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Will Cheney And Murkowski Survive Their Trump-Backed Primary Challenges?

For months, Aug. 16 was the most anticipated date on the primary calendar. Not one but two of the highest-profile Republican critics of former President Donald Trump are facing the voters this week, and everyone wanted to know if there was any place left for them in the Republican Party.

But now, those primaries look kinda … boring. One of those anti-Trump Republicans is almost certain to advance to the general election, while the other is almost certain to lose. Instead, the most interesting races of the week are now those that had been flying under the radar, including a special election in which Alaska could send a Democrat to Congress. So let’s run down the two races everybody’s watching, plus four more that you should know about.

Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney is among Trump’s most high-profile Republican critics — which has made her seat vulnerable to the former president’s endorsee, Harriet Hageman.

Thomas Peipert / AP Photo


Races to watch: U.S. House, secretary of state

Polls close: 9 p.m. Eastern

Rep. Liz Cheney, the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, was the embodiment of Republican politics — until Trump came along. In early 2021, she voted to impeach him for his role in inciting the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, and she has since become the loudest anti-Trump voice within the Republican Party, most notably by serving as vice chair of the House select committee investigating the attack. And she has paid a price for it: In February 2021, the Wyoming Republican Party overwhelmingly voted to censure her, and that May, her House colleagues voted to remove her from party leadership. 

And now she looks very likely to lose her primary for reelection to the House as well. Initially, polls showed her with a fighting chance thanks to a split opposition. However, last September, Trump tapped attorney Harriet Hageman as his pick, and three of Cheney’s other challengers dropped out shortly thereafter. Though Hageman tried to block the Republican National Convention from nominating Trump in 2016, she has reinvented herself as a hard-core Trump supporter, all the way up to agreeing with his false belief that the 2020 presidential election was rigged against him.

Liz Cheney and Lisa Murkowski could lose to election deniers | FiveThirtyEight

One other notable pro-Trump candidate, state Sen. Anthony Bouchard, remains in the race, but he has received some negative headlines: As an 18-year-old, he impregnated a 14-year-old girl who later died by suicide; Bouchard has referred to the relationship “like the Romeo and Juliet story.” His support has dwindled from 12 percent in May to 5 percent in July, per WPA Intelligence/Club for Growth polling.

Now without any serious opposition in the pro-Trump lane, Hageman has zoomed into the lead, according to surveys. The most recent independent poll, conducted for the Casper Star-Tribune by Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy, put Hageman at 52 percent and Cheney at 30 percent. While polls of House races are subject to a fair bit of error, and polls of primaries even more so, it would require a monumental polling error for Cheney to pull this one out. Even Cheney herself appears to realize it: She recently released a defiant TV ad featuring her father excoriating Trump — pretty much the opposite of an effective message in this heavily pro-Trump state.

It’s gotten far less attention, but the Republican primary for secretary of state will also represent an important step for Wyoming either toward or away from Trump-style illiberalism. Incumbent Ed Buchanan, who has defended the integrity of the 2020 election in Wyoming, is retiring, and two of the three candidates to replace him believe, despite the evidence, that the 2020 election was fraudulent. The stronger of these two candidates appears to be state Rep. Chuck Gray (who was running against Cheney before switching to this race). Gray has Trump’s endorsement and has also raised the most money ($528,000).

However, there is also one prominent candidate, state Sen. Tara Nethercott, who believes the 2020 election in Wyoming was fair and secure. She has the backing of much of the local GOP establishment, including the president of the state Senate and speaker of the state House. She has also raised a respectable amount: roughly $333,000.

No Democrat filed to run, so whoever wins the GOP primary is guaranteed to win in November and oversee the 2024 presidential election in the state. Because Wyoming has no lieutenant governor, the secretary of state is also first in line for the governorship should it become vacant.

Moderate Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski is facing a Trump-endorsed primary challenge from Kelly Tshibaka. Both are expected to reach the general election this fall.

Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call, Inc / Getty Images


Races to watch: U.S. Senate, U.S. House (both the regular primary and special general election), governor

Polls close: Midnight Eastern in most of the state, 1 a.m. Eastern in the Aleutian Islands

The other Trump nemesis on the ballot this week is Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski. Unlike Cheney, though, the moderate Murkowski has frustrated conservative Republicans for years: She supports abortion rights, voted against repealing the Affordable Care Act and has voted with Biden 69 percent of the time, including to confirm now-Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. And, of course, she was one of the few Republican senators to vote to convict Trump for his role in inciting the Jan. 6 riot in early 2021.

In retaliation, Trump has endorsed former Alaska Department of Administration Commissioner Kelly Tshibaka to replace Murkowski in the Senate. But unlike Cheney, there is almost no chance that Murkowski loses on Tuesday. That’s not because Murkowski’s anti-Trumpism is popular in Alaska, though; rather, it’s because of the new primary system that Alaska is adopting this year.

Under the terms of a ballot measure passed in 2020, all candidates for office in Alaska now run on the same primary ballot, regardless of party (similar to the systems used by California, Louisiana and Washington). But unlike those states, which use “top-two” primaries, in Alaska the top four candidates advance to the general election, which will be conducted using ranked-choice voting.

Under the old, traditional primary system, it would have been easy to imagine Tshibaka defeating Murkowski for the Republican nomination; just look at what’s probably going to happen to Cheney! But under the new system, Murkowski can finish second (or third, or even fourth) to Tshibaka and still advance to the general election.

Trump-backed Kelly Tshibaka’s primary challenge to Sen. Lisa Murkowski is likely to be one of the biggest tests of the former president’s endorsement power.

Patrick T. Fallon / AFP / Getty Images

With her universal name recognition in the state and massive war chest (she’s raised $9.5 million for the cycle), Murkowski is virtually guaranteed to clear that low bar. Same with Tshibaka, who has raised $3.3 million and, of course, has that Trump endorsement. After that, though, it’s uncertain who will snag the last two spots on the November ballot, as no other active candidate has raised more than $50,000. 

But, honestly, it probably doesn’t matter. The third- and fourth-place finishers will very likely be the first to be eliminated in the ranked-choice general election; one way or another, this race will come down to Murkowski versus Tshibaka in the end. But among a general-election electorate that includes not just Republicans but also Democrats and independents, that is actually a fair fight — and the exact primary results will be our best measure of its competitiveness to date. (Polling in Alaska is notoriously inaccurate.) Even though there’s not much suspense about whether Murkowski and Tshibaka make the general election, who finishes first (and by how much) could tell us who is favored in the fall.

Sarah Palin may have once won the governorship in Alaska, but the state’s new electoral system — a top-four primary, followed by a ranked-choice general election — could stop her from winning the state’s at-large House seat.

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

But there’s another unpredictable general election in Alaska this year where we won’t have to wait until the fall to know the winner. After the death of former Rep. Don Young earlier this year, the Last Frontier is holding a special election on Tuesday to fill his seat in the House — and the winner could be anyone from a Democrat to a pro-business Republican to the original tea partier, former Gov. Sarah Palin.

In the June primary, Palin finished first with 27 percent of the vote, followed by Republican businessman Nick Begich III with 19 percent, independent Al Gross with 13 percent and Democratic former state Rep. Mary Peltola with 10 percent. However, Gross — who was Democrats’ U.S. Senate nominee in Alaska in 2020 — quickly withdrew from the race and effectively threw his support behind Peltola. Now, a late-July poll from Alaska Survey Research shows Peltola in first place (with 41 percent), with Begich (30 percent) and Palin (29 percent) battling it out for second.

But remember — general elections in Alaska now use ranked-choice voting, so who finishes second matters a great deal. (This is why, in the waning days of the campaign, Begich and Palin have been attacking each other while Peltola has sailed above the fray.) The third-place finisher will be eliminated and their votes redistributed to whomever their voters ranked second. And that could affect who wins. If Palin finishes third, we’d expect virtually all of her votes to go to Begich, her fellow Republican. Indeed, in this scenario, according to the poll, Begich would win 55 percent to 45 percent.

But if Begich finishes third, a fair number of his voters might flock to Peltola. Despite having Trump’s endorsement, Palin remains an unpopular figure in Alaska after her tumultuous governorship, even among Republicans (64 percent of likely voters in the poll had a negative opinion of her). That could be enough to do something that hasn’t happened in 14 years: elect a Democrat in Alaska. According to the poll, Peltola would edge out Palin 51 percent to 49 percent in a head-to-head.

If that happens, it would be interpreted as yet another special election showing that the political wind is at Democrats’ backs in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade (even though, in this case, it would probably also have to do with luck and candidate quality). It would also be a historic moment for Alaska, as Peltola would be the first Alaska Native elected to Congress. But alas, we will have to wait a bit longer to find out whether that “if” becomes reality. In the special election, overseas absentee ballots aren’t due until Aug. 31 (as long as they are postmarked by Aug. 16), and the ranked-choice tabulations can take place only once every ballot has been received and processed. Therefore, we won’t know the winner until then. 

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At the same time, Alaskans will vote in the regularly scheduled primary for the House as well (the special election will determine who serves for the rest of 2022, while the regular election will determine who serves in 2023-24). However, this should be pretty uneventful: Given the fact that they already prevailed over a similar-looking field earlier this year, Palin, Begich and Peltola should all easily make the November ballot. And with Gross no longer in the running, the fourth slot in the regular general election will probably fall to former Assistant Secretary of the Interior Tara Sweeney, a moderate Republican who finished fifth in the special primary election.

Finally, the results of the primary for governor will give us some clarity about just how competitive this race will be in the fall. No incumbent Alaska governor has won reelection since 1998, and early in his term, Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy looked like he might succumb to the same fate: Opponents mounted what looked like a serious recall campaign against him after he made massive cuts to the state budget. However, the pandemic short-circuited their effort to collect signatures, and as of this spring, Dunleavy’s net approval rating had rebounded to +20 percentage points (52 percent approval, 32 percent disapproval).

Still, Dunleavy has attracted some noteworthy opponents in his regularly scheduled reelection bid, including independent former Gov. Bill Walker and Democratic former state Rep. Les Gara. Despite having Trump’s endorsement, Dunleavy is also facing challenges on his right from fellow Republicans state Rep. Christopher Kurka and Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce

Dunleavy, Walker and Gara have dominated the fundraising circuit, so they seem like they’re in good shape to advance to November. The questions are whether Kurka or Pierce (or one of the race’s five other candidates) will join them and how high Dunleavy’s vote share will be. If he approaches 50 percent in the primary, that’s a good sign that he’ll be able to build the support he needs to win the general election. But if Walker and/or Gara are close behind him, one of them could overtake him in the ranked-choice tabulations.

We’ll once again be live-blogging these results, but the schedule will be a little bifurcated. We’ll begin at 9 p.m. Eastern to cover Wyoming and will continue until the House primary is called. Then, because of the time difference, we’ll pick up the live blog early on Wednesday morning to bring you the Alaska results. No rest for the election-obsessed!

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


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