The thermostatic public opinion of the American voter is not a well understood phenomenon, but it is something that has been well observed for the last century. The President’s party almost always suffers a midterm penalty and Joe Biden is historically unpopular, only just missing out on the bottom spot except Donald Trump was more unpopular. This is all to say that the political environment is bad, and conceivably very bad. These are not really debatable points, what is debatable is how much we can read into the future from what happened in Virginia and New Jersey. There is a lot of spin and misguided optimism in politics, there is also an equal amount of apocalypse type meltdowns. This preview attempts to be neither, but rather a 10,000 foot view of the state of things.
The good news first:
Another Glen Youngkin is Hard to Find
How exactly did a Carlyle employed, fleece vest wearing, multi-millionaire who has never held elected office defeat a former Governor? The strengths of the Republican were only amplified by the many weaknesses of the Democrat.
In a normal campaign, you’d probably see the Democrat take a more populist tone and attack Youngkin for his ties to the financial industry. Terry McAuliffe was unable and unwilling to “go there” perhaps because as many pundits have noted, McAuliffe himself is an investor in Carlyle.
Youngkin made extraordinary use of education as a campaign wedge issue, drawing a lot of attention to an apparent gaffe made by McAuliffe during a debate in which he said, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach”. There are a couple pieces to this, the first being the frustration many Virginia parents have had because their schools have been closed for in-person learning longer than most other states because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The second more obvious motivating force was race, specifically a considerable amount of white opposition to anything deemed “Critical Race Theory”. Normally a dog whistle this loud would be easy to counteract except the Democrats had very little credibility on racial issues in this election. The incumbent Governor, Ralph Northam, admitted to wearing black face as did the incumbent Attorney General, Mark Herring, who was unsuccessful in his bid for re-election. The Republicans also managed to nominate Winsome Sears, a Jamaican-American who will be the first woman and person of color to be Lieutenant Governor. Republicans essentially were able to neutralize whatever natural advantage Democrats typically have on issues of race and racism, which allowed at least several thousand more conservative Biden voters to pull the lever for Youngkin.
Finally, the way in which Youngkin talked about race sounded rhetorically much more like a liberal critique than a conservative one, despite the more straightforward right-wing animus we saw at school board meetings across America. Ironically, he very successfully used the Obama era “post-racial America” that worked so well for the former President in diffusing tensions with the rural and working-class whites who have abandoned Democrats in droves.
I’ll include a portion of his final stump speech, and I think you’ll notice that this threading of the needle will be hard to replicate:
“We will teach all history, the good and the bad. America is the greatest country on the planet. We know it. We have an amazing history, but we also have some dark and abhorrent chapters. We must teach them all. We can’t know where we’re going unless we know where we come from. But let me be clear, what we don’t do – what we don’t do — is teach our children to view everything through a lens of race, where we divide them into buckets; one group’s an oppressor and another group’s a victim; and we pit them against each other, and we steal their dreams. We will not be a commonwealth of dream-stealers. We will be a commonwealth of dream-enablers and builders. We know it’s not right. We’re all created equal, and we’re trying so hard to live up to those immortal words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who implored us to be better than we are; to judge one another based on the content of our character and not the color of our skin. And so let me be clear, on day one, we will not have political agendas in the classroom, and I will ban critical race theory.”
That’s not how former President Trump talks about race nor is it how many GOP primary voters talk about race. Therein lies the greatest hope for Democrats, Youngkin of course was not the choice of a primary electorate. The Virginia Republican party opted to hold a convention to select its nominees for statewide row offices as opposed to a regular primary. This was because the party establishment correctly understood that State Sen. Amanda Chase, who self-described as “Trump in heels”, would run away with the nomination if left up to primary voters. A convention however would limit the influence of party outsiders and the folks who might be motivated enough to vote but not spend several hours at a convention. Most states will have primaries and as we saw in 2010 when Republicans lost easy pickup opportunities in Senate races in Nevada, Delaware, and Colorado; sometimes a bad candidate is just bad enough to break a wave.
Other Good News:
- Midterm and off-year elections are not predictive of Presidential elections. Consider 2018, 2010, 2002, 1994, and 1990. In 2018 and 1990 Presidents Trump and Bush saw their party, the Republicans, suffer loses in the midterm election and they in-turn went on to lose re-election. In 2010 and 1994 Presidents Obama and Clinton saw their party, the Democrats, suffer historic defeats only to be re-elected themselves 2 years later. Finally in 2002, President Bush saw his party make gains and was re-elected President. What’s the theme? Context matters. The results of the next Presidential election were about the next battle, not the last one. Even if Democrats do poorly in 2022, they have until 2024 to recover if they can.
- A year is an eternity in politics. In 2018, it seemed probable if not likely that Republicans would lose their Senate majority until as late as September. However, the confirmation battle of Brett Kavanagh made possible an opening for Republicans to galvanize voters in states like Missouri and Indiana. What would that look like for Democrats? It’s unclear, but it may defend against potential loses in Georgia and Arizona by providing openings in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. However, it should be said, Republicans won Missouri and Indiana by 19% in 2016 while Democrats won Georgia and Arizona by less than 0.2% in 2020.
- Starting in 2024 but continuing through 2026, 2028, and 2030 many of the seats drawn to favor Republicans will likely continue to trend Democratic. Population growth is exploding across American suburbs while rural areas are seeing mass depopulation. Take Cobb County in suburban Atlanta for example which mirrors the trends being seen elsewhere. In 2020, Donald Trump received 25,000 more votes than George Bush had in 2000 when he carried the county with nearly 60% of the vote. Joe Biden however received 135,000 more votes and won the county with 56.3%. You can find similar numbers in the suburbs of Houston, Dallas, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, New York, and nearly every major American city with the obvious exception of Miami (although Jacksonville and Tampa show greater upside). The 2012 maps had been gerrymandered heavily in some places, but by 2018 more than 40 seats had flipped to the Democrats. This is short-term good news for the House, but the Senate might be a longer-term view.
- Should Donald Trump announce his candidacy for President in 2024 he will be the Republican nominee. The potential of a defeated President returning to lead his party in another general election campaign if frankly something that exists well outside the bounds of living memory. The closest examples we have are Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 who ended up running under a third party or Grover Cleveland in 1892 who successfully returned to office after being ousted in 1888. There’s not a lot of precedent for that and there is no precedent for Donald Trump. He is the unknown unknown and he could completely scramble expectations for November should he begin actively campaigning.
Now that Bad News:
Split Ticket Voting is a thing of the past
In 2013, the last time McAuliffe was on the ballot, over 113,000 votes separated the highest performing Democrat (Ralph Northam, then the candidate for Lieutenant Governor) from the lowest performing Democrat (Mark Herring, then the candidate for Attorney General). All three Democrats ended up being elected in that election. In 2021, only 13,000 votes separated the highest performing Republican (Glenn Youngkin, Governor-elect) and the lowest performing Republican (Jason Miyares, Attorney General-elect).
In some environments, that is good news. If there was less split ticket voting, Susan Collins would’ve been defeated in 2020 and the Democratic majority in the House would not have shrunk to single digits. In some environments, this is bad news. If there were more split ticket voting in 2020, it’s very easy to imagine Republicans keeping Senate seats in Arizona and Georgia and perhaps picking up a seat in Michigan, bringing us to 54-46 as opposed to 50-50. Democrats unfortunately find themselves much closer to the latter than the former. This is a bad environment for more split ticket voting for a couple reasons.
The seats Democrats see as most vulnerable, Nevada, Arizona, Georgia, and New Hampshire are not necessarily full of voters that are trending towards Democrats currently. According to exit polling, here’s the percentage of white voters without college degrees in the aforementioned states:
New Hampshire: 53%
In Virginia according to exit polls, these white voters without college education went from voting Republican 62% to 38% in 2020 to 74% to 24% in 2021. There are of course problems with using only exit polling data, but looking at county level swings in conservative southwestern Virginia tell this story too. Every county swung more Republican, some as little as Buchanan County which became only 2.1% more Republican but some as large as Radford County which swung right 18%. If you apply that kind of shift to Nevada, Arizona, Georgia, and New Hampshire what you find is that every state flips Republican. The challenge becomes clearer when you look at the states Democrats want to flip; Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Ohio, and Florida which at least have 40% of their voters being non-college educated white people. What is dire however is 2024, which as David Shor has observed that if education and race are still as predictive as they are now for voter choice and voters split ballots like they do now and Democrats manage 52% of the popular vote as they did in 2020; Democrats likely will only capture 45 seats (not including any potential loses in 2022). If they win the Presidency in 2024, the 2026 midterm could be equally challenging when Democratic seats such as Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, and New Hampshire will be contested.
The Senate has a bias that currently benefits Republicans (It was not so long ago that Democrats had 60 Senate seats and could expect modest support from non-college educated white voters). There are simply many more states with large populations of non-college educated white voters, and many of those states are relatively small while receiving the same number of senators. Democrats need some voters concentrated in red trending states to vote for them, it’s becoming clear that not many will.
The Fundamentals favor the Republicans
Analysts like Dave Wasserman and Nate Silver said in 2018 that Democrats would probably need to win the popular vote by around 7% in 2018 to win a majority of seats outright in the US House. The latest polling averages suggest Republicans have a lead in the generic congressional ballot in the low single digits although some polls show a dead heat. With gerrymandering, there will likely be a slight bias in favor of Republicans given that many “Blue” and “purple” states opted for independent redistricting processes while “Red” states are utilizing the more familiar partisan redistricting process. However even without gerrymandering, something that is not an issue in statewide races, Democrats are still at a disadvantage if they are losing the popular vote. Remember in 2012 when Democrats led Republicans by 1.1% in the House popular vote, they still found themselves in a minority position weaker than the Republicans find themselves in now.
On key questions where Democrats had previously enjoyed relatively good numbers in our hyper-partisan political environment but polling from YouGov/The Economist shows a pretty clear story of declining fortunes over the last several months.
Direction of the Country:
Generally headed in the right direction: 27% Nov., 31% Sept., 35% Jul., 42% May
Off on the wrong track: 61% Nov., 55% Sept., 51% Jul., 46% May
Trend of the Economy
Getting Better: 16% Nov., 17% Sept., 23% Jul., 28% May
Getting Worse: 54% Nov., 45% Sept., 38% Jul., 34% May
The bit of good news is the final question that most analysts look at when trying to handicap the political environment shows some hope for Democrats. The only thing people dislike worse than Democrats are Republicans! 53% of voters dislike the Democratic Party including 39% who strongly dislike Democrats, but 59% dislike the Republican Party including 40% who strongly dislike Republicans. However, the light at the end of the tunnel on this one is still somewhat dim. In 2016, Hillary Clinton was the most disliked Presidential nominee in the history of polling….second to Donald Trump who ended up defeating her. Americans are familiar with negative partisanship and there is a critical mass, certainly millions of people including this author, who have a negative opinion of both parties. This is in my opinion the true swing group of voters because some not only are weighing whether to vote for the Republican or the Democrat, but many more are conflicted whether to vote at all. Donald Trump won this group of voters by 17 points in both 2020 and 2016, but in 2016 they accounted for 18% of voters while in 2020 they made up less than 5%. So it’s unlikely that it will be enough to be less hated but rather Democrats need to become more popular. Which brings me to my final point.
The Democrats Actually Are in Disarray
Despite what you might hear from party loyalists, self-proclaimed resistance members, never-Trumpers, and MSNBC viewers there is actually a lot of internal discontent in the Democratic Party. The left is likely more distrustful of moderates than ever after several betrayals over the last several months. Years of “Vote Blue No Matter Who” rhetoric to encourage disaffected progressives to support the party fell apart when the incumbent mayor of Buffalo was defeated by India Walton, a democratic socialist, in their democratic primary. Instead of conceding, the defeated mayor launched an independent bid for mayor which went unchallenged by Gov. Kathy Hochul (who had made endorsements in other races) and was actively supported by establishment figures in the state (except for Majority Leader Schumer). Brown was successful in his re-election, showing progressives that the relationship they have with the party is entirely one-sided as they were left flailing looking for support when just a year earlier, they we were decisive in defeating Donald Trump. There’s also the Build Back Better/Infrastructure chicanery which has produced a lot of bad will not just among rank-and-file voters but clearly amongst members. The original agreement reached by Moderates in the Senate, Progressives in the House, and President Biden was two bills that would move simultaneously. One bill would be bipartisan and contain Senate priorities on physical infrastructure like roads, bridges, broadband, and environmental upgrades. The other bill would pass through reconciliation with only Democrat votes but would have the vast majority of Biden’s domestic policy goals including a public option, paid family leave, tuition free community college, dental coverage for seniors, the PRO Act, and other liberal priorities of the last quarter century. The end result so far has been the passage of the Senate bill without support from the left with Reps. Ocasio-Cortez, Bush, Tlaib, Omar, Pressley, and Bowman voting no. Meanwhile, the House bill has been neutered by moderate figures like Sens. Manchin, Sinema, and unnamed others who don’t have the temerity to put their opposition on record. This doesn’t begin to touch on the palpable disappointment with the failure to raise the federal minimum wage or cancellation of student debt. This well sums up the left-wing frustration with the party, but it’d be dishonest not to acknowledge the drift within the right flank of the party.
James Carville and his neoliberal allies have made clear that they blame Democratic misfortunes on leftist activists and progressives lending support to causes they think are electorally toxic. Namely “Defund the Police”, “Critical Race Theory”, “Wokeness”, “Cancel Culture” and “Socialism” generally. Admittedly these issues clearly have some cultural resonance among at least some voters although this has likely been helped by a media that seems insistent on promoting narratives as opposed to nuance. However much of the blame does lay with Democrats who have not effectively found a way to explain exactly what it is that they do believe in this new culture war. The answers they’ve given on these issues is some variation of “This isn’t real, it’s more of an academic thing that most people don’t engage with and it’s missing context, but we do agree with the sentiment and will attack anyone who attacks these ideas by name although we aren’t running on these things but opposing these things puts you closer to Donald Trump.” To be clear, it is not the job of activists to support popular policies, lunch sit-ins and Martin Luther King Jr. were widely disapproved of by white Americans. Their job is to shift the window of what is politically possible and bring issues to the attention of the actors who can address them. The job of politicians is to build public support for policies and then to enact them. If something associated with the Democratic Party is “Toxic” that is the fault of the party for not figuring out how to explain themselves to the voters. There is a lot that Republicans campaign on that is not just offensive but unpopular and they are connected to activists and ideologues who are equally unpopular. Nevertheless, they have at least managed a coherent (although often inflammatory not to mention dishonest) message that appeals to a growing number of voters.
Not everyone blames the culture war, in fact some moderates like Rep. Spanberger blame the political environment on the national economy and blame the condition of the national economy on progressives. She’s quoted in the New York Times saying:
“We were so willing to take seriously a global pandemic, but we’re not willing to say, ‘Yeah, inflation is a problem, and supply chain is a problem, and we don’t have enough workers in our work force, we gloss over that and only like to admit to problems in spaces we dominate. Nobody elected him to be F.D.R., they elected him to be normal and stop the chaos”
Spanberger is now being challenged for her seat by State Sen. Amanda Chase, the aforementioned Trump in heels. Virginia aside, many so-called fiscal hawks have pointed to President Biden’s American Rescue Plan as the cause of the spike in inflation we’re currently experiencing. Which of course is not just a critique of government spending but government priorities.
My Prediction: Republicans are going to Win, Democrats can decide by How Much
I’ll let Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report with Amy Walter describe exactly how bad for Democrats it would be if Republicans continue the swing they achieved earlier this month.
“To put yesterday in context: in NJ, GOP legislative candidates outperformed the ’20 Biden/Trump margin in their districts by a median of 10.8 pts. If that swing were superimposed nationally, Rs would pick up 44 House seats in 2022 (before even factoring in redistricting). Before unpacking what this could mean we need to discuss “PVI” or “Partisan Voting Index” to ground us.
“The Cook Political Report published its first Partisan Voter Index (PVI) in August 1997. The PVI was developed by Charles Cook, editor and publisher of Cook, and scores each congressional district based on how strongly it leans toward one political party. The PVI is determined by comparing each congressional district’s presidential vote to the national presidential election results. According to Cook, the PVI “is an attempt to find an objective measurement of each congressional district that allows comparisons between states and districts, thereby making it relevant in both mid-term and presidential election years”
You can find the PVI of your state or congressional district (according to 2020 lines) here. For example, Rep. Cori Bush (MO-1) represents the 22nd most Democratic seat in the nation with a PVI of D+29. Therefore, in an election where nationally Republicans and Democrats tied in the popular vote (a D+0 or R+0 environment), you’d expect Bush to win her election about 79% of the vote. In 2020, Joe Biden beat Donald Trump by about 4.5 points nationally (meaning a D+4.5 national environment) and Bush won her election with about 78% of the vote, a slight underperformance. Meanwhile Rep. Jared Golden (ME-2) represents the most Republican leaning district held by a Democrat at R+6. In 2020, Golden won with 53% of the vote, running ahead of his district’s partisanship by an impressive 8 points. What accounts for over performance or under performance varies from race but political science says generally a few things matter: incumbency, fundraising, voter contact, and candidate favorability (not necessarily in that order). In the Senate we see a bit more of candidates defying state partisanship like Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin in West Virginia which has a score of R+23 and Republican Sen. Susan Collins in Maine which has a score of D+1. The House is increasingly becoming more partisan with no Democrat representing a district redder than R+6 and no Republican representing a district bluer than D+5. This isn’t usually true in the aftermath of a wave election, 2006 and 2008 saw many Democrats representing Republican leaning districts while 2010 and 2014 brought a lot more Republicans from D districts. 2022 will probably see Republicans take many of those Democrat leaning districts back.
What could it look like? Well assuming some Democrats will outperform their districts partisanship (although most won’t), some states/districts are weighted too heavily towards 2016 as opposed to 2020, and that Joe Biden’s approval doesn’t recover to majority support but doesn’t fall below Trump’s in 2018…it’s a good picture for Republicans.
In the House, Republicans might expect to end up with a majority somewhere between those that they had in 2014 and 2010, which themselves were extraordinary wave elections. However, partisanship might be so strong that even with new lines, some D leaning seats are just too far out of reach (this could be a particular problem California and New York). Therefore, you might see Democrats land somewhere around 200 seats, about the size of their caucus after the 1994 elections. Conversely, if partisanship has weakened then it’s possible that some Democrats who have been outperforming expectations in their district since flipping them in 2008 or 2006 or earlier may finally find themselves out of office and Democrats could reach their nadir of the century. A lot of this will depend on how new lines are drawn, as of the writing of this article Republicans have created 5 new winnable seats for themselves and Democrats have created 5 new winnable seats for themselves, additionally 5 competitive seats have been erased. Which brings up another natural dynamic of wave elections which is the swing districts fall first and most people representing those districts are moderates. That was true in 2018 when Democrats inadvertently created a much more Trumpian Republican caucus by defeating most of the party moderates. In 2022 the Democratic caucus is likely to lurch a bit to the left but it’s unlikely that the left flank of the party will be empowered in the minority, but this election will provide an opportunity to lose the more obstructionist members of the caucus like Rep. Gottheimer in New Jersey’s 5th Congressional District (D+0). However, some seats will be harder to flip back than others, as some Latino and Asian voters continue to drift to the right it will make incumbent Republicans who are members of those communities more formidable. In southern California Reps. Young Kim and Michelle Steel are the first Korean-American republican women in Congress and they represent districts with growing Korean populations, they will probably be able to represent California as long as they want to. Overall, the house looks fairly grim for Democrats if things persist as they are.
The Senate is probably bad news but there are a couple of ways Democrats can thread the needle here assuming nothing else changes. As was mentioned earlier, candidate quality really does matter although it isn’t everything. In the 2017 Alabama Special Senate election (where I correctly anticipated the surprise result) for example it might not have actually been enough for the Republican candidate to be a credibly accused sexual predator who was “more than off color” about matters ranging from slavery to 9/11 being divine retribution from God. After all, the Republicans did still manage 48.3% of the popular vote in Alabama. What was also required was a near-perfect candidate in Doug Jones the Democrat who had prosecuted the Ku Klux Klan, had no voting record, and could raise $22 million. Democrats have well positioned candidates in Sen. Raphael Warnock and Sen. Mark Kelly and potentially very poor candidates in Herschel Walker and Mark Brnovich in Georgia (R+3) and Arizona (R+3) respectively. Yet we should probably expect Republicans to have an edge, however they may be able to save themselves. In Nevada (D+0) and New Hampshire (D+0), Sens. Catherine Cortez-Masto and Maggie Hassan were both elected with less than 48% of the popular vote in 2016 and represent states with large populations that are trending Republican. Their incumbency, fundraising ability, and raw political talent will keep these races competitive but only Cortez-Masto faces a potentially strong challenger in Nevada’s former Attorney General Adam Laxalt who comes from a political dynasty in the silver state but who is not without baggage. Hassan avoided almost certain defeat when Gov. Chris Sununu announced that he has no interest in being part of the United States Senate (and why would you when you can be God-King of New Hampshire) and will run for re-election after winning the popular vote by 32 points just last year (New Hampshire elects its governor every 2 years, with no term limits). However she may face the President of the New Hampshire Senate, Chuck Morse, who is well connected around the state.
That said, Democrats will probably lose one of the four aforementioned seats if not all of them. To counteract that, Democrats need to pick up Republican seats and there are theoretically opportunities in Pennsylvania (R+2), Wisconsin (R+2), North Carolina (R+3), Florida (R+3), Ohio (R+6), and Missouri (R+11) but many of these are simply illusions of opportunity. Although the potential of an explosively toxic Eric Greitens, the disgraced former governor who resigned after allegations of stealing a donor list from a veterans charity and less than clearly consensual series of sexual encounters with his hairdresser, candidacy may seem like the best opportunity for Democrats to capture Missouri’s US Senate seat. However, there are zero reasons to believe based on any publicly available data or easily observable trends that Missouri will elect anyone but a Republican to the US Senate next November. In an environment where Democrats won the popular vote nationally by 8 points, Sen. Claire McCaskill was defeated for re-election by a larger than expected 6 points (McCaskill underperformed her state partisanship at the time by a little over 5 points).
In Florida, Sen. Marco Rubio is popular enough in South Florida with Latino voters that he could conceivably win Miami-Dade County as he did during the 2016 Republican primaries. If you’re not familiar with Florida politics, Democrats won Miami-Dade by 29 points in 2016 and still lost Florida. In Ohio, Republicans seem set to nominate the Trumpian former state Treasurer whose campaign staff walked out on him last year, Josh Mandel or the Peter Theil financed Hillbilly Elegy author that the liberal media constantly platformed J.D. Vance. Rep. Tim Ryan is no slouch as a potential Democratic Senate candidate, but he’ll likely be forced to account for statements made on the campaign trial during his quixotic quest for the presidency in 2020. Furthermore, Ohio has seen perhaps the most accelerated rightward shift of any state in the Midwest and in 2020 Donald Trump received 300,000 more votes than 4 years prior while achieving virtually the same margin of 8 points.
North Carolina has two very strong Republican options to choose from in the former Gov. Pat McCrory and Trump endorsed Congressman Rep. Ted Budd. 2020 saw over performance down ballot in North Carolina as the Governor, Attorney General, Secretary of State, and Auditors Office all were won by Democrats as Joe Biden lost the state to President Trump. The character of North Carolina is changing from a traditionally inelastic southern state with nearly all white voters supporting Republicans while Black voters support Democrats at similar levels, which bodes well for Democrats future prospects in the state. However, North Carolina is more red than purple, and Democrats will need to do better than they have in better years where they also lost which is a tall order.
Finally, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania which do represent the best opportunities Democrats have to flip any senate seats. These states are both trending Republican and were won by President Biden last year, but Wisconsin has a polarizing candidate in incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson and an open-seat in Pennsylvania where the Trump endorsed Republican is credibly accused of domestic violence. In Pennsylvania however, Democrats are threatened with a party crackup as the front-runners for the nomination are conservative Rep. Connor Lamb, moderate state. Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, and progressive Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman. After the betrayal in Buffalo, it seems unclear if any of these candidates if nominated can unify the Democratic voting base. Wisconsin although it has an incumbent, and incumbents are typically harder to defeat, benefits from the character of Mr. Johnson which has been remarkably conservative given the lean of his state. Wisconsin is trending Republican, but it isn’t that Republican yet and it’s likely that Johnson’s likely challenger, Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes, will be able to raise enormous sums of campaign dollars.
As far as Alaska goes, it’s complicated. The state has recently adopted a new voting system described here by the Anchorage Daily News:
“Under the new Ballot Measure 2 system, all candidates for a particular office, regardless of party, will run against one another in the August primary. (Candidates for governor and lieutenant governor are paired together on a single ticket as running mates.)
Voters pick one candidate or ticket for each office, and the top four vote-getters advance to the general election in November. In that election, voters will be asked to rank the candidates in order of preference, Nos. 1 through 4. A write-in spot offers a fifth choice.
If one candidate gets more than half of the first-choice ballots, that person wins the election. If none of the candidates reach that mark, the candidate with the fewest first-choice ballots is eliminated. Voters who picked that candidate first will instead have their ballots go to their second choices, and the total is recounted.
If a candidate then has more than half of the votes, that person wins. If not, the process continues until there are only two candidates left, and the person with the most votes wins.”
President Trump has already endorsed an opponent to Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the former commissioner of Alaska’s Department of Administration Kelly Tshibaka. Meanwhile Murkowski has been endorsed by Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin and Republicans like Sens. Mitch McConnell, Rick Scott, Susan Collins, and John Thune to name a few. It’s unclear what the voters will do or if Murkowski will make the top-two in November. If she does, it’s likely that she’ll win with coalition support as she did in 2016 and 2010. If she doesn’t, Tshibaka will almost certainly win. Given that Murkowski voted to impeach the Donald Trump who last year won Alaska by 10 points and voted against the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh, you might want to be Tshibaka.
All said, the Republicans have a lot more paths to 51 seats than Democrats have to 50.
Without beating a dead donkey, Democratic incumbents in Kansas, Michigan, Wisconsin, New Mexico, Maine and Nevada find themselves in tough races for the reasons listed above. These states either have large populations that are trending Republican, or they are traditionally red states. Democrats have the best odds likely in New Mexico and Nevada where the strength of incumbency may carry Gov. Steve Sisolak and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham over increasingly conservative working-class Latino voters in their states. However, all these governors were swept in on a blue wave in 2018, it’s not impossible to think that they could be as easily swept out. In fact, in 2010 that’s exactly what happened in Kansas, Michigan, Wisconsin, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Maine (Nevada already had a Republican governor) after the 2006 blue wave. The fact is that while it helps to be an incumbent, these are still not favorable environments.
In New England, liberals love electing Republican governors and we shouldn’t expect that to change in the near future. Gov. Phil Scott of Vermont (D+15) was re-elected last year by a staggering 41 point margin capturing every municipality in the state except for 3. Scott voted for Joe Biden in 2020 and called for President Trump’s resignation after January 6th. Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire (D+0) also won re-election by a very impressive 32 points in 2020, but Sununu unlike Scott has described himself as a “Trump guy through and through”. The only Republican in any danger is Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts (D+14) and it’s not from the Democrats but rather a Republican primary challenger. President Trump has endorsed Geoff Diehl, a former state rep who challenged Sen. Warren in 2018, over Gov. Baker who despite being overwhelmingly popular in the state is actually not very popular among Republicans who view him as too liberal. If Baker should decide not to run or be defeated in his primary, Massachusetts would be ripe for Democrats to flip. However, should Baker survive his primary, he will surely sail to re-election like Scott and Sununu.
In the South, Democrats are hoping failed Presidential and US Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke will make the race for Governor in Texas (R+5) competitive. That likely won’t be the case for several reasons starting with the heavy GOP swing in the Rio Grand Valley in 2020 which is home to many Latino voters. Just looking at Zapata County, which is 94% Hispanic, you can see just how uphill Beto would need to fight to be competitive.
Beto of course ran for President and made a number of statements on the campaign trial that were calibrated to appeal to a national primary electorate that in theory is much more culturally liberal than general election voters in Texas, although of course voters opted for chronically “un-woke” Joe Biden so it’s not clear if Democrats were that “woke” to begin with. Yet Beto will likely be easy work for the Republican propaganda machine with statements like “hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47” and “In necessary some cases, completely dismantling those police forces”. However, Beto is perhaps the strongest candidate Democrats could hope for, but having unnecessarily tarnished himself in a Presidential campaign it’s unlikely that we should expect Gov. Gregg Abbot to be in any serious danger.
Georgia like Massachusetts will see its Republican Governor challenged seriously in the primary which will have implications for the general election. Gov. Brian Kemp has fallen very far from the graces of Donald Trump after he refused to intervene on behalf of Trump in the certification of Georgia’s election last year. Enough Georgia Republicans sat out the Senate run-offs that Democrats were able to narrowly win and secure the majority in the US Senate, in large part due to Trump continuing to spread conspiracies about unproven mass voter fraud. If Kemp is the nominee, Trump may well decide to ask Republicans to stay home. That’s if Kemp makes it that far as he’s being challenged by Vernon Jones, a once promising Black former Democrat legislator turned Republican who has been dogged by allegations of anti-white racial prejudice. There are rumblings that former Sen. David Purdue might challenge Kemp and if he did it’s an open question whether Kemp could win. Now it’s time to address the name Democrats have been hearing for the last 4 years, Stacey Abrams who narrowly lost her campaign for Governor in 2018. Abrams would be a formidable candidate given the chaos that is consuming the Georgia GOP, but it’s not clear if she will jump into the race given the difficult political environment. Abrams, who has never been shy about wanting to be President (or Vice President), understands where to look for political opportunities. In 2018 she ran for Governor in her purple state when polls showed a national wave environment for Democrats. In 2020 she did not enter the race for President after seeing over 2 dozen candidates including the runner-up from 2016 and the former Vice President enter because she (unlike Beto) correctly recognized that she didn’t have a lane to win. Later in 2020, when polls showed Biden with an exaggerated lead over President Trump, she auditioned heavily to be Vice President on what would eventually be a winning ticket. Now we are less than a year from the next election, and this time in 2017 Abrams had already been a candidate for 5 months. This could’ve been because she had a primary then and doesn’t expect much competition now. It could also be because she doesn’t want to run just to lose.
If one state is likely to flip to the Democrats, it is Maryland (D+14) where Gov. Larry Hogan is term-limited. He was elected in a close upset in 2014 but since then had achieved high marks from Democrats and Independents with more mediocre numbers among Republicans. Like Scott in Vermont, Hogan did not vote for President Trump in 2016 or 2020.
The white whale for Democrats is Florida, a state that has not elected a Democratic Governor in over 25 years. Gov. Ron DeSantis and his administration have mirrored their style in many ways after the former President and that has created many detractors. Yet it’s also produced many supporters as DeSantis polls in the top-tier of potential Presidential candidates, and those are polls with and without former President Trump. In Florida Gov. DeSantis is on the positive side of polarizing — notching a 52% approval rating among registered voters ahead of his upcoming re-election bid. The Florida Democratic Party however has a penchant for botching elections in the state and that doesn’t seem to be changing as for the first time in history as registered Republicans outnumber registered Democrats in the Sunshine state. Challenging DeSantis are the former Republican turned Independent Governor who already lost an election as a Democrat in 2014 now Congressman Charlie Crist, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried who is Florida’s only statewide elected Democrat, or state Sen. Annette Taddeo who previously ran with Crist as his Lieutenant Governor candidate in 2014. None seem prepared so far to deal with the precipitous slide in Miami-Dade or the continued collapse in the panhandle which will be the party’s undoing.
Republicans should be able to hold on easily in Ohio, Iowa, and Arizona and they should be able to hold on very easily everywhere else. Iowa is approaching the status of red state and is currently more Republican leaning than Texas, there are no indications that rural white voters (of which Iowa has many) will be shifting back towards the Democrats anytime soon. In 2012, President Obama won all white voters in Iowa by 4 points. In 2020, Joe Biden lost white voters in Iowa by 12 points. Gov. Kim Reynolds was elected for the first time in 2018 in a much more hostile political environment, she should be fine in 2022 against any Democrat. The same is true of Gov. Mike DeWine in Ohio who is a known quantity in Ohio having previously been elected statewide as its Attorney General, Lieutenant Governor, and US Senator. In Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey is term-limited (although he would’ve been unlikely to earn a Trump endorsement after he acknowledged Biden won his state last year) and so that race is the most competitive. Trump has endorsed former TV news anchor Kari Lake although it’s not clear if she will be the party’s nominee given her history of association with QAnon conspiracy theories, white supremacist congressman Paul Gosar, and alleged Nazi sympathizers. Should she be nominated however, it’s likely that she’ll face Secretary of State Katie Hobbs who does not have the same history of bizarre connections. Nobody should be surprised if Hobbs pulls an upset because again, candidate quality can and often does matter on the margins.
Finally, Illinois, California, New York, and Oregon will almost certainly elect Democratic governors (although in New York, Gov. Kathy Hochul faces a very strong primary challenge from Attorney General Tish James). The state level Republican parties in these states for the most part lack a serious moderate element which means that they will likely be unable to mount serious challenges in 2022. These for all intents and purposes are blue states, and they’ve only gotten bluer since the last GOP wave in 2014.
So, what’s a Democrat to do then?
The Democrats are on borrowed time, it’s not clear if all of them know that but some do. It might be easy to despair as we look down the road at the horror of possibilities. Instead, though, we should remember that we are living through a turbulent period of great transitions and there are forces outside of our control. It is up to the President and his Congress to understand the stakes of the next year and do whatever it takes to pass their policy agenda. It may not be enough to save themselves from ignominy but doing nothing will surely doom them to it. And so, what if they do everything they promised last year and more and still the American people still reject them at the polls? What good is government that is so afraid to govern lest they be thrown out and forced to not govern some more but this time from the minority? I’ve written about the need to radically change the Supreme Court, but beyond that Democrats should probably try to do what voters want and dare them not to like them.
Polling suggests sweeping majorities in favor of legalizing marijuana, increasing the minimum wage, forgiving student debt, codifying Roe v. Wade, and letting the government negotiate prescription drug prices. These are things Democrats could do if they were willing to really question the rules of what is possible. The only thing that will save the party from likely electoral disaster is if they can get out of their own way and realize that the rules of the road have changed forever. Perhaps they still will, but the clock is ticking.
As for us, the ball is in their court. Knock on doors if you want, make phone calls if you have time, donate if you’ve got the disposable income, talk to your neighbors if you like them enough and vote if you’ve got the Tuesday available. Ultimately though, it’s up to the people in power to decide how long they think America can survive Republican control of the federal government. In a nation where 700,000 have died of an infectious disease over the last 20 months, it’s not an unreasonable question.