How Fierce Primaries, Abortion and Inflation Transformed the 2022 Map

Democrats enter the final sprint to November more optimistic than expected, especially in the race for the Senate. But Republicans remain bullish that they can sweep into a House majority.

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How Fierce Primaries, Abortion and Inflation Transformed the 2022 Map |

Voters in New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Delaware were the last to cast ballots during a contentious primary season.

A grueling primary season riven by Republican infighting and the interventions of former President Donald J. Trump finally ended on Tuesday with a slate of G.O.P. candidates that has raised Democratic hopes of preserving Senate control and a political atmosphere that has changed strikingly over the past six months.

Republicans still have the environment they wanted when the primaries began in Texas in March: high inflation, economic uncertainty, an unpopular president and the perception that violent crime is on the rise. But since then, Democrats have found strong themes they can run on: the fate of legal abortion and, to a larger extent than they might have imagined, the future of democracy and the rule of law.

As the last primary voters went to the polls in New Hampshire, Delaware and Rhode Island, Tuesday provided the perfect split screen for the coming general election.

The government’s official report on inflation made clear that Democrats are by no means out of the woods. Hours after its release, Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, introduced legislation to ban abortion nationwide after 15 weeks of pregnancy, effectively spreading the abortion question from red and purple states to blue states that may have felt insulated since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

Those issues and the re-emergence of Mr. Trump as a headline-grabbing political figure have raised the stakes ahead of an Election Day that will determine not only which party will lead Congress but also which one will control statehouses, governorships and top election posts from Pennsylvania to Arizona, from Wisconsin to Florida, ahead of the 2024 presidential contest.

“As a forecaster, I prefer it when all the signs are one way or the other,” joked J. Miles Coleman, a congressional election analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. That is not the case in 2022.

ImageDon Bolduc, a retired Army general, cheered with supporters during his campaign watch party in Hampton, N.H.Credit…John Tully for The New York Times

The final day of primaries put an exclamation point on the season. Republican voters in New Hampshire were deciding whether to nominate Don Bolduc, a retired general and Trump-style candidate who denies the legitimacy of the 2020 election, or a more mainstream Republican, Chuck Morse, the State Senate president, to take on Senator Maggie Hassan. The race was too close to call early Wednesday, but Mr. Bolduc held a narrow lead. Democrats had considered him by far the easier candidate for Ms. Hassan, once seen as one of the party’s most vulnerable incumbents.

Two right-wing House candidates in the state also showed strength in their primaries. Karoline Leavitt, a 25-year-old former assistant in Mr. Trump’s White House press office, beat Matt Mowers, a onetime colleague in the former president’s administration. And Robert Burns, a Trump-aligned candidate, was locked in an undecided race early Wednesday against George Hansel, a more moderate rival seen as a more formidable challenger to the Democratic incumbent.

In Senate races beyond New Hampshire, a series of stumbling Republican candidates — including Herschel Walker in Georgia, Blake Masters in Arizona, Dr. Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania and J.D. Vance in Ohio — made it through their primaries this year with the backing of Mr. Trump, keeping the race for the chamber competitive.

With the primaries winding down, both parties are starting to shift their focus to the general election on Nov. 8.

  • Polling Warnings: Democratic Senate candidates are polling well in the same places where surveys overestimated President Biden in 2020 and Hillary Clinton in 2016.
  • Democrats’ Dilemma: The party’s candidates have been trying to signal their independence from the White House, while not distancing themselves from President Biden’s base or agenda.
  • Intraparty G.O.P. Fight: Ahead of New Hampshire’s primary, mainstream Republicans have been vying to stop a Trump-style 2020 election denier running for Senate.
  • Abortion Ballot Measures: First came Kansas. Now, Michigan voters will decide whether abortion will remain legal in their state. Democrats are hoping referendums like these will drive voter turnout.

Meantime, Democratic candidates like Cheri Beasley in North Carolina, Mandela Barnes in Wisconsin and Representative Val Demings in Florida have proved resilient enough to expand the Senate map and stretch a Republican campaign machine that is low on cash.

ImageCheri Beasley, the Democratic nominee for Senate in North Carolina, is in an unexpectedly tight race against Representative Ted Budd, a Republican.Credit…Travis Dove for The New York Times

“On the whole, Republicans have nominated far stronger candidates in swing seats for the House than in swing states for the Senate,” said David Wasserman, a congressional analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

But in House races, candidate quality tends to matter less. In election years past, House control has sloshed back and forth with larger political currents because House candidates are less familiar to voters than their Senate counterparts. The Democratic 31-seat wave — described by George W. Bush as a “thumping” — in 2006 was followed by what Barack Obama called a “shellacking” in 2010, a 63-seat gain. Eight years later, the Democrats were back with a 41-seat romp.

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Voters tend to pull the lever based on the party that House candidates represent, not on distinctive policies or personalities they embody.

Both parties probably missed some opportunities with their House candidates, or at least made Election Day more competitive than it needed to be.

For Republicans, flawed House primary winners include Sandy Smith, who is running in a competitive, open seat in northeastern North Carolina and has been accused of domestic violence; J.R. Majewski, a bombastic conspiracy theorist challenging Representative Marcy Kaptur in a Northwest Ohio district newly drawn to favor Republicans; and John Gibbs, a former Trump administration aide who once baselessly accused Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, of taking part in a “satanic ritual,” then went on to defeat a moderate incumbent, Representative Peter Meijer. Mr. Gibbs must now try to capture a Democratic-leaning district around Grand Rapids, Mich.

ImageJohn Gibbs, a Republican House candidate in Michigan, claimed that the 2020 election results had anomalies that were “simply mathematically impossible.”Credit…Brittany Greeson for The New York Times

Representative Abigail Spanberger of Virginia was once considered one of the most endangered Democrats, but missteps by her Republican opponent, Yesli Vega, have put her on more solid ground.

Chris Taylor, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the party’s House campaign arm, laid it on thick as the primary season drew to a close, mocking what he called House Republicans’ “motley crew of MAGA extremists” and “long roster of anti-choice and scandal-prone candidates,” while praising his party’s “all-star class of candidates.”

But Democrats are on the defensive in a handful of districts. Republicans are already attacking Jamie McLeod-Skinner, a liberal Democrat who won a primary in Oregon against the more moderate Representative Kurt Schrader and now confronts blowback from years of sometimes unruly protests in nearby Portland. Redistricting turned Representative Steve Chabot, a veteran Republican, vulnerable in Cincinnati, but his challenger, Greg Landsman, a city councilman, has faced attacks over his legislation to redirect $200,000 from the city’s Police Department to an independent board responsible for fielding complaints against police officers.

Representative Mike Garcia of California should be one of the most vulnerable Republicans up for re-election, but Democratic voters in northern Los Angeles County opted to nominate Christy Smith, who has already lost to Mr. Garcia twice.

ImageJamie McLeod-Skinner defeated a centrist Democrat in the primary for a House seat in Oregon, but now faces attacks from the right over unruly protests in the city.Credit…Thomas Patterson for The New York Times

Michigan’s 10th Congressional District, which was redrawn to lean Republican, has such a weak Democratic candidate that the party has all but ceded it. And in a newly drawn South Texas district, designed to be evenly split between the parties, Democrats nominated a liberal political newcomer and flea market owner, Michelle Vallejo, and the seat now leans Republican.

Republicans can also brag of the most racially diverse slate of House candidates they have ever fielded, including 29 Hispanic contenders, 26 Black candidates, six Asian Americans or Pacific Islanders, and three Native Americans. Mr. Wasserman calculated that 61 percent of Republican candidates in swing districts were women, people of color and military veterans. Many of those veterans hail from special forces and have remarkable biographies.

“House Republicans have an all-star cast of candidates running to protect the American dream and deliver the type of common-sense policies Democrats have failed to achieve,” said Michael McAdams, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, the campaign arm for House Republicans.

Come November, those individual stories may matter little.

With only a five-vote swing standing in the way of a Republican majority, the G.O.P. is still favored to take control of the House, but how big a majority the party enjoys will most likely be determined more by the larger political issues — inflation, economics, abortion and democracy — than by the candidates themselves.

The Senate may be different, and past could be prologue. In 2010, as the effects of the financial crash lingered and the Tea Party movement energized conservatives, Republicans stormed into the majority in the House, then held it in 2012. But Republicans could not take the Senate until 2014, in part because of poor candidates chosen in the primaries: Christine O’Donnell of Delaware and Sharron Angle of Nevada in 2010, and Richard E. Mourdock of Indiana and Todd Akin of Missouri in 2012.

Pressed by Mr. Trump, Republicans may well have outdone themselves in 2022. Mr. Walker, a former football star with no political experience, has struggled in his challenge to Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia, once seen as perhaps the most vulnerable Democrat up for re-election. With the political wind at his face, another freshman Democrat, Mark Kelly of Arizona, has benefited greatly from Mr. Masters’s inexperience and a past replete with oddball views. Mr. Trump liked the celebrity of Dr. Oz but overlooked the potency of attacks over his wealth and his lack of connection to Pennsylvania.

ImageBlake Masters, the Republican nominee for Senate in Arizona, supports militarizing the border — but in 2006, he wrote that “‘unrestricted’ immigration is the only choice” for a libertarian-minded voter.Credit…Bridget Bennett for The New York Times

And though Mr. Vance’s memoir “Hillbilly Elegy” focused on his childhood in working-class Ohio, the candidate, a Trump favorite, has so far failed to open a clear lead in a state that Mr. Trump won in 2020 by eight percentage points.

Mr. Coleman, the election analyst, noted that in 2010, everything would have had to go the Republicans’ way if they were to dig themselves out of a nine-seat hole in the Senate. In November, they need a single seat to take control.

“This time, it could be more frustrating because they’re right there,” Mr. Coleman said. “They’re at the end zone.”


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