MEMO: How the DGA Quarterbacked the Best Midterm Gubernatorial Result Since 1986
TO: Interested Parties
FROM: Marshall Cohen, DGA Political Director
DATE: December 2, 2022
SUBJECT: How the DGA Quarterbacked the Best Midterm Gubernatorial Result Since 1986
In 2022, the DGA made history. With key wins in gubernatorial races across the country, the DGA defied expectations and beat historical trends. The party in power in the first term of a new president lost a net 6 seats in 2010 and 2018. Instead, the DGA actually gained a net two new governors seats this year, the best showing for the president’s party for any midterm since 1986.
How we did it, and what lessons Democrats can learn from these results, will help our party in future elections. The recipe may be simple, but the execution is difficult: begin planning early, maximize every dollar spent, and raise the resources to ensure Republican billionaires cannot tilt the scales.
Record Fundraising Translates To Record Investments
Governors are at the forefront of the political conversation right now. Making progress on key issues when Washington was gridlocked, leading their states through the pandemic, and defending fundamental rights put them in the spotlight. The increased focus helped us expand our donor pool and dramatically increase our fundraising this cycle. This was true of the major donor program, where we doubled our fundraising from individual donors from the 2018 to the 2022 cycle. And it was true of our grassroots fundraising efforts — growing from $8 million in 2018 to $39 million in 2022, a 380% increase. Overall, the DGA doubled its total fundraising from 2018 to 2022.
Those fundraising gains allowed us to spend $172 million directly on campaigns this year, tripling our previous record set in 2018. In a cycle where we had to protect 13 incumbents on the ballot, we prioritized 73% of our money towards defending our incumbents but held enough in reserve to flip three seats and win our very competitive open-seat defends.
Our massive investment in Kansas ($17.5 million) helped re-elect Gov. Laura Kelly in a deeply red state that went for Donald Trump twice by double digits. We made sizable investments in perennial swing states like Michigan ($17 million), Wisconsin ($15.3 million), Pennsylvania ($10 million), and Arizona ($9.6 million) to elect and re-elect Democratic governors to protect democracy. We invested $10 million collectively in open seat contests in Oregon, Maryland, and Massachusetts to elect new governors who will be future stars in our party. And we never took our foot off the gas, spending a combined $30 million to re-elect governors in Maine, New Mexico, New York, and Minnesota who faced serious late GOP spending.
Maximizing Every Dollar
Resources alone do not guarantee success. Traditionally, the RGA outspent the DGA by two to three times what we were able to do, forcing us to learn how to do more with less. Our fundraising advantage this cycle allowed us to out-communicate the other side and led to big wins across the board.
Importantly, it allowed us to spend earlier than ever before — both on positive and negative communication. By airing positive ads early on television and digital platforms, we helped governors maintain strong job approval numbers to inoculate themselves from the anticipated attacks. Gov. Tony Evers in Wisconsin went up on May 3 with months of positive before he faced an onslaught of negative ads in the general election. In Kansas, Gov. Laura Kelly started airing positive ads highlighting her record on March 29 — while her opponent did not air a single ad until August 30. It wasn’t just our incumbents — our candidates also developed a strong brand to serve as a foundation for voter perceptions. Gov.-Elect Josh Shapiro aired his first ads on April 26, around the same time Gov.-Elect Tina Kotek aired her first ads on April 12.
We also spent early to define our opposition. President Trump’s endorsed candidates were 13 for 16 in contested Republican primaries, and those with polling leads before primary day went undefeated. So when we knew who we’d be facing in the general election, we wasted no time defining our likely opponent, preventing them from ever being able to pivot to the middle. In states where the primary result was less clear, the DGA and its affiliates were on air and digital platforms within 48 hours of someone earning the nomination to blunt any momentum they could gather out of the gate. Whether it was Dan Cox in Maryland or Tudor Dixon in Michigan — these early spends stunted the Republicans’ ability to pivot to the general, refill their campaign coffers, and build any coalition of support.
While we emphasized early spending this cycle, we never forgot the lessons we learned in the last decade on the importance of late communication. Particularly as election seasons get longer and longer, most undecided voters still only tune in at the very end. These swingy voters, who do not follow the play-by-play of the campaign, often decide elections in the final two weeks. We made sure our early spend never came at the expense of late October persuasion and mobilization work. Despite the RGA and GOP entities dumping over $75 million in TV spending in October, we out-communicated the other side in nearly every single competitive race in the final month.
Talking About Issues That Matter To Voters and Rejecting Extremism
The most important lesson for all political observers and participants is that getting things done for people is good politics. Talking to voters about their most important issues and running on a record of tangible results helped our campaigns defy the odds.
Voters this year were not as one-dimensional as the media narratives portrayed them. It was not all a tug-of-war between abortion rights and inflation. As Gov.-Elect Shapiro has said, “voters can walk and chew gum at the same time.” We found a lot of success in contrasting Democrats’ record of delivering on kitchen table issues with Republicans’ out-of-touch extreme views.
Abortion rights were a core part of our story and had a huge impact, but it was not the only issue in Democratic paid communication. According to data compiled by AdImpact, gubernatorial candidates and DGA-affiliated entities spent $59 million on abortion this year, but a majority of our spending went to other topics: we spent $36 million on economic issues, $21 million on education, and $29 million on crime. Making a well-rounded argument was critical to winning tough races in a challenging environment.
At the same time, the election was a massive rebuke of the extremist election-denying wing of the GOP. In the 18 states where the DGA spent money, 12 had Republican gubernatorial nominees who rejected, questioned, or tried to overturn the 2020 presidential election — and we defeated all 12 of them. We re-established the blue wall and ensured voting rights and democracy will be protected in 2024 by Democratic governors in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Arizona. From Kari Lake to Doug Mastriano, the truth is voters understood the concrete threat posed to democracy by these gubernatorial candidates and stood up to prevent this danger.
The DGA is proud that our work this cycle resulted in many barriers being broken. Gov. Kathy Hochul and Gov.-Elect Maura Healey are the first women elected in their states. Gov.-Elect Healey and Gov.-Elect Tina Kotek are the first openly lesbian women elected governor in our nation’s history. And Gov.-Elect Wes Moore is Maryland’s first and the nation’s third Black governor in history. We also re-elected many leaders that made history in 2018, like Gov. Jared Polis (first openly gay man elected governor), Gov. Janet Mills (first woman governor in Maine), and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (first Democratic Hispanic woman governor).
We also continued to grow our ranks of women Democratic governors. In 2018 we tripled the number from two to six. And in 2022, we re-elected all of our incumbent women governors and added three more in Gov.-Elect Katie Hobbs, Gov.-Elect Kotek, and Gov.-Elect Healey — giving us a record-setting 8 women Democratic governors.
This election cycle will go down in history — not just due to the bucking of historical trends, but for the long-term impact Democratic governors will leave on democracy and fundamental rights. Through the DGA’s hard work, 188 million people, fully 57% of Americans, will have a Democratic governor — the largest percentage since 1993.
In the last four years, this DGA senior leadership team has shown we know how to win. We’ve re-elected 17 governors, from North Carolina to Wisconsin to Michigan and Kansas. We picked up four new states, from Kentucky to Arizona. All told, in the 28 states where the DGA competed, we won 22 races.
Despite our success, this work doesn’t end in 2022. Our party must keep putting more money and attention into state races. We should invest in governors as the future of the Democratic Party. And we must remain vigilant to the threats against democracy and fundamental rights that continue to fester across the country.