By Ezra Levin, Indivisible Co-Founder and Co-Executive Director
(Note: This was published on November 27, 2022)
It’s Thanksgiving newsletter time with your host, Ezra! As always, this newsletter is free, and I won’t be asking you for money here — these newsletters are all about building community anddeveloping a shared understanding of the world. And since it’s Thanksgiving, I want to give some thanks while giving a peek behind the curtain on how this year in politics played out for us.
Sidenote: normally I say you can find me on Twitter, which is still true here, but I’m increasingly skeptical of the platform with Elon at the helm. I’m starting to explore other platforms, so you can find me on Mastodon here, and on TikTok here where I’ll record a video version of this newsletter. I like Twitter and hope we can maintain a non-troll community there, but I’m also not putting my full faith in the right-wing, conspiracy-theory-spreading man-child who now calls the shots there.
With that, let’s do some reflecting and thanking together.
How we kicked off the midterms
In January of this year, I was out in Arizona marching with Indivisible members from across the state and with MLK Jr’s family encouraging Kyrsten Sinema to side with us over Mitch McConnell. We were calling on her to reform the filibuster and pass the democracy bill protecting our elections, ending gerrymandering, and getting money out of politics. But Sinema instead gave a defiant speech on the floor of the Senate, killing the democracy bill.
This was a rough period for the pro-democracy movement. Sinema and Manchin killed the democracy bill. Our economic agenda was on life support. President Biden had yet to move forward on any inspiring executive action. Talk of an inevitable red wave in the midterms had started to bubble up. What got me through this period was talking with Indivisible leaders about what we do next — and that talk naturally turned to the midterms.
It was at this point that we rolled out our strategy for the midterms. If I spoke to your Indivisible group virtually or in-person anytime this year, you probably heard one thing from me: Our only chance to win in 2022 was by making this election a referendum on MAGA extremism. The specific issue might depend on the community — book burning, support of seditionists, radical attacks on abortion rights. But the throughline was the same: We needed to make voters choose between us and those power-hungry wackadoodle MAGAs.
Indivisible went all in on this strategy. We joined a national messaging collaborative called Protect Our Freedoms with communications guru Anat Shenker-Osorio and Way to Win, who helped keep us both on offense and on message. We launched pilot programs in Pennsylvania and Arizona to help local Indivisible leaders drive public attention to the other side’s extremism. From bird-dogging anti-abortion zealots to gettting chuckles across the state for donning giant broccoli costumes, Indivisible leaders started getting creative for how to force MAGA extremism on the front pages.
At our national convention this summer with Senators Raphael Warnock and Elizabeth Warren, Indivisible focused on messaging strategies and tactics to drive public attention to MAGA extremists. Our friend Navin Nayak, who leads Center for American Progress Action, led a training around using the language “MAGA Republicans” to drive our point home. Indivisible released a new guide to getting earned media highlighting MAGA extremism and worked with our organizers across the country to help local groups do this work.
While political prognosticators were running flawed polls and predicting a red wave, those of us on the ground knew there was political power in this approach.
Book burning is not popular.
Violent conspiracies to overturn our elections are not popular.
Banning abortion is not popular.
We believed we were morally right in loudly opposing this scary MAGA extremism, and we believed there was political potency in this approach too.
How we won the strategy debate
While Indivisible were running with our anti-MAGA strategy by the early spring, this was not the dominant position of Democratic Party leaders — at least not yet. Both publicly and through back channels we encouraged Party leaders to join us in this approach to the midterms, but we met resistance. As recently as July — even after the Supreme Court struck down Roe — I heard from senior Democratic leaders that abortion was a “loser” issue to be avoided on the campaign trail. Seriously — I gasped too at the time.
But we kept pushing — we wanted Dems on our side. And in my August newsletter, I was celebrating a victory. We hadn’t won the elections yet, but the media was reporting a shift: Democratic leaders…to focus on calling out Republicans as “extremists.” This was major progress! The Democratic Party was doing something we’re not that used to: It was unifying around a central campaign message. By the fall, this transformation was complete. President Biden’s final two speeches of the campaign were rallying cries on abortion, democracy, and MAGA extremism. The Party was unified and on message headed into the midterms.
We were thrilled. We were celebrating. A few days later, my spouse/co-founder Leah wrote “The Case for Hope,” making a straightforward case for hope for the midterms. She pointed to GOP overreach on abortion and the Big Lie, the weakness of MAGA candidates winning primaries, and the Democrats seemingly getting their mojo back. The piece holds up well.
But while we were celebrating, much of the professional political world was condescendingly sure we were wrong. Reviewing one of Biden’s speeches on the threat of MAGA extremism to our democracy, the regularly-wrong CNN commentator Chris Cillizza, called this messaging approach a “strategic blunder.” Professional opinion-havers across the political spectrum shared this assessment. Voters don’t care about abortion or democracy! The Democrats are out of touch! A red tsunami is going to come crashing down on all these woefully misguided Democrats!
At this point though, we had won the strategic debate and there was nothing to do for us but finish the campaign. We wrote hundreds of letters to the editor. We orchestrated spectacles and public events to shine a light on MAGA extremism. We contacted millions of voters — we postcarded, we phone banked, we textbanked, we canvassed. And then we waited for the election results.
How it went down
If I have one personal anecdote from this election that sums up what we achieved, it comes from canvassing a swing district in Washington state. I was knocking doors with Indivisibles in Washington’s 8th — a must-win district that most thought was a tossup. I came across a middle-aged white guy with a backwards baseball cap who told me his top issues this year were “inflation and the economy.” This was the exact kind of voter the political commentators were saying the Democrats were losing by focusing on sideshows like democracy, abortion rights, and right-wing extremism. I asked him who he was supporting in the congressional election and he told me, “Well not the Republican — he’s crazy!”
We won that race. And not just that race.
You didn’t have to go too far from Washington’s 8th to find another example. Washington’s 3rd was one of Indivisible’s stretch races. It included large swaths of rural Washington, and the district had voted for Trump twice. But the incumbent — a rare anti-seditionist Republican — had lost her primary to a MAGA wackadoodle. The race was such an interesting case study that Michelle Goldberg wrote up a profile of it in the New York Times. And when I was out in the district this fall, what I heard from Indivisible leaders on the ground was this was winnable. So we saw an opening, even as prominent prognosticators like Nate Silver gave the Democrat a 4% chance of winning, and the national Democratic Party largely declined to invest in the race.
And we won that one too — by less than 1%, but we won!
Across the country we won similar races — election night was an almost-unending flow of good news updates, which then continued in the days to come. We won “Republican” districts. We flipped the Pennsylvania Senate seat (welcome Senator Fetterman!) and the state House. We picked up governorships and state legislatures. We won secretary of state and attorneys general races. We defeated election deniers up and down the ballot.
No, we didn’t win everything — you never do in a national election. Indivisibles in New York mourned the loss of several winnable congressional districts along with those of us in Texas, Florida, and California. Among the most painful losses for me was Mandela Barnes’ less-than-1-percent loss to Ron Johnson — in a race Indivisibles across the country worked so hard to win. And while the Republicans managed to gerrymander their way into a House majority, it is a miniscule, disorganized, and weak majority.
Even accepting the losses, this was an historic midterm, arguably without precedent in modern American history. 1934, 1962, 2002. Those are the three examples of a President performing well in his first midterm in the last century. But there was no Great Depression like in 1934. There was no Cuban Missile Crisis like in 1962. There was no terrorist attack like in 2002. And there was no rally-around-the-flag effect boosting presidential approval ratings like in all three. Instead what we had this midterm was anti-democratic MAGA candidates, and all of us focused on making this election a referendum on that extremism. And it worked. Democracy won.
How we’ll keep winning
I listened to the New York Times Daily podcast after the election, How Democrats Defied the Odds. Their conclusions quickly became conventional wisdom in political circles: It turns out focusing on abortion, democracy, and MAGA extremism was politically potent. Who woulda thought! In the days that followed, this became so accepted that it achieved a status of almost being foreordained.
This was not foreordained. Just the opposite. The conventional wisdom a month ago was that the red wave was coming, and that the Democrats deserved to lose because of their strategic blunder focusing on abortion, democracy, and MAGA extremism.
We did not get lucky. We fought hard for this outcome.
And in fighting for this we did not just take a bet on our strategic instincts. We didn’t just win an election. We didn’t just make political history. We proved something important: In this country, there is a political price to pay for anti-democratic extremism.
We fought hard for the political world to learn this lesson. We should hold onto it, repeat it, and proselytize it as we look forward to the future fights against the miniscule MAGA majority in the House, against Trump, against Desantis, and against the right-wing extremists who seek to take away our freedoms and undermine our democracy.
So on this Thanksgiving, I am thankful to be a small part of this movement that has spent the last six years racking up win after win for our democracy. There are more of us than there are of those MAGA weirdos. We’re better organized. We know how to win. We won. We’re winning. And we will win again.