|Dear Readers: Join us tonight at 6 p.m eastern for a free, virtual panel featuring top analysts and experts previewing the beginning of the House’s Jan. 6 Select Committee’s public hearings. The virtual event will be streaming at https://livestream.com/tavco/jan6committeehearings.
UVA Center for Politics Director Larry J. Sabato will host the panel, which will be moderated by former United States Director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and current Center for Politics scholar Chris Krebs. He will be joined by top analysts and journalists:
— Olivia Beavers, congressional reporter for POLITICO focusing on House Republicans and GOP leadership. She is a former Center for Politics intern;
— Paul Begala, Center for Politics scholar and Democratic strategist who serves as a political contributor for CNN;
— Josh Dawsey, political enterprise and investigations reporter for the Washington Post;
— Tara Setmayer, Center for Politics scholar, contributor to ABC News, and former GOP Communications Director on Capitol Hill.
Panelists will discuss the state of the Jan. 6 committee’s investigation and discuss what to expect in advance of the committee’s first public hearing on Thursday evening. If you can’t tune in live, the panel recording will be available at both the above link and on our YouTube channel, UVACFP.
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
Seven states — California, Iowa, Montana, Mississippi, New Jersey, New Mexico, and South Dakota — held primaries Tuesday night. While these contests collectively lacked a marquee race, like the recent Ohio and Pennsylvania Republican Senate primaries or the Georgia Republican gubernatorial contest, there were still some notable results and takeaways. What follows are some of our observations from last night, as well as a couple of House rating changes, both in favor of the Republicans.
In the Hawkeye State, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), who is already the state’s longest-serving senator, got a bit closer to securing an 8th term. Grassley, who was originally elected to the chamber in 1980 — and who has held public office since the days of the Eisenhower presidency — was renominated by a nearly 3-to-1 margin over state Sen. Jim Carlin. The octogenarian senator carried every county, even clearing 60% in Carlin’s home of Plymouth County.
In somewhat of a surprise, Iowa Democrats passed over former Rep. Abby Finkenauer (D, IA-1) for veteran Michael Franken. Despite her stature as a former member of Congress, Finkenauer was lucky to even make the ballot: in April, a court ruled that she did not have enough petition signatures to qualify for a spot on the ballot. Though that decision was ultimately reversed, the episode raised questions about the type of campaign she was running. This is Franken’s second attempt at winning a Senate seat: while he lost the 2020 primary, he was going up against the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s choice, Theresa Greenfield.
The Crystal Ball rates the race as Safe Republican. Grassley, who makes a point of visiting all of the state’s 99 counties each year, is a veritable electoral powerhouse, although he may not carry every county in the general election, as he has done in some past cycles.
Down the ballot, we are moving the 3rd District from Toss-up to Leans Republican. In 2020, Rep. Cindy Axne (D, IA-3) won a second term as Donald Trump narrowly carried her district. In redistricting, she was not given much help: Trump would have carried the new 3rd by about 1,500 votes. Republicans nominated state Sen. Zach Nunn, who represents a Des Moines-area legislative district. While Axne retains a sizeable cash-on-hand advantage, the terrain may be too red. In 2020, Axne was possibly aided by the presence of a Libertarian on the ballot — she was reelected with 49% that year. This cycle, it appears that the race will be a 2-party contest.
With IA-3 moving to Leans Republican, the Crystal Ball has the GOP favored to sweep all 4 of Iowa’s House seats — and assuming Grassley is reelected, the GOP will keep both the state’s Senate seats. Since the 1956 elections, both parties have had representation in Iowa’s federal delegation, but that may end this year.
In North Jersey, the stage is set for a rematch: 2-term Rep. Tom Malinowski (D, NJ-7), who held on by just over a percentage point in 2020, will face former state Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R) again. This time, Kean — who first ran for Congress in 2000, and was also the GOP nominee for Senate in 2006 — seems better-positioned to finally make it to Capitol Hill.
Since their initial bout, Malinowski has come under fire for failing to disclose multiple stock trades. The 7th District was also made more GOP-friendly in redistricting: Biden’s 10-point margin in the old district dropped to less than 4 points, and the new 7th would have given Gov. Phil Murphy (D-NJ) just 43% in last year’s gubernatorial race.
While Malinowski had little opposition in his primary, unofficial returns had Kean claiming a 46% plurality in a 7-way GOP primary. For the general election, we rate the race as Leans Republican.
Though veteran Rep. Chris Smith (R, NJ-4) took on some new territory, and attracted some opposition, he was renominated with 58%. His most prominent opponent was first-time candidate Mike Crispi, who took 37%. Crispi claimed the parochial-minded Smith was not adequately pro-Trump. Though Smith is an ardent social conservative, he has an independent streak: he voted to establish a commission investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection, for instance.
But Smith’s longevity and attention to constituent service mattered: in one of the more obvious examples, Lakewood Township, which Smith has represented for years and is home to a large Orthodox Jewish community, gave the congressman an 81%-16% vote over Crispi. NJ-4 is the most Republican district in the state, making Smith a solid favorite for a 22nd term.
While none are nearly as imperiled as Malinowski, the Crystal Ball places 3 other New Jersey Democrats in somewhat competitive races: Reps. Andy Kim (D, NJ-3), Josh Gottheimer (D, NJ-5), and Mikie Sherrill (D, NJ-11) have districts in the Likely Democratic category. We are not making any immediate rating changes to those seats, but if the national environment continues to deteriorate for Democrats, those are the types of seats that could move further onto the board.
On a historical note, though the county ballot line — one of the most enduring relics of the state’s machine-politics past — could be on its way out, last night’s results were not exactly ideal for candidates who had the line, at least in contested GOP primaries. Essentially, under the current formatting system, county level parties give their endorsed candidates a favorable position on the primary ballot. This morning, Frank Pallotta was declared the winner in the NJ-5 GOP primary — his main opponent, Nick De Gregorio, had the line in Bergen County, the district’s largest county. Similarly, Paul DeGroot, who is running in NJ-11, did not get the line in Morris County (the GOP center of gravity in that district) but won his primary.
Mississippi, with 4 non-competitive districts, will likely not see much action in the November general election, but may still be on the verge of ousting 2 of its members.
In the coastal 4th District, Rep. Steve Palazzo (R, MS-4) was first elected in 2010, when he was one of the only candidates willing to challenge then-longtime Rep. Gene Taylor, one of the most conservative Democrats in the House. That year, he was clearly in the right place at the right time — amidst an anti-Obama wave, Taylor, who had a firm grasp on the conservative seat for decades, lost by 5 points. Since then, Palazzo has sometimes been renominated with relatively unimpressive margins: in 2014, Taylor ran for his old seat as a Republican, and nearly forced a runoff, and over the past few cycles, Palazzo has taken under 70% in his primaries.
This year, Palazzo’s opposition seized on a House Ethics Committee report that suggested the congressman had misspent campaign funds. In a field that featured 7 candidates, Palazzo placed first, but took just 32% — Jackson County Sheriff Mike Ezell was next, with 25%. With a June 28 runoff now set, Palazzo will have less than a month to turn things around.
Just to the north, the 3rd District also appears likely to see a runoff. Republican Rep. Michael Guest, who is serving his second term, trailed challenger Michael Cassidy by a 48%-47% margin. Like Smith in New Jersey, Guest voted to establish a Jan. 6 commission — crossing the former president may have been costly with GOP voters because, unlike Smith, Guest does not have decades of good will in his district to fall back on.
While Cassidy is positioning himself as the Trumpier choice, geography will matter in the runoff. Guest, who is from suburban Rankin County, did better in the district’s eastern counties, which are close to Jackson, while Cassidy, who is from Meridian, did better in the more rural areas. When Guest was first elected, he led a crowded primary because he took nearly 75% in Rankin County, which is also the district’s most populous county. In what may be an ominous sign for the incumbent, unofficial returns only have him up 54%-43% in Rankin County.
Because of redistricting, election years that end in “2” tend to see higher rates of incumbent primary losses — with new lines, members can be double-bunked, or given unfamiliar territory. But what makes Mississippi’s primary action this year unusual is that, if Guest and Palazzo come up short in their runoffs, neither loss would be a result of redistricting.
The Golden State’s notoriously slow but methodical vote-counting process means that we wouldn’t draw any conclusions about the vote tallies for now. The top 2 electoral system format can sometimes provide some clues for the fall through comparing the combined Democratic vs. Republican tallies in key races, which we’ll explore in a future issue after the vote count is finished.
There are a few observations we can offer, though.
Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-CA), who soundly survived a recall bid last year, will face state Sen. Brian Dahle (R) in a race we rate as Safe Democratic.
Down the ballot, appointed state Attorney General Rob Bonta (D) easily advanced to the general election. We bring the race up only to note that his potentially strongest general election challenger — Republican-turned-independent Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert — was lagging behind 2 actual Republicans in the race for the right to face Bonta in the general election, and she conceded that she will not be making the top 2. Crystal Ball Senior Columnist Louis Jacobson noted this race recently when discussing avenues for minority parties (like Republicans in California) to compete with dominant parties, such as backing an independent in a key race. Voters did not opt to do that in this race.
Several key congressional matchups were set. There will be another contest between Rep. Mike Garcia (R) and former state Assemblywoman Christy Smith (D) in southern California’s CA-27; Garcia beat Smith in a special election and then a razor-thin general election in 2020 in a district Joe Biden won by about a dozen points. Rep. Michelle Steel (R) will face community college trustee Jay Chen (D) in CA-45, another southern California district. In the Central Valley’s CA-22, state Assemblyman Rudy Salas (D) advanced to the general election, while Rep. David Valadao (R) was leading 2 other Republican rivals in an as-yet-uncalled race. The Congressional Leadership Fund, a heavyweight GOP outside group, made a late investment in the race to prop up Valadao, one of 10 Republicans to back the second impeachment of Donald Trump, as did CLF’s Democratic counterpart, House Majority PAC, in an effort to prevent Valadao from advancing to the general election. We rate all 3 of these races as Toss-ups, and they represent some of the few credible Democratic offensive opportunities in the House.
We’ll have more to say about these races, as well as the Republican targets in the state, after the vote counts become clearer.
Montana and South Dakota
Montana, which had been an at-large state since the 1992 elections, regained its second seat in the 2020 census. The newly-created MT-1, which is the more competitive of its districts, got more attention last night.
Former Rep. Ryan Zinke, who served as Trump’s Interior Secretary, was considered the clear Republican favorite for the GOP nomination in MT-1, but appears to have only limped to the nomination: he leads former state Sen. Al Olszewski by just a 41%-40% spread. This represents Olszewski’s third attempt in 3 cycles to move up: he ran for Senate in 2018 and governor in 2020. Democrats nominated Monica Tranel, a Republican-turned-Democrat who ran with the support of former Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D-MT). The Crystal Ball rates the race as Likely Republican.
Current MT-AL Rep. Matt Rosendale (R), is from the eastern part of the state — he had little competition for the more safely GOP 2nd District.
One state over, in South Dakota, Gov. Kristi Noem (R-SD) was easily renominated for a second term. Noem won a competitive open-seat race in 2018, but we expect her to have an easier time this year.
For a time, Trump seemed to have his sights set on ousting Sen. John Thune (R-SD), who is the second highest-ranking Republican in the Senate. Though Thune seemed somewhat reluctant to seek a 4th term, he is obviously still a popular figure at home — he took the GOP nomination for Senate with over 70%, and carried every county.
In the state’s single congressional district, Rep. Dusty Johnson (R, SD-AL) beat a challenger 59%-41% — Johnson was another supporter of the Jan. 6 commission, which might have cost him some support even as he won handily.
There were not many major surprises in the Land of Enchantment in last night’s primaries, at least in the federal or gubernatorial races.
In redistricting, Democrats targeted first-term Rep. Yvette Herrell (R, NM-2) by turning her Trump-won seat in the southern part of the state into one that would have supported Biden by about 6 points. Gabe Vasquez, a former member of the Las Cruces City Council, was considered a heavy favorite on the Democratic side, and handily won the nomination. Herrell is one of the more conservative members of Congress and is running in a tougher district, but the political environment may be enough for her to secure a second term. We are keeping this race as a Toss-up.
In the gubernatorial race, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM) was unopposed in her primary, and will face former television meteorologist Mark Ronchetti. In 2020, as the GOP nominee for Senate, Ronchetti beat expectations — he lost to now-Sen. Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM) by 6 points, as Trump was losing the state by a margin almost twice as wide. We are holding the race at Leans Democratic, although New Mexico — like Oregon — is a western state where enough ingredients may come together this year to enable a Republican upset.
P.S. Rating change in Oregon
Speaking of Oregon, although its primary was several weeks ago, progressive attorney Jamie McLeod-Skinner (D) only officially was declared the winner over sitting Rep. Kurt Schrader (D, OR-5) right before Memorial Day weekend.
Given the Republican-leaning political environment, the fact that this district is only a little bit more Democratic than the nation, and that it’s now an open seat where a progressive beat a sitting Democrat endorsed by President Biden by running to the left, we’re moving OR-5 from Leans Democratic to Toss-up.
Republicans have not won more than a single House race in Oregon in any cycle since the Republican wave of 1994. Since 1996, the Oregon House delegation has been persistently 4-1 Democratic, with incumbents like Schrader as well as retiring Rep. Peter DeFazio (D, OR-4) holding onto their seats even in bad Democratic years like 2010 and 2014. But these sorts of historical tidbits are only true until they’re not: Republicans, for instance, had not flipped a Democratic-held House seat in California for a couple of decades until they flipped 4 last cycle.
Oregon is adding a 6th House seat this cycle, and Democrats there drew the map with an eye on expanding their majority in the delegation to 5-1. Former Happy Valley Mayor Lori Chavez-DeRemer (R) will try to deny Democrats an edge of that size by flipping OR-5, which voted for Biden 53%-44%.
The single district Republicans have long held in Oregon, eastern Oregon’s OR-2, flipped way back in 1980, also a Republican wave year. Veteran Denny Smith (R) beat Rep. Al Ullman, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and one of several prominent Democrats to lose that year.
Oregon was one of the first states to complete redistricting. We initially called OR-5 Likely Democratic, but it’s now a Toss-up — a rating that moved a couple of slots toward the Republicans. The trajectory of OR-5 ratings is, in a small way, an indication of what we see as the pro-Republican trajectory of this election cycle.
— Kyle Kondik contributed to this article