malloy legacy, becoming the most popular Democratic governor in the country. Murray has also proven her mettle in past tough cycles.
“While Democratic governors run on their strong records of improving public education and putting money in Americans’ pockets, Republicans are running to the far-right in crowded, messy primaries. That’s a direct result of the RGA’s recruitment failures and inability to stop Trump from attacking their incumbents — which is going to keep derailing any and all plans they claim to have in 2022,” Democratic Governors Association spokesperson Sam Newton said of the overall cycle.
Beyond that, Republicans are faced with withering options outside the main battleground map. Unexpected gains in the House in 2020 and recent strong showings in Senate races mean the lowest-hanging fruit has already been picked.
Republicans concede their expansion states offer hostile ground, and Democrats are bullish that they remain on strong footing, particularly amid internal GOP strife. But operatives point to Republican wave years like 1994, 2010 and 2014, when upsets in blue areas littered the electoral map.
Even now, results of those years reverberate, with Republican governors reigning in Maryland and Massachusetts. The opposite is true for Democrats, who hold Louisiana’s governorship and a Montana Senate seat, among other offices — though upset wins are more likely to swing the GOP’s way this year.
“This is always the kind of environment where that’s going to happen,” said one GOP strategist working on Senate and gubernatorial races. “1994 sent some real characters to Washington, people who maybe didn’t have business being there, but who because of the nature of the election cycle had found themselves surprisingly winning. I think this is the year that could produce some surprising results.”