Democrats look to centrists in final hours while GOP amps up its base

Washington Post photo by Demetrius Freeman
Herschel Walker and American diplomat Nikki Haley during his Unite Georgia Bus Tour rally at Pirate Printing in Hiram, Ga., on Nov. 6, 2022.

As Republican candidates make their final appeal in key states, they’re tapping some of the most polarizing figures in their party and turning to messages centered on cultural division and at times pushing racial discord.

The events included dueling campaign rallies Sunday night in Florida featuring former president Donald Trump and the state’s governor, Ron DeSantis. And some featured harsh rhetoric, including former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley suggesting during a Georgia campaign stop on Sunday that Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.), who is an American citizen, should be deported.

At the same time, many Democrats are scrambling to highlight more moderate themes, overlooking the far left of their party and bringing in surrogates who appeal to middle-of-the-road voters, including former president Bill Clinton, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.)

On Sunday in Pennsylvania – one of the most pivotal Senate contests in the country – Democrats tacked so hard to the center that they held an event with a former Republican congressman.

Key races in Tuesday’s election remain exceedingly tight, with operatives on both sides hedging their predictions. The messages and messengers that campaigns highlight in the final days typically reveal where strategists think they can squeeze out additional votes.

The approaches reflect divergent strategies in how candidates from both parties see their paths to victory. For the most part, Republicans want their base out. Democrats are trying to present themselves as moderates who will take down the temperature.

During these appearances, Democrats are more forcefully taking on issues such as crime and the economy, acknowledging voters’ concerns and emphasizing the ways that the party’s leaders are addressing them.

Clinton, making an appearance in Brooklyn on Saturday for New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D), told a crowd that inflation is “unsettling” and acknowledged “some high-profile crimes.”

The former president sought to paint Republicans as extremists. He said that Republican gubernatorial nominee Lee Zeldin has “on issue after issue, he took the most extreme stance.” Clinton added: “And if you think New York should be the most extreme state in the country, have at it.”

During a rally for Hochul at Sarah Lawrence College on Sunday night, President Biden said the country is at “an inflection point.” He said the election is about a choice between two “fundamentally different” visions for the country.

He bragged about creating millions of new jobs, a low unemployment rate and investing billions in infrastructure. He credited Hochul with repairing roads, expanding access to high-speed internet and improving water systems. “She’s helping New York lead – lead the way in making things in America,” Biden said.

On Sunday evening, Clinton was also slated to appear at an event for Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.).

Haley made inflammatory comments on immigration during a campaign stop Sunday supporting Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker, saying that Warnock should be kicked out of the country.

“The only person we need to make sure we deport is Warnock,” Haley said, prompting loud cheers and applause from the crowd. Moments earlier, she talked about being the daughter of Indian immigrants and said her parents are “offended by what’s happening on that border.”

“Legal immigrants are more patriotic than the leftists these days,” she said to a crowd of hundreds of Walker supporters. “They love America and they want the laws followed in America.”

Sen. Josh Hawley (R) of Missouri, who famously put a fist in the air to signal support for the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot, also fired up crowds in Ohio and Arizona in recent days with messages aimed squarely at the pro-Donald Trump base of the party.

Speaking Saturday evening at a hotel in Columbus, Hawley said: “They say our United States is founded on slavery and corruption. Here’s what we say: There’s nothing wrong with the United States of America. There’s something wrong with them. We don’t need to change the country. We need to change the leadership of the country.”

Some of the divisive GOP rhetoric is worrying Democrats and civil rights leaders who are increasingly anxious about tensions surrounding Tuesday’s elections. Critics say they are especially concerned given a rise in overt political violence, from the Jan. 6 attack to the violent assault on Paul Pelosi, husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

“They are blatantly – in many areas blatantly – appealing to people’s racial bias to get them to vote on ‘us against them,’ ” the Rev. Al Sharpton said in an interview with The Washington Post. Sharpton said he had just spoken with Biden, who he said recorded a message raising concerns about racism and antisemitism for his radio show.

“It used to be subtle,” Sharpton said of stoking racial division. “They wouldn’t be explicit. It was implicit. Now they’ve gone where caution is thrown to the wind. It is explicit.”

On Sunday, Andrew Torba, CEO of the right-wing social networking site Gab, urged voters to support the Republican gubernatorial candidate in Pennsylvania, Doug Mastriano, who has espoused Christian nationalist views, and highlighted the Jewish faith of his opponent, Josh Shapiro, in antisemitic terms.

“When a Jew embraces their faith on the campaign trail it is ‘stunning and brave,’ ” Torba wrote. “When a Christian does it, it’s ‘dangerous and extreme.’ “

And groups affiliated with former Trump adviser Stephen Miller have inundated voters with ads and fliers in recent days arguing that the Democratic Party is “anti-White” for efforts aimed at assisting Black Americans. Other messages have been directed at Asian American and Latino voters, arguing that they are being shortchanged by Democrats.

“We’re in that last 72-hour window, and that last 72 hours is all about base activation,” said Kevin Madden, a former adviser to Mitt Romney during Romney’s 2012 GOP presidential campaign. “It’s all the red-meat stuff. There’s a class of political civilizations that’s going to take place on Election Day.”

Democrats, by contrast, are primarily emphasizing centrist messages in the final days of the campaign.

“Given the states we’re talking about – New Hampshire, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Nevada – it’s smart for campaigns to lean on surrogates with the broadest appeal,” said Lis Smith, a Democratic strategist. “They understand that to win this election, they need to turn out the base, yes, but they also need to talk to voters who are in the middle and on the fence.”

Smith added that former president Barack Obama, who did a large campaign tour in recent days, along with figures such as Klobuchar and Buttigieg are helpful to Democrats because “they’re not going to alienate the swing voters that these candidates need to get over the finish line.”

Klobuchar, who raised her profile among Democratic voters with her 2020 presidential bid, has made campaign stops in 15 states, including marquee races in Arizona, Nevada, Georgia and Pennsylvania. Her message has focused on Democratic lowering of prescription drug prices and protecting Social Security and Medicare.

Buttigieg held 14 events over the weekend across Michigan, New Hampshire and Nevada. He talked about the economy, labeling this year’s midterms a “cost-of-living election.”

Democrats have even looked across the aisle for help: Former congressman Jim Greenwood, a Republican, appeared at a rally for Shapiro and Senate hopeful Jon Fetterman in Pennsylvania.

High-profile liberals in the party such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) haven’t made appearances in the major races. An Ocasio-Cortez spokesman noted that she appeared at a youth rally in California last month and has been outspoken in her support for Hochul.

Over the past few days, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has been a surrogate in search of a campaign, holding rallies in key states but in most cases not appearing with the candidates on the ballot.

Sanders appeared at a rally in Madison, Wis., on Friday evening hours after Democratic Senate candidate Mandela Barnes, who is seeking to unseat Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), held a campaign stop in the liberal city. Sanders urged a crowd of about 1,000 to vote for Barnes, but did not mention Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat who is also in a tight race. A Sanders aide said that because the events were funded by an outside group, candidates could not appear under campaign finance laws.

At least one candidate is taking a go-it-alone approach.

Asked who in the Democratic Party he would want to stump for him in his Senate bid, Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio said he wasn’t campaigning with anyone. Musician Dave Matthews and former Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar had been his go-to surrogates, he said.

“I want to be the face of this; I want to stand on my own two feet,” Ryan said. “I’ve had the strength to take on my own party. I’ve had the strength to agree with Republicans when needed.”

In Gahanna, Ohio, on Sunday, Ryan pointed to a group of seven building trade workers who have been following his campaign bus on Harley-Davidson motorcycles and said, “I just don’t think Ohio is a place that they follow somebody’s endorsement. We’re a very independent state, which is why they want an independent senator.”