Skip links

Notes on the State of Politics: April 24, 2024

Dear Readers: This is the latest edition of Notes on the State of Politics, which features shorter updates on campaigns and elections. Today we’re looking at last night’s Pennsylvania primary results—and the finally finalized results of the top-two congressional primaries in California from last month.

— The Editors

The Pennsylvania primary

Table 1: Crystal Ball House rating change

District Old Rating New Rating
Scott Perry (R, PA-10) Likely Republican Leans Republican

The Keystone State’s primary was Tuesday night; given that President Biden and former President Trump have long been the presumptive nominees of their respective parties and that Sen. Bob Casey (D) and businessman Dave McCormick (R) were unopposed for the major-party Senate nominations, we want to focus our coverage on the state’s U.S. House primaries—including a rating change.

The main story in Pennsylvania’s House races is Democratic defense—specifically, whether Republicans can knock off Rep. Susan Wild (D, PA-7) in a very narrow Biden-won district covering the Lehigh Valley or Rep. Matt Cartwright (D, PA-8) in a Trump +3 district covering part of northeastern Pennsylvania, including President Biden’s birthplace of Scranton. We rate both races as Toss-ups.

Cartwright’s opponent, construction company CEO Rob Bresnahan (R), was unopposed in the primary. Republicans chose state Rep. Ryan Mackenzie (R) to run against Wild. Wild and Cartwright had immense cash-on-hand edges over their general election opponents as of the first quarter of 2024, although Bresnahan has some self-funding capacity (he loaned his campaign $400,000 in the first quarter). Mackenzie, meanwhile, did not even crack six figures in the first quarter and will need to hope fundraising picks up now that he is the nominee (he did get some outside primary help from Americans for Prosperity, the conservative group associated with the Koch family); PA-7 is a Toss-up only because it is an extremely swingy district, as Biden won it by less than a point.

In western Pennsylvania, Rep. Chris Deluzio (D, PA-17) was already set to take on state Rep. Rob Mercuri (R) in a blue-trending Biden +6 suburban Pittsburgh district that we rate as Leans Democratic. Deluzio’s money edge over Mercuri isn’t quite as intimidating as the two aforementioned eastern Pennsylvania Democratic incumbents, but he’s still got a nearly 3-to-1 cash on hand edge and is fighting on friendlier partisan terrain (we rate this race as Leans Democratic). Also in the Pittsburgh area, left-wing Rep. Summer Lee (D, PA-12) won her primary over a more centrist challenger 61%-39% in a race that could have attracted spending from pro-Israel groups but didn’t.

Democrats are hoping to play some offense in Pennsylvania House races, but their targets are harder. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R, PA-1) has held down his Biden +4.5 district with relative ease, as he has voted against his own party at times, which generates some primary opposition but very likely helps in general elections. Fitzpatrick dispatched a challenger to his right, Mark Houck, by a spread almost identical to Lee’s victory. He’ll face a rematch with 2022 challenger Ashley Ehasz (D) in the fall; he beat her by 10 points last time.

Democrats are likely more interested in challenging Rep. Scott Perry (R, PA-10), whose association with Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election and hard-right voting record are not necessarily a great fit for a GOP-leaning but blue-trending district centered on the Harrisburg area. For instance, Perry was one of only two Republican House members running for reelection in districts we rate as something other than Safe Republican to vote against both aid to Ukraine and weapons for Israel/aid for Gaza over the weekend (Rep. Ryan Zinke of MT-1 was the other).

Trump won the district by 4 points in 2020, and television doctor Mehmet Oz (R) won it by a point in his ill-fated campaign against now-Sen. John Fetterman (D-PA) in 2022. In their primary, Democrats selected an interesting nominee, Janelle Stelson. While she does not live in the district, Stelson is likely well-known across it thanks to a long career as a local television news anchor. House Majority PAC, the outside group connected to Democratic House leadership, recently included a $2.4 million reservation in the Harrisburg media market as part of a major list of advertising reservations for the fall, signaling Democrats’ intention to compete in the district, although such reservations are not etched in stone. Stelson’s fundraising (a little under $300,000 in the first quarter) was not that great by what has become the lofty standard for Democratic candidates, but it very well may pick up now that she is the nominee after emerging from a multicandidate primary. Perry, meanwhile, raised a little under $500,000 although his cash on hand (also currently about $500,000) has been stagnant over the past several quarters, so he’s not really building much of a warchest, which could give Stelson a chance to catch up fast if she gets a fundraising boost post-primary. Stelson did attract a negative headline lately involving a clumsy, racial joke (see the link for the details) she made on the air several years ago; it probably doesn’t mean much on its own but someone who was on TV a lot over the course of many years could have produced more fodder for oppo researchers to find.

We have rated both PA-10 and Fitzpatrick’s PA-1 as Likely Republican. Ultimately it may be that Perry’s district is the better target for Democrats despite its much clearer Republican partisan lean; Perry probably will still be OK thanks to being in a Trump district, but it does seem more competitive now. We’re going to move it from Likely Republican to Leans Republican.

Looking back on the California top-two primary

California finally certified its top-two primary results earlier this month. We sometimes mine these results for clues about the fall, but this time we’ve decided not to change any ratings in reaction to the first round of voting.

California looms large in the race for the House. Three Republicans won districts there in 2022 that Joe Biden carried by double-digits in the 2020 presidential race: Reps. John Duarte (R, CA-13) and David Valadao (R, CA-22) in the Central Valley and Mike Garcia (R, CA-27) in the northern Los Angeles exurbs. Across the entire country, Republicans only won five double-digit Biden districts total (the other two were Reps. Mike Lawler and Anthony D’Esposito in New York, another dark blue state where Republicans punched above their weight in the House in 2022). Additionally, Democrats are defending another open double-digit Biden seat in California, Orange County’s CA-47, which Rep. Katie Porter (D) left behind in her unsuccessful bid for U.S. Senate this year. It is a credible Republican target despite its presidential lean (Porter finished a distant third in the top-two Senate primary). Those are our four Toss-ups in California.

The general rule in California top-two U.S. House primaries is that if Democrats get 50% or more of the two-party vote in the first round of voting, they will win the seat in the fall—they have never lost a House election when they crossed that 50% threshold, dating back to the introduction of the state’s current top-two system back in 2012 (we went through the history in-depth back in February). Meanwhile, Democrats can sometimes come back and win races in November where they fall below 50% in the first round of voting. Because California’s primary is an all-party primary, it can simulate the November election, but there is enough variation from the primary to the general that we can’t really look at the primary as being totally predictive of what will happen down the road.

Table 1 considers the first-round results in the House districts we rate as something other than Safe Democratic or Safe Republican. Pay particular attention to the column in the middle of Table 1, which shows the 2024 two-party results for this year’s primary. This table uses the two-party Democratic vote share for all of the categories; remember that the Republican vote share is just the Democratic share subtracted from 100%.

Table 1: Democratic two-party share in selected California House districts

Source: California Secretary of State for 2022 and 2024 results; Dave’s Redistricting App for 2020 two-party district-level presidential calculations

In the four Toss-up races, the Republican vote share was roughly 3%-4% better in CA-13, CA-27, and CA-47 when comparing 2022 to 2024, while it was basically the same in CA-22. Across the 10 districts, the results were more mixed, with the GOP doing better than 2022 in 6 districts and the Democrats doing better in 4. Overall, Republicans are defending 7 of these 10 districts, but they finished above 50% of the two-party vote in 9 of the 10. That seems good for Republicans, and perhaps we will look back after November’s election and find that these results will have been predictive, but it’s hard to have confidence that they will be in advance.

That’s because California does not have a consistent pattern when comparing the primary results to the general. As we wrote in our preview of the California primary, the average Democratic district-level vote share (on average) improved from the primary to the general in 2012, 2014, and 2018, while the Republican vote share improved in 2016, 2020, and 2022. It seems quite possible that this will be a year more like 2012, 2014, and 2018 because the Republicans were holding a more active presidential primary concurrent with the down-ballot primary this year, whereas the Democrats were in that position in both 2016 and 2020 (and 2022 was, at least in California, a GOP-leaning midterm year).

The turnout mix in the 2024 primary was a little more Republican than 2022. According to figures provided to us by California election expert Paul Mitchell, the party registration composition of the 2022 statewide primary electorate was 51% Democratic and 30% Republican (with the remainder not registered with either major party). That mirrored the Democrats’ current 22-point party registration edge statewide. In the 2024 primary, the Democratic edge was 49%-33%, so 5 points smaller than 2022 on net. In other words, the 2024 primary electorate had less of a Democratic lean than the 2022 one did, which might explain why the Republicans more often did better in these key districts in 2024’s primary than 2022’s.

This makes some sense: While the GOP presidential primary was not exactly raging in early March, Nikki Haley was still an active candidate (California voted on Super Tuesday), while Joe Biden never had a real primary challenge. So the jump from a presidential primary season where Republicans had more reason to vote to a presidential general election could (should?) create a bluer electorate, which might allow Democrats to come back in some of these districts.

That might particularly be the case in districts like CA-13, featuring a rematch between Duarte and former state Assemblyman Adam Gray (D), and CA-27, where Garcia will face wealthy former Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides (D). The Democratic primary vote share in both districts was down notably from 2022, but there also really wasn’t any action in either primary that might have driven turnout.

CA-22, where Valadao will face a rematch with former state Assemblyman Rudy Salas (D), saw a lot of outside spending as both Republicans and (especially) Democrats tried to set up this general election. That may be part of the reason why the Democratic vote share there was stable from 2022 to 2024. That said, in CA-47, the Democratic vote share still declined from the 2022 primary to the 2024 primary despite a competitive intraparty Democratic skirmish won by state Sen. Dave Min (D), who will face 2022 Republican candidate Scott Baugh (R) in November. Democrats still got 48.6% of the two-party vote there, which historically is not much of a deficit for Democrats to make up in November.

The other Democratic-held seat besides CA-47 where the Democrats got under 50% of the two-party vote was CA-9, held by Rep. Josh Harder (D), although he was only a few tenths of a point under that cutoff line. Harder also saw the Democratic share in his district improve markedly from primary to general in 2022, and we can see something similar happening this time, although Republicans do like their nominee there, Stockton Mayor Kevin Lincoln (R). We still see that as a Likely Democratic district although it does remain a dark horse Republican target. The Central Valley, in general, is important to watch for signs of a possible GOP shift among Latinos, which some polling has indicated.

If Republicans do in fact hold their own in these targeted districts in the November general election despite arguably having a motivation edge in the primary, it might suggest that there has been an enduring shift in California, and that the Democrats shouldn’t really be expected to improve from the primary to the general election in the top-two, as they did in 2012, 2014, and 2018. But we need to see what actually happens in 2024 before making that judgment.