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The Governor And House Primary Races We’re Watching So Far

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

sarah (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): We’re back this week with the other 2022 primaries that are already on our radar — specifically, the big gubernatorial primaries and House primaries/macro trends to watch, as many House races are still in their nascent stage. 

What follows is a preview of the candidates we know to be running (or at least seriously thinking about it) along with the intraparty fights Republicans and Democrats are having and what, if anything, this says about the general election.

OK, first up gubernatorial primaries. Which ones have already caught your eye?

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): One primary I’m watching is on the Democratic side in Florida. It looks like it will be a heavyweight contest between Rep. Charlie Crist, who was previously elected governor as a Republican, and state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, Florida’s only current Democratic statewide officeholder. And to add even more intrigue, state Sen. Annette Taddeo — who was Crist’s running mate the last time he ran for governor, in 2014 — has expressed interest in running, too. 

Early polls give Crist a lead, which makes sense since he has lingering name recognition from his previous gubernatorial runs. But Fried could be more in line with the current zeitgeist of the party. Crist is an older white guy and, as a veteran of state politics, represents the party’s past. Fried, by contrast, is a younger woman who has already demonstrated a knack for online media (e.g., her multiple videos trolling Gov. Ron DeSantis). 

Since Donald Trump was elected in 2016, it’s been good to be a woman in a Democratic primary, and I feel like it will also help Fried that she’s the one throwing red meat (blue meat?) to the Democratic base — if it remains a one-on-one race. 

sarah: That’s a good point about Crist, Nathaniel. Alex had a piece earlier this year showing that Crist’s bid could face long odds, as he’s already lost two back-to-back races. Per her story, since 1998, only 33 candidates of 121 who’ve run for U.S. Senate, governor or president have managed to win after having lost their previous bid.

alex (Alex Samuels, politics reporter): Yeah, Sarah, in that piece we also cited a February Mason-Dixon poll of registered Florida voters, and just 27 percent said they viewed Crist favorably. Forty-one percent viewed him unfavorably.

Of course, things might have changed since then. But those numbers aren’t a great start … 

sarah: How competitive, though, do we think the Florida governor’s race is going to be with DeSantis up for reelection?

geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, elections analyst): Florida has continued to move to the right in recent presidential elections, so it may not be the quintessential swing state it once was. While most of the swing states in the 2020 presidential election shifted to the left at least a little bit compared with 2016, Florida did the opposite. Trump actually won it by a larger margin than he did in 2016. 

nrakich: Florida does have a knack for being close no matter which way the political winds are blowing, though. It was close in 2010, 2014 and 2018. So I think it will be competitive, but I wouldn’t bet against DeSantis.

alex: I wonder, though, if Democrats will use DeSantis’s very possible 2024 presidential run against him.

geoffrey.skelley: Democrats could certainly try to use DeSantis’s national ambitions in attack ads — “he doesn’t care about Florida; he cares about his political career” — but the effectiveness of such an attack might vary based on who the Democratic nominee is. 

If it’s Crist, who has been governor, but then ran unsuccessfully for Senate in 2010 as an independent (after it became clear he would lose the GOP primary to Marco Rubio), and now wants to be governor again, such an attack might ring hollow because he’s seen as something of a political opportunist. Fried, on the other hand, is a fresh face and maybe could make that stick more. Nonetheless, I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that’s going to move the numbers much.

sarah: OK, Geoffrey, you’re up next.

geoffrey.skelley: Moving to another state that’s definitely no longer a swing state, I’m keeping a close eye on Ohio’s gubernatorial contest and its GOP primary. Republican Gov. Mike DeWine won in 2018 and now is looking for a second term, but he’s gotten quite a bit of intraparty backlash for his aggressive policies against COVID-19 — the Republican-controlled state legislature even voted to limit DeWine’s power to issue public health orders earlier this year. He also has attracted Trump’s wrath for not being a more vocal supporter. As such, former GOP Rep. Jim Renacci has decided to challenge DeWine in the GOP primary, and while it’s unusual for an incumbent governor to lose renomination, there’s at least some chance that could happen in Ohio. 

It should be mentioned, however, that Renacci’s last campaign wasn’t especially impressive, as he lost the 2018 Senate race to Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown by about 7 percentage points, having jumped over to that race after initially running in the gubernatorial contest that DeWine went on to win.

sarah: We were talking last week about how much the Ohio Senate primary, in particular, seemed to revolve around the question of who could be the Trumpiest candidate. Considering DeWine has received a fair amount of criticism from those in his own party, is he taking this primary bid seriously?

geoffrey.skelley: Well, Renacci is certainly trying to win over Trump supporters who are upset with DeWine. He tweeted last month that “Ohio First means America First!” and has gone after DeWine for his decision to close Ohio businesses and facilities to protect the public from the coronavirus. 

alex: Brad Parscale, Trump’s onetime campaign manager, is also advising Renacci, according to NBC News.

sarah: But no Trump endorsement yet, right?

nrakich: Right, Sarah. That’s the big question for me in this race — will Trump endorse? Renacci was previously a close Trump ally and won his endorsement in 2018, but Trump reportedly soured on Renacci after his poor showing against Brown.

alex: NBC News also reported that a source told them the former president “has no plans to endorse him.” 

geoffrey.skelley: Although Trump did openly encourage someone to run against DeWine. 

sarah: I realize our primary challenge success-o-meter isn’t exactly apples-to-apples given this isn’t a presidential primary, but how would we weigh Renacci’s bid against DeWine currently? 

geoffrey.skelley: Unfortunately, we haven’t seen a good independent poll of Ohio in a while. But back in the fall in 2020, DeWine polled quite well — for instance, an Ipsos/Spectrum News survey found last October that about two-thirds of Ohioans approved of his job performance, including 73 percent of Republicans. That was perhaps a little low for a Republican but still not the sort of terrible position that would indicate serious vulnerability in a primary. However, DeWine didn’t support Trump’s post-election attempts to overturn the election, so perhaps opposition has grown. Renacci’s internal polling — which should be treated with serious caution — did find him ahead of DeWine in the spring. 

sarah: I’ll go next with the Pennsylvania gubernatorial primary.

Last week we talked about the Pennsylvania Senate primary, but there’s more than one marquee race in the state this year. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf is term-limited, meaning the governor’s mansion is also up for grabs. Who’s actually running in this race is still very TBD, though.

For instance, no Democrat has officially declared they’re running at this point. But that may be because everyone is waiting to see what state Attorney General Josh Shapiro does. Earlier this year, he told Philadelphia Magazine that “I expect to be a candidate.” And if Shapiro does run, he’s likely a front-runner on the Democratic side given the profile he has built as the state’s attorney general. In 2017, he tackled the Catholic Church’s decades of sexual abuse in Pennsylvania dioceses. He also joined other attorneys general in fighting Trump’s travel ban and an injunction that stopped Trump’s rollback of birth control. Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney is reportedly considering a run, too, but he’d have to resign as mayor if he did run.

Among Republicans, though, far more names have been floated at this point, and even a few have entered the fray, including former U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta. Barletta ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 2018, but he’s built a reputation as a bit of a conservative folk hero for trying to take on illegal immigration while he was mayor of Hazleton, Pennsylvania. The law was ultimately struck down, but Barletta tried to penalize businesses and landlords who hired or rented to immigrants who had illegally entered the country. So far this Trumpy profile hasn’t helped Barletta win statewide office in Pennsylvania, though, and it looks as if he might face stiff competition from other Trumpy Republicans in 2022.

For instance, state Sen. Doug Mastriano hasn’t said he’s running yet — although he claimed Trump had asked him to run and promised to help him campaign (an aide told the AP that wasn’t true) — but he’s already showing his Trump bona fides, having hosted a hearing devoted to unfounded claims of 2020 election fraud and marching to the U.S. Capitol before the Jan. 6 insurrection. He’s also pushing an Arizona-style “audit” of the 2020 election in Pennsylvania.

But Mastriano isn’t the only possible contender with connections to Trump. Rep. Mike Kelly is also reportedly considering a bid and has a relationship with Trump. Notably, too, Trump-appointed former U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain has already written to Trump seeking his endorsement even though he hasn’t yet said whether he’ll run. If McSwain does enter the race, though, it means potentially two prosecutors could go head-to-head in the general election.

A number of other Republicans are considering runs at this point, too, including U.S. Rep. Dan Meuser and state Sen. Dan Laughlin. Not to mention a number of candidates who have already thrown their hats in the ring with Barletta, including Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Gale and conservative activist Charlie Gerow.

The Republican gubernatorial primary in Pennsylvania is looking really harried at this point, and similar to many of the other primaries we’ve discussed, it seems as if it is going to be a competition around who can out-Trump the other.

geoffrey.skelley: Republicans are definitely hoping Pennsylvania will continue its pattern of flipping back and forth between the parties. It’s been more than 50 years since either party elected a successor to a sitting member from their party, and it’s never happened since the state got rid of its single-term limit in 1968.

alex: How likely is it that the Senate seat flips without the governor’s seat flipping, too?

nrakich: Good question, Alex. States don’t always vote the same way for Senate and governor, since one office is federal and the other is state-level, but the two offices have been tracking more closely in recent years. As Geoffrey wrote a few years ago, there was less split-ticket voting in 2018 than in any midterm since at least 1990. 

geoffrey.skelley: And Pennsylvania voted very similarly for Senate and governor in 2018, when both races had incumbents, and I suspect they’ll vote similarly this time, too. After all, neither race will have an incumbent this time, so that will mean no candidate will get the ever-smaller incumbent bonus

sarah: OK, Alex, you’re up!

alex: Well, Georgia is becoming a competitive battleground state, as evidenced by President Biden’s win there in November and Sens. Jon Ossoff’s and Raphael Warnock’s respective victories earlier this year. So the gubernatorial primary is going to be fun to watch.

On the Republican side, you have incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp fighting for a second term in what maybe should have been an easy feat for him. But after he didn’t embrace Trump’s unfounded claims about widespread election fraud in last year’s election, Kemp lost the support of some Republicans — particularly those on his right flank. So he has a couple of primary challengers now, including Vernon Jones, a former Democratic state lawmaker turned Republican and one of Trump’s most vocal allies in Georgia, and also Kandiss Taylor, a public school teacher and counselor. 

What’s working in Kemp’s favor, other than his incumbency, is the fact that he did sign a far-ranging election measure in March that includes new restrictions on voting by mail and greater legislative control over how elections are run. That hasn’t placated Trump, though, who called the law “weak” and said Republicans in the state should have taken far more drastic steps to curtail the ability to vote; Republican voters, however, have rallied around the state’s new voting law, and according to a Morning Consult tracking poll, Kemp had a 62 percent approval rating among Georgia Republican voters when he signed the elections bill on March 25. By April 6, it was up to 74 percent.

Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, I think everyone is just waiting patiently to see whether Stacey Abrams runs again. A lot of folks see the former speaker of the Georgia House running again in 2022 as a likely next step. A January poll from The Atlanta-Journal Constitution found that about 51 percent of Georgians viewed her in a positive light, including 10 percent of Republicans (although 41 percent of Georgians viewed her unfavorably). 

geoffrey.skelley: Unlike in most states, a worry for Kemp is that he has to win a majority of primary voters because Georgia is one of seven states with a majority requirement for primary elections. So a crowded race doesn’t help him by splitting opposition — it would just get him a runoff where he’d have to win a majority.

sarah: The call for primary challengers in both Georgia’s and Ohio’s gubernatorial races from Trump … and then radio silence on who he’d back is certainly a strategy, though. It doesn’t seem as if either race, at this point at least, is posing a credible threat to the GOP incumbent.

nrakich: Yeah, Kemp is vulnerable in theory, but I just don’t see any credible candidate standing up to challenge him. It could get interesting if Trump endorses someone like Jones, but ultimately I don’t think he has what it takes. It will be incredibly easy for Kemp to smear him as a former Democrat, and Jones has a pretty sordid past — while serving as DeKalb County CEO, he was accused of rape, and a grand jury recommended that he be criminally investigated for corruption

sarah: As we were talking about in Pennsylvania, though, the fact that Georgia has two elections up here in 2022 will be interesting, as the incumbents aren’t from the same political party.

So considering split-ticket voting is on the decline, it’ll be interesting to see whether Warnock and Abrams, assuming she runs again, win. Or whether it’s Kemp and as we discussed last week, Herschel Walker. Walker, though, as we said, still hasn’t entered the race, and given that he is a longtime Texas resident, he could face serious issues mounting a successful bid against Warnock.

It’s early yet, but these two races seem to be a little mismatched in terms of competition, as Abrams would be a heavyweight were she to enter, and Walker just isn’t that.

geoffrey.skelley: That potential scenario — if Walker is the GOP Senate nominee — could be interesting because the little swing vote that exists could be critical in places like affluent northern Fulton County and suburban Cobb and Gwinnett counties, where at least a few Kemp 2018-Warnock 2020 voters live. Will those voters line up behind one party or stick with Warnock and then go for Kemp again? 

nrakich: One effect that the primary could have, even if Kemp wins it, is to push him further to the right — which could turn off voters like that. That’s basically what happened to former Sen. Kelly Loeffler, Warnock’s 2020 opponent.

geoffrey.skelley: Exactly. The handful of voters who went for Warnock but in some cases stuck with former Sen. David Perdue — who lost to Ossoff in the other Senate race — are the voters I’m thinking about here.

sarah: OK, now this is a harder office to track at this point given the number of races, but what do we know about House primaries at this point? Or macro trends about the House that you’re already plugged into?

alex: There was an interesting PBS piece on how a gerrymandered Texas, specifically, could help Republicans with their goal of taking back the House in 2022. Here are some of the takeaways: Since the state gained two seats in the reapportionment process and the GOP-controlled legislature is in charge of making the new maps, these seats will likely be prime pickup opportunities for Republicans. What’s working against Republicans here is that Texas suburbs are becoming more blue, and they’ve already been accused of gerrymandering. But I think it’s fair to assume lawmakers will try to redraw these districts to benefit their party. And considering Republicans need only five seats to flip the House in 2022, Texas’s two new seats are a good opportunity for that. 

geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, the big thing is redistricting. That’s going to influence where candidates run and who retires, and as Alex notes, who might win. If you’re the GOP drawing lines in big states like Texas or Florida, maybe you try to add Republican voters to a handful of Democratic-held seats. 

That said, you still have a lot of candidates already declaring bids even though they don’t necessarily know exactly where the seat is going to be, simply because candidates need to start raising money and may have some inkling as to what the district in their area will look like.

sarah: And as Geoffrey and Alex are getting at, Republicans will disproportionately control the redistricting process. As Geoffrey and Nathaniel reported earlier this year, Republicans will redraw nearly 2.5 times as many districts as Democrats, 187 congressional districts versus 75. (To be sure, there are also 173 districts where neither party will enjoy exclusive control over redistricting — either because of independent commissions or split partisan control or because it’s an at-large district.)

nrakich: Thanks to redistricting, a big theme in House primaries next year is also going to be incumbent-versus-incumbent battles. Take a state like West Virginia, which is going from three congressional seats to two. Two of its current representatives are inevitably going to be drawn into the same district. Unless one retires, that will be a pretty spirited race. 

And other incumbents could be thrown into races against each other in states where the opposite party controls redistricting — for example, Illinois Democrats may draw two of the state’s downstate Republicans together.

geoffrey.skelley: Aside from redistricting, I’d say the other main place where primary challenges are developing is with the 10 Republican House members who voted to impeach Trump in January. I dug into their races earlier this year, and all but one of them already has at least one primary challenger. The lone one without a challenger is New York Rep. John Katko, but Trump recently told local Republicans he’d be happy to boost a challenger if they can find one. Then again, it’s also possible that Katko’s district will change substantially in redistricting because Democrats are in a position to control the process there.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see at least a handful of them retire or, because of redistricting, find themselves without a similar district to run in. Along with Katko, Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger’s seat could be ripped up by state Democrats, who control things. And in Ohio, Republican Rep. Anthony Gonzalez’s impeachment vote probably won’t make him a priority for the state GOP to protect as they draw maps there.

sarah: It is a midterm election, though, and traditionally the party in the White House has fared poorly as a result. We’ve talked about why that might not be the case here in 2022, but one question I have is about the overall map. Do Democrats just have more vulnerabilities — that is, more Republican-leaning seats to defend — than Republicans?

geoffrey.skelley: Well, it’s interesting. Democrats actually are much less exposed headed into 2022 than in 2010, the last midterm for a first-term Democratic president. Using FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean metric, 74 Democrats represented seats that were more Republican than the country as a whole heading into the 2010 election. By comparison, only 24 Democrats are in the same position right now. So almost 3 in 10 Democrats in 2010 versus 1 in 10 Democrats today.

However, those pre-2022 numbers won’t be the final story because redistricting will change the state of play quite a bit in some states. And because Republicans control redistricting in more places, I suspect those numbers are more likely to worsen than improve for Democrats. 

And given the Democrats’ narrow 222-213 seat edge, small changes could be enough to give the GOP a majority, too. 

sarah: Interesting. There’s simply less easy ground for Republicans to make up, at least at this point, especially given some of their gains in 2020. But as you’ve all pointed out, what happens in the redistricting process could make a big difference moving into 2022.

Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s former politics editor.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Alex Samuels was a politics reporter at FiveThirtyEight.

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.