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Notes on the State of Politics: Feb. 23, 2022

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 Senate rating change

Senator Old Rating New Rating
Patty Murray (D-WA) Safe Democratic Likely Democratic

Washington Senate to Likely Democratic

While the action in swing states — and districts — usually soaks up much of the attention, one of the telltale signs of a wave is that areas that are normally secure for one side start to feel less so. This year, Washington state, as was the case there in 2010, may be falling into the latter category.

Last week, a poll from Public Policy Polling that was done for the Northwest Progressive Institute showed Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) up by a 50%-41% margin over her likely general election opponent, Republican Tiffany Smiley. Perhaps significantly, while Murray has hovered around 50% in their last few surveys, Smiley gained 4 points since the group’s November poll, pushing the race into single-digit territory.

As we explored earlier this month, Washington state — which Joe Biden carried by 19 points in 2020 — is quite an uphill climb for Republicans. But even before PPP’s last poll, we were seeing signs that the race may not be completely off the table.

A political newcomer, Smiley has an uplifting life story: a nurse whose husband was blinded during service in Iraq, she has worked as an advocate for veterans. After an April 2021 launch, her campaign began getting the attention of national Republicans: Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL), who is overseeing the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s efforts, mentioned her when discussing sleeper races where the GOP may be unexpectedly competitive.

During the final quarter of 2021, Smiley raised close to $1 million. That is a notable haul, especially for a Republican in a state as blue as Washington (although Murray has a significant cash on hand advantage).

Aside from the lean of her state and her monetary advantage, Murray has some strengths of her own. Since she was first elected in 1992, running as a “mom in tennis shoes,” she has risen to the No. 3 position within the Democratic conference. At home, one local paper summed her up as a “scrappy defender” of the state’s interests — that grit has sometimes come in handy on the campaign trail.

Compared to her home state colleague, Maria Cantwell (D-WA) — who, aside from her initial election in 2000, has had easy Senate races in blue cycles — Murray’s seat has come up in years that were less favorable to Democrats. While Republicans didn’t seriously challenge her in 2016, in 2010, they found a strong recruit in former state Sen. Dino Rossi. Rossi was well-known after coming out on the losing end of two competitive gubernatorial races, and he seemed to turn the contest into a legitimate Toss-up.

Murray kept her seat by a little under 5 percentage points in 2010, but Rossi’s showing represented just over a 12-point shift in the GOP’s favor from the 2008 presidential result in the state. Even if Republicans could replicate that overperformance this year, they’d still have to make up some ground, as Washington may just be a bluer state today than it was a dozen years ago. However, something to note may be that, according to Gallup’s tracking polls, Barack Obama’s national approval was only slightly underwater in the weeks leading up to the 2010 election. As we have mentioned often, averages from the 2 major aggregators, RealClearPolitics and FiveThirtyEight, have Biden in a weaker position: for the past few months, his approval ratings have been in the low-40s — something that is certainly making Democrats nervous.

With that in mind, we are moving the Washington Senate race to Likely Democratic. While we continue to see Murray as a clear favorite, Republicans aren’t ignoring the contest, and the race could be a reminder that the midterm drag that often besets the White House’s party typically isn’t limited to just politically marginal states.

Rhode Island completes redistricting

Like its western neighbor, Connecticut (which the Crystal Ball covered last week), Rhode Island enacted a new congressional map that made almost no changes to its prior arrangement. The plan that Gov. Dan McKee (D-RI) signed on Friday passed the legislature with overwhelming majorities and keeps all municipalities whole, with the exception of the state capital of Providence — a few precincts there were shifted between the state’s 2 districts.

RI-1 is essentially the eastern district. It takes in a few northern towns in the Blackstone Valley then runs south to include Newport. Recent GOP nominees have struggled to crack 35% of the vote there, so Rep. David Cicilline (D, RI-1) should have a safe seat.

RI-2, the geographically larger seat that borders Connecticut, is an open seat — Democratic Rep. Jim Langevin is retiring after 11 terms. With more of a rural component than RI-1, RI-2 is also the less Democratic of the pair: from 1996 to 2012, Democratic nominees for president earned, or were close to, 60% in the district — then, in 2016, Hillary Clinton carried it by only a 50%-43% margin. Though the district snapped back a bit in 2020 (Biden carried it 56%-42%), we went into the cycle thinking of RI-2 as a reach Republican target, despite the fact that the GOP has not won a House race in Rhode Island for nearly 3 decades.

In addition to Langevin’s retirement and the longer-term Democratic erosion at the top of the ticket, Republicans have something else working in their favor: They drew a serious recruit. Last week, just before the new map was finalized, former Cranston Mayor Allan Fung got into the race — he was the GOP’s nominee in the state’s last 2 gubernatorial races. Fung carried the district 41%-37% in 2014 — he lost statewide by about that same margin, in a contest that evolved into a 3-way race. He fared worse in 2018, but did have some obvious pull in Cranston, which is one of the largest cities in the district.

On the Democratic side, the frontrunner is state Treasurer Seth Magaziner, although the field could get more crowded — it has been 12 years since Rhode Island last saw an open House seat. Magaziner, or most any competent Democrat, would emerge from the primary as a favorite, but we would not write off Fung’s chances in a GOP wave-style environment. We are starting RI-2 off as Likely Democratic.

MN-1 special election set

In what made for some unfortunate news last week, Rep. Jim Hagedorn (R, MN-1) passed away — the Minnesota Republican had been fighting cancer. Hagedorn made 2 unsuccessful attempts at MN-1 in 2014 and 2016 — losing to now-Gov. Tim Walz (D-MN) — before narrowly winning it in 2018, when Walz vacated it to run for governor. He held it in another close contest in 2020. But we are not expecting the imminent special election to be as competitive.

First, it may be important to note that while the district became slightly more Democratic in redistricting, the special election — which will feature a May 24 primary, and an Aug. 9 general election — will be held under the old configuration. Trump carried the current district by a tick over 10 points, which was bumped down to about 9 points for the new seat.

As the 1st District includes the state’s entire southern border, it is the Minnesota district that is most similar to Iowa. Electorally, that has worked out to the GOP’s benefit.

In 2012, MN-1 was among 3 Minnesota districts that Obama carried with a plurality, the others being MN-2 and MN-3, which are more in the orbit of the Twin Cities. While Biden performed markedly better than Obama in the 2nd and 3rd districts, MN-1 has since moved double-digits in the GOP’s direction. Map 1 considers 2012 and 2020 presidential vote, grouping MN-1’s counties by their partisan loyalty.

Map 1: Current MN-1, 2012 vs 2020

Four blue counties, which account for close to half the district’s population, supported both Obama and Biden. Not surprisingly, they include the most populous counties in the district: Olmsted, which houses Rochester (the site of the renowned Mayo Clinic), and Blue Earth, which centers on Mankato. These counties, collectively, were remarkably stable between the elections: Biden carried them by the same 52%-45% as Obama.

Almost 20% of the district comes from 4 Obama-to-Trump southeastern counties, and this is where the GOP’s recent inroads become more obvious. This part of the district, in purple, gave Obama and Trump the exact same 55.6%. Mower County (where the Hormel Foods processing company is a large employer) seems emblematic of this area: after Obama won it by over 20 points in both his elections, Trump carried it by 5-8% twice. Until 2016, Mower was the most Democratic county in the district, but in a sign of the times, it has been replaced by Olmsted — in the latter, 45% of residents over 25 have a college degree, a number double that of the former (22%).

Finally, the Republican-leaning counties in the district are located in the central and western parts of MN-1, and they account for nearly 40% of the votes. Trump carrying these counties by over 30 points, instead of Mitt Romney’s 10.5, has done much to pull the district rightward.

There are several GOP legislators who are considering the race, though the district may stay in family hands: Hagedorn’s widow, Jennifer Carnahan, has been mentioned as a possible candidate, although she was forced out as the state’s Republican Party chairwoman last year amidst some scandals.

The timing of the Aug. 9 special election may work in the GOP’s favor, as it will be held in conjunction with the regular statewide primary. As most of the statewide offices that will be up this year feature Democratic incumbents, Republicans will likely have more competitive primaries (especially for governor), which could help draw their partisans out. The winner of the special election will have to run in the November general, just months later, which may dissuade Democrats from investing in the race. Though we will be watching how the field develops, we’re starting the race as Safe Republican.

The low stakes CA-22 special

Speaking of special elections, there is another one coming up this spring in CA-22 in California’s Central Valley. This 52%-46% Trump-won seat is redder down-ballot, although lightning rod former Rep. Devin Nunes (R) only won here with 52% and 54%, respectively, in 2018 and 2020. Nunes left office to go work for Trump’s new media company, leaving the seat vacant.

Unlike MN-1, whose winner may be set up for a long career in Congress, the CA-22 winner very well could serve for less than a year. California’s independent redistricting commission essentially detonated the current CA-22, meaning that there isn’t a great place for whoever wins it to run in November. The election features an all-party first round of voting on April 5; if no one gets over 50%, the top 2 finishers advance to a runoff on June 7, the same day as the state’s regularly-scheduled primary. The filing deadline for the regular election is March 11, so the special election candidates will have to make a decision on if and where they want to run in the regular election before they know how they performed in the first round of this special election.

There are 2 Democrats and 4 Republicans running. The most prominent candidates are both Republicans: former state Assembly Minority Leader Connie Conway (who has said she is only seeking this unexpired term) and Elizabeth Heng, who challenged Rep. Jim Costa (D, CA-16) in 2018 and has not indicated where she plans to run in the regular election. Because of the odd election format, the low stakes on account of the district being eliminated in its current form, and the fact that there are double the number of Republicans running as Democrats (leaving open the very slight possibility that 2 Democrats could advance to the general election), we’ll call this race Likely Republican.

Something to monitor in next week’s Texas primary

If the pair of upcoming special elections may seem boring to election enthusiasts, we do have some good news: the 2022 primary season is less than a week away. Texas, which is usually towards the beginning of the primary calendar, will vote on March 1, although there will then be a 2-month wait until the primary season resumes in May.

Though primaries are not a perfect indicator of how general elections may pan out, they sometimes offer hints — higher turnout on one side, for instance, may indicate stronger levels of enthusiasm.

About a month ago, we downgraded the Democrats’ prospects in a couple of South Texas House districts. Considering some factors, like the general trend of the area, the national environment, and the quality of the candidates, we think that 2022 has the potential to be a breakout cycle for the GOP in the area. Naturally, we will be looking for signs of this in next week’s primary.

Texas lacks party registration, but tracking the partisan composition of primaries — looking at how many voters cast ballots on each side — can serve as something of a proxy.

Table 2 considers Texas primaries from 2014 to 2020. Of the state’s 254 counties, 13 cast over 90% of their ballots on the Democratic side, on average.

Table 2: >90% Democratic counties in TX primaries, 2014-2020

All 13 of these counties are overwhelmingly Hispanic, and 10 are located in South Texas (the other 3 are sparsely-populated counties in West Texas’s Big Bend Country). In aggregate, the 13 counties in Table 1 favored Hillary Clinton by nearly 50 percentage points (73%-24%) in 2016 but went for Biden by a much closer 58%-41% in 2020.

If the Democratic share of ballots cast in the primary is down in these counties — even if it is still a heavy majority — it may be another sign voters there are becoming more receptive to the GOP. In other words, voting Republican in a high-turnout presidential race is one thing (as a large minority of voters in South Texas did for Trump), but higher rates of GOP participation in down-ballot primaries would suggest the inroads that Trump made in 2020 are solidifying.

Though Democrats have a high-profile primary in TX-28, Republican primaries in the area will be livelier than in past cycles. Among the 3 South Texas congressional districts (TX-15, TX-28, TX-34), 20 Republicans will be on the primary ballot next week — this is up from just 6 in 2020. There are favorites in each GOP race, but that increase stood out to us.

We will have more to say on this, and about other parts of the state, after the results are in. In the meantime, political analyst John Couvillon has been posting daily updates on the early vote count.

— Kyle Kondik contributed to this article.