Politics

What the Senate Dem campaign chief thinks about their tough 2024 races

Sen. Gary Peters, the chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, pulled off a major upset by helping to reelect every Democratic incumbent in 2022. But 2024 might be even more challenging.

Democrats are staring down a demanding Senate map with obvious pain points: West Virginia, where incumbent Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin could become an independent or not run for reelection at all; Arizona, home to what could be a three-way Senate race if Democrat-turned-independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema runs again; and Ohio and Montana, both of which former President Donald Trump won in 2020.

And unsurprisingly for Peters, defending the open seat in his home state is at the top of his mind: “We will not lose Michigan on my watch,” he vowed

A year out from Election Day, Peters is relying heavily on a “robust” ground campaign in battleground states. But even with a challenging defensive map, he says Democrats can play in reach states, including Texas and Florida. Peters is the only campaign committee chair currently serving a second cycle in a row — even if he was reluctant to do it at first — and pointed to the benefit of the DSCC’s leadership team being similar to last year.

Peters spoke with POLITICO about how he’s planning to maintain Democrats’ slim majority in the upper chamber next year.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What was the biggest weakness that the committee had last cycle?

Some of the challenges that we had was the fact that we had Republicans doing everything they could to make it difficult for people to vote, and trying to really kind of disenfranchise folks. And they used all sorts of techniques to do that, including misinformation, as well as legal maneuvers.

So how are you addressing that now?

That means we have to be even more robust in our efforts. We probably in the last cycle underestimated just how aggressive Republicans would be in trying to disenfranchise folks. We’re not going to make that mistake this time. We’re being very proactive, we’re leaning very heavily into legal challenges where legal challenges are appropriate. But it goes back to our ground campaign. We have to be aware of counter-efforts being made by the Republicans to confuse people in an attempt to get them so dissatisfied with the system that they don’t want to vote.

We’ve seen that elections are becoming more and more nationalized. How do you think that these Democratic Senate candidates should approach messaging — should they be emphasizing those local issues or leaning into these national themes?

When you take national issues, but localize those issues and the impact that they have on people in their state, that can be very successful. … Jon Tester is in a state that votes very heavily Republican, votes for a Republican candidate for president. And yet he’s able to differentiate himself as someone who cares about Montana first and foremost. … I’ve always said that it’s a good strategy when you’re running — regardless of what you’re running for — if you’re running for congressional office, you should be thinking not like a congressman or a senator. But [you should be] thinking that you’re running for mayor. When you run for mayor, you talk about issues as they actually impact people’s lives in their communities.

You bring up Montana. How will the presidential race impact Senate races, especially in states where President Joe Biden isn’t the most popular?

I think every one of our Senate candidates is going into the race knowing that they have to win or lose based on their individual record. … That’s really what we saw last cycle — we had our candidates running on their strengths and contrasting their strengths to the significant weaknesses and faults of their Republican opponents.

Clearly the Republican candidates last cycle were flawed in many ways, oftentimes significant ways. We believe the same dynamic will occur this cycle as well.

Republicans have some big self-funders in a few races. How is the committee approaching that?

Well, clearly, we need to raise resources to make sure that our candidates can get their message out and let people know who they are in their states. … I also find, though, that self-funders often have a disadvantage because part of raising money in your state means you’re getting support in your state and people who contribute money to a candidate become invested in that candidate. … If you’re self-funding, you’re basically just writing yourself a check and you’re not doing the kind of work necessary to build a broad coalition of people who are actually excited about you running.

Obviously there’s a big question mark over West Virginia. Are you concerned that Republican candidates are already in the race, and you still don’t have a candidate?

I think we all are hoping that Joe Manchin decides to run for reelection. I hope that he does. But there’s no question West Virginia is an incredibly difficult state for a Democrat to win statewide. But there’s no question if Joe Manchin decides to run, he can and will win. But it’ll be up to him as to whether or not he decides to run. Certainly, I’m doing everything I can to encourage him to do that.

How are you encouraging him? 

Well, that’s between Joe and I.

If he doesn’t run, do you have a backup plan to field a candidate?

West Virginia is a very, very tough state. My focus will be on winning the other races that we have to hold our 50 Democratic seats in the Senate, and then we will look at pickup opportunities as these races develop in the months ahead.

Another question mark is over Arizona. If Sinema does choose to run again, does the committee plan to remain neutral?

At this point, we’re still waiting to see what happens in Arizona. Sen. Sinema has not indicated what she intends to do. We’re making other key investments in a number of states right now, and Arizona is certainly an incredibly important state and we’re going to do everything we can to make sure that that state stays Democratic. One advantage that we have in that race is the Republican candidate Kari Lake is very unpopular, and is going to have a very difficult time.

This interview first appeared in POLITICO Pro’s Morning Score newsletter. Sign up for POLITICO Pro.

Gary Peters talks about Democrats’ tough Senate races, West Virginia, Kyrsten Sinema and more.  

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