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Notes on the State of Politics: July 14, 2021

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

This week, we’re happy to once again welcome one of our interns, Parakram Karnik, who wrote the first item below, on some of Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s (R-AK) problems with Republicans. We think it’s a little premature to count out Murkowski, but Parakram makes a compelling argument that she is in more trouble than is perhaps commonly thought.

— The Editors

An uphill fight for Murkowski?

Over the weekend, the Alaska Republican State Central Committee endorsed former Alaska Department of Administration Commissioner Kelly Tshibaka over three-term incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski. Tshibaka, more notably, is also backed by former President Donald Trump. Alaska does have a new election system that could hypothetically help Murkowski, but the lack of official support from her fellow Republican leaders may very well reflect a lack of support from rank-and-file Republicans in Alaska, too.

A poll from Change Research conducted in late May shows that 59% of likely voters in Alaska have an unfavorable view of Murkowski while only 26% view her favorably. A small 6% of Alaska Republicans hold a favorable view of the senator while 84% hold an unfavorable view. The same poll shows former President Donald Trump having an 85% favorable rating with Republicans. It is reasonable to infer that very few Republicans hold a favorable view of both Trump and Murkowski simultaneously. This is problematic in a state that Trump won 53%-43% in 2020. About half of independents hold an unfavorable view of her (52%) while just about a third (32%) view her favorably. One small piece of good news for Murkowski is that she is above water with Democrats, at 48%-32% favorable with 20% neutral.

It is important to note that Change Research is a Democratic pollster. So too is Public Policy Polling, which last summer found her with similarly poor approval numbers (29% approve, 55% disapprove). Additionally, a poll for Tshibaka conducted by the GOP firm Cygnal several months ago also reported weak favorability numbers for Murkowski. One could argue that all of these pollsters are incentivized to make Murkowski look bad, but the numbers are what they are. Murkowski’s position is more than a little reminiscent of former Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) in the early stages of the 2018 cycle. The Trump critic later decided to retire, and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) now holds his seat.

Murkowski has won very tough races before. In 2010, she won as a write-in third party option, defeating both Republican Joe Miller and Democrat Scott McAdams after Miller beat her in the Republican primary. However, Murkowski won in 2010 with less than 40% of the vote thanks to Alaska utilizing the first-past-the-post system at the time. This time, Alaska is using a dramatically new electoral system. That system could help Murkowski because she no longer has to win a partisan primary. But it also doesn’t guarantee her victory.

A further explanation of that system is warranted. In 2020, Alaskans approved Ballot Measure 2 by a narrow, one-point margin. This measure drastically changed the way down-ballot races work in the state. Previously, Alaska used the same system as many other states: candidates are nominated in partisan primaries and then advance to the general election, and the person who gets the most votes wins (in other words, there’s no runoff in the primary or the general election). Measure 2 has abolished partisan primaries and created a single jungle primary where candidates of all parties compete. The four candidates who receive the most votes then advance to the general election, which now utilizes ranked-choice voting. Voters will rank the candidates in the general election from first to fourth. If no candidate clears 50% on the first-choice votes, the candidate with the fewest votes gets eliminated, with those votes redistributed to the other candidates based on their second-preference choices. This process of elimination and redistribution repeats until a candidate passes 50%, thereby winning the election. There is a pending lawsuit over the system in state court, but, as of now, this is the system that will be in place for next year’s elections.

Another difference between Murkowski’s previous win and now is that, in 2010, her support cut more broadly across party lines. Of course, Murkowski received Democratic support, especially from Alaska’s Native communities. However, she also netted support from Republicans, which was a key factor that allowed her to beat Miller in 2010. Murkowski won in 2016 with just 44%, as she faced opponents to both her left and right (she was the GOP nominee that year, though). It’s clear that any route to victory for Murkowski in 2022 needs to incorporate cross-sectional support; having 84% of Republicans and 52% of independents viewing her unfavorably, as the Change poll suggests, seems like a dangerous way to start her campaign. Murkowski has not officially announced another run for office.

One wonders if Murkowski could eventually decide to leave the GOP, perhaps running as an independent and even caucusing with Democrats. While this would probably destroy what little support she has left in the Republican party, it may allow her to prevent a challenge from the left and consolidate Democratic support behind her. If these numbers are to be believed, it may be a cunning electoral strategy. However, just like Joe Manchin (D-WV), who is sometimes mentioned as a possible party-switcher, her party label may run more than skin-deep. Two decades ago, Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont left the GOP and became an independent who caucused with Democrats, giving the Democrats a 51-49 Senate majority in the first two years of George W. Bush’s presidency. Jeffords retired in 2006, and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) won his seat.

If Murkowski decides to remain a Republican, state Democrats may smell blood. The Change Research poll showed Murkowski failing to make it to the final two in a hypothetical three-way race between herself, Tshibaka, and Al Gross, a Democratic-aligned independent who ran in 2020 against Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) and could run again. In the aforementioned poll, Tshibaka received 39%, Gross received 25%, and Murkowski received 19% in the first-preference round. Interestingly, this same poll predicted Tshibaka winning 54%-46% over Gross in the final round; this is a surprisingly close result for Alaska and worrying for Tshibaka, who is an undefined candidate. Thus, the conventional wisdom that says Democrats should defer to Murkowski and not field a challenger to her left may be incorrect, and Democrats may see an opening to flip a state that has been getting less Republican over the last two decades (but is still definitely right of center). However, one should take all of this with a grain of salt, as polling often overshot Gross’s chances of victory in 2020.

The Crystal Ball still rates the Alaska Senate race Safe Republican, although that rating takes into account the possibility of either Tshibaka or Murkowski winning as Republicans. But this is becoming a more fascinating contest both because of Murkowski’s problems in her own party and the unusual election system the state has adopted.

Narrow Republican House losers gearing up for 2022

Last week, two Republican House challengers who narrowly lost in 2020, Wesley Hunt in Texas and Jesse Jensen in Washington, officially announced that they are going to run again in 2022. Meanwhile, former Rep. Anthony Brindisi (D), who lost to now-Rep. Claudia Tenney (R, NY-22) by just 109 votes last year, took a pass on running against Tenney for a third straight time, opting instead to announce on Monday that he is running for a judgeship.

The recent decisions by Republicans Hunt and Jensen and Democrat Brindisi contribute to a growing trend in the 2022 House landscape, which is that more Republicans who finished on the wrong end of close contests last November are opting to run again for the House compared to Democrats who lost close races.

In 2020, there were 45 House races decided by six points or less based on Daily Kos Elections’ accounting of the results. Democrats won 24 of those races, and Republicans won 21 of them.

So far, 11 of the 24 Republicans who lost those races to Democrats are running or appear very likely to run again at this point of the cycle, while just two of the 21 losing Democrats are running or appear very likely to run again.

Keep in mind, we’re in a redistricting cycle, and redistricting has been delayed by the slow delivery of the 2020 census data needed to draw districts. So candidate decisions may very well be more backloaded than usual this cycle as contenders wait to see what the new districts look like. Some candidates who have announced may end up running in vastly different districts than they did in 2020. For instance, Hunt — who challenged Rep. Lizzie Pannill Fletcher (D, TX-7) in a Democratic-trending suburban Houston district last year — may run in a different district than Fletcher once the Texas map is finalized. It may also be that some former candidates who are ready to run again opt against running depending on redistricting. Paul Kane of the Washington Post reported earlier this month that Democrats are still holding out hope that some other former members might jump back into the fray.

That said, we do think this disparity is worth noting because candidate decisions themselves can sometimes tell us about how the parties perceive the political environment. It may be that Republicans are anticipating winning the majority next year, which is spurring more Republicans who lost in 2020 to run again. Certainly, many leading members of the party, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R, CA-23), are outwardly bullish on doing that, not without reason given historical trends, the anticipated impact of reapportionment and redistricting, and the small size of the current Democratic majority. Meanwhile, Democrats may be a bit more pessimistic.

We have previously noted that the average performance for the presidential party candidates in House races has dropped by several points from the presidential year to the midterm in recent midterm cycles. These Republican candidates may reasonably believe that they can do better in a midterm year with a Democrat in the White House than they did in last year’s presidential cycle.

The 11 Republicans that we counted as running again this cycle are Hunt, who ran against Fletcher last cycle; Jensen, who ran against Rep. Kim Schrier (D, WA-8); Tom Kean Jr. against Rep. Tom Malinowski (D, NJ-7); Tyler Kistner against Rep. Angie Craig (D, MN-2); Derrick Van Orden against Rep. Ron Kind (D, WI-3); Rich McCormick against Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux (D, GA-7); Monica De La Cruz-Hernandez against Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D, TX-15); Lisa Scheller against Rep. Susan Wild (D, PA-7); Esther Joy King against Rep. Cheri Bustos (D, IL-17), who is retiring this cycle; Alek Skarlatos against Rep. Peter DeFazio (D, OR-4); and Anna Paulina Luna against Rep. Charlie Crist (D, FL-13), who is leaving behind an open seat as he runs for the Florida governorship. Additionally, a 12th Republican who came close to winning in 2020 already lost a House race this year in a different state: After unsuccessfully challenging Rep. Susie Lee (D, NV-3) last year, Dan Rodimer ran in the TX-6 special election but did not come close to advancing to a runoff.

The two Democrats who lost close races who are running again are Christy Smith, who ran against Rep. Mike Garcia (R, CA-25), and former Rep. Harley Rouda against Rep. Michelle Steel (R, CA-48). It initially appeared that former Rep. T.J. Cox would attempt a comeback against Rep. David Valadao (R, CA-21), but he is now undecided as of the most recent reporting we have seen.

Again, there very well may be other 2020 losers who attempt comebacks in 2022, but as of now, the Republicans have a larger group of candidates who ran competitively in 2020 and are seeking another bite at the apple this cycle.