Midterms in hostile territory

What 2 instructive out-party races can tell us about the 2022 elections

Elephants and a donkey.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

Believe it or not, we are less than nine months from state and national elections that will serve as a referendum on President Biden's first two years in office. Midterms offer the opportunity to scramble the partisan landscape in unexpected ways, especially in gubernatorial elections and other races that are less tightly tied to the polarized national environment. And this year's midterms are especially fraught, with divisive issues related to COVID restrictions, the economy, and the future of democracy taking center stage.

There are three big-picture factors structuring party strategy this year. The first is that most rank-and-file Republican voters believe former President Donald Trump won the 2020 elections, a view shared by a not-insignificant number of elected officials. But old-guard Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), regard the fervor for loopy MAGA candidates as the only thing standing between the GOP and reclaiming Congressional majorities.

Meanwhile, many elite Democratic strategists seem to think their party underperformed expectations so thoroughly that they basically lost in 2020. It has become conventional Democratic wisdom that voters want moderation, which makes the road to power for progressive primary candidates even harder than it once was.

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Finally, there's the political environment itself. The November gubernatorial races, when Republican Glenn Youngkin won in Virginia and Democrat Phil Murphy nearly blew a double-digit lead in New Jersey, suggested that the national climate had shifted as many as 10 points to the GOP. Biden's average approval numbers have also dipped into the high 30s according to some trackers, and Republicans have carved out a small but significant lead on the generic congressional ballot. These data points give Republicans a justifiable sense of confidence — and Democrats a well-earned sense of gloom.

These dynamics will play out everywhere, and there will plenty of attention lavished on high-profile races. But a little-studied — and perhaps more valuable — question is how out-parties are adjusting campaign strategy and candidate selection in places where they've consistently performed poorly. What are Republicans doing in blue states and Democrats in red ones? Are the more extreme flanks of the party winning the battle for ideological purity, or will party elites insist a more moderate candidate is the way to win in a wave election?

In Illinois, for example, Democrats have dominated statewide politics for most of this century, though the state elected a one-term Republican governor, Bruce Rauner, in the GOP wave of 2014. When the political environment snapped back to favor Democrats after Trump's election, however, the hapless Rauner, while a social moderate, got clobbered by almost 17 points, and Biden carried the state by the same margin in 2020.

With the energy of statewide Republican politics moving from the now-blue Chicago suburbs to the downstate redoubts of the MAGA movement, the path back to gubernatorial power for the GOP looks uncertain. A hard-right turn would probably be politically disastrous in a state like Illinois, but a consensus moderate candidate has yet to emerge.

State Sen. Darren Bailey seems most likely to carry the MAGA torch deep into the contest, but as both a social and economic hardliner, he'd have a tough time in the general election even if everything breaks perfectly for Republicans. He'd be a particularly tough sell if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade (1973) this summer, but in an ominous sign for the state party, Bailey led the one publicly available poll for his primary. That might have been the impetus for Richard Irvin, the more moderate mayor of the large Chicago exurb Aurora, to get into the race, but Irvin's moderation won't do the Illinois GOP any good if the base rejects him before the general.

The Democratic analogue to the GOP's plight in Illinois is a state like South Carolina. Statewide Democrats often lose by double digits, but the competition isn't so lopsided that candidates are unwilling to try.

Two such candidates are running for the Democratic nomination for governor. One is former Rep. Joe Cunningham, a Blue Dog who voted against Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to be speaker in 2019 and who was narrowly defeated in 2020. The other is State Sen. Mia McLeod, a critic of the state's let-it-rip coronavirus response seeking to become the first Black woman elected governor in American history.

This isn't exactly a straightforward test of the moderate-liberal dynamic. McLeod knows she won't win anything by leaning into her party's more controversial positions in a state like South Carolina. And especially in a political climate likely to be favorable to Republicans, the Democratic establishment may well get behind Cunningham, not least because Democrats in deep blue states have been much more willing to give Republican governors a try than the other way around.

Republican-leaning states in the South seem particularly impervious to changes in the national environment. Thus do South Carolina and Illinois have a nearly identical score on the Cook Political Report's Partisan Voting Index (PVI) — yet just one Democrat has won statewide office in South Carolina since 1998, while seven Republicans have won comparable races in Illinois in that span. College-educated white voters in the South have simply not moved Democratic in anything approaching the numbers they have elsewhere, which probably caps Democratic prospects even in a blue wave year.

If South Carolina Democrats decide the general race is hopeless after all, they might just go with their hearts in the primary — but opting for the progressive may be as good a general election strategy as any. After all, anodyne white moderates who win primaries against exciting, young Black candidates (think Terry McAuliffe in Virginia last year or Cal Cunningham and Amy McGrath in the 2020 North Carolina and Kentucky Senate races, respectively) are hardly a guaranteed path to victory.

Ultimately, Republicans could blow a winnable race against incumbent Democrat Gov. J.B. Pritzker in Illinois by nominating someone too extreme, whereas Democrats will probably get scorched in South Carolina no matter who they pick for their gubernatorial nod. But the decisions made by the primary voters in each state could tell us a lot about where each party's politics are headed beyond November. They should be watched just as closely as the swing state battles.

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