Democrats say they expect a pro-Republican 'MAGA surge' in fall elections

Democratic consultants are telling party donors that while the shifting political landscape will give their candidates a fighting chance this fall, they are likely facing a huge increase in Republican turnout.

The “MAGA surge is real,” said a presentation for donors by America Votes, a Democratic group that coordinates get-out-the-vote efforts.

“Democrats know that they are competitive in many races that might have been blowouts a few months ago, for a few reasons: The Supreme Court’s decision eliminating the constitutional right to an abortion, as well as ebbing gas prices and a string of legislative accomplishments by Democrats.

“But,” warned the presentation, which was provided to Yahoo News, “what we’re up against: GOP turnout will be very high.”

Trump supporters at a rally in Sarasota, Fla.
Trump supporters at a rally in Sarasota, Fla., July 3, 2021. (Eva Marie Uzcategui/Getty Images)

“Democrats expect this MAGA surge largely because turnout in Republican primaries so far this year has been sky-high, just as it was in 2021.”

In Pennsylvania, for example, 1.3 million people cast ballots in the May 17 GOP primary, nearly double the total of 730,857 in 2018. That’s an 85% increase.

In Georgia on May 24, Republicans saw an even bigger surge, a 98% increase from the 2018 GOP primary. Turnout was 1.2 million in the Georgia Republican contest, up from 607,874 four years prior.

This pattern held through a number of contests. GOP primary turnout was up 42% in Nevada in June, and in August primaries it was up 66% in Arizona and 52% in Wisconsin. Michigan saw a modest increase, by these standards at least, of 9%.

There is some evidence that Democratic voters may be as motivated as Republicans at this point. A recent Morning Consult/Politico survey of 2,005 registered voters found that 61% of Democrats said they were “extremely” or “very” enthusiastic about “voting in the midterm elections,” compared to 57% of Republicans.

But the kind of intensity demonstrated in this year’s primaries among Republicans was the kind of energy that translated into a big win for the GOP in the 2021 Virginia elections, even though Democrats had huge turnout as well. The GOP were victorious there for only the second time in the last 20 years, won the lieutenant governor and attorney general races, and recaptured control of the House in the state Legislature.

Voters cast their ballots in the New Hampshire primary at Bedford High School, Sept. 13
Voters cast their ballots in the New Hampshire primary at Bedford High School, Sept. 13. (Scott Eisen/Getty Images)

And Republicans did all that despite the fact that more Democrats went to the polls in 2021 than in 2017. And in the 2017 election, Democrats had completely smashed turnout records from previous years.

Democratic turnout in Virginia went from under 1.1 million in the 2013 gubernatorial election, to 1.4 million in 2017, to 1.6 in 2021 (1,600,116 votes in all). But Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin defeated Democrat Terry McAuliffe last year by 63,000 votes out of 3.3 million total ballots because Republican turnout went up from 2017 by more than double the amount of the Democratic boost, a surge of almost 500,000 votes.

Republican turnout in Virginia went from 1 million in 2013, to 1.4 million in 2017, to 1.6 million in 2021 — or 1,663,596, to be exact.

The presentation did not delve into why Republican turnout has been surging, or whether it has much to do with former President Donald Trump. Devin O’Malley, who advised Youngkin’s campaign in Virginia and also worked for former Vice President Mike Pence, told Yahoo News that throwing around the phrase “MAGA Republican” is “an attempt to brand Republicans in a way that riles up Democratic donors.”

Terminology aside, Republicans have been turning out in droves recently, which O’Malley said was largely driven by economic turbulence under President Biden and overreach on social issues by Democrats.

“A lot of it is a sharp 180-degree turn from the experience a lot of Americans had under the Trump-Pence administration,” O’Malley said, when the economy was roaring until the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic. Today, Americans are dealing with red-hot inflation, and polls show that they’re increasingly anxious about economic matters.

Virginia Gov.-elect, Glenn Youngkin, right, talks with Devin O'Malley
Virginia Gov.-elect, Glenn Youngkin, right, conferring with adviser Devin O'Malley on the day of Youngkin's inauguration, Jan. 15. (Steve Helber/AP)

Youngkin, for his part, was able to win over many suburban voters who had voted for Biden by talking about education and parental rights, capitalizing on frustration among parents about pandemic-related restrictions on schooling and businesses. That mixed with a populist, right-wing backlash against educational and corporate policies of talking about systemic racism, sometimes in ways that rankled middle-of-the-road voters.

Ruy Texeira, a respected Democratic analyst who is warning the Democrats that they have “lost their way” when it comes to appealing to “normie voters,” wrote this week that even with Republicans playing defense on abortion, the GOP still has an advantage when it comes to many social issues.

“The sad fact is that the cultural left in and around the Democratic party has managed to associate the party with a series of views on crime, immigration, policing, free speech and of course race and gender that are quite far from those of the median voter,” wrote Texeira.

“Voters are not sure Democrats can look beyond identity politics to ensure public safety, secure borders, high-quality, non-ideological education, and economic progress for all Americans,” added Texeira, who recently departed the left-leaning Center for American Progress to work at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute.

Voters cast their ballots in Boston
Voters at a school in Boston. (Jonathan Wiggs/Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Democrats will employ various strategies to make sure their voters get to the polls this November and blunt any surge in Republican turnout. But America Votes is one Democratic group that is adamant that their party must do better at old-fashioned door-knocking than they have the past few election cycles.

In 2020, Democrats stopped meeting voters in person at their homes, out of concern over the spread of the coronavirus. Republicans did not, and in states like Texas, Democrats concluded afterward that Republicans turned out more voters than they had in part because they had not been going door-to-door.

So far, Democrats are ahead of their 2018 pace for door-knocking in seven of the top eight competitive states, with Michigan being the only outlier, the America Votes presentation said.

In the 2022 cycle, Democrats know that college-educated supporters who are engaged with politics are likely to vote and don’t need much help. But lower-income voters who often don’t pay as much attention to politics, if any, need that face-to-face visit. And in an election they expect to be close in many key states, those votes could make the difference.