As Republican Tyler Kistner’s closing ad aired last month in one of the most competitive congressional districts in the U.S., Vickie Klang felt that something was missing.
The 58-year-old veterinary technician and self-described independent voter watched as the 30-second spot showed grainy black-and-white images of President Joe Biden with two-term Democratic Rep. Angie Craig superimposed alongside him. The narrator ominously described life in America as “dangerous and unaffordable” because of an alliance between the two Democrats.
Absent from the ad, Klang thought, was anything close to a solution beyond electing Kistner.
“You’re never telling me what you’re going to do for the state or the country,” Klang recalled. “That’s a huge turnoff.”
Klang ultimately backed Craig, contributing to a five percentage point win for a Democratic incumbent whom Republicans spent more than $12 million to unseat. From Maine to California, Republicans faced similar unexpected setbacks with the small but crucial slice of voters who don’t identify with either major party, according to AP VoteCast, a sweeping national survey of the electorate.
Republican House candidates nationwide won the support of 38 percent of independent voters in last month’s midterm elections, VoteCast showed. That’s far short of the 51 percent that Democrats scored with the same group in 2018 when they swept into power by picking up 41 seats. The GOP’s lackluster showing among independents helps explain why Republicans flipped just nine seats, securing a threadbare majority that has already raised questions about the party’s ability to govern.
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Some Republican strategists say the finding is a sign that messages that resonate during party primaries, including searing critiques of Biden, were less effective in the general election campaign because independent voters were searching for more than just the opposition.
“You’ve got to tell them what you’re going to do,” said David Winston, a Republican pollster and senior adviser to House Republicans who had been critical of GOP candidates’ messaging strategy this year. “Somehow the Republican campaigns managed not to do that. And that’s a real serious problem.”
In the northern reaches of Minnesota’s 2nd congressional district, a swath of lakes and onetime farm country teeming with development near the Twin Cities, more than a dozen independent voters echo Winston’s assessment.
Unlike Klang, who grew up in a union Democratic household, Steve Stauff of Shakopee, 20 miles (32 kilometers) west, was raised in a rural, conservative Republican home. The two share a recent history of voting for Republican and Democratic statewide candidates, as well as for independent candidate for governor Jesse Ventura in 1998.
But Kistner’s message, like those of other losing Republican challengers in targeted races, appeared aimed more at Republicans than swing voters: simply linking Craig with Biden, whose job disapproval ratings had outpaced approval, and Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, widely unpopular with Republicans.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy came out with a campaign proposal in September titled “Commitment to America,” billed as a GOP agenda. However, the proposal, a collection of repackaged goals such as increased domestic petroleum production, was light on details and mentioned little during the campaign.
“We were just being told, ‘Pelosi bad, Biden bad, therefore Craig bad,’ instead of hearing ‘This is my plan to represent this district,’” said Stauff, a 42-year-old sales representative. “If you don’t bring me solutions to whatever problems you think we have, how can I take you seriously?”
VoteCast suggests that independent voters distinguished between the problems facing the U.S. and Biden’s culpability for them. While few independents said the economy is doing well and about two-thirds disapproved of Biden’s handling of it, independents were slightly more likely to say inflation is the result of factors outside Biden’s control than that Biden is to blame, 51 percent to 47 percent, according to the survey.
But that nuance was often missing from the GOP’s political message.
An October Kistner ad included the claim, “Feeling hopeless? Thank Joe Biden and Angie Craig,” a point that failed to land with Kathy Lewis, an independent voter from Lakeville, Minnesota.
“I understand how that is so hard on people,” said Lewis, a 71-year-old school board member in the Republican-leaning exurb southwest of St. Paul. “I’ve never really believed the president, no matter who it is … ever really controlled the inflation. They may have had an effect on it, but they didn’t really control it one way or the other.”
Democrats did significantly better among true independents and those who lean toward a party than they have in recent midterms when they have also held the White House, according to analysis of Pew Research Center post-election surveys of self-identified voters in 2014, 2010 and 1998.
While questions remained into the fall about the role the Supreme Court’s June decision overturning the 1973 landmark abortion rights precedent Roe v. Wade would play in the election, several 2nd District Minnesota independents cited it as a driving issue in their support for Craig.
About 7 in 10 independent voters who don’t side with either party think abortion should be legal in most or all cases, according to VoteCast, which also found many voters across party lines were hesitant to support candidates who were considered extreme.
Pamela Olson, an independent from rural Farmington, Minnesota, said she doesn’t typically vote on a single issue. Nor did she vote for Craig in 2020. That changed with the court’s decision, in light of Craig’s support for abortion rights and Kistner’s opposition in most cases.
“It’s about freedoms in this country. And I think it is completely up to a woman and her doctor,” said Olson, a 56-year-old engineer. “There needs to be a choice for those individuals, not for somebody else to tell you what to do.”
Besides the contention that GOP candidates did not focus on independents, Winston suggests that independent voters might be hesitating to lurch toward the alternative after the turmoil of Donald Trump’s presidency.
“Change has to be something they are willing to vote for, as opposed to just the kneejerk reaction that ‘this is bad so I’m just going to go another direction,'” Winston said.