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Notes on the State of the Primaries: Sept. 14, 2022

Dear Readers: In the latest edition of our new “Politics is Everything” podcastCrystal Ball Managing Editor Kyle Kondik talked to Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a Washington Post columnist, about the mixed signals in this year’s election and some of the advantages Republicans retain despite some recent setbacks. “Politics is Everything” is available on all major podcast platforms.

This is the latest edition of Notes on the State of Politics, which features short updates on elections and politics. Tuesday night was the last regular primary night of the year, and we have updates on races in both New Hampshire and Rhode Island.

The Editors

Table 1: Crystal Ball House rating change

Member/District Old Rating New Rating
Chris Pappas (D, NH-1) Toss-up Leans Democratic

New England contests close out the 2022 primary season

In recapping the final primary night of 2022, we’ll start with the state that also may host the final primary of 2023 (which could — gasp — be a presidential primary): New Hampshire.

Granite State Republicans appear to have made life a little easier for first-term Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan. Don Bolduc, a conservative retired general who cast himself as a pro-Donald Trump outsider and who lost a 2020 Senate primary, beat state Senate President Chuck Morse, who had a more established record in the state. As of this writing, Bolduc has a 37%-36% lead, which is a considerably slimmer margin than what public polling suggested. Given that, it seems possible that popular Gov. Chris Sununu’s (R-NH) late Morse endorsement carried weight. More concretely, some Republicans complained that the Democratic-aligned Senate Majority PAC intervened against Morse — given the margin, this may have been the decisive factor, although Morse also got some help from Republican outside groups.

Looking to the general election, the pro-Republican Senate Leadership Fund announced that it has $23 million reserved in New Hampshire, however, as we noted last week, we wonder if SLF will actually follow through with that buy (as opposed to shifting those funds to other states). As of late August, Hassan had just over $7 million on hand — in her ads, she has tried to project a postpartisan tone. The Crystal Ball continues to rate the race as Leans Democratic.

Sununu was easily renominated for a fourth 2-year term as governor and is a strong bet for reelection in the fall. But, on the congressional front, as with the Senate primary, Granite State Republicans preferred candidates who were more in Trump’s mold than Sununu’s.

Going for Joe Biden by a 52%-46% margin in 2020, the Democratic-held NH-1 is the more competitive of the state’s districts. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R, CA-23) endorsed Matt Mowers, a 33-year-old veteran of the Trump administration who lost by 5 points to Rep. Chris Pappas (D) in 2020. But Karoline Leavitt, who is 25 and likewise worked for Trump, ran a more anti-establishment campaign — she won with a 35% plurality. Leavitt received several prominent endorsements, as well — in the general election, Pappas may bring up her support from polarizing figures like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Rep. Jim Jordan (R, OH-4) when trying to portray her as too far-right for the district. Leavitt also worked for Rep. Elise Stefanik (R, NY-21), the No. 3 House Republican who supported her former aide’s campaign. Some national Republicans were concerned that Leavitt being nominated would jeopardize their chances at flipping this seat, and the major GOP outside group Congressional Leadership Fund, which is connected to McCarthy, spent money to help Mowers.

Over the past decade or so, NH-1 was considered a classic, if not the quintessential, swing district: it changed hands every cycle from 2010 to 2016. But it does seem that Leavitt, who maintains that the 2020 election was stolen, will have a harder time making her case to the general electorate than Mowers would have. NH-1 is also one of the more college-educated marginal districts, so it may be less receptive to a populisty type of Republicanism. Pappas, who now starts the general election campaign with $3 million in the bank, is still in for what could be a challenging race, but we feel comfortable calling him a modest favorite. So NH-1 moves to Leans Democratic.

In the 2nd District, Sununu endorsed George Hansel, who is the mayor of the Democratic-leaning city of Keene, in the state’s rural-flavored southwestern quadrant. Hansel ran as a mainstream conservative in a multi-candidate field, but he appears to have lost to Robert Burns, a stridently pro-Trump Republican. Burns held local office a decade ago but has since been something of a perennial candidate for higher office. As with the Senate primary, Burns was aided by Democratic outside spending. Rep. Annie Kuster (D, NH-2) was first elected in 2012, and has held on in some unfavorable cycles for her party. NH-2 gave Biden a 54%-45% margin in 2020, and we are holding our rating for it as Leans Democratic.

Despite having only 2 seats in the House and despite Republicans’ unified control of the redistricting process, New Hampshire was one of the last states to pass a new House map this cycle. Sununu and the Republicans in his legislature were never on the same page: while legislative Republicans wanted to essentially concede NH-2 in order to make NH-1 a better target, Sununu insisted that both districts remain competitive. In the end, the state Supreme Court sided with Sununu and passed a map that shuffled only a few residents around.

While the map retains 2 competitive districts, we now have both in the Leans Democratic category. Aside from the results of last night’s primaries, where Republicans didn’t seem to put their collective best foot forward, this is also because of the improving national environment for Democrats. On the latter point, it may be worth noting that, with abortion becoming an increasingly salient issue this cycle, New Hampshire is, by some measures, among the states most supportive of abortion rights.

Staying in New England, Rhode Island also held its primaries last night. In the state’s biggest-ticket contest, Gov. Dan McKee (D-RI), who ascended to the office last year, came a step closer to winning it in his own right: he won his primary with about one-third of the vote. For much of the campaign, Rhode Island Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea seemed to be the most formidable not-McKee option. But businesswoman Helena Foulkes, with support from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and bolstered by a strong performance during the final debate of the campaign, caught some late momentum. Foulkes was leading McKee much of the night, but eventually dropped to second place to finish a few points behind him. Foulkes’ spending advantage, including some self-funding, likely also helped her keep it close. Gorbea carried Providence proper and Foulkes’ coalition included some wealthier coastal towns, but McKee took almost everything else.

With McKee’s primary victory, 2022 becomes the first midterm cycle since 2002 where every sitting governor who ran for reelection secured their party’s nomination. From 2006 to 2018, exactly 1 governor was ousted by their fellow partisans each midterm year — going chronologically, that list consists of: Frank Murkowski (R-AK), Jim Gibbons (R-NV), Neil Abercrombie (D-HI), and Jeff Colyer (R-KS). This year’s stasis was even more notable considering former President Trump endorsed against some incumbents within his own party, specifically Govs. Brian Kemp (R-GA) and Brad Little (R-ID). Still, we wrote more than a year ago that though there may be an upset or two, GOP primary challengers were facing mostly uphill climbs.

In any case, Republicans will also be in for an uphill climb against McKee in November, as we rate that race as Likely Democratic.

State Treasurer Seth Magaziner (D) is termed out of his current job, but he still has a decent chance of holding public office next year. In a multi-way Democratic primary for the open RI-2, Magaziner earned a 54% majority. This district is essentially the western half of the state, and is less blue than the state as a whole — Biden carried the seat 56%-42% in 2020, but it gave Hillary Clinton a smaller 50%-43% vote in 2016. Former Cranston Mayor Allan Fung had no opposition for the GOP nomination, and national Republicans are excited about his candidacy. As with the New Hampshire seats, RI-2, to us, is one of those districts that would look better for Republicans absent the Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling — so it will stay at Leans Democratic for now.

Conclusion: On to November!

As we’ll expand on in later articles, with the 2022 primary cycle drawing to a close, there are increasingly mixed political signals. On one hand, Democrats are trying to go against history: as the party controlling the White House, they shouldn’t be in a position to do well this year, especially considering Biden’s approval rating stands at a negative 43%/53% spread. On the other hand, the 5 special elections since the Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling each saw Democrats overperform Biden — so those results don’t imply some sort of significant Republican edge. As there are no more special elections scheduled before the November general elections, we won’t get another chance to see if this trend is still holding.

In considering the national partisan composition of the 2022 primaries, Republican pollster John Couvillon suggests that November may ultimately have a light red hue. According to his numbers, Democrats have made up 48% of the national primary electorate this cycle. Democrats had a primary turnout edge in their midterm wave years of 2006 and 2018, while Republicans enjoyed a bigger advantage in their wave years of 2010 and 2014 than they did this year. So perhaps this is another indicator that 2022’s political environment is shaping up to be more mixed than what we saw in the last several midterms.