Gary Peters did not want this job. The Senator from Michigan had just won a bruising re-election battle in 2020 by less than a percentage point, in a crucial battleground state. It was why he wanted to focus exclusively on his work on Capitol Hill and take some time away from the trail. Yet that was also why his colleagues wanted him to chair the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee in a year when Democrats were expected to take a beating.
After some cajoling from the Democratic leadership, Peters, 63, accepted the offer last year to run the Democrats’ Senate campaign arm for the 2022 midterm cycle. There was too much at stake, the soft-spoken legislator tells TIME. “This election was so important.”
Historically, the party in power usually takes a shellacking during a President’s first midterms. Bill Clinton lost 52 House seats and 8 Senate seats in 1994. Barack Obama lost 63 House seats and 6 Senate seats in 2010. Many pundits expected the Democrats to suffer a similar defeat in 2022. Instead, Democrats are maintaining their Senate majority—even flipping a seat in Pennsylvania with John Fetterman’s victory over Mehmet Oz—and losing the House by only a narrow margin.
To break down what went right for the Democrats, TIME recently caught up with Peters, who’s known in Washington as more of a work-horse than a show-horse, about how the Democrats prevailed this year, what their game-plan is for winning Georgia’s Dec. 6 run-off, and what enduring lessons he thinks this election holds for his party going into next one.
What do you attribute most to the Democrats’ success in keeping the Senate and flipping Pennsylvania?
I think the number one reason was the quality of our candidates. There was a clear contrast between Democratic incumbents and candidates running for the U.S. Senate and their Republican opponents. Democratic candidates were experienced people of character. Our incumbents had delivered for people in their state in a tangible way.
And they were running against Republicans who were very extreme on issues. They were out of touch when it came to a major issue for Americans, which was reproductive freedom. They did not believe that there should be exceptions for rape, incest, or the life of the mother. Most of them were election deniers as well. That’s not something that the American people support. It was clear in this election that candidates matter.
What’s your game plan for winning the Georgia run-off?
The game plan for the runoff is a very robust ground game. At this point, voters in Georgia know the candidates. Raphael Warnock is a man of character, a man of experience, a man who has delivered for the people of Georgia, in tangible ways, versus a Republican candidate that even Republicans have called highly flawed. I think the choice is very clear for the people of Georgia. And now it’s our job to make sure people who support Raphael Warnock show up. We will be helping the Warnock campaign run the kind of robust ground campaign necessary to win an election dependent on voter turnout.
A lot of Republicans tried to out-Trump each other to win the primaries. Pundits suspected at the time that this might turn out to be an act of self-sabotage. Do you think that these candidates alienated a lot of moderates and independents in the general election by doing that?
The candidates worked very hard to get Donald Trump’s endorsement. That seemed to be the thing that they were most interested in getting in the primaries. And they worked very hard to win over Trump supporters. So we had Trump’s hand-picked candidates running in these races. That may work in a primary, but it clearly does not work in a general election.
National Democrats embarked on a risky strategy to boost far-right Republicans in the primaries who they thought would be easier to beat in the general election. It was a bit of a gamble, but it seems to have paid off. Can you tell me about that?
We didn’t do that at the DS. We did not do that. We were not involved in supporting and spending money supporting candidates in Republican primaries. I simply did not engage in that at all.
But do you think it worked out for your colleagues who did do that?
I’ll be frank with you. I don’t want to comment on that, because I’m not sure what exact races they did that for and what were the results. I just know from a Senate perspective, that was not a game that I wanted to play or the DSCC wanted to play. We were totally focused on making sure we were supporting our Democratic candidates.
My number one focus as the chair of the DSCC was to bring incumbents back. That was first and foremost on my mind. I knew that when our incumbents won re-election, that would give us 50 votes, and we would be able to retain the majority. Then we went on offense. We did not get involved in Democratic primaries either. We let the strongest candidate emerge from the Democratic primary.
So what was the DSCC’s main strategy for winning these races?
We were active during the primaries in terms of building our ground operation. And that was really the other key to a big part of our success. We had very robust ground game and ground operations. It was probably the first time in modern history at the DSCC—and this was a strategic decision that we made—that we put more money into the ground campaign than we did into our independent expenditures, which were television and other media.
It was based on the belief that these were all going to be very close races. And they’re in battleground states; by definition, those are very close races. And the best way to win those races is to have a strong ground operation. That was our strategy from the get-go. We made major investments in the field operation in those states. So then whoever won the primary would be able to have that field operation up and running and ready to go.
Did Democrats also have an advantage by encouraging their voters to cast ballots by mail—thereby increasing their own turnout—whereas Republicans put themselves at a disadvantage by discouraging their supporters from voting by mail?
Voting by mail should not favor one party versus the other because everybody has an equal opportunity to vote by mail. It’s certainly the most convenient way to vote and has broad appeal to people in general, unless they’re told not to vote by mail.
But from a ground campaign or from an organizing perspective, vote by mail is an incredibly powerful tool, because you can reach out to voters who support your candidate, encourage them to vote by mail, and then you’re able to see whether or not they return those ballots. And then, if they haven’t returned those ballots, you keep reminding them that Election Day is coming up, and ask them, “Please send in your ballot.” And if it’s getting too close to the election, “Drop it off at a dropbox provided by the clerk.” But it is a big part of a ground campaign.
What do you think are the biggest takeaways from this election that Democrats need to keep in mind going into the next one?
A major takeaway is to continue to deliver for the American people. It was important for us to show that we were making a difference in people’s lives. For example, look at the Inflation Reduction Act that was passed through Congress. We focused on a number of items, but one in particular that was incredibly important to people was to bring down the price of prescription drugs.
In that legislation, we allow Medicare to negotiate with big drug companies to bring down the price of prescription drugs. It was the right thing to do for the American people, and it also presented a clear contrast with Republicans. Not one Republican voted to bring down the price of prescription drugs for seniors. So when folks went to the polls, they could ask the question: Who was voting to help me and my family? And who was voting for big drug companies and pharmaceuticals? It was a clear contrast. We were able to deliver an important public policy initiative that helps families, and Republicans opposed it.
There were pundits leading up to the election who worried that President Biden’s emphasis on democracy protection wasn’t going to resonate with voters. But it seems like it did.
It was important. We had candidates who were extreme and out of touch with the electorate. The fact that they were election deniers, and were challenging the very foundation of our democracy was a powerful issue, particularly with our base voters. When you’re in a midterm, and you already know there’ll be a drop in turnout, it’s incredibly important to reach out to base voters and get them energized. And when folks realized that part of this election was standing up for the core foundation of democracy, that was a very motivating factor.
Abortion was a huge issue, too. And it was a powerful issue to get voters motivated to go to the polls. So you put those two together: Republicans not only want to undermine democracy, but they also want to take away a fundamental right for women to reproductive freedom. It painted a very clear contrast for voters.