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Notes on the State of Politics: June 22, 2022

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

Barring an unexpected development, this is going to be the only issue of the Crystal Ball this week. We’ll be back next week with a reaction to next Tuesday’s primaries.

The Editors

Table 1: Crystal Ball House rating changes

Member/District Old Rating New Rating
AK-AL Special (No inc.) Likely Republican Safe Republican
Michelle Steel (R, CA-45) Toss-up Leans Republican
Jennifer Wexton (D, VA-10) Safe Democratic Likely Democratic

About last night’s primaries

Tuesday night featured a smattering of races in 4 southern states: Virginia, Alabama, Arkansas, and Georgia.

Matchups were set for a pair of high-profile House races in our home state. State Sen. Jen Kiggans (R) will face Rep. Elaine Luria (D, VA-2) in a Hampton Roads-based seat, while Prince William County Supervisor Yesli Vega (R) won a competitive primary for the right to challenge Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D, VA-7). The Crystal Ball rates the former a Toss-up and the latter Leans Democratic.

Democrats were hoping that a far-right Republican, Jarome Bell, would beat Kiggans, and some even tried to help make that happen. But Kiggans, a prized national Republican recruit, won easily, 56%-27%. Joe Biden won VA-2 by only a couple of points — down a few points from the previous iteration of the district — and we’ve previously noted that it is now the median House district by presidential performance. The district, under differing lines, has a swingy history: It has changed hands 4 times since the 2000 election, and very well could a fifth time this year.

Meanwhile, Vega emerged from a crowded field in the reconfigured VA-7, which used to include some of the Richmond area but instead is now more oriented in Northern Virginia. Biden won it by about 7 points, and Spanberger is among the most impressive of the newish crop of Democratic House members (she was first elected in 2018). But her power of incumbency, to the extent it matters (debatable these days), is mitigated by the district being so new to her, and Republicans will heavily target her.

It may be that, given the way the cycle is developing, that VA-2 will soon move into Leans Republican territory and VA-7 will be a Toss-up. We’re not quite yet there ourselves but we can understand the sentiment.

Virginia ended up being a big part of Democratic waves in 2008 and 2018 and the Republican wave in 2010, as the winning side flipped 3 seats apiece in the commonwealth in those 3 elections, respectively. Republicans do have clear targets in VA-2 and VA-7. They might have a third target, too, although it would be a considerably harder lift than the other 2.

A month ago, Republicans in VA-10 nominated Navy veteran Hung Cao (R) to face Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D, VA-10) in an affluent, highly-educated Northern Virginia district. In Virginia, party nominees are sometimes selected in different formats than a traditional primary; Cao ended up winning the nomination through a party-run, ranked-choice “firehouse primary.” The candidacy of Cao, who was born in Vietnam before his family fled the country following the fall of Saigon in 1975, helps illustrate the growing diversity of Northern Virginia: The redrawn 10th is nearly one-fifth Asian American (the aforementioned VA-7 is also diverse, just barely majority non-Hispanic white). Wexton won renomination, unopposed, in Tuesday night’s primary.

Biden won VA-10 58%-40% in 2020, which means it is likely not winnable for Republicans at the congressional level anymore. However, the district is not as Democratic down-ballot, and now-Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R-VA) only lost it by 2 points last November. We’re adding it to the competitive board at Likely Democratic; given how grim things appear to be for Democrats in the overall race for the House, we’re trying to cast a somewhat wide net in identifying potentially competitive districts.

In Alabama, Republican primary voters — the same group that, back in 2017, nominated one of the worst Senate candidates of all time, Roy Moore — made a vastly different choice, backing Katie Britt (R), a former chief of staff to retiring Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), over Rep. Mo Brooks (R, AL-5). Britt seems likelier than not to follow in Shelby’s footsteps as someone who is not going to cause trouble for party leadership. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) may see some senators who do not cause him headaches, like retiring Sens. Roy Blunt (R-MO) and Rob Portman (R-OH), be replaced by Republicans who do, but he has to be pleased by how the Alabama race shook out. Former President Trump belatedly endorsed Britt, but that was only after earlier backing Brooks and then rescinding the endorsement.

Trump went 0 for 2 in a pair of Georgia Republican U.S. House runoffs. 2020 House candidate and physician Rich McCormick beat attorney Jake Evans in GA-6, a reconfigured district that Georgia mapmakers flipped from blue to red, while trucking company owner Mike Collins beat Vernon Jones, a former Democratic officeholder who became a strong pro-Trump Republican, in the dark red GA-10. Both races were blowouts. Maybe Georgia Republicans are a bit less moved by Trump than most other Republicans, given that his post-election antics likely contributed to the party losing both of the state’s Senate seats in 2021 and that he implored them to fire their governor, Brian Kemp (R), for no good reason.

Arkansas’s runoffs did not feature any statewide or federal races.

CA-45 to Leans Republican

A couple of weeks after the California primary, the vote count there is still ongoing. The vast majority of ballots have been tabulated (about 6.8. million out of an estimated 7.3 million cast), but there are enough uncertainties about the remaining votes in certain undercounted places that we’re going to continue to hold off on making any broad assessments.

California has been using its current iteration of a “top 2” primary system for a decade now, dating back to 2012. Because all candidates run together on the same ballot, with the top 2 finishers advancing to a general election, the combined Democratic vs. Republican vote can tell us something about the fall. Since 2012, no Democrat has ever lost a House race in California when the combined Democratic share of the 2-party vote in a district was over 50%. Meanwhile, Republicans lost 21 individual House races during the past 5 cycles when they won over 50% of the 2-party vote in the primary. Quinn McCord, then writing at National Journal, also found that when California used a top-2 system in 1998 and 2000, Democrats were likelier to do better in the general election than the primary.

That said, the change from the primary to the general varies across districts and cycles. In races where both a Democrat and a Republican advanced to the general election, the Democratic share of the vote improved, on average, by about 6, 4, and 3 points respectively in the 2012, 2014, and 2018 cycles. Meanwhile, the Republican share of the vote actually improved on average by roughly 2 points in both the 2016 and 2020 elections. The fact that Democrats had competitive presidential primaries held concurrently with the down-ballot primaries in both years while Republicans did not likely helps explain the fact that Democrats, on average, did a little better in the primary than the general in those years — Democrats just had more of a reason to turn out because of the presidential race. This is a midterm year without the distorting impact of a presidential primary.

California has a redrawn House map now, so whatever the trends were in individual districts last decade aren’t really applicable to the new map. There are some basic patterns that stand out, though, such as that Democrats generally did better in the general election than the primary in some districts located in the competitive and heavily Hispanic Central Valley. Some of these districts appear to contain a lot of outstanding votes still, so we’ll reserve our commentary on them for later.

One result that we see as encouraging for Republicans is in CA-45, a redrawn Orange County district that contains a small sliver of Los Angeles County. With what appears to be nearly all of the votes counted, Rep. Michelle Steel (R) holds a 48%-43% advantage over community college trustee Jay Chen (D). However, another Republican candidate is taking the remaining 9% of the vote, so the combined Republican edge is 57%-43% (that still may change slightly). Chen overcoming such a deficit in the general election would not be unprecedented historically — in fact, former Rep. Harley Rouda (D) saw the Democratic share of the vote improve about 7 points from the 2018 primary to the general, when he beat former Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R) in the seat that Steel currently holds. That’s basically what Chen would need in November to overtake Steel. That said, Rouda also had a huge financial advantage over the embattled Rohrabacher in that election, and 2018 was a Democratic wave year. Steel does benefit from the environment, and the money race between her and Chen is close (she has about $2 million cash on hand per the most recent reporting, while he has about $1.5 million).

Ultimately, we think this should be a competitive race but the first-round results are nudging us in the direction of seeing Steel as a small favorite, and we’re moving CA-45 from Toss-up to Leans Republican. This district voted for Joe Biden by a 52%-46% margin in 2020, although that was down from a 54%-41% edge for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Again, we’ll have more to say about California in the coming weeks.

Alaska House race to Safe Republican

About a week after finishing a distant third in a nearly 50-candidate first round of voting in the race to succeed the late Rep. Don Young (R, AK-AL) in the House, 2020 Senate candidate Al Gross decided to exit the race. Gross, who ran as a hybrid independent/Democrat in the 2020 Senate race, was the most prominent non-Republican in this campaign. He got about 13% of the vote. Meanwhile, former Gov. Sarah Palin (R) led the way with 27%, followed by Nick Begich III at 19%. Begich is a Republican who comes from a famous Democratic family in the state; his uncle is former Sen. Mark Begich (D). It seems increasingly clear to us that either Palin or Begich will win this special election, so we’re switching the rating for the special (and the general election) from Likely Republican to Safe Republican.

Gross’s exit means that the main alternative to Begich and Palin is former state Rep. Mary Peltola (D), who got 10% in the first round. In Alaska, all candidates compete together in a single primary, and the top 4 finishers advance to the general election, where voters rank their choices, meaning that the eventual winner will be able to demonstrate some level of majority support. It appears as though this debut of the top-4 system in a closely-watched federal race will only have 3 candidates, though: The state’s Division of Elections director said after Gross’s withdrawal that it’s too late in the election season for the fifth-place finisher in the race to move up to take Gross’s place. So it looks like it’ll just be Palin, Begich, and Peltola.

While Alaska has gotten a bit more competitive in recent years, it’s still fundamentally a Republican state, and Palin and Begich finishing markedly ahead of the other candidates helps illustrate the state’s lean. If you add up all the Republican votes and all the Democratic votes (including Gross, who was listed as an independent but is likely thought of as more of a Democrat given his previous Senate campaign), Republicans outpolled Democrats almost 2-to-1 in the first round of voting.

It may be that Begich is able to emerge as the anti-Palin candidate, assuming he advances beyond the first round of the ranked-choice tabulation along with the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee; if so, it would be an interesting historical footnote that Young’s nearly 50-year House career would be bookended by members of the Begich family. Former Rep. Nick Begich Sr. (D) disappeared in an apparent plane crash in 1972; he was reelected posthumously, but Young replaced him in a 1973 special election. Nick Begich III is his grandson.

The primary for the general election will be held concurrently with the final round of the special election on Aug. 16.