Skip links

Notes on the State of Politics: Sept. 13, 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

Repeat candidates possible in key Senate races

A few months ago, we noted that one theme in this cycle’s House races has been the presence of repeat candidates running in key races: candidates who were unsuccessful in the recent past taking another crack at running. Since then, that trend has held up. One example, from just earlier this week, came in North Carolina — Republican pastor Mark Harris announced his campaign to succeed Rep. Dan Bishop (R, NC-8), who is vacating his Piedmont-area House seat to run for state Attorney General. In 2018, Harris, as the GOP nominee in a competitive race, found his campaign at the center of a ballot fraud operation. After litigation, a rare “re-do” election took place the following year, which Bishop won.

In any case, this got us thinking: the “repeat” dynamic is one that has hardly been confined to the House. Looking to next year’s Senate contests, several challengers across key states may be familiar to voters.

Earlier this year, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) identified what he considered the “Big Four” Democratic-held states that his party will target most on next year’s Senate map. The first three states — West Virginia, Ohio, and Montana — were not very surprising, as Donald Trump carried each of them comfortably both times he was the GOP nominee, and almost certainly will again. But, for McConnell, state number four was Pennsylvania, where the Crystal Ball considers three-term Democratic Sen. Bob Casey Jr. a reasonably clear favorite. McConnell’s thinking may have something to do with the fact that national Republicans see businessman and Bush-era White House official David McCormick as a strong recruit. McCormick, who could self-finance, has been aggressively courted by national Republicans and is reportedly close to making a decision on the race. In 2022, McCormick came up just short to television doctor Mehmet Oz in a crowded GOP primary. While we’re not sure he would have actually been able to beat now-Sen. John Fetterman (D) last cycle in the general election, McCormick may well have been a better nominee than the awkward Oz, although McCormick also appears to have some of the same liabilities that dogged Oz (like residency questions).

Two of the other states that McConnell mentioned, Montana and Ohio, also may feature repeat candidate Republicans, although these potential repeat candidates are not getting the type of red carpet treatment from the national party that McCormick has. In Montana, Rep. Matt Rosendale, an anti-establishment conservative who got some attention earlier this year as one of the handful of Republicans that held out until the end against now-Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R, CA-23), seems likelier than not to run. Rosendale was the GOP’s 2018 nominee against Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) and lost by 3.6%. For the past few months, Rosendale has been in something of a battle of words with Tim Sheehy, a candidate who is already formally in the race and who national Republicans prefer. An August poll from J. L. Partners gave Rosendale a commanding lead over Sheehy in a hypothetical primary. Politico reported earlier this week that a Super PAC that has apparent ties to Democrats is starting to attack Sheehy on the airwaves. This suggests that the Democrats’ intervention into GOP primaries — a major theme from 2022 — may be continuing.

In Ohio, 2022 candidate and current state Sen. Matt Dolan was the first major Republican name to enter the race against Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH). Dolan’s biggest challenge in the 2024 GOP primary will be to extend his appeal beyond the economically better-off suburbs of Cleveland and Columbus. National Republicans have largely steered clear of getting involved in Ohio’s primary thus far. That may be because any of their three leading prospects — in addition to Dolan, businessman Bernie Moreno and Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose are running — seem capable (though far from guaranteed) of getting the job done against Brown, although, as we discussed recently, LaRose very visibly hitched his wagon to the recent Issue 1 campaign to make it harder to amend the state constitution, where he was on the wrong side of public opinion. Moreno also ran for the Senate nomination in 2022, although he dropped out a few months before the primary. Moreno probably has the best chance of getting a Trump endorsement, if the former president wades into the race, but there is still a long way to go.

In Wisconsin, and despite their hefty majority in the state legislature and outsized edge in the state’s House delegation, Republicans have struggled to find a credible candidate against Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI). As big-name Republicans have announced their intentions to forgo the race — over the last month or so, Reps. Tom Tiffany (R, WI-7) and Mike Gallagher (R, WI-8) have both ruled out running for Senate — one name that has increasingly surfaced is businessman Eric Hovde. Hovde ran in the 2012 primary but came in a close second to former Gov. Tommy Thompson, a Republican who dominated state politics during the 1990s. In the general election, though, Thompson underwhelmed, and Baldwin’s 6-point margin was only slightly less than Barack Obama’s showing in Wisconsin.

In Nevada, veteran Sam Brown had a relatively respectable showing in the state’s 2022 GOP Senate primary, despite being overshadowed by former state Attorney General Adam Laxalt, a much better-known candidate who had more of the party’s establishment in his corner. Brown is running again and is now himself the favorite of national Republicans in a competitive primary. One of the other prominent candidates in the race, election denier Jim Marchant, was the party’s nominee for Nevada Secretary of State last cycle.

Staying out west, Kari Lake, an Arizona Republican who lost last year’s gubernatorial race by running as a vocal election denier, has long been rumored to be looking at her state’s 2024 Senate race. But a more recent name that has gotten into the mix is her former ticket mate, venture capitalist Blake Masters, who lost decisively to Sen. Mark Kelly (D-AZ) last year. In 2022, the pair seemed to run very much as a team, the “Blake and Lake” ticket. But with 2024 approaching, Masters and Lake reportedly exchanged some not-so flattering words when sizing each other up. Although the Arizona race could be an odd one — for one thing, independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema has not announced her intentions — it seems obvious that neither Lake nor Masters would make especially compelling candidates.

So far, all the announced or potential repeat candidates we’ve mentioned have come from the Republican side. This is mostly because the GOP only holds about one-third of the Senate seats that’ll be up next year, so Republicans will naturally have to produce more challengers to incumbents. However, there are a couple of Democratic examples in states that will be less pivotal to deciding the chamber’s control. In Missouri, attorney and Iraq War veteran Lucas Kunce ran as a progressive in 2022 but narrowly lost to a more establishment-oriented choice in the primary. For 2024, Kunce seems to have a better chance of getting the nomination. Though GOP Sen. Josh Hawley, who famously saluted the insurrectionists on Jan. 6 only to be caught on film fleeing the Senate chamber afterward, is someone who Democrats would love to target, Missouri is not the swing state that it once was.

In next door Tennessee, 2020 Senate nominee Marquita Bradshaw is challenging GOP Sen. Marsha Blackburn, although Democrats recently got a higher-profile challenger in state Rep. Gloria Johnson, who made national headlines earlier this year as a member of the “Tennessee Three.”

Though not all the candidates we mentioned in this survey are favorites, we’ll reiterate what we said a few months ago: the idea of running repeat candidates is not necessarily a bad one. In 2022, for instance, the sole Senate seat that changed hands was Pennsylvania. The winner of that race, the aforementioned Fetterman, was a repeat candidate himself — before he gained a statewide profile as lieutenant governor, he unsuccessfully ran in the 2016 Democratic primary for the Senate seat that he won six years later.

New ratings on an old map in Ohio

Table 1: Crystal Ball House rating changes

Member/District Old Rating New Rating
Greg Landsman (D, OH-1) Toss-up Leans Democratic
Marcy Kaptur (D, OH-9) Toss-up Leans Democratic

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s Allen v. Milligan decision, which seems likelier than not to eventually allow Democrats to win an additional U.S. House seat apiece in Alabama and Louisiana (and perhaps elsewhere), we noted that it is fairly common for at least one state congressional map to change from one election cycle to the next. Beginning in 1964 — when the Supreme Court’s Wesberry v. Sanders decision created the modern “one person, one vote” standard that guides district-drawing — at least one congressional district has been redrawn in 23 of the 30 two-year election cycles since then.

That is going to go to 24 of 31 this cycle, but no redraw has actually happened yet. But the lack of a redraw in Ohio led to a couple of House rating changes. We posted about them on social media late last week, but we wanted to note them here as well.

In Ohio, there was ongoing legal action over the state’s congressional districts. The Ohio Supreme Court had ruled that the districts violated a voter-approved constitutional amendment approved in advance of the post-2020 census redistricting process that changed how the maps would be drawn. Essentially, dominant state Republicans went back and forth with the court, which resulted in a map that was still a Republican gerrymander, although it was not as strong of a gerrymander as it could have been. That map was eventually used in 2022 despite the state court saying it was illegal. Democrats ended up winning the state’s three most competitive seats, which held Republicans to a 10-5 statewide edge (down from the 12-4 advantage the GOP won in the state throughout the 2010s). In the same election, the party composition of the Ohio Supreme Court stayed the same — a 4-3 Republican edge — but Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor (R) retired because of age limits. She sided with Democrats on the redistricting cases, and the court now has a more reliable 4-3 Republican edge. Consequently, forces aligned with the left asked to withdraw the previous lawsuit over the map, and the court agreed last week — meaning that the current map appears set to remain in 2024.

This development prompted us to revisit our ratings, which were effectively placeholders in Ohio. There was a possibility that the map would be redrawn, most likely to the benefit of Republicans. But that appears to be off the table.

We mentioned that there are three districts that featured competitive races in 2022. In southwest Ohio, Rep. Greg Landsman (D, OH-1) defeated now-former Rep. Steve Chabot (R) by about 5.5 points in a district that Joe Biden carried by about 8.5 points in 2020. In the Akron-Canton area, Rep. Emilia Sykes (D, OH-13) held a version of former Rep. Tim Ryan’s (D) old Akron-to-Youngstown seat, defeating attorney and former Miss Ohio Madison Gesiotto Gilbert (R) by 5.5 points in a Biden +3 seat. Finally, long-serving Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D, OH-9) walloped J.R. Majewski (R), a surprise primary winner who it was later discovered misrepresented his military background, by 13 points in a district that backed Donald Trump by 3 points. Kaptur is 1 of just 5 Democrats who holds a Trump-won district. We previously held all these districts as Toss-ups, because they all could have been made better for Republicans under a new map. With the current map now apparently remaining in place, we’re moving Landsman and Kaptur to Leans Democratic while holding Sykes in Toss-up.

The OH-1 move is mainly because the district has trended to be fairly Democratic for president, and it’s also far from clear whether local Republicans will produce a strong challenger to Landsman.

Kaptur gets a benefit of the doubt given her long record of service (she was first elected in 1982) and strong victory, albeit over a weak opponent, in 2022. Her likeliest opponent is state Rep. Craig Riedel (R), who lost to Majewski in the multi-candidate primary last time. Majewski actually planned to run again this cycle but dropped out. In a time of increasingly correlated House and presidential results, this one could drift back into Toss-up as the cycle unfolds.

Sykes, a member of an Akron political dynasty, turned in a good performance against an opponent, Gesiotto Gilbert, who did not win plaudits for her 2022 campaign. Like Majewski, Gesiotto Gilbert announced that she was seeking a rematch this cycle but dropped out in August after taking a job with the Republican National Committee. She is not the only Republican passing on a run: 2022 Senate candidate and former state GOP Chairwoman Jane Timken announced Wednesday morning that she would not run, and state Sen. Kristina Roegner previously decided not to take the plunge. We’ll see how the field develops here: We could imagine a world in which OH-9 becomes a more prime GOP target than OH-13 given that the latter is still several points bluer and that Republicans are still searching for a top candidate.

Ultimately, the map staying the same gives the Democrats a decent chance to hang on to their current seats in Ohio. The map is likely to change in 2026, though, as this map is designed to sunset based on the current Ohio redistricting system (which only allows a map to be used for two election cycles if it is passed without bipartisan buy-in, and Democrats did not go along with this map when passed). It’s also possible that Ohio voters will approve a constitutional amendment backed by former Chief Justice O’Connor and others that would create an independent redistricting commission; if they do that in a 2024 ballot issue, that commission would redraw the maps in advance of 2026 too.