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Notes on the State of Politics: June 7, 2023

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

The Editors

New Hampshire and Democrats’ search for a gubernatorial target

Gov. Chris Sununu (R-NH) did something a little unusual for a Republican these days — he decided against launching a presidential campaign. This comes amidst a flood of other Republicans jumping into the presidential race over the past couple of weeks, including Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), former Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ), former Vice President Mike Pence, and Gov. Doug Burgum (R-ND).

Sununu, a critic of former President Donald Trump, said that he will instead devote his presidential campaigning toward seeing that Trump loses the primary.

The four-term governor has not indicated whether he plans to seek reelection to what would be a fifth, two-year term. Only Sununu and John Lynch, a Democrat who served from 2005 to 2013, have been elected to the governorship four times in modern history.

Sununu’s decision looms large over the 2023-2024 gubernatorial battlefield. If Sununu, who posted clear victories in 2018, 2020, and 2022 after an initial 2-point win in 2016, runs again, he would start as a favorite, owing to his strong approval ratings. That’s reflected in our Likely Republican rating of the race. However, if he doesn’t run, the New Hampshire governorship would immediately become a Toss-up and give Democrats something they don’t really have in this gubernatorial cycle: a bona fide offensive target.

Over this year and next, Republicans are defending the following governorships: Mississippi in 2023, followed by Indiana, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Utah, Vermont, and West Virginia in 2024. The only two states that stand out as potential Democratic offensive opportunities are New Hampshire and Vermont, both of which are governed by Republicans who have won considerable crossover support (Sununu as well as Gov. Phil Scott of Vermont, who like Sununu was elected to the first of his four two-year terms in 2016). The Democrats’ ability to compete for those two governorships are dependent to a substantial degree by what those two incumbents decide to do.

In New Hampshire, Democrats do have at least one well-credentialed candidate — Cinde Warmington, the only Democrat on the state’s five-member Executive Council — and Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig has been angling toward a run. Either might be able to push Sununu in 2024 but clearly they’d have a better shot in an open-seat race. On the Republican side, former state Senate President Chuck Morse appears poised to run if Sununu does not — Morse lost a U.S. Senate primary last year — and others could run as well.

For the time being, the theme of this cycle’s gubernatorial races remains Democratic defense, including in two of the three races being contested this year: Louisiana and Kentucky.

With Gov. John Bel Edwards (D-LA) term-limited, Republicans are in a good position to win back the Bayou State’s governorship. Attorney General Jeff Landry (R), an ideological conservative backed by the Club for Growth, has long been considered the frontrunner, although his allies have been engaged in a hard-edged television ad war with allies of Stephen Waguespack (R), a former head of the state’s top business lobbying group and former aide to ex-Gov. Bobby Jindal (R). Landry is being attacked over crime, while Waguespack is being attacked for, among other things, his connection to the deeply unpopular Jindal. While there are other Republicans running, the race is centered around these two at the moment. As of now, the only prominent Democrat running is former state Department of Transportation Director Shawn Wilson; that may allow him to finish first in the state’s all-party primary on Oct. 14, but he would almost certainly fall short of 50%, necessitating a Nov. 18 runoff with either the frontrunning Landry or an alternative Republican. Despite concerns from, among others, House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R, LA-1) that Republican infighting — something that contributed to their 2015 and 2019 losses — could endanger GOP efforts to win this governorship, we continue to think that the state’s overall Republican lean should push it back in the red column.

In Kentucky, state Attorney General Daniel Cameron (R) won the right to challenge Gov. Andy Beshear (D) a few weeks ago. Cameron is focusing on familiar GOP themes like crime and culture in an attempt to weaken Beshear and nationalize the race, as any Republican would do in a state that is red outside of the governorship. But Beshear has posted strong approval ratings. This one should be very close and competitive, but incumbent governors are often difficult to topple. Our best guess is a race similar to the reelection bids by Louisiana’s Edwards in 2019 and Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly in 2022, red state Democrats who won second terms by between 2-3 points. In other words, Cameron is perfectly capable of winning, but we’d still rather be Beshear.

Our current ratings for the 2023-2024 gubernatorial races are below. We don’t have any changes for the time being, although as noted above, New Hampshire would be a Toss-up as an open seat. Democrats do have a real challenger in this year’s race in Mississippi, state Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, and Gov. Tate Reeves’s (R) approval ratings are mixed. But if Democrats couldn’t win in an open-seat race in 2019 with a strong candidate, then-state Attorney General Jim Hood (D), we struggle to see their path this year.

Map 1: Crystal Ball gubernatorial ratings

Checking in on Republican Senate recruitment

When Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) took over the reins of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, it was obvious he had to do things differently than the outgoing chair, Sen. Rick Scott, a Florida Republican who had led the GOP to an embarrassing net loss in the chamber during the 2022 cycle. For one thing, Daines has signaled he’d be more active in recruiting candidates, and even picking favorites, in primaries. While Daines’s efforts seem to be better than Scott’s so far — though that is not saying very much — we’ll take a survey of the senatorial recruitment landscape on the Republican side.

We’ll start with the most obvious GOP target. In West Virginia, things seem to be going fairly well for national Republicans. A late May poll from East Carolina University gave Republican Gov. Jim Justice, who entered the race in April, a 22-point lead over Sen. Joe Manchin, the Democratic incumbent who has not formally announced whether he’ll seek a third full term. Manchin is more competitive against Rep. Alex Mooney (R, WV-2), but Mooney is in an uphill primary fight against Justice. While issue-focused groups like the Club for Growth have supported Mooney, Daines and the top outside group close to Senate GOP leadership, Senate Leadership Fund, have spoken highly of Justice. The governor is also the wealthiest person in the state, so he could do some self-funding.

In the months since we issued our original 2024 Senate ratings, we feel that our Leans Republican rating for West Virginia has held up well. One template for this race could be North Dakota’s 2010 contest. Going into that cycle, public polling showed veteran Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan stuck in the mid-30s against then-Gov. John Hoeven, a Republican who seemed to be waiting in the wings. When Dorgan announced his retirement, Hoeven got into the race and the contest completely fell off the board. Justice, the Hoeven-like figure in this analogy, is already in the race, but if Manchin sees the writing on the wall and retires, as Dorgan did, West Virginia’s rating would move even further in the GOP’s direction.

Moving to the next most vulnerable Democratic-held seats, national Republicans seem to be content with their options so far in Ohio, while the situation in Montana is more fluid.

Wealthy Cleveland-area state Sen. Matt Dolan, who placed third in last year’s open-seat Senate primary, has been running for several months while another businessman, car dealership magnate Bernie Moreno, entered the race in April — Sen. J. D. Vance (R-OH) endorsed Moreno in late May. Though he has not entered the primary, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose has been especially critical of Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) over the past year and his interest in running is obvious. We wouldn’t describe any of the potential Republican Senate nominees in Ohio as slam dunk candidates, but any of them would be capable of winning a Toss-up race. Rep. Warren Davidson (R, OH-8), a hard-right candidate, recently opted against a run.

While neither of Montana’s two Republican representatives have ruled out challenges to Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), it’s not clear that either would make especially strong candidates. Rep. Ryan Zinke only limped to victory last year in the mildly red 1st District while Rep. Matt Rosendale, who holds the dark red 2nd District, lost to Tester in 2018. Republicans are reportedly instead looking to recruit businessman Tim Sheehy, a former Navy SEAL with potential to self-fund. Zinke, among others, has spoken well of Sheehy.

The Montana contest will have some symbolic significance for the NRSC because Daines represents the state. The last time a national committee chairman was tasked with flipping their state’s other seat was during the 1998 cycle. That year, as now-Minority Leader Mitch McConnell chaired the NRSC, Republicans picked up the seat of retiring Democrat Wendell Ford.

Getting into the more marginal Democratic and Independent-held seats, a few more recruitment holes begin to appear on the GOP side, although we still are not even halfway through the off-year of the cycle, so there’s still a lot of time for things to develop.

In Wisconsin, Rep. Tom Tiffany (R, WI-7), a conservative from the Northwoods, is ostensibly making moves towards a run against Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), but some Republicans are holding out hope that Green Bay-area Rep. Mike Gallagher (R, WI-8) can be persuaded to take the plunge. Since his first election in 2016, Gallagher has turned in some impressive overperformances in his red 8th District. For now, he maintains his focus is on his work in the House. Baldwin has turned in two fairly impressive Senate showings, the first in a competitive race against well-regarded former Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) in 2012 and then a bigger victory in 2018 in a sleepier race.

Next door, Michigan Republicans have not yet produced a top tier candidate in the state’s open-seat race. The 2022 cycle, which was a disaster for the state Republican party, was not exactly conducive to bench-building. In any case, Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D, MI-7), a prodigious fundraiser who has held down a marginal seat for three terms, remains a heavy favorite in a multi-way Democratic primary to succeed retiring Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI).

Then there is Pennsylvania, the third Trump-to-Biden state bordering the Great Lakes. Republicans caught a break recently when state Sen. Doug Mastriano, their 2022 nominee for governor, passed on a Senate run. Mastriano, a far-right Republican who made election denial a centerpiece of his campaign, lost by nearly 15 points to now-Gov. Josh Shapiro. Mastriano’s decision may clear the way for wealthy businessman David McCormick to run, who is considered more amenable to national Republicans. In the 2022 primary for Senate, McCormick placed a very close second to television doctor Mehmet Oz, who ran with Donald Trump’s support. Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) is seeking a fourth term, and he has won by at least 9 points in his three Senate elections, although it’s also fair to note that he (and, generally speaking, the other incumbents on this list) have run in good political environments for Democrats.

In 2018, the last cycle where 2024’s Senate class was up, Democrats picked up two adjacent western states: Arizona and Nevada. Republican recruitment in both states leaves something to be desired.

We have Arizona rated as a Toss-up because of the uncertain nature of the race more than anything else: while Rep. Ruben Gallego (D, AZ-3) has the inside track to the Democratic nomination, Democratic-turned-Independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s intentions are unknown. Kari Lake and Blake Masters, the GOP’s losing 2022 nominees for governor and Senate, respectively, have each telegraphed some interest in next year’s Senate contest, with Lake seeming likelier to run. Neither would make for very strong candidates, but the dynamics of a three-way race may be hard to gauge. Republicans’ most formidable potential candidate is probably state Treasurer Kimberly Yee, who was reelected by 11 points last year — but there has been no indication that she’s considering running. Yee may prefer to challenge Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs in 2026 (she was a candidate for that office in the 2022 cycle but dropped out well in advance of the primary).

Nevada was 2022’s closest Senate contest: Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D) won a second term by 7,900 votes, or eight-tenths of a percentage point. But looking to 2024, the most notable announced Republican candidate against Sen. Jacky Rosen (D) is ex-state Assemblyman Jim Marchant, an election denier who was the GOP’s unsuccessful nominee for Secretary of State last year. A more palatable candidate, who the NRSC is reportedly working to recruit, is veteran Sam Brown. Brown finished second in the 2022 primary for Senate — former state Attorney General Adam Laxalt soaked up most institutional support — but he has an uplifting life story as an Afghanistan war veteran who suffered extreme burns. Still, Brown finished well behind Laxalt in last year’s primary, so he has a fair amount to prove.

So far, the 2024 Republican Senate field features multiple candidates who are wealthy businessmen, 2022 retreads, or both. Overall, the GOP appears well-positioned in West Virginia, their top target. If they flip that state and hold everything they currently have, they just need one more seat to get to 51, an outright majority no matter what happens in the presidential race. They have a number of other targets, with Montana more of a question mark on recruiting than Ohio, and some holes to fill in marginal Biden-won states if they want to maximize their chances on a favorable map.

Map 2: Crystal Ball Senate ratings