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In final stretch, candidates sharpen their appeals to 'ticket-splitting' voters

Democrats Stacey Abrams and John Fetterman want to tie their rivals to unpopular Republicans on the ballot, while GOP hopeful J.D. Vance is courting conflicted Republicans.
Stacey Abrams and John Fetterman.
Stacey Abrams and John Fetterman.AP

ATLANTA — Trailing in the polls, Stacey Abrams is trying to tie her GOP rival, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, to the less popular Republican on the ballot: Senate hopeful Herschel Walker.

At their final debate Sunday, Abrams said Kemp “refuses to defend us, and yet he defended Herschel Walker, saying that he didn’t want to be involved in the personal life of his running mate," referring to allegations from women that Walker pressured them to have abortions. "But he doesn’t mind being involved in the personal lives and the personal medical choices of women in Georgia.”

In Pennsylvania, John Fetterman, Democratic nominee for the Senate who’s clinging to the slimmest of leads in recent surveys, is trying to link Republican opponent Mehmet Oz to Doug Mastriano, the far-right candidate for governor trailing Democrat Josh Shapiro by a wide margin.

“You roll with Doug Mastriano!” Fetterman interrupted to say in their only debate last week, as Oz was discussing abortion as a matter between “women, doctors, local political leaders.” The next morning, Fetterman ran an ad arguing that “Oz would let politicians like Doug Mastriano ban abortion without exception” and called him “too extreme for Pennsylvania.”

Abrams and Fetterman have a common strategy: They're seeking to appeal to Americans who are considering voting for contenders from different parties for high office. In Ohio, Republican Senate candidate J.D. Vance and his allies are taking the same approach with voters who are considering supporting GOP Gov. Mike DeWine and Vance's opponent, Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan.

Ticket-splitters are playing a starring role in 2022 polls, but a key unanswered question is whether most of them will persist in bifurcating their ballots or end up going all in with one party.

“It’s an acknowledgment that your brand is not as strong as someone else in your party,” said Jeff Horwitt, a Democratic pollster who co-conducts the NBC News poll. “You do see a lot of voters coming home, partisans coming home to their corners, in the final days of an election.”

Recent history suggests ticket-splitters are dwindling in an era of intensifying tribalism. In close races, the decisions such voters make carry enormous stakes in the battle for control of Congress and governor’s mansions, and candidates are looking for every opportunity to nudge voters to their side less than a week before Election Day.

“So if you’re 5 points behind the other statewide candidate in a race, it does politically make a lot of sense to make that connection stronger,” Horwitt said. “It forces voters to reassess what they think about the opponent. ... I think it’s a smart way to go.”

For months, pollsters and activists have found some voters in Georgia who support both Kemp and Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock. The same goes for Shapiro-Oz crossovers in Pennsylvania.

According to Fox News polls released Wednesday, Warnock leads Walker by just 1 percentage point, while Kemp is a more comfortable 6 points ahead of Abrams; Fetterman led Oz by 3 points (within the margin of error), while Shapiro led Oz by 16 points.

Horwitt summed up Fetterman’s message as: “It’s saying a vote for Oz is a vote for Mastriano.”

Mehmet Oz and J.D. Vance.
Mehmet Oz and J.D. Vance.AP

Shapiro said he’s proud of the ticket-splitters who are backing him.

“I’m focused on making the case against Doug Mastriano — by far the most dangerous, extreme candidate running in the nation,” he said Wednesday on CNN. “We’ve seen a long history of ticket-splitting across Pennsylvania. I’m proud of the fact that so many Republicans have joined with Democrats and independents in supporting me.”

Meanwhile, the Republicans running for Senate seats in Georgia and Arizona are more focused on consolidating support from their bases and conflicted center-right voters — or so-called soft Republicans — in the formerly red states that ditched the GOP under former President Donald Trump.

In Georgia, Walker’s internal polling and other GOP polls shared with NBC News show Warnock doing better among Democratic voters than Walker is among Republican voters. Walker’s campaign and an affiliated super PAC, called 34N22, are trying to bring home his base voters and the smaller number of Republican-leaning voters who are backing the Libertarian in the race, Chase Oliver.

Stephen Lawson, a senior adviser with 34N22, said the majority of voters the super PAC is trying to persuade and turn out through digital, TV and mail advertising are soft Republicans, who he says number about 360,000.

In Ohio, a national group made a six-figure investment targeting split-ticket Republicans who may be partial to DeWine, who's seeking re-election as governor, but also to Ryan. Vance advisers have downplayed the prospects of ticket-splitting, even as polls show their candidate and Ryan in a statistical dead heat and DeWine leading his Democratic opponent by more than 18 points.

After having campaigned with national MAGA figures like Reps. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., and Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., during the primary season and welcoming GOP firebrands like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas on the trail with him earlier this fall, Vance has more recently campaigned with the popular and mild-mannered DeWine.

Ryan, meanwhile, is seeking to peel away Republican support in Ohio, which Trump carried twice by 8 points. Ahead of this week’s “Monday Night Football” game in Cleveland between the Browns and the Cincinnati Bengals, Ryan visited a tailgate party with Bernie Kosar, the revered former Browns quarterback who’s been active in local GOP politics. Kosar’s endorsement of Ryan cost him a speaking gig at a Republican fundraiser last week.

Apart from Walker, who says his female accusers are lying and denies that he knowingly paid for an abortion, Arizona Senate candidate Blake Masters is also performing worse with Republican voters when compared with Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly.

Sean Noble, a veteran Republican consultant involved with the Saving Arizona super PAC, said the GOP is training its attention on soft Republicans, as well.

“There is a concerted effort to target Republican households where someone voted in 2018 but another family member didn’t. And we’re trying to tell them, ‘Get your family member out to vote,’” Noble said, estimating they’re reaching out to 110,000 such households via text, cellphone and digital ads.