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Notes on the State of Politics: May 15, 2024

Dear Readers: This is the latest edition of Notes on the State of Politics, which features shorter updates on campaigns and elections. This week, we’re looking at Tuesday night’s primaries in Maryland, Nebraska, and West Virginia, as well as Gov. Phil Scott’s (R-VT) recent decision to run for reelection.

— The Editors

Maryland Senate remains Likely Democratic

In a divisive Maryland Democratic Senate primary in which nomination would have been automatically tantamount to election in most years but may not necessarily be this year, Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks defeated wealthy Rep. David Trone (D, MD-6) by what is at the moment an impressive 54%-42% margin (about two-thirds of the estimated votes have been counted). Some late polls showing Alsobrooks moving ahead did point to the eventual outcome of the race, and differences by vote method helped illustrate the trajectory of the race: Trone won mail-in votes, while Alsobrooks won early in-person voters and especially Election Day voters.

In the Republican Senate primary, popular former Gov. Larry Hogan defeated a perennial candidate, former state Del. Robin Ficker, and others, although he only got 62% of the vote counted so far. Continuing a trend we notice in other states, Hogan (a candidate who has been critical of Donald Trump) did much better in the mail vote than the early in-person and Election Day vote (which, in GOP primaries, is “Trumpier”). Hogan, though, will happily trade softness in a primary for crossover potential in the general—the two factors are of course linked, as the things that make a Republican appealing to the middle can cause problems on the right—and Hogan’s late entry into the race in February put this race on at least the periphery of the competitive map.

Republicans have not won a Senate race in Maryland since 1980, and they haven’t even come within single digits in any of those races—then-Lt. Gov. Michael Steele (R) lost by 10 points in 2006 to now-Sen. Ben Cardin (D), whose retirement this cycle made this year’s contest an open-seat race. But Hogan is a real candidate who Democrats are taking (and should take) seriously.

Trone would have had more resources at his disposal for the general election than Alsobrooks—he already self-funded roughly $60 million for his primary campaign and could have self-funded a lot more for the general election. However, it was telling that despite Trone’s huge resource advantage, much of Maryland’s Democratic political elite backed Alsobrooks, including Gov. Wes Moore, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, former House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (who is still in the House and won renomination on Tuesday), high-profile Rep. Jamie Raskin (D, MD-8), and many others. Alsobrooks highlighted these endorsements in an ad that was striking for the sheer volume of prominent Democrats—the ad helped highlight a broader difference between the parties, as we couldn’t really imagine a Republican running a similar kind of ad given the GOP base’s general distrust of many of its elected officials (of course that excludes former President Trump, whose backing remains valuable to Republican candidates in primary settings). Alsobrooks did raise a little over $2 million in the first quarter of 2024, slightly more than Hogan, although Hogan only entered the race in early February and thus wasn’t a candidate for a portion of the January-March first quarter (and Hogan clearly outraised her in a subsequent pre-primary report covering much of April). Alsobrooks could see a bump in fundraising now that she’s the Democratic nominee.

In the primary, Alsobrooks did get some outside help, most notably from EMILY’s List, but the fact that she won despite Trone’s massive resources does suggest some weakness about Trone that may have carried over to the general election (Alsobrooks and her allies seized upon some gaffes by Trone). It also speaks reasonably well of Alsobrooks that she was able to weather the Trone money storm.

Hogan posted big leads in some general election polls from earlier this year and he should do much better than Trump does in this deep blue state. But the most recent nonpartisan poll, from Emerson College for a group of media sponsors, showed both Trone and Alsobrooks leading Hogan by roughly 10 points. It may be that the high-profile primary has caused enough Democrats to come back home and that Alsobrooks will be leading going forward, but good will and nostalgia for the still-popular Hogan could allow him to show a lead in future polls. We ultimately view this race in the same way we did the runs by popular former Democratic governors in red states Phil Bredesen of Tennessee in 2018 and Steve Bullock in Montana in 2020—strong recruits who nonetheless ended up losing by about 10 points apiece as partisan gravity took over in states that lean fairly strongly to the other party. We never had those races as Toss-ups in our ratings; we currently have Maryland as Likely Democratic, and we remain comfortable with that rating. It’s clearly not as sleepy as Senate races in other deeply red or deeply blue states but it’s hard for anyone to generate the massive amount of crossover support required to win a state that the other party (Democrats) is likely to win by at least 25 points for president.

A big question of this race remains how much outside investment comes in from spending groups on either side: both of the aforementioned Tennessee and Montana races saw major outside investment. At the very least, Republicans would love to see Democrats have to spend heavily in Maryland when Democrats are already playing a ton of defense across the Senate map in states that are much more competitive (on paper, anyway). And while it’s easy for outside observers to say that partisan gravity will naturally take over, campaigns and campaign groups cannot just assume that it will happen. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee announced a digital ad campaign against Hogan on Tuesday night, highlighting the basic fact of Hogan’s partisanship (a logical nationalizing message in a race like this). Hogan, meanwhile, is going to look for ways to decouple himself from the national party—he said in his primary victory speech that “To the women of Maryland: You have my word that I will continue to protect your right to make your own reproductive health decisions.” The general trend is that in lopsided states like these, we would expect the national messaging to ultimately win out.

Trone left behind MD-6, the only marginally competitive district in the state (President Biden won it 54%-44% in 2020), setting up an open seat race. April McClain Delaney (D), the wife of Trone’s predecessor in the seat, former Rep. John Delaney (D), won the primary with the help of some self-funding. She’ll race former state Del. Neil Parrott (R), who is the GOP nominee in this district for the third straight time. This remains a Likely Democratic race. Hogan will need to win this district by a good amount to have any chance of winning statewide (he carried it by a little over 30 points in 2018 as part of a 12-point overall statewide reelection win). But Biden is very likely to carry it again, too, and Hogan’s showing should be a lot better than Republicans in other races.

Nebraska and West Virginia

One state over, in West Virginia, most of the action was in the Republican primaries, although there were also some Democratic races we were watching.

In the state’s open-seat contest for Senate, party-switching Gov. Jim Justice defeated state-switching Rep. Alex Mooney for the GOP nomination—the former was a longtime Republican who won his current office in 2016 as a Democrat, then rejoined the GOP after less than a year on the job, while the latter was in Maryland politics before moving west. While Mooney could be called the more ideologically dogmatic option, as his support included the anti-tax Club for Growth and he basically ran to Justice’s right, it had not been much of a secret that national Republicans preferred the governor, as did Trump (who endorsed Justice). In 2022, Mooney impressively defeated his then-colleague, the more moderate David McKinley, in a member-vs-member primary as the state lost a House seat. With Trump’s backing, Mooney carried all but three counties in a district that was newer to him. But, last night, it was Mooney who was limited to just a few counties: aside from the four counties closest to Maryland, Justice took everything as he won 62%-27%.

We’ve had the Senate contest as Safe Republican ever since Sen. Joe Manchin (D) announced his retirement last year. But some good news for Manchin was that his preferred candidate, Wheeling Mayor Glenn Elliott, won a clear plurality in a three-way primary. Elliott’s competition included Zachary Shrewsbury, who ran more as a progressive populist, and disgraced coal baron Don Blankenship, who ran for the same seat in 2018 as a Republican—this year, Blankenship continued his habit of putting out eyebrow-raising ads.

Last month, we explored the possibility of Manchin reentering the race as an independent (third-party candidates have until August to file in West Virginia). From what we could tell, Manchin’s candidacy would have probably been contingent on Blankenship winning the Democratic nomination. If Mooney, the relatively less electable Republican, had pulled a primary upset, that may have also nudged Manchin towards running. But with both parties nominating mainstream candidates—including Democrats nominating the candidate that Manchin himself endorsed—it  is much harder to see Manchin canceling his retirement plans.

The aforementioned Club for Growth had better luck in the race to replace Justice—their candidate, state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, won a multi-way Republican primary. In a result reminiscent of his 2018 Senate primary win, Morrisey’s ended up with a plurality in the 30s, and ran best in the northern part of the state. Former state Del. Moore Capito, the son of Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), finished second while Huntington-area car dealer Chris Miller, the son of Rep. Carol Miller (R, WV-1), finished third.

But yesterday’s primaries were not all bad news for the Capito and Miller families. State Treasurer Riley Moore, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito’s nephew, won the GOP nod to replace Mooney representing the state’s northern House seat. In the southern House district, the elder Miller won renomination, although she lost close to 40% of the vote to Jan. 6 rioter Derrick Evans.

One final thing that stuck out to us about West Virginia was the relative lack of a protest vote against Biden. In 2012, as Barack Obama faced light opposition for renomination, West Virginia was one of his worst states: in what would foreshadow his 55-county shutout in the fall, he took just 59% there in the May primary. In that primary, Obama lost several counties to Keith Judd, a candidate who was in prison at the time. While Biden’s 70% in the state was hardly his strongest primary showing this year, he did not actually lose any counties (although he was held under 50% in a few cases). In a state with at least partially closed primaries, a big part of this is probably due to registration trends. In 2012, a majority of voters were still registered Democrats—so there was a larger pool of conservatives ready to send a message to the national party. But in the dozen years since then, Republicans have claimed a 40%-30% registration advantage, so the Democrats that still remain with the party are probably altogether more aligned with its national image.

Nebraska’s primaries, at least for its federal races, were more straightforward.

In the only state seeing a double-barreled Senate election this year, Sen. Deb Fischer (R), who would normally be up in 2024, and Sen. Pete Ricketts (R), who was appointed last year after his time as the state’s governor concluded, won their primaries with about 80% apiece. While we have both races in the Safe Republican category, Fischer’s contest has the potential to offer up a little more intrigue: without a Democrat in her race, she is facing a credible independent opponent, labor leader and Navy veteran Dan Osborn. This is the latest iteration of a growing phenomenon in red states, with Democrats not fielding a candidate and deferring to an independent: We have seen this in a few other states over the past decade. The independent didn’t win those races but likely did better than a standard Democrat would have done (perhaps not in the case of Al Gross in Alaska in 2020, but very likely Greg Orman in Kansas in 2014 and Evan McMullin in Utah in 2022).

In the 2nd District, Rep. Don Bacon (R) won renomination with 62% against Dan Frei, a more conservative, but much lesser funded, candidate. Last month in Pennsylvania, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R, PA-1) was another center-right Republican who got a similar share against a more anti-establishment challenger in a blue-leaning district (though he was not an incumbent, this pattern basically also applies to Hogan in Maryland). Still, Frei only carried a few precincts, as Bacon’s performance was fairly consistent across the district.

Bacon will face a rematch with his 2022 opponent, former state Sen. Tony Vargas, who had no primary opposition. Though we’d pick Biden to carry NE-2, as he did in 2020, we rate the House race as a Toss-up. We may also note that, in the presidential primary, Trump’s 75%-23% margin in Omaha’s Douglas County (which makes up 80% of NE-2) over former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, who has been out of the race for months, was several points worse than his statewide 80%-18% advantage. 

Vermont Governor: Phil Scott in strong position

Over the weekend, popular Gov. Phil Scott (R-VT) announced that he would be seeking a fifth term as governor of the Green Mountain State. Despite Vermont’s blue lean at the federal level—it gave President Biden his best margin of any state, with only the District of Columbia more of a Democratic landslide in 2020—the state clearly remains open to Scott, a Republican in the mold of the region’s moderate GOP tradition. Scott has won his last two, two-year terms by more than 40 points apiece after more modest victories in 2016 and 2018 (Vermont and neighboring New Hampshire remain the only states that give governors two-year as opposed to four-year terms).

Republicans have won 8 of the past 11 gubernatorial elections in Vermont, as former Gov. Jim Douglas (R) won four terms, serving from 2003-2011. The Douglas and Scott administrations were broken up by three terms of a Democratic governor, Peter Shumlin, but his 2010 and 2014 victories were razor-thin pluralities, and because he didn’t receive 50% of the vote those years, the Democratic-controlled state legislature had to ratify him as the winner, which is how gubernatorial elections in Vermont are decided if no one gets a majority. Scott is one of if not the most popular governors in the country, and voters may very well remain receptive to his campaign pitch of acting as a counterbalance to a liberal state legislature (although Democrats and their progressive allies have sufficient numbers to override his vetoes).

With Scott seeking reelection, our Likely Republican rating of Vermont for the general election is solidified, and we might move the race to Safe Republican in the near future if Scott does not draw a strong Democratic opponent before the filing deadline on May 30. So far, Scott’s only Democratic opponent is Esther Charlestin, an educator and former Middlebury local official, but former Gov. Howard Dean—a much more prominent name—is considering a run. A Dean run would make the race more interesting; Dean, a 2004 presidential candidate who later served as Democratic National Committee chairman, won five elections as governor from 1992-2000. But defeating Scott would still be a tall order—state-level races are not federal races (which are more nationalized in their voting patterns) and Scott has clearly shown his crossover appeal.