Seven takeaways from the 2022 primary season
Down the ballot, 36 states will elect governors in November, including the five — Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Arizona — that flipped from Trump to Biden in 2020.
The outcomes of those races, coupled with other down-ballot matchups, could have an outsize effect on the next presidential election as Republicans at the state level continue their push to restrict ballot access and put the tools in place to weaponize future fraud claims.
Republicans, meanwhile, are banking on voters’ concerns over the economy, especially inflation, which still ranks as the top issue in most polling, and crime to fuel a backlash to Democrats at all levels.
Here are seven takeaways from more than six months of midterm primaries:
‘Candidate quality’ looms over GOP’s Senate majority hopes
Republicans entered the 2022 midterm election cycle with economic and historical factors behind their bid to win control of the House and Senate in November. But the GOP’s Senate hopes are being complicated by a handful of candidates in key races struggling to make the switch from primary mode to appealing to the broader general electorate.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell acknowledged the problems Republican candidates have faced in comments last month at a Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce luncheon.
“I think there’s probably a greater likelihood the House flips than the Senate,” he said. “Candidate quality has a lot to do with the outcome.”
Infighting threatens Republicans’ congressional ambitions
Republicans looking to take control of the Senate should be spending all their time focused on Democrats.
But those troubled candidates have strained relationships among Senate leadership — namely between Sen. Rick Scott, the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and McConnell, the top Republican in the legislative body.
For months, the infighting played out in private, with quiet back biting and second guessing over candidates, strategy and spending. But as the summer dragged on and several Republicans struggled to pivot to the general election, Scott and McConnell’s infighting burst into public.
This was not the first fight between Scott and McConnell. After the Florida Republican rolled out a plan that would have raised taxes on low income Americans and sunset Social Security and Medicare in March, which he subsequently revised, McConnell brushed him back, telling reporters, “We will not have as part of our agenda a bill that raises taxes on half the American people, and sunsets Social Security and Medicare within five years.”
McConnell-aligned forces have jumped into those races in recent weeks, attempting to bail out candidates whose fundraising has lagged well behind their Democratic rivals with huge injections of television advertising.
Trump demonstrates his influence in GOP open-seat primaries
The primary season has demonstrated just how closely the Republican electorate is willing to follow Trump’s lead.
However, open-seat Republican primaries — particularly Senate races — have demonstrated Trump’s dominance.
In Arizona, Trump’s support and tech mogul Peter Thiel’s money elevated Blake Masters for the Senate nod. There, Trump squared off with his own former vice president, Mike Pence, and term-limited Ducey in the GOP gubernatorial primary. Pence and Ducey backed establishment favorite Karrin Taylor Robson; Trump endorsed former journalist and election denier Kari Lake. Lake — and thus Trump — won.
Election deniers dominate Republican nominations
In some states, the entire Republican ticket is Trump backed and election denying, like Arizona, where candidates from Lake, the gubernatorial nominee, to attorney general nominee Abraham Hamadeh have embraced Trump’s lie.
This trend is arguably most troubling in down-ballot races, particularly races for secretary of state. These officials will be tasked with running elections, including in key presidential swing states, should they win in November.
“There are these small races, down-ballot races that are going relatively unnoticed that will determine if we have a free and fair election,” said Hari Sevugan, a senior adviser to iVote, a group focused on secretary of state races. “Who wins these seats in 2022 will not only determine what the election looks like in 2024, but what our democracy looks like the day after.”
Will the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling be a game-changer?
In the days and weeks after the Supreme Court threw out federal abortion rights protections, leadership in both parties seemed uncertain whether the backlash to the decision would drive voters to the polls.
Two-and-a-half months later, the answer seems clear: abortion is a leading issue in 2022 and its impact is being felt at the ballot box.
As importantly, the issue appears to cut across party lines.
Democrats across the country have now adopted similar messaging. Their candidates could also benefit from added turnout in states like Michigan, which, like Kansas, is holding an abortion rights referendum.
Republicans have largely sought to downplay the issue, insisting in many cases that abortion is not, as Democrats say, “on the ballot.” But new federal legislation to ban abortion after 15 weeks nationwide, introduced by GOP South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham this week, could undercut their argument.
The economy still a drag on Democrats
The energy around the abortion debate can only do so much, however.
Polls and conversations with voters show roaring inflation and rising prices continue to be a significant concern, impacting voters in every competitive state and district across the country.
“Inflation, a broken supply chain and high gas prices — Mainers everywhere are facing tough decision about rising costs,” Democrat Rep. Jared Golden said in an ad for his reelection campaign. Golden goes on to describe himself as a “independent voice” and touts voting against a key portion of the Biden agenda because it would “make inflation worse.”
Republicans like Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota, the head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, have attempted to define this election as “a grocery and gas election,” using inflation as an albatross to hang around every Democratic candidate’s neck.
Abortion has complicated that message — putting Republicans in districts on defense — but with eight weeks to go before Election Day, whether the economy or abortion is the most motivating issue for voters will determine who is better positioned to hold or win the majority.
Big-dollar outside spenders are a new force in Democratic primaries
The combination of redistricting and a wave of House Democratic retirements created a long list of open seats, setting up a series of contentious primaries between moderate, establishment-backed candidates and movement progressives.
UDP also spent heavily in Democratic races in Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Carolina, Maryland, Ohio and South Texas, succeeding in all but the open seat primary based in Pittsburgh, where state Rep. Summer Lee defeated moderate Steve Irwin.
Progressive groups also dug deep to back candidates like Lee and Greg Casar in Texas, with independent expenditure arms of Justice Democrats and the Working Families Party usually leading the way. Indivisible and the Congressional Progressive Caucus’s campaign arm dipped into some races, too, but they were all outspent — a dynamic that many expect to continue in cycles to come.
This story has been updated.