Skip links

Notes on the State of Politics: May 2, 2023

Biden may pass on New Hampshire test

While it would not rank that high on the all-time list of ways in which the Donald Trump experience did not correspond with history, Trump’s electoral performance in 2020 was unusual in that he lost reelection despite a very strong showing in his own party’s presidential primary process.

Despite challenges from former Gov. William Weld (R-MA) and former Rep. Joe Walsh (R, IL-8), a pair of decently-credentialed although hardly big-name rivals, Trump dominated the primary season, winning in aggregate 94% of the votes cast.

That included getting 84.4% of the vote in the New Hampshire primary, the traditional first-in-the-nation primary. As Table 1 makes clear, Trump’s Granite State showing looked a lot more like the performances turned in by incumbents who would be reelected later that election year than the showings of those who either declined to seek or lost reelection.

Table 1: Incumbent presidential performance in New Hampshire primary, 1952-2020

Sources: CQ Press for results prior to 1972; New Hampshire Public Radio for results from 1972-present.

Note that both Harry Truman in 1952 and Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968 turned in weak performances in New Hampshire prior to their eventual decisions to retire, and that Gerald Ford in 1976, Jimmy Carter in 1980, and George H.W. Bush in 1992 showed weakness in New Hampshire before ultimately losing general election bids. So Trump in 2020 was an outlier. For more on the New Hampshire primary, including why its modern history begins in 1952, see our previous work from back in 2019.

So what about Biden? Well, there is a decent chance that he won’t replicate Trump’s performance in New Hampshire, although that probably will not tell us all that much about his overall strength (or weakness) within his party because of this cycle’s unusual circumstances in the Granite State.

Based on the Democratic Party’s new primary calendar, New Hampshire is no longer the leadoff state — South Carolina is. The Democrats’ plan has South Carolina voting on Saturday, Feb. 3 followed by New Hampshire and Nevada the following Tuesday, Feb. 6. New Hampshire law requires that the primary take place a week before any other primary, so we are likely headed for a conflict between the Democratic National Committee and New Hampshire, which despite voting Democratic for president the last 5 elections and having an all-Democratic congressional delegation is a competitive state with a state government controlled by Republicans. Lisa Kashinsky and Charlie Mahtesian of Politico recently laid out the potential headache looming for Biden in New Hampshire: He may either choose not to compete there, giving one of his fringy rivals for the nomination — vaccine skeptic Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and 2020 candidate Marianne Williamson — the chance to actually win a primary (albeit one that probably wouldn’t mean much). Or, if Biden did compete in New Hampshire, he would essentially be disavowing his own commitment to the calendar his team wanted and potentially forcing the party to sanction the sitting president’s campaign.

Biden’s overall position for renomination seems excellent, as he has scared off all of the rivals who could potentially threaten his renomination (Williamson and Kennedy don’t qualify as real threats to Biden, in our opinion). But the New Hampshire situation is a looming source of annoyance for the Biden team.

Maryland Senate: Still Safe Democratic following Cardin retirement

Two major statewide Democrats announced on Monday their plans to not seek another term: Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland and Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington. Our analysis for both races is very similar — let’s tackle Maryland first, and then Washington.

Cardin was first elected to the Senate in 2006, defeating Michael Steele (R), who at that time was the state lieutenant governor. Steele later chaired the Republican National Committee during the 2010 election cycle and has since become a “Never Trump” Republican. Cardin’s 10-point victory that year is the only remotely competitive Senate general election the state has had in decades, and no Republican has won a Senate race in Maryland since 1980, when liberal Republican Charles “Mac” Mathias won the last of his 3 terms in office.

Cardin’s retirement was no surprise: Reportedly, a pair of major contenders — wealthy Rep. David Trone (D, MD-6) and Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks (D) — were already getting ready to run, and they may be joined by others. Readers are probably familiar with Trone already, although Alsobrooks has been an impressive vote-getter in her own right: In 2018, she won an open-seat primary to lead the overwhelmingly Democratic Washington, D.C., suburban mega-county with 62% of the vote, lapping former Rep. Donna Edwards (D, MD-4), who finished second with just 24%. Other possibilities include nationally prominent Rep. Jamie Raskin (D, MD-8) and Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski (D), reports Pamela Wood of the Baltimore Banner. Montgomery County Councilman Will Jawando (D), who ran well behind Raskin and Trone in a 2016 congressional primary, quickly jumped in the race Tuesday morning.

For Republicans, the candidate who could put a scare into Democrats in this race is former Gov. Larry Hogan (R-MD), who wrapped up his final term as governor earlier this year. If Hogan entered the race, we would probably have to move off of our current Safe Democratic rating, although we don’t think the race would be a Toss-up. Yes, Hogan was very popular during his tenure and Democrats would have to take the race seriously (they were concerned he would challenge Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen last cycle). But in a presidential year and in a federal election, we still think Democrats would be clearly favored to hold the seat — much like when former or sitting Democratic governors in red states recently competed for but did not ultimately come close to winning Senate races, like former Gov. Phil Bredesen in Tennessee in 2018 or then-Gov. Steve Bullock in Montana in 2020.

If Hogan entered the race, in all likelihood we’d change our rating to Likely Democratic, in a nod to his strength as a candidate. But he has repeatedly disclaimed any interest in running for Senate, and we see no reason at the moment to move this race off of Safe Democratic.

Washington governor: Ditto

Inslee, one of the scores of Democrats who unsuccessfully sought the party’s presidential nomination in 2020, has been elected 3 times to Washington’s governorship. He has thus kept alive the longest active streak of Democratic gubernatorial control of any state in the nation: The last time the Republicans won the Evergreen State’s governorship was the same year they last won a Maryland Senate race: 1980. (Washington’s southern neighbor on the West Coast, Oregon, has a similarly-long streak of Democratic gubernatorial success — the last time Republicans won the governorship there was 1982).

Republicans have come close at times in Washington, though: In 2004, Christine Gregoire (D) defeated Dino Rossi (R) by just 129 votes, which would be the first of several high-profile losses for Rossi in subsequent years. Gregoire beat Rossi again in 2008 and retired in 2012, opening the door to Inslee, who defeated a strong Republican nominee, then-state Attorney General Rob McKenna, by 3 points in 2012. Inslee was eligible to run for a 4th term in 2024, but he decided to retire.

Washington is one of the relative handful of states that holds its gubernatorial election in presidential election years. This gives Democrats some cover in what has become a reliably Democratic state at the presidential level, although the gubernatorial race has been more competitive than the presidential in each of the past 5 concurrent elections: The Democratic presidential margin, on average, in those 5 elections was about 15 points; the gubernatorial margin, on average, was only about 6.5 points. The biggest Democratic victory in that timeframe was Inslee’s most recent win in 2020, although he faced a weaker candidate than Republicans had previously fielded, too.

As one might expect in a state where Democrats dominate, the party already has clear contenders for governor, such as Attorney General Bob Ferguson (D) and Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz (D), Jim Brunner of the Seattle Times reports. The Republican side is hazier, although there were reports earlier this year that former Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R, WA-3) was sniffing around the gubernatorial race. She finished third in the state’s top-2 primary last year last year, opening the door for now-Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez (D, WA-3) to narrowly win the seat over far-right candidate Joe Kent (R) in what was arguably last year’s biggest House upset. Herrera Beutler was undone primarily by her vote in favor of the second impeachment of Donald Trump, a vote that might make her an appealing statewide Republican if she ran and advanced to the general election (but also might hurt her chances to consolidate Republicans in the first round of voting).

For now, we are going to treat the Washington gubernatorial race the same way we’re treating the Maryland Senate contest: still Safe Democratic, but with the potential to move depending on the candidates and circumstances.