Notes on the State of the Primaries: June 15, 2022

Dear Readers: Tuesday night saw primaries in 4 states, as well as a closely-watched (but lightly-voted) U.S. House special election in Texas. In the aftermath of these contests, we’re making 4 rating changes, although 2 of them are in states that didn’t have elections on Tuesday.

This is the latest edition of Notes on the State of Politics, which features short updates on elections and politics.

The Editors

P.S. We’re pleased to announce that our recent student-produced documentary focusing on how to navigate contrasting political views, Common Grounds?, was just nominated for an Emmy Award. For more on the recognition and to watch the film, see this recent story in UVA Today.

Table 1: Crystal Ball House rating changes

Member/District Old Rating New Rating
TX-15 Open (No inc.) Leans Republican Likely Republican
TX-34 (Gonzalez/Flores) Likely Democratic Leans Democratic

Table 2: Crystal Ball Senate rating change

Senator Old Rating New Rating
Mike Lee (R-UT) Safe Republican Likely Republican

Table 3: Crystal Ball gubernatorial rating change

Governor Old Rating New Rating
Phil Scott (R-VT) Likely Republican Safe Republican

GOP flip in TX-34 sparks South Texas rating changes

Republicans flipped a U.S. House seat on Tuesday in Hispanic-heavy South Texas, winning TX-34, which snakes north from the Mexican border into the central part of the state. Rep.-elect Mayra Flores (R) was able to capture the seat without a runoff, winning 51%-43% over her main Democratic opponent, attorney Dan Sanchez. This result was not unexpected, at least for us (we rated the special election as Leans Republican once its former representative, Democrat Filemon Vela, announced his resignation back in March).

There are at least a couple of reasons not to overinterpret the meaning of this outcome. First, Flores dramatically outraised Sanchez, roughly 16-to-1 according to Federal Election Commission reports on the special election, and national Republicans took a greater interest in the race than national Democrats. This district isn’t going to exist in its present form past this year (more on that below). Additionally, turnout was incredibly small, just 29,000 votes with perhaps a small number left to count. To put that in perspective, there were about 143,000 votes cast in the district for House in 2018. Granted, that was a high-turnout midterm, but this turnout was still very small.

On the other hand…

In addition to Flores and Sanchez, there was another Democrat and another Republican running, so the combined vote was roughly 52.5%-47.5% Republican in a district Joe Biden won 52%-48%. At first blush, that doesn’t seem too horrible for Democrats given the political environment and the lopsidedly Republican campaign efforts, but this district has historical DNA that is much more Democratic. Vela, the previous congressman, won 55%-42% in 2020, but that was down markedly from the roughly 60% or better he won in the previous several elections. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both also got about 60% in the district in 2016 and 2012, respectively. So this is an indication that the big shift toward Republicans that we saw in South Texas in 2020 is enduring and even sharpening down-ballot.

With that in mind, we are making a couple of rating changes in the aftermath of this race.

In the fall, Flores is set to face Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D). Gonzalez currently represents TX-15, also in South Texas (it’s the next district west of TX-34). Following redistricting, Gonzalez opted to run in the new TX-34, which is considerably more Democratic than both Gonzalez’s current district and the version of TX-34 that Flores won on Tuesday night: Biden won it by about 15 points, up from his 4-point margin in the current TX-34. That gives Gonzalez, who as the sitting congressman in TX-15 opted not to run in the TX-34 special, a cushion for the fall. However, TX-34 is now going to be an incumbent vs. incumbent race, and based on that, the poor environment for Democrats, and the encouraging performance for Republicans in Tuesday night’s special election, we’re going to shift the rating in TX-34 (Gonzalez vs. Flores) from Likely Democratic to Leans Democratic.

We also are going to shift the reddest of the 3 South Texas seats, TX-15, from Leans Republican to Likely Republican. Republicans transformed the district from one that Joe Biden won by 2 points to Donald Trump by 3, and it appears to be among the lowest-hanging offensive fruit for Republicans across the country this November. With Gonzalez leaving it behind, TX-15 is an open seat. In midterms, the president’s party hardly ever holds open seats that didn’t vote for the president in the previous presidential election (the last time that happened was 1990, when Republicans held an Iowa district that had voted for Michael Dukakis in 1988). Perhaps significantly, since it was established after the 1900 census (its first representative was future Vice President John Nance Garner), TX-15 has never elected a Republican.

With the Tuesday night special demonstrating some of the stickiness of the Republicans’ South Texas gains, we see this as a clearer GOP pickup in the fall. The other seat in the region, Rep. Henry Cuellar’s (D) TX-28, remains a Toss-up.

Dueling rating changes in the Taft states

It’s hard to find many commonalities between Vermont in the Northeast and Utah in the Mountain West. After all, they are political opposites these days, with Vermont becoming one of the most Democratic states in the country while Utah is one of the most Republican (although that GOP allegiance, at least at the presidential level, was weakened a bit by Donald Trump). But since we’re making rating changes in these 2 states this week, we wanted to think of something, anything, that tied them together.

So how about this: Utah and Vermont were the only 2 states to vote for the incumbent president, William Howard Taft (R), in the 1912 presidential election, when former President Theodore Roosevelt’s progressive Republican “Bull Moose” third party candidacy allowed Woodrow Wilson (D) to win an Electoral College landslide despite getting just 42% of the vote. It would take until 1964 for Vermont to vote against a Republican presidential candidate; Utah actually voted for Wilson in 1916, but 1964 would mark the last time it voted Democratic for president.

Despite becoming dark blue at the federal level, Vermont’s old Yankee Republicanism lives on in the form of Gov. Phil Scott (R). With the candidate filing period over there, we are making Scott a more prohibitive favorite for reelection. Scott often ranks among the country’s most popular state executives, and when Sen. Pat Leahy’s (D-VT) Senate seat opened up earlier this cycle, Republicans were disappointed when he stayed out of the race. Scott also took his time in signaling his intentions to run for reelection.

Scott’s independence has certainly played well with the Vermont electorate as a whole, but it has sometimes given local Republicans reason to protest. Shortly after the February 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, he signed legislation tightening Vermont’s gun laws — he was renominated later that year, but 1/3 of Republicans supported a harder-right candidate. More recently, as social distance measures were put into place during the pandemic, the governor was clearly more in sync with national Democrats.

Scott will have opposition from 2 minor candidates in his Aug. 9 primary. Assuming he’s renominated, we would not be surprised if he cleared 60% in the general election — as he did in 2020.

Vermont voters have not ousted an incumbent governor since 1962, although they came close to doing so in 2014, with Scott’s Democratic predecessor.

Out west, we are downgrading Republicans’ prospects in the Utah Senate race. Although Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) remains clearly favored, he has a high-profile challenger in 2016 presidential candidate Evan McMullin, an independent.

McMullin, who worked in the Central Intelligence Agency for about a decade, left the GOP in 2016. When then-candidate Donald Trump was running with the Republican nomination in hand, McMullin entered the presidential race in August as an independent.

Although he didn’t make the ballot in every state, McMullin’s candidacy acted as something of a landing pad for anti-Trump Republicans. This was especially the case in Utah, which was his best state: with the exception of Ross Perot’s 27% in 1992, McMullin’s 21% in Utah was the best showing for a third-party presidential candidate there since 1912 (Roosevelt got 21.5% that year).

In 2016, Lee was among the Trump-skeptical Republicans who supported McMullin. But once Trump was in office, the senator warmed up to him. In a move that drew criticism from Mormon leaders, at a 2020 rally in Arizona, Lee even went as to far as to compare the president to Captain Moroni, a hero in the Book of Mormon.

Last week, state pollster Dan Jones gave Lee a lead of just 41%-37% over McMullin. While Republicans very likely will coalesce behind Lee after the June 28 primary (he is facing 2 other candidates), McMullin has caught some breaks over the past few months.

In April, the Utah Democratic Party opted not to endorse a candidate of their own, and essentially threw their support to McMullin. Republicans will inevitably work to pigeonhole McMullin as a Democratic Trojan Horse, although he has maintained that, if elected, he will not caucus with either party. That might be easier said than done in practice, as the 2 parties make assignments to Senate committees. There are 2 independents in the Senate, Maine’s Angus King and Vermont’s Bernie Sanders, but they are part of the Democratic caucus, making their independent status somewhat nominal.

Another favorable development for the McMullin campaign came in March: the state’s other Republican senator, Mitt Romney, announced that he’d remain neutral in the Senate race. In what was interpreted as a snub to Lee, Romney’s neutrality could enable McMullin to better court moderate Republicans. Unlike Lee, Romney has remained cool to Trump — he was the only GOP senator to support convicting the former president during both of Trump’s impeachment trials.

A February poll from Deseret News and the Hinckley Institute of Politics gave Romney a 51%/42% approval rating in Utah. He earned bare majorities (51%) of partisans from both parties, and did slightly better (54%) with unaffiliated voters. Broadly, the goal of the McMullin campaign seems to be to convert some elements of Romney’s approval rating into a voting coalition. Assuming Democrats are more unified around his candidacy, winning over pro-Romney Republicans and unaffiliateds will be key.

With all this in mind, we feel that Utah’s Senate race at least merits a spot on the board. Over the past few cycles, there have been some notable campaigns by independent candidates in red states, although none won or even came particularly close. In 2020, Al Gross, who campaigned as an independent but ran with the Democratic nomination, lost by 13 points in Alaska. In 2014, independent Greg Orman seemed to be giving veteran Kansas Republican Pat Roberts a run for his money — but Roberts won by 11 points. But those races were still more competitive than they otherwise might have been (particularly the 2014 Kansas race), and the Lee-McMullin contest seems to have a little more intrigue than your average Safe Republican Senate race. So Likely Republican it is.

Our inclination this cycle has been to avoid completely writing off Senate races. Before today, our most recent Senate rating change was in Washington state, which we moved from Safe Democratic to Likely Democratic in February.

Though the Evergreen State went to Biden by 19 points in 2020, we argued that the likely Republican nominee, veterans advocate Tiffany Smiley, may be positioned to make the contest more competitive than usual. Sure enough, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) went negative in her most recent ad, linking Smiley to national Republicans. Is this a sign that Democrats are seeing worse than-expected internal numbers in the Pacific Northwest? Perhaps we will have more clarity after the state’s Aug. 2 primary.

Tuesday primary highlights

We are not changing any other ratings in reaction to Tuesday night’s primaries, which were in South Carolina, Maine, Nevada, and North Dakota. We did have a few observations, though:

— In South Carolina, the victory by Rep. Nancy Mace (R, SC-1) in her primary compared to the loss by Rep. Tom Rice (R, SC-7) seems to illustrate, once again, that a Donald Trump endorsement is not necessarily everything, but being seen as taking sides against the GOP and Trump can be fatal. Mace was critical of Trump after the events of Jan. 6, 2021, but she did not back impeachment and did not vote for a commission to investigate Jan. 6. Rice, meanwhile, was one of 10 Republicans to back impeachment. Mace beat her Trump-endorsed opponent, 2018 SC-1 nominee Katie Arrington (R), 53%-45%, while Rice was soundly beaten, 51%-25%, by Trump-backed state Rep. Russell Fry (R). In the 2016 South Carolina Republican primary, then-candidate Trump carried all 7 of the state’s districts, but he did best in SC-7 and worst in SC-1. The lines have been changed somewhat since, but it seems fair to say Rice was hurt by the comparatively Trumpier character of his district. In any event, these are both Safe Republican seats in our ratings. In the gubernatorial race, Gov. Henry McMaster (R-SC) will face former Rep. Joe Cunningham (D, SC-1), who beat Arrington in 2018 but lost to Mace in 2020. We also rate the gubernatorial race as Safe Republican.

— Results in Nevada were delayed until after midnight in the east for the somewhat annoying (to election junkies like us) but otherwise perfectly reasonable purpose of ensuring that every voter who was still in line got to vote before results were reported. The action was almost entirely on the Republican side, and the favorites won the top 2 nominations: Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo (R) won the right to challenge Gov. Steve Sisolak (D-NV), and former state Attorney General Adam Laxalt (R) will face Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) in a pair of Toss-up races this fall. Most saw Lombardo as Sisolak’s best potential challenger, and Democrats meddled in the primary, with an eye on denying him the nomination or at least roughing him up in advance of the general. In the state’s most competitive U.S. House district, 2020 state Senate candidate April Becker (R) will face Rep. Susie Lee (D, NV-3) in a Toss-up race; the Republican primaries for the nominations to face Reps. Dina Titus (D, NV-1) and Steven Horsford (D, NV-4) remained uncalled as of this writing. We rate both of those races as a tenuous Leans Democratic.

— In Maine, former Rep. Bruce Poliquin (R, ME-2) won the right to try to reclaim his seat against Rep. Jared Golden (D, ME-2). Trump won this seat by 6 points, although Golden has created some necessary but perhaps not sufficient distance between himself and national Democrats. This race remains a Toss-up.

— Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND) was easily renominated in North Dakota.