June 29, 2022 – Sabato’s Crystal Ball
|Dear Readers: Last night saw primaries and runoffs in several states across the country, as well as a special election in Nebraska. This was the last big primary night of a busy June. Looking ahead, July will not feature much primary action, although there will be some key contests in early August.
This is the latest edition of Notes on the State of Politics, which features short updates on elections and politics. We’ll be back next week, following Independence Day.
— The Editors
Table 1: Crystal Ball gubernatorial rating change
Table 2: Crystal Ball House rating change
RI-2 to Leans Democratic
Before we get to our takeaways from yesterday’s primaries, a quick pit stop in the Ocean State is in order.
We wrote extensively on Monday about the Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling ending a constitutional right to abortion. Perhaps the ruling will have a significant bearing on the midterm, or perhaps not — we need to wait for more data.
In the meantime, though, we have to continue evaluating the races based on what we know now, and there continue to be positive signs for Republicans even in states and districts that are not favorable to them, at least on paper.
The latest positive indicator for Republicans was an independent poll of Rhode Island’s 2nd Congressional District, which covers the western half of the state. A Boston Globe/Suffolk University poll found that former Cranston Mayor Allan Fung (R), who was also the party’s gubernatorial nominee in 2014 and 2018, was leading the likeliest Democratic nominee, state Treasurer Seth Magaziner, by a 45%-39% spread. This comes in a district that Joe Biden carried 56%-42%; Rep. Jim Langevin (D, RI-2) is retiring. The poll was completed a few days before the Dobbs ruling.
We flagged this race as a potential sleeper when we initially rated the Rhode Island districts back in February, and we considered rating it just Leans Democratic at the time, but we stuck with Likely given the fact that Republicans have not won a House race in the Ocean State in nearly 3 decades and that the district, at the end of the day, may just be too Democratic to elect a Republican these days. But independent polls of congressional districts are hard to come by, and Suffolk generally does a decent job. That doesn’t mean the poll is necessarily spot-on — Suffolk pegs Biden’s approval in the district at just 34%, which is lower than national polls (and RI-2 votes to the left of the nation) — but it is a finding worth taking seriously.
Magaziner still must navigate a competitive primary, while Fung has a clearer path to his party’s nomination, so perhaps the Democrats will come home in the end. But this is yet another credible Republican House target, and we’re moving the rating there from Likely Democratic to Leans Democratic.
While Colorado is not a state trending in Republicans’ direction, the GOP still managed put their best foot forward in many key contests there — they avoided nominating their most extreme choices in several races.
In the Senate contest, construction company owner Joe O’Dea beat state Rep. Ron Hanks for the right to challenge 2-term Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO). O’Dea, who is relatively moderate on abortion, had support from many big-name state Republicans while Hanks was running as a further-right conservative, with support from MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell. While some Democratic-aligned groups spent a considerable amount of money on Hanks’s behalf — reasoning that he would be easier to beat in a general election — O’Dea carried most of the state’s more populous counties, and won by close to 10 points.
In the gubernatorial race, University of Colorado Regent Heidi Ganahl — the last remaining statewide Republican in Colorado — won the GOP nomination by 7 points over former Parker Mayor Greg Lopez. Gov. Jared Polis (D-CO) did not have opposition for renomination. The Crystal Ball rates both the Senate and gubernatorial contests in Colorado as Likely Democratic. Of those 2 races, we can more easily see the Senate race becoming truly competitive in the fall.
Perhaps the most closely-watched congressional race in the Centennial State this year will be the contest for the newly-established CO-8, a marginal Biden-won seat just north of Denver. Despite some meddling by the Democratic-aligned House Majority PAC — as with Hanks in the Senate race, Democrats sought to prop up Lori Saine, a far-right conservative — state Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer took a healthy 40% plurality in a 4-way GOP field. Kirkmeyer, who has a base in Weld County (Greeley), will face off against state Rep. Yadira Caraveo (D), who is from Adams County. The race is a Toss-up for now, although it is one of those seats that could easily move in the GOP’s direction if the Democrats’ political position does not improve.
After Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R, NC-11) lost his primary last month, there were some rumors that Rep. Lauren Boebert (R, CO-3), another younger anti-establishment member of the GOP conference, could also lose renomination. Such grumblings did not materialize. Though there were reports of Democrats voting in the GOP primary for state Sen. Don Coram, Boebert is clearly in good standing with actual Republican partisans — she was renominated 65%-35%. CO-3, at Likely Republican, is on the far edge of the playing field this cycle.
After ousting then-Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) in 2018, Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker has generally kept all factions of his party happy during his time in office. Garnering only token opposition, Pritzker was renominated with 92% of the vote, although there were some downstate counties that only gave him relatively narrow majorities. Meanwhile, state Sen. Darren Bailey, who hails from downstate Illinois, won a multi-way GOP primary with nearly 60%.
The billionaire Pritzker, and his allies, spent tens of millions of dollars intervening in the GOP primary — they boosted Bailey and attacked Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin, a more moderate option who finished third in the primary. The primary also saw heavy spending by billionaire Republicans Ken Griffin (backing Irvin) and Richard Uihlein (backing Bailey).
Even before last night, some Republicans raised concerns about their general election prospects with Bailey — Rep. Darin LaHood (R, IL-18), for example, suggested that Bailey would be a candidate better suited for next-door Missouri.
Despite being the 44th president’s home state, the Land of Lincoln was not especially kind to President Obama during the 2010 and 2014 midterms. In 2010, Democrats lost Obama’s old Senate seat, but (somewhat surprisingly) retained their hold on the governorship. In 2014, the reverse was true: as Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) was reelected, Republicans (somewhat surprisingly) flipped the governorship, with Rauner.
Rauner was able to win, in large part, because he dug deep into his own pockets — then-Gov. Pat Quinn (D-IL) also typically sported rough approval ratings. But Republicans will not have either advantage this year: Pritzker’s approval ratings have generally been positive and he’ll be able to freely spend. With that, we are moving the gubernatorial contest to Safe Democratic.
In the Senate race, Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) is attempting to become the first candidate in over 3 decades to win reelection in Obama’s old seat — she is a heavy favorite.
Illinois was a rare state at the congressional level, in that it saw 2 separate member-vs-member primaries. In IL-6, a suburban Chicagoland seat, Rep. Sean Casten (D, IL-6) handily defeated fellow Rep. Marie Newman (D, IL-3), despite being at a geographical disadvantage in the new district. Earlier this year, Newman made headlines for a less-than ideal reason: she was caught up in a staffing scandal. Though Casten carried both counties in the district, Cook and DuPage, but the latter (which was more familiar to him) gave him a whopping 85%-14% margin. Democrats probably chose their stronger potential nominee in IL-6, so our Likely Democratic rating will remain operative.
Further downstate, the other member-vs-member primary was on the Republican side, between Reps. Rodney Davis and Mary Miller, in the blood red IL-15. Davis is essentially a mainstream conservative while the more controversial Miller is an ardent Trump supporter. Though she probably would have prevailed anyway, a late Trump rally seemed to give Miller a bit of a bump. Over the weekend, the former president made an appearance in Mendon, a city in Adams County, which neither Davis nor Miller currently represent — Miller carried the county with close to 80%.
Overall, Miller won by 15 points. This was not as much of a rout as last month’s GOP primary in WV-2, but it was another example of a Trump-backed candidate prevailing in a redistricting-induced primary.
Earlier this month, the primary picture in the Magnolia State got a bit livelier than expected, as 2 incumbents were forced into runoffs, although for different reasons.
In the 3rd District, which includes parts of the Jackson metro area and a wide central swath of the state, 2-term Republican Michael Guest seemed to be caught off guard earlier this month by a challenge from veteran Michael Cassidy. Guest’s vote last year to establish a commission investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection likely was not something that sat well with a GOP electorate. Cassidy actually finished slightly ahead of Guest in the initial round of voting, but fell short of the majority vote required to avoid a runoff.
While Guest seemed to run a much more active runoff campaign, Cassidy stumbled out of the gate — he began the campaign by scrubbing some policy positions from his website. Guest, a fiscal conservative, was also able to tag Cassidy as a big spender, and he got help from the Congressional Leadership Fund, a top GOP outside group connected to House leadership. Guest won in a landslide, carrying almost every county.
Just to the south, the situation in the coastal 4th District seemed more straightforward. Republican Rep. Steve Palazzo, who was first elected as part of the 2010 GOP wave, was held to just 31% in the primary. Last year, he was the subject of an ethics investigation.
Palazzo lost the runoff to Jackson County Sheriff Mike Ezell, although the result was not a blowout — Ezell won with less than 54%, and Jackson County accounted for his entire raw vote margin.
As the signs of a promising Republican midterm have mounted this year, one of the best results for Democrats came in an unexpected place last night: Nebraska.
To the extent that the race was nationally watched, it was because the election itself may be illegal: the winner would be selected to finish the term of a congressman who was elected under the 2020 configuration of the seat, but the election itself was held under the newly-passed 2022 lines. While this may seem like a minor difference, as the new district is broadly similar to the old one, there will be some counties left without representation for the remainder of the 117th Congress.
In any event, while the legality of the election may prompt litigation, the result itself was surprisingly good for Democrats. In a seat that Trump would have carried by 11 points in 2020, Republican Mike Flood, a former speaker of the state legislature, only beat state Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks (D) by a 53%-47% margin.
Pansing Brooks, who represents the Lincoln area, seemed to energize the voters that knew her: Lincoln’s Lancaster County, which is also home to the flagship University of Nebraska campus, makes up just under half the district’s population but cast over 60% of the votes in last night’s election. The rural counties, as expected, gave Flood lopsided margins, but Pansing Brooks was competitive in Sarpy County (the district’s second-largest county), only losing it by 5 points.
A few factors — some of which may be absent for the regular election in November — may have converged to produce a closer-than expected result. Fairly or not, the stench of former Rep. Jeff Fortenberry’s resignation (he lied to the FBI) may have hurt Flood, as a fellow Republican. The blue swing that Lancaster County saw may be evidence that the demise of the Roe vs Wade ruling may be waking the Democratic electorate to turn out this year.
One possible parallel to this special election may be the 2017 race for SC-5. On the same night that a hotly-contested special election in the Atlanta area grabbed most of the attention, Democrat Archie Parnell seemed to fly under the radar in South Carolina. Parnell limited then-state Rep. Ralph Norman (R) to just a 51%-48% margin in a double-digit Trump seat. But for the 2018 regular election, the district returned more to form (although Parnell did not make headlines for the right reasons in the interim).
Although it will feature the same cast of candidates, we are holding our rating for the regular at Safe Republican for the November general election. We are simply expecting a more “normal” situation there, as the election will be taking place along with several statewide contests. Flood’s incumbency may help, and Democrats, who are already underdogs to retain the House, may be more interested in contesting more marginal seats. That said, perhaps last night’s election showed that NE-1 could be a credible Democratic target later this decade.
Gov. Kathy Hochul (D-NY) had a good night, easily winning the Democratic nomination after she ascended to the governorship last year following the resignation of her predecessor, former Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY). Additionally, she saw her belatedly-added running mate, appointed Lt. Gov. Antonio Delgado (D), dominate his own, separate primary for lieutenant governor. Hochul’s former No. 2, Brian Benjamin, had to resign over legal problems, and Hochul needed state legislators to change New York’s ballot laws to allow Delgado to get on effectively replace Benjamin on the ballot.
She will face Rep. Lee Zeldin (R, NY-1), who emerged as the clear winner of the GOP gubernatorial nomination. Zeldin is probably too conservative to be elected statewide in New York, but he did hold down a swingy albeit Republican-leaning House seat on Long Island for several terms before running for governor. It may seem odd to have Illinois as Safe Democratic for governor but New York — a bluer state — as just Likely Democratic, but that’s how we rate them for now. We just think Zeldin is a more credible challenger than Illinois’s Bailey.
New York will have a separate primary on Aug. 23 for its congressional races following a legal battle there over redistricting.
As with the most recent midterm year held under a Democratic president, 2014, Oklahoma will feature races for both its Senate seats this cycle.
For the regular election, Sen. Jim Lankford (R-OK) faced 2 opponents, the more notable of which was Jackson Lahmeyer, who ran as a Trumpier alternative to the relatively non-confrontational incumbent. Lahmeyer had support from some members of the former president’s inner circle, such as party operative Roger Stone and retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn. But Lankford carried every county in his bid for renomination.
The GOP nomination for the other seat will head to an Aug. 23 runoff. Earlier this year, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), who has held office in Oklahoma almost continuously since the 1960s, announced that he would resign at the end of the current Congress. Under state law, Inhofe’s resignation was more like a usual congressional retirement announcement: he will continue serving while the race to replace him is decided.
Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R, OK-2), who has represented eastern Oklahoma since the 2012 elections, has been considered a potential statewide candidate for some time, and ran for the seat. Mullin fell under 50% in the primary, but still was comfortably ahead of former state House Speaker T. W. Shannon. Either would be the first Native American to serve in the Senate since Colorado’s Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Democrat-turned-Republican who retired in 2004.
Former Rep. Kendra Horn (D, OK-5) was unopposed for the Democratic nomination in the special election — she joins a few other since-defeated Democrats from the 2018 class who have mounted uphill statewide bids this cycle (Joe Cunningham in South Carolina and Abby Finkenauer in Iowa are other examples). Though the Democratic primary for the other seat is going to a runoff, Madison Horn placed first in last night’s contest, so Democrats may nominate Horns for both seats (they are not related).
Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) comfortably won renomination, although he did show a little bit of weakness, winning 62% in a 3-candidate field. Unlike in many other Republican primaries, Lee’s primary opposition came not from the right, but from the center, in a state that is deeply Republican but also somewhat suspicious of Donald Trump compared to previous Republican leaders. Lee, a one-time Trump critic himself, became a strong supporter of the now-former president. The 2-term senator faces an unusual challenge from an independent, Evan McMullin, who persuaded Democrats not to run a candidate in the general election. We recently switched the race from Safe Republican to Likely Republican — a rating that still indicates we see Lee as a considerable favorite even as we are a bit intrigued by what McMullin is trying to do.
To have any chance of winning, McMullin will likely have to win a lot of these Republican primary voters who didn’t back Lee in the primary. Lee’s weakest performance came in the state’s biggest county, Salt Lake: based on results as of Wednesday morning, Lee only got about 50% there. Joe Biden won Salt Lake County by 11 points in 2020 while losing the state 57%-37% to Trump; presumably, McMullin will need to do way better than that in the county to really push Lee.
Utah’s 4 Republican incumbent House members were all renominated without incident, and none of their districts are drawn to be competitive in the fall.