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Notes on the State of Politics: May 22, 2024

Dear Readers: This is the latest edition of Notes on the State of Politics, which features shorter updates on campaigns and elections. Today we are looking at last night’s primary results in Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, and Oregon, gauging the winning percentage of House incumbents so far, and updating a couple of races in Louisiana and Vermont.

— The Editors

House incumbents nearly perfect in primaries so far

While it is not even June yet, Tuesday night marked the halfway point of the congressional primary season. Following last night’s contests, 17 states containing 218 House seats—a bare majority of all 435 seats—have held House primaries.

Incumbents have been renominated at an impressive rate, which is in keeping with history—typically only a few incumbents lose primaries each cycle. So far, 191 incumbents have sought renomination, and only a single member has lost: Rep. Jerry Carl (R, AL-1), who lost to fellow incumbent Rep. Barry Moore (R, AL-2) in a member-vs.-member primary forced by a new congressional map in Alabama. So there has been just a single incumbent loser so far, and that was a race forced by redistricting (indeed, House incumbent primary losses often increase in years ending with a 2, which coincides with the decennial redistricting process setting up some member vs. member contests, although Alabama and a handful of other states have new maps this cycle for various reasons). Without redistricting, incumbents would likely still be undefeated in primaries this cycle; not everyone has dominated and there have been a few close calls, but the overall incumbent winning percentage is nearly perfect.

There is one outstanding race involving an incumbent from a state that already held its primary: Rep. Tony Gonzales (R, TX-23) was forced into a Republican primary runoff with a pro-gun YouTube star, Brandon Herrera. That runoff is next week, and Gonzales is getting help from outside groups to stave off Herrera, who perhaps predictably for a social media star has made some comments that leave him open to attack. A couple of other House incumbents who come from opposite sides of the ideological spectrum, Reps. Bob Good (R, VA-5) and Jamaal Bowman (D, NY-16), face difficult primaries coming up in June, among a few others.

Last night’s primary action

Four states—Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, and Oregon—held their primaries last night, and no House incumbent running in any of those states lost their primaries. This was unsurprising—although there were some primary murmurs in a few races and a couple of incumbents were held under 60%—Reps. Mike Simpson (R, ID-2) and David Scott (D, GA-13) —no one seemed to be in particular trouble heading into the election.

In terms of the overall race for the House, there was really only one primary of note: the Democratic contest in OR-5, a district Joe Biden won by 9 points that first-term Rep. Lori Chavez-DeRemer (R) is defending. Last cycle, progressive Jamie McLeod-Skinner defeated then-Rep. Kurt Schrader in the Democratic primary. National Democrats had little confidence in McLeod-Skinner, and national Republican groups spent much more in that race as Democrats had to also defend OR-4 and OR-6, bluer districts that were nonetheless competitive in 2022 (they are both rated Likely Democratic in our ratings this cycle). As it was, Chavez-DeRemer only won 51%-49% in 2022.

This cycle, McLeod-Skinner ran again, but national Democrats preferred state Rep. Janelle Bynum (D), who previously defeated Chavez-DeRemer in a couple of competitive state House elections in 2016 and 2018. Bynum is currently winning in a blowout, 69%-31%, with what appears to be a little more than two-thirds of the votes counted. So primary voters in this district got the message from the Democratic mothership: Bynum and her allies, including the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (with whom Bynum ran coordinated advertising), outspent McLeod-Skinner and her allies $2.3 million to $710,000 on advertising, according to AdImpact. A big chunk of the McLeod-Skinner spending came from a group that appears to be connected to Republicans, although the full truth of what happened is not yet clear. If this indeed was Republican meddling, it would be the latest instance of a party playing in the other party’s primary to elevate a candidate seen as more beatable in the general election.

We were going to keep this race as a Toss-up regardless of the primary result, but Bynum winning is a good outcome for Democrats.

All of the districts in last night’s other primary states are rated as Safe for the incumbent party.

A few other notes from last night:

— In Kentucky’s presidential primary, Donald Trump got 85% while Joe Biden got 71%. Kentucky, a deeply Republican state at the presidential level, only has a modest and relatively new Republican registered voter advantage, as about 46% of the state’s voters are Republicans and 43% are Democrats. So this is a closed primary state that still has a fair amount of conservative registered Democrats who will be voting Republican for president in the fall—one can see this most clearly in eastern Kentucky, where Biden finished behind “uncommitted” in several counties (we also saw protest votes against Biden across the border in neighboring West Virginia last week as Biden also got about 70% of the vote statewide there). These rural/small town “uncommitted” voters in Kentucky are a lot different than the progressives who voted uncommitted in places like metro Detroit and the Twin Cities, among other areas, to protest Biden’s handling of the situation in Gaza. Meanwhile, to the extent there were protest votes against Trump, they were most noticeable in places with relatively high levels of four-year college attainment: His three worst counties were Fayette (home of Lexington and the University of Kentucky); Fayette’s western neighbor Woodford; and Oldham just north of Louisville’s Jefferson County. These are also the three counties with the highest four-year college attainment in the state. So the protest vote pattern on either side was comparable to patterns we’ve seen elsewhere.

— In Oregon’s presidential primary, Trump was unopposed. Biden has 88% so far, with lower percentages generally coming in lesser-populated rural areas (Biden was at 86% in Portland’s Multnomah County, so a little lower than his statewide share but fairly similar).

— Georgia Supreme Court Justice Andrew Pinson, an appointee of Gov. Brian Kemp (R-GA), defeated former Rep. John Barrow (D, GA-12) 55%-45% in a nationally-watched state supreme court election that lacked party labels (and that noted Pinson’s incumbent status on the ballot). Pinson did exceptionally well in the Atlanta area—for instance, he got 46% in Atlanta’s Fulton County, where Donald Trump only got 26%—while Barrow ran ahead of Biden’s 2020 showing in outstate areas, which netted out to a solid win for Pinson. This race did not seem nearly as “partisanized” as, for instance, recent state supreme court races in Wisconsin. That’s despite Barrow campaigning on abortion rights, pushing up against the limits of the state’s judicial ethics rules in doing so, and Kemp cutting an ad for Pinson.

Vermont and Louisiana

Last week, we noted that popular Gov. Phil Scott (R-VT) would be seeking a fifth, two-year term as governor. Earlier this week, a potentially strong Scott challenger—former Gov. Howard Dean (D)—announced that he would not challenge Scott. Another Democrat, former Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger, also passed on the race. Because the filing deadline is so close (Thursday, May 30), we’re going to wait until then to make this move official, but so long as Scott does not draw a late, strong challenger, we will be moving that gubernatorial race from Likely Republican to Safe Republican.

Another recent notable development was that the U.S. Supreme Court allowed a newly-drawn congressional map in Louisiana to be used later this year. The new map creates a second Black-majority seat in the state, which should allow the Democrats to shift the state’s delegation from 5-1 Republican to 4-2. That said, the new map is also at least arguably a racial gerrymander that may eventually be overturned by a future court ruling—the district cuts across the state from Baton Rouge all the way up to Shreveport in the northwest to create a roughly Biden +20 district; a similar district was thrown out in the 1990s as an egregious racial gerrymander. We bring this up just to note that while this district will be in place for 2024, this legal battle seems likely to continue into the 2026 cycle. State Republicans drew this map to satisfy a court order for an additional district that gave Black voters the chance to elect a representative of their choice. It would have been possible to draw a more compact district in the Baton Rouge area that would have been less Democratic-leaning, but Republicans wanted to protect Rep. Julia Letlow (R, LA-5) at the expense of Rep. Garret Graves (R, LA-6), who opposed new Gov. Jeff Landry (R-LA) in last year’s election. Graves has continued to insist he will seek another term, but his realistic options are bleak—either primarying Letlow or running in the new LA-6, which we rate as Safe Democratic and does not seem winnable for a Republican. Top state Republicans Landry as well as Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R, LA-4) and Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R, LA-1) recently endorsed Letlow, clearly indicating that they will back Letlow if Graves challenges her.