Republicans’ Senate picture is worrying

Republican candidate U.S. Representative Liz Cheney looks on during her primary election night party in Jackson, Wyoming, U.S. August 16, 2022. REUTERS/David Stubbs

This Week: The Briefing, Vol. X, Issue 34

  • AOC vs. Pelosi battle to be settled Tuesday
  • There’s no market for Liz Cheney’s retro Republicanism
  • Republican Senate candidates flail despite Biden’s unpopularity

House 2022

AOC versus Dem leaders: This week’s big House primary race is the result of a court challenge to redistricting. Although New York held its primary weeks earlier in the summer, this Tuesday is the primary election for U.S. House races in New York State.

The race pits Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, chairman of the DCCC, against state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi (D). The two Democrats are both quite liberal, but Biaggi is far more so. She is the (until recently) “defund-the-police” candidate backed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Maloney is the favored establishment choice, a formal member of the Democratic leadership alongside Nancy Pelosi.

This race, in theory, should never have happened. But when Democrats’ gerrymander was thrown out by the state’s high court in favor of a fairer congressional map, Maloney found himself drawn into a district far too close for comfort. Had he run for re-election in the 18th, he would have been competing in a seat that only votes three points more Democratic than the national average. By moving south (and forcing other Democrats to change their plans, to the irritation of many of them) he potentially found himself a more Democratic district — that is, if he wins Tuesday’s primary against an AOC-backed “progressive” candidate.

If Maloney loses on Tuesday, it will be a huge black eye for the Democrats’ House leadership. But there’s another wrinkle here. The only polling available of the general election (it’s a Republican poll, so apply the usual grain of salt) indicates that Biaggi would lose to the likely Republican nominee by six points. Maloney, whose general election resources will surely make him much more competitive, is only losing by two points against Republican Mike Lawler. (At D+7, it’s a more Democratic seat, but not a safe one.) That puts Maloney within the margin of error before those funds have even been spent.

Democrats are trying to assert their far-left identity in this primary, which could be taken as an ideological battle for the soul of the party. But in reality, it isn’t. The unique circumstances of this race are automatically embarrassing for party leaders, but the odds nonetheless favor a reassertion of moderation in this race. Democratic voters are expected to go with the electable candidate and reject the AOC candidate, if only because his campaign’s financial advantage has been so overwhelming.

On the other hand, that raises the stakes for election day. A DCCC chairman on the edge of losing has all sorts of perverse incentives about how to spend party money.

Liz Cheney: Former Vice Presidential daughter Liz Cheney did not merely compare herself to Abraham Lincoln after she was blown out in her primary for renomination by attorney Harriet Hagerman. She also hinted at a potential run for president.

This is a rather ludicrous proposition. And it is important to note that Cheney’s problem is not just that she crossed President Trump and supported his impeachment. She went far beyond most other members who did such a thing. She actually turned herself into a mouthpiece for the Democrats for several months. She could have opposed Trump without going quite that far.

The truth is, there is no market for Cheney’s  brand of 2000s war-hawk Republicanism. The party has clearly moved in a different direction since the Bush era. And nobody — not Democrats, not Republicans — is interested in returning to that political era, except a small rump of stubbornly anti-Trump Republicans who work at a couple of publications. 

The new Republican Party has deemphasized but not dropped the economic conservative issues that dominated everything as recently as 2005. It has adopted a newfound focus on cultural issues relevant to formerly Democratic working class voters. Trump, whether or not he has a political future, has irreversibly transformed his party. It isn’t about to go back to the Cheney era.

Senate 2022

Outlook: Speaking to reporters last week, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell acknowledged what is becoming increasingly evident. Republicans may not be able to retake the Senate, in spite of all the advantages they have in Joe Biden’s midterm election year.

The fact that Biden’s approval rating is all the way down to 41% in the RealClear average might be enough for the GOP to seize control of the US House (Republicans still lead in most generic ballot polling, with a few outliers), but Republicans have a Senate problem. The candidates they have nominated in several states are struggling to keep up with their Democratic opponents, despite having the wind at their backs. 

In Ohio, author J.D. Vance (R) appears to be blowing his open-seat race against underdog Rep. Tim Ryan (D). In Pennsylvania, the Trump-endorsed Mehmet Oz polls far behind Lt. Gov. John Feterman. Even in Georgia, Herschel Walker can barely seem to pull even with the accidental Sen. Raphael Warnock (D).

The Senate picture for Republicans has indeed darkened. The game obviously isn’t over yet, But it certainly changes things to hear McConnell say it out loud. Naturally, he might be inclined to blame former President Trump for endorsing some real stinkers of candidates — especially Oz. And he has a point, but it isn’t all Trump-endorsees who are struggling. Two new polls show Sen. Ron Johnson (R) trailing Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes (D) in Wisconsin by between four and seven points. 

Obviously, the priority for Republicans is to win the House majority so that Joe Biden cannot pass any further l damaging legislation, pack the Supreme Court, codify tenth-month abortions, and the like. But a Republican Senate could slow the pace of Biden’s judicial nominations and block confirmation of some of his more controversial personnel decisions.

It is entirely possible for a midterm election to run one way in the house and another in the Senate. This happened most recently in 2018, when Republicans lost control of the House but gained two net Senate seats.

There is still time for Senate Republicans to right the ship. But it’s getting closer to Labor Day, the official beginning of the campaign season. A lot of these candidates have a lot of work to do.

Oklahoma: Rep. Markwayne Mullin is the favorite in today’s primary against former state House Speaker T.W. Shannon if only because he beat him by 26 points in the first round. President Donald Trump has also endorsed Mullin. 

Governor 2022

Florida: Having been drawn into a congressional seat he probably cannot hold, former Gov. and former Republican Charlie Crist (D) is running for governor again. He should easily win his primary this Tuesday over Agricultural Commissioner Nikki Fried. The winner becomes an instant underdog against Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). DeSantis may be a rock star on the Right, but this will be a close race, and one of the most important — after all, DeSantis’s aspirations for higher office will amount to nothing if he cannot win his re-election.