Voters who backed GOP governors helped keep the Senate blue

The Democrats owe it to the ticket splitters that they remain in control of the Senate.

Democratic New Hampshire Senator Maggie Hassan trampled on her Republican rival, while Republican state Gov. Chris Sununu did the same to his opponent.

In Nevada, voters helped Democrats seal the Senate majority by re-electing Senator Catherine Cortez Masto, despite unseating the incumbent Democratic governor.

And in Georgia, Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock’s razor-thin race is headed for a December runoff after GOP Gov. Brian Kemp rolled for re-election.

The results are enough to suggest that this year’s midterms marked a return to the old days of depolarized national politics, when large numbers of voters would back one party’s nominee for Senate and the other party for governor.

But it was actually the opposite. A POLITICO analysis of the results shows that ticket splitting at these races has fallen to its lowest level since at least 1990.

Yet the relatively few voters who shared their tickets helped tip the Senate. Their decisions are a collective rebuke of Republican Senate candidates, particularly those backed by former President Donald Trump, who accepted his false claims that the 2020 election was stolen.

“It may be low historically, but [ticket-splitting] has been absolutely critical at numerous races this fall,” Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster for more than 30 years, said in an interview. “Voters have made many judgments about the quality of the nominated candidates, and that’s why the Democrats still control the Senate.”

As partisanship has increased and elections have become more national, fewer voters are willing to cross party lines on the same ballot. In 2020, only one state, Maine, split between its presidential and US Senate elections. A POLITICO analysis of general election results in the 2022 Senate and gubernatorial elections found the number of voters willing to defy party lines has fallen for the third straight midterm cycle.

Ticket splitting is more common between gubernatorial and senatorial elections, as state and federal voters often have different priorities — but the odds are still falling.

In 1990, the median gap between gubernatorial and senatorial results in states that held both elections that year was nearly 25 percentage points, according to a POLITICO analysis. But that metric has steadily declined, from 16.6 percent in 2014 to 10.3 percent in 2018 and 7.4 percent this year.

(POLITICO’s analysis excluded Alaska’s results that year due to the use of ranked voting, and it similarly excluded historic elections in which the top two candidates were neither a Republican nor a Democrat.)

The drop in ticket splitting this year came despite some subtle efforts to encourage it in key states. In Pennsylvania, a GOP super PAC appeared to encourage those who support Democrat Josh Shapiro for governor to continue voting for Republican Senate nominee Mehmet Oz. Shapiro, the attorney general, ran ahead of Democratic Senate nominee John Fetterman in public elections.

“Fetterman is way more radical than Shapiro,” read an American Crossroads TV ad that ran in late October and cost the group more than $1.2 million, according to AdImpact, an ad tracking service.

Pennsylvania saw more ticket splitting than the average state this cycle. Shapiro — whose opponent Doug Mastriano was short on cash and all but abandoned by national Republican groups over ties to far-right extremists — won by more than 14 points, compared with a 4.5-point lead for Fetterman.

Fetterman’s campaign had also attempted to tie Oz to Mastriano, citing the gubernatorial candidate’s views on abortion and a moment of debate in which Oz suggested that “local political leaders” should pass abortion laws.

“Mastriano was, by definition, the most extreme left or right candidate ever to run for state office in Pennsylvania, period,” Neil Oxman, a Pennsylvania-based Democratic adviser and advertiser, said in an interview. “There are enough sane people out there who have rejected crazy things.”

The results in Pennsylvania and elsewhere also point to differences in how voters evaluate candidates for different offices.

“Governors are making actual life and death decisions,” said Ayres, the Republican pollster. “People look to governors for reason and good judgment more than they do senators or congressmen, where increasingly they’re just looking for someone to join the blue team or the red team.”

This trend has been particularly pronounced in New England, the region where ticket splitting has been most prevalent over the past decade.

Half of New England’s current governors are moderate Republicans, while nearly all congressmen in all six states are Democrats. In Vermont, incumbent Republican Gov. Phil Scott won this year with more than 70 percent of the vote, while Rep. Peter Welch, the Democratic senator-elect, won his race by a similar margin.

The number of voters willing to even their ballots on the New Hampshire battlefield helped Hassan win re-election by a 10-point margin in a contest that public polls say was one of the tougher Senate races of the election cycle.

Hassan, a former governor, won her first Senate race in 2016 by just 1,017 votes. But voters backed Hassan more strongly this fall against far-right, pro-Trump Republican Don Bolduc.

“Sometimes it’s circumstances: we had a popular incumbent governor. Had it been an open seat would we have seen the same phenomenon? Probably not,” Fergus Cullen, a former leader of the New Hampshire Republican Party, said in an interview. “But it says pretty clearly, at least in New Hampshire, that … it’s not just about rotating your base. There is a significant number of voters who are open to candidates from both parties.”

Voters in deep blue Massachusetts have elected moderate Republican governors for nearly 30 years while sending increasingly liberal Democrats to Congress. But because of the same “candidate quality” issues that plagued Republicans across the map, Massachusetts voters firmly rejected this year’s Republican nominee for governor – a conservative former state representative who was backed by Trump – in favor of Democratic attorney general Maura Healey away.

Voters reacted similarly to the Trump-backed Republican gubernatorial nominee in blue-leaning Maryland. After splitting tickets at high rates to support temporary governor Larry Hogan, a moderate Republican, in the state’s last two gubernatorial elections, Democrat Wes Moore easily triumphed over Dan Cox this fall.

Georgia voters rewarded their governor, who became one of the faces of opposition to Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election results, by returning Kemp to office by an 8-point margin. But in a state with comparatively few swing voters, the small proportion voting for both Kemp and Warnock — in place of the embattled Walker — proved enough to send the Senate race into a Dec. 6 runoff.

Warnock is now trying to win over those voters again. His campaign ran an ad this week featuring a split-ticket voter, a woman who identified as a lifelong Republican who was “proud to support Brian Kemp” — but couldn’t vote for Walker.

“At the end of the day, I have to choose someone I can trust and who has integrity,” the woman said. “And I don’t think that’s Herschel Walker.”