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Notes on the State of Politics: July 13, 2023

Dear Readers: This is the latest edition of Notes on the State of Politics, which features short updates on elections and politics. Today, we’re taking a quick look at gubernatorial races in Washington and New Hampshire, as well as a flood of losing 2022 House candidates seeking redemption in 2024.

The Editors

Table 1: Crystal Ball gubernatorial rating change

Governor Old Rating New Rating
WA Open (Inslee, D) Safe Democratic Likely Democratic

Governors: Washington state and (possibly) New Hampshire getting more competitive?

Last week, former Rep. Dave Reichert (R, WA-8) entered Washington state’s open-seat gubernatorial contest. Reichert, who represented the suburban Seattle 8th District for several terms, gives Republicans a strong name in a state that Joe Biden carried by a 58%-39% margin in 2020 and is expected to easily carry again.

Under Washington state’s open primary system, all candidates run on the same primary ballot and the top two candidates, regardless of party, advance to a general election. With three-term Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee stepping aside, the two strongest candidates vying to replace him have been a pair of sitting statewide Democrats: state Attorney General Bob Ferguson and state Land Commissioner Hilary Franz. With Reichert in the race, and assuming he can consolidate the lion’s share of the Republican vote, a general election featuring both Ferguson and Franz at least looks less likely.

For the 14 years that Reichert served in Congress, he was always among the roster of crossover members: since 1992, his 8th District supported Democratic nominees for president, though often by narrow margins, but had sent only Republicans to the House until 2018. Reichert won the seat in 2004 with about 52%, a few points better than George W. Bush’s 48% in the district. Reichert had previously served as the King County (Seattle) sheriff. After winning several close races, he seemed to have the district locked down by 2012 (thanks in part to redistricting). In his final House race, in 2016, he was reelected 60%-40% as Donald Trump lost WA-8 by three points.

So Reichert was clearly a strong performer. But in 2018, now-Rep. Kim Schrier (D) defeated a well-known Republican, former gubernatorial and Senate nominee Dino Rossi, to win the open WA-8 by five points. We suspect that if Reichert stood for reelection that year instead of retiring, he might have lost — heading into the 2018 election, 25 House Republicans held Hillary Clinton-won seats, but that number dropped to just 3 after Trump’s midterm. There’s also the fact that, oftentimes, it’s easier for one to win higher office while they hold another office. Reichert is not a sitting incumbent, and he has been out of office for several years now.

Democrats have also won the past 10 gubernatorial elections in Washington state, a streak second only to neighboring Oregon (where they have won 11 straight contests, thanks to a special gubernatorial election in 2016 adding an extra election to the list). Still, the five most recent gubernatorial races in Washington have all been closer than the concurrent presidential races in the state, so there does seem to be a bloc of split-ticket voters.

For now, we are moving the Washington state contest from Safe Democratic to Likely Democratic, as Reichert gives the GOP a real recruit in the race. The (likely) presence of Trump atop the ballot will be an obvious drag for Republicans in this blue state. Of course, it’s also within the realm of possibility that someone runs to Reichert’s right and advances to the general election ahead of him, too — in which case, this race would almost certainly move back to Safe Democratic.

Last year, in a cycle full of conflicting signals, one of the best, although not perfect, electoral indicators was Washington state’s August primary — the combined party results can provide a preview for the fall. For instance, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) won reelection last year by a little under 15 points, and the two-party vote in the first round of voting also favored Democrats by about that margin. If next year’s primary looks good for Democrats — or, conversely, promising for Republicans — we’ll consider adjusting accordingly.

Moving from the northwest to the northeast, we are watching developments in the Granite State. In this light blue state, popular four-term GOP Gov. Chris Sununu is coming under some pressure to announce his 2024 plans. After declining to launch what would have been a longshot presidential run earlier this year, Sununu is increasingly sounding like he’s leaning against a reelection bid, although he has not made a formal announcement. Former state Senate President Chuck Morse (R), former Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R), state Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut (R), and potentially others could seek an open-seat nomination.

While the Granite State’s GOP field is somewhat frozen, pending a Sununu announcement, the Democratic primary is already developing. Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig got into the race earlier this week. She joins another high-profile Democrat who is already running, state Executive Councilor Cinde Warmington.

With the exception of next-door Vermont, which also has a popular GOP governor who may or may not run again, an open-seat gubernatorial contest in New Hampshire would be Democrats’ best pickup opportunity in this cycle’s gubernatorial races. The Crystal Ball rates both states as Likely Republican, although that rating is essentially a placeholder in both cases.

The House: Back for more

A theme of recent House reporting has been a flood of unsuccessful 2022 candidates coming back for more in 2024.

Just in the last several days, we’ve seen announcements from Democrats Monica Tranel, seeking a rematch with Rep. Ryan Zinke (R, MT-1); Tony Vargas, against Rep. Don Bacon (R, NE-2); Jamie McLeod-Skinner, against Rep. Lori Chavez-DeRemer (R, OR-5); as well as Republicans Mayra Flores, who won a special election for the old, less blue version of TX-34 before losing to Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D) in the current district last fall; and Tom Barrett, who is running again in the open MI-7 after losing to now-Senate candidate Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D). Additionally, Kevin Dellicker (R) and Rebecca Cooke (D) recently announced they would be taking another stab at PA-7 and WI-3, respectively, after losing primaries in 2022. Another newly-announced former candidate is ex-Rep. Mondaire Jones (D), who got pushed out of a Hudson Valley seat by former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Sean Patrick Maloney (D, NY-17) last year following redistricting. Jones unsuccessfully sought reelection in a New York City-based seat, NY-10, last year, but he finished third in the primary as now-Rep. Dan Goldman (D) won the district. Now he’s running in NY-17 again for the right to face Rep. Mike Lawler (R), who unseated Maloney in November. Also running there is Liz Gereghty (D), a local school board member and the sister of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D). This sets up an interesting primary that is likely to have an ideological component, with Jones positioned to the left of Gereghty.

So, did you digest everything in the last paragraph? Good. Because that’s just new developments from the past several days. There are many other repeat candidates who have already announced or who appear likely to run. Of the 44 House districts we rate in the most competitive categories — Toss-ups or Leaning Democratic/Republican — we expect more than half to feature at least one repeat candidate (granted, some of these repeat candidacies were previous primary losers or someone, like Jones, who is running in a different district than he or she did last time).

This feels like a lot of repeat candidates, but it’s certainly not uncommon for candidates who lost in one cycle to come back and triumph in the next. Repeat candidates were an important part of the GOP’s House gains over the past couple of cycles, which collectively allowed Republicans to flip the House from the Democrats.

Among the newly-elected House members from competitive seats who are part of the new Republican majority, Reps. Anna Paulina Luna (R, FL-13), Tom Kean Jr. (R, NJ-7), George Santos (R, NY-3), Monica De La Cruz (R, TX-15), and Derrick Van Orden (R, WI-3) lost general elections in 2020 but came back to win in 2022 (all benefited from retirements, redistricting, or both). Additionally, Rep. Marc Molinaro (R, NY-19) lost a 2022 special election in a differently-configured district before winning in November; Rep. John James (R, MI-10) had lost Senate general elections in 2018 and 2020 before winning his House seat; and the aforementioned Ryan Zinke had previously served in the House prior to a stint as Secretary of the Interior under President Trump. In 2020, Republicans beat 13 House Democratic incumbents; 5 of those victors lost general elections in 2018. Also in 2020, Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R, IA-1) flipped an open Democratic seat by six votes; she had lost previous House races in 2008, 2010, and 2014.

On the other hand, do-over candidates did not feature prominently in the 2018 Democratic wave: The Democrats who flipped more than three dozen Republican-held House seats that year were almost entirely newcomers to House elections.

Whether someone is a repeat candidate doesn’t seem to matter in and of itself. In fact, recruiting a former candidate can be comforting to the parties, because experienced candidates are already vetted (by their opponent in the last campaign) and may have some residual name ID, in addition to having at least some exposure to donors. But clearly some repeat candidates are more wanted by party leaders than others.

For instance, Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez (D, WA-3) is arguably the most vulnerable House Democrat, at least on paper. She won her seat in large part because the far-right Joe Kent (R) beat out ex-Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R) in the state’s top-two primary last year and then performed poorly in the general election. Kent is running again. Just south of WA-3, national Democrats last cycle bemoaned the candidacy of the left-wing McLeod-Skinner, who defeated the more moderate former Rep. Kurt Schrader (D, OR-5) in a primary and then lost to Chavez-DeRemer in November. She is also running again. That said, both Kent and McLeod-Skinner lost close races in 2022 in districts that their respective party’s presidential candidates are likelier than not to win in 2024, which could allow both to triumph, assuming both advance to the general election (McLeod-Skinner, in particular, faces very real opposition in her primary).

More broadly, we’d like to repeat something we told Axios’s Josh Kraushaar over the weekend: We’re in an extremely competitive period in the House, with two consecutive Houses featuring just 222-213 majorities. With such razor-thin majorities, all of these candidate choices are magnified, because it’s not impossible that a single blown race could decide the majority. This reality may prompt elites in both parties to prefer the known over the unknown — at least when the known is not known to be weak. And it may also be that with the majority in doubt, repeat candidates on both sides want to run not only because they believe that they can win, but also that if they get to Congress, they’ll be in the majority.