|Dear Readers: This is the latest edition of Notes on the State of Politics, which features short updates on elections and politics.
— The Editors
Table 1: Crystal Ball House rating changes
Table 2: Crystal Ball Gubernatorial rating change
What’s going on in the House?
With the football season getting underway and the political season producing some strange outcomes — a Democrat won a House race in Alaska, huh? — we are reminded of the famous clip of Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi: “What the hell’s going on out here?”
Rep.-elect Mary Peltola’s (D, AK-AL) victory in Alaska’s ranked-choice special House election, which was finalized last week after an Aug. 16 election, has contributed to a fog of war that has descended over the House battlefield.
The basics are still bad for Democrats: President Joe Biden’s (D) approval rating, perhaps the best catch-all of the political environment, is still stuck in the low 40s, albeit after having improved from the 30s in polling averages a month and a half ago. Inflation and broader concerns about the economy are still important issues where Republicans appear to have a clear advantage as the party out of power.
House generic ballot polling has moved into a tie or even a small Democratic lead, although it is worth remembering that the House generic ballot has sometimes understated Republicans in the past. But the trajectory of these polls, toward Democrats, is notable. And abortion has clearly, at the very least, proven to be a significant motivator for Democrats.
The Peltola victory was also the last House special election before November; there were 5 between late June and now, all conducted in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision to throw out Roe vs. Wade: Democrats ran ahead of Joe Biden’s 2020 margin in at least 4 of the 5; the fifth, Alaska, is harder to categorize, as it featured a unique and new election system. In the first round of voting, Republicans Sarah Palin and Nick Begich combined for about 60% of the total vote, while Peltola, the sole Democrat, got 40%. Once the ranked-choice voting system eliminated Begich and reallocated his voters’ second-place votes, Peltola won 51.5%-48.5%. Joe Biden lost Alaska by 10 points in 2020: You could argue that the Republicans did 10 points better than Donald Trump because of the combined first round of voting; you could also say Democrats did 13 points better than Biden because Peltola won the decisive voting round by 3 points. You can poke holes in both arguments, which probably means Alaska should be considered separately from other special elections. We will say that it does seem possible to us that Peltola still could have won in a traditional system, had Palin beat Begich (who seemed to be the more broadly-acceptable Republican compared to the unpopular Palin) in a hypothetical primary.
Setting the specifics aside, we have to agree with our friend Michael Carey, a long-time observer of Alaska politics, who wrote us to say: “I believe you would agree with me that no matter what the specifics of the Alaska context, any sensible Republican has to see a powerful warning here. Palin was wrapped up in celebrity and Trump and she lost — in Alaska.”
In the aftermath of the Alaska special election, we were curious to see if either Palin or Begich dropped out and deferred to the other in the name of party unity. Both made it clear almost immediately that they had no intention of doing so, and the deadline to exit the race came and went on Monday with both standing firm. In order to beat Peltola, Alaska Republicans are going to have to do a better job of making sure that Begich’s (or Palin’s, depending on who finishes ahead of the other in November) voters more consistently mark the other Republican second in the ranked-choice vote. The pain of losing might provide some instruction on ranked-choice voting game theory, but we now consider this race to be a Toss-up for the general election.
Additionally, and in taking all of August’s generally pro-Democratic news into light, we’re also pushing a couple of Toss-ups to Leans Democratic. These are moves we considered making last month immediately following primary results but held off; now we think both are ready to move.
In WA-8, Rep. Kim Schrier (D) saw Democrats take slightly more 2-party votes in Washington’s all-party primary than Republicans, an indicator that suggests she is a bit better positioned for the fall than her Republican rival, 2020 state attorney general nominee Matt Larkin. And in MI-3, Republicans opted to nominate a fairly right-wing former Trump administration official, John Gibbs (R), over Rep. Peter Meijer (R, MI-3), a first-term member who backed the second impeachment of Donald Trump. Hillary Scholten (D), who lost to Meijer in a competitive 2020 race, should have a decided resource advantage (as should Schrier over Larkin). Both districts have blue-trending, highly-educated areas that seem like the kinds of places where Republicans might struggle, if the recent special election results and polling are giving us worthwhile signals. Biden won these districts by about 7 (WA-8) and 8.5 (MI-3) points.
In looking at the overall picture, there’s something we want to stress: To the extent that the race for the House is getting more competitive, it has more to do with our interpretation of our race ratings, as opposed to the ratings themselves.
Here’s what we mean. Our general forecast for the past several months has been a GOP House gain of somewhere in the 20s. Republicans only need to win 5 more seats than the 213 they won in 2020 to get a majority, so such a gain would put them well north of the magic number of 218.
In our last significant House update, back in late July, we wrote the following:
“We now rate 217 districts as Safe, Likely, or Leans Republican, while there are 191 rated as Safe, Likely, or Leans Democratic. That leaves 27 Toss-ups; splitting these relatively equally, 14-13 Republican, would put the GOP at 231 seats, or a net gain of 18. That said, we expect the Republicans will do better in the Toss-up column than just a split, which is why our best guess is a GOP gain of somewhere in the 20s.”
Let’s take a look at the math now after today’s rating changes and a few others we’ve made since that update.
We rate 215 districts as Safe, Likely, or Leans Republican, while there are 194 rated as Safe, Likely, or Leans Democratic. That leaves 26 Toss-ups; splitting those down the middle, 13-13, would equal a 228-207 Republican House, or a net gain of 15 for Republicans.
So compared to late July, that’s basically a 3-seat Democratic improvement in our ratings, assuming a roughly even split among the Toss-ups. That’s really not that much.
The difference is that last part of the July assessment we quoted above — the part about expecting the Republicans to do better among the Toss-ups than just a split. We’re no longer confident in that happening, which makes a GOP gain in the 20s more of an aspiration for the party than an expectation.
To be clear, we still see the Republicans as considerable favorites to flip the House. It’s just that in this peculiar election year, the political signals are mixed. “What the hell’s going on out here?” is a question we’ll endeavor to answer the best we can over the next couple of months.
Massachusetts to Safe Democratic, other New England primaries ahead
In what was the only primary of this week, Bay State voters went to the polls to vote on the candidates who will be vying to become Gov. Charlie Baker’s (R-MA) replacement. As expected, Republicans nominated Geoff Diehl, who was their 2018 nominee for Senate and ran this race with Donald Trump’s endorsement. Businessman Chris Doughty, who ran as a conservative, but one with a softer edge, took 44%. Doughty ran best in some relatively college-educated towns, especially those just southwest of Boston, while Diehl had solid support in the South Shore.
Meanwhile, shortly after Baker announced his retirement, current state Attorney General Maura Healey (D) began consolidating Democratic support and was nominated last night in what amounted to a coronation.
To us, this seems like a straightforward call: without a candidate that shares Baker’s moderate image (or his incumbency), Republicans are serious underdogs to retain the governorship of what was the second-bluest state in the Union in the 2020 presidential election (only neighboring Vermont gave Biden a better showing).
Although Massachusetts voters have historically been reluctant to elevate their state attorneys general, Healey seems well-positioned to defy history. We are moving the race from Likely Democratic to Safe Democratic. Massachusetts and Maryland — which sports the same rating — are Democrats’ 2 clearest-cut gubernatorial pickup opportunities, and they are by far the likeliest governorships to change hands this November.
Looking to next week, Sept. 13 will be the final, traditional primary night of the year — we say “traditional” because Louisiana holds its jungle primary the same day as the rest of the nation holds the November general election. As with yesterday’s contest, next week’s 3 primaries will have a (mostly) New England focus.
Though the Granite State prides itself on its “First in the Nation” presidential primary, it hosts one of the latest down-ballot primaries. In fact, this year, it will see the final partisan Senate primaries. First-term Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH) prevailed in 2016’s closest Senate race, ousting then-Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) by just over 1,000 votes. Hassan does not have serious opposition in her own primary. With both Ayotte and popular Gov. Chris Sununu (R-NH) passing on Senate bids, the GOP was left with a multi-way field that lacks a top-tier candidate.
Retired Army Gen. Don Bolduc, who ran in the 2020 primary for New Hampshire’s other Senate seat but lost by 7 points, seems to be the favorite heading into the final stretch. Bolduc has expressed doubts about the legitimacy of the 2020 election, although that has not earned him Donald Trump’s endorsement — the former president has, so far, stayed neutral. State Senate President Chuck Morse typically places second in primary polling and is probably the only other candidate with a legitimate shot at the nomination. Morse would probably play better in a general election, as he is a more established option, and national Republicans seem to have little confidence in Bolduc.
If Republicans nominate Bolduc, we’d be inclined to keep our Leans Democratic rating as-is. We can, however, more easily see the race becoming a Toss-up if Morse is nominated. It is worth noting that, late last week, the Senate Leadership Fund, which is aligned with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), announced that it plans to spend $23 million in New Hampshire for the general election. After the dust settles from the primary, SLF’s buy may encourage other pro-Republican groups to get involved — although it’s also possible that SLF won’t actually follow through with this New Hampshire investment if Bolduc wins the nomination. National Democrats are intervening in the primary to hurt Morse, while national Republicans are trying to help him.
Republicans also have primaries for both of New Hampshire’s House seats — the 2 seats barely changed in redistricting, and are both competitive. Generally speaking, national Republicans prefer 2020 nominee Matt Mowers (R) against Rep. Chris Pappas (D, NH-1) and Keene Mayor George Hansel (R) against Rep. Annie Kuster (D, NH-2). We rate the former as Toss-up and the latter as Leans Democratic for the general election — we may adjust these ratings depending on what happens in the primary.
In Rhode Island next week, there will be a few Democratic primaries worth watching. Incumbent Gov. Dan McKee secured a second term as the state’s separately-elected lieutenant governor in 2018, but ascended to the state’s top job after then-Gov. Gina Raimondo (D-RI) was confirmed as Joe Biden’s Commerce Secretary. But McKee does not have the field to himself: Rhode Island Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, who is termed out of her office, has a realistic shot at the nomination. Other names in the primary mix are Matthew Brown, who had Gorbea’s current job from 2003 to 2007, and business executive Helena Foulkes. McKee, in some polls, ranks as one of the nation’s least popular governors — so while we have the race rated as Likely Democratic, it’s possible that Democrats wouldn’t be hurt much, if at all, if the incumbent wasn’t renominated.
The other major Rhode Island Democratic primary will be for the open 2nd District. Rhode Island, somewhat surprisingly, retained both its districts in the 2020 census, and RI-2 is the more marginal of the pair, although it still voted for Biden by close to 15 points. State Treasurer Seth Magaziner is the favorite for the nomination, although he faces a few other credible candidates. Former Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, who was the GOP’s nominee in the 2014 and 2018 gubernatorial races, has no opposition for his party’s nod. The Crystal Ball rates the district as Leans Democratic.
Delaware will also hold a primary next week, though there is nothing happening there of obvious national significance — the state elects its governors in presidential years, it has no Senate race this year, and Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D, DE-AL) is in line to win a 4th term representing the president’s home state.