Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images/Shutterstock
With the party primaries completed, and early general-election voting beginning on September 23 in Minnesota, we are now fully immersed in the battle for control of Congress, the governorships, and many other positions of power in state and local governments that will be determined on November 8. There are all sorts of Big Picture dynamics affecting the ultimate outcome, including economic indicators, the backlash to the U.S. Supreme Court decision killing abortion rights, the president’s relative popularity, and the historical pattern of the president’s party almost always losing ground in midterms. But ultimately, every election comes down to individual contests between candidates. The following is an effort to note 13 — a baker’s dozen — races that will determine the shape of government and politics for the immediate future. There’s a heavy emphasis on Senate races, because these are typically high-profile competitions in which candidate and campaign quality can matter as much as national partisan trends. But some especially eventful gubernatorial and U.S. House races get attention as well. These races are discussed in no particular order of importance; they all matter.
One race that won’t have an impact on party control of the Senate, but could affect slim prospects for bipartisanship going forward, is Alaska’s contest featuring pro-choice Republican incumbent Lisa Murkowski — a reliable center-right vote for bipartisan projects like this year’s control bill — and Trump- and party-endorsed challenger Kelly Tshibaka.
This year marks Alaska’s first experience with a novel election system imposed by a 2020 ballot initiative that most pols (particularly the traditionally dominant Republicans) dislike. A nonpartisan primary now sends the top-four vote-getters to a general election that utilizes ranked-choice voting, a method (sometimes called “instant runoff voting”) that lets voters rank candidates, who are eliminated in order until someone wins a majority. It is utilized in Maine, New York City, San Francisco, and a scattering of other jurisdictions. It was actually first fully deployed in Alaska in a special election to fill the U.S. House vacancy created by the March 2022 death of longtime Republican House member Don Young, leading to a ranked-choice-vote victory in late August by Democrat Mary Peltola over former governor and vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin (Palin remains a contestant in the November election for a full House term).
In the nonpartisan Senate primary in Alaska, Murkowski led Tshibaka by a 45-39 margin, with Democrat Patricia Chesbro finishing a distant third with 7 percent. (An obscure conservative Republican who finished an even more distant fourth and qualified for the general election promptly dropped out and endorsed Tshibaka.) But although you’d figure the dynamics of ranked-choice voting would favor the relatively moderate incumbent, a rare poll sponsored by AARP showed Tshibaka now leading the incumbent in first-choice preferences, and the two candidates virtually tied once Chesbro’s votes were redistributed.
If Tshibaka wins, Murkowski’s more independent voice would be replaced by a predictable MAGA conservative. It would also cut the GOP’s congressional pro-choice ranks (at present Murkowski and Susan Collins) exactly in half. And if the incumbent prevails, she might continue to exercise clout in a closely divided Senate.
Arizona is one of multiple states in which Republicans facing a moderate Democratic Senate incumbent have — often under pressure from Donald Trump — opted for luridly extremist nominees, reflecting an apparent belief that maximum MAGA turnout is the key to victory. Silicon Valley venture capitalist Peter Thiel’s protégé Blake Masters has the same ex-libertarian-trending-authoritarian history as his chief donor, and he has made it clear in a long series of provocative comments and campaign ads that he lives to “own the libs” and identifies with the “populist” wing of his party. He is also, like his statewide ticket mates in Arizona, a robust 2020-election denier.
The incumbent Democrat Mark Kelly won a truncated term in 2020, narrowly defeating appointed incumbent Republican Martha McSally, who temporarily replaced the late John McCain. The GOP calculation is that Kelly only won because 2020 was a better-than-average year for Arizona Democrats (best indicated by Joe Biden becoming the first Democrat since Bill Clinton to carry the state), which will be corrected in a (presumably) pro-Republican midterm. But Kelly is hardly a generic candidate. An accomplished astronaut who is also the husband of former congresswoman and gun-violence victim Gabby Giffords, Kelly has pursued a quieter path in the Senate as compared to his Democratic colleague Kyrsten Sinema, which meant that he was able to muster strong party support for reelection notwithstanding a relatively moderate profile.
Masters, naturally, is trying to offset his own reputation for extremism by claiming Kelly is some sort of raging leftist. The Republican attempted a bit of jujitsu on the increasingly salient abortion issue by leaping from support for fetal personhood to an alleged exclusive opposition to late-term abortions, which he (falsely) accuses Kelly of relishing. But this will mostly be a base-mobilization contest, although a small swing vote could potentially decide the contest. Kelly has been a champion fundraiser, bringing in $52 million by the end of June. Like fellow Thiel favorite J.D. Vance in Ohio, Masters has probably relied too much on subventions from his role model and will need to pick up fundraising or talk national Republicans into a rescue effort.
Kelly has led Masters in every public poll of the contest, though two recent polls from Republican-leaning Trafalgar Group and Emerson show a two-point race. This is a fight whose outcome could depend on late national trends or a candidate gaffe.
Republican handicappers hoping to flip the Senate are counting on a win in Georgia, the state that gave Democrats control of the chamber in early 2021 when Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff won two general-election runoffs. Between the damage Donald Trump did to the 2020 GOP ticket by his constant complaints that Georgia’s election machinery was “rigged” and the shift to an ostensibly more pro-Republican midterm environment, GOP operatives entered the cycle optimistic about Georgia, particularly after Trump did them a compensatory solid by talking his old friend the Georgia football legend Herschel Walker into moving back home and making the race. Or so it initially appeared.
Warnock has turned out to be a stronger incumbent than Republicans expected and has particularly excelled in fundraising, pulling in $60 million through June. And Walker has had a lot of issues, from serial revelations from his past (ranging from threats of violence against his ex-wife to shaky business practices and multiple previously unacknowledged children), compounding doubts about his fitness for office based on the history of serious mental illness he disclosed in a 2008 memoir. The former Heisman Trophy winner has devolved from being the one point of agreement between warring Georgia Republicans divided by Trump’s (unsuccessful) effort to purge Governor Brian Kemp and secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to a potential weak link in the state GOP ticket.
This is the rare non-presidential race in which a candidate debate could matter a lot. Walker, who avoided debates or even media interviews earlier in the cycle, has finally agreed to a single October 14 debate with Warnock and is already lowering expectations by calling himself a “country boy” who is “not that smart,” an implicit acknowledgment of his recent reputation as a tongue-tied mixer of word salads.
A PAC closely related to Mitch McConnell has committed $39 million to ads for Walker down the home stretch, evening the financial landscape. And polls have shown Walker gaining ground on Warnock in recent weeks; some of the Republican-friendlier pollsters have him in the lead. If the race remains very tight, there could even be another general-election runoff (Georgia requires majorities for general-election wins, and there is a libertarian on the ballot), though this one would be in December (Georgia Republican legislators wanted to shorten the time available for early voting in runoffs, so they included that change in the state’s recent voter-unfriendly election law).
On or soon after November 8, if not later, the Walker-Warnock race could be crucial. It has already made history as a Deep South contest featuring two Black major-party opponents.
Part of the current conventional wisdom of politics is that Florida (the ultimate battleground state of all time in 2000, and a place that seemed to be trending blue by 2008 and 2012) is now a red state. It is, after all, the new home of Donald Trump, and is being (the term is hard to avoid) bossed by Republican governor Ron DeSantis. In 2020, previously Democratic-leaning Hispanic constituencies — and even some African American voters — trended red in the Sunshine State.
So one would figure Latino Republican senator Marco Rubio would be a lead-pipe cinch for a third term in a midterm election with a Democrat in the White House. It could turn out that way, but Orlando-based representative Val Demings is definitely making a race of it. Demings, the Black former Orlando police chief who was on Joe Biden’s shortlist for a 2020 running mate before he settled on Kamala Harris, took on the tough chore of challenging Rubio for a grateful party and immediately made a splash with strong fundraising, bringing in $48 million compared to the incumbent’s $36 million in the latest published totals.
Demings has been in the forefront of Democratic Senate candidates exploiting extremist positions on abortion by their opponents in the wake of SCOTUS’s Dobbs decision. Rubio solidified an already hard-core anti-abortion position when he ran for president in 2016, and he isn’t backing down now. So Demings’s campaign could be a litmus test of whether this issue — or, for that matter, the MAGA shenanigans of Trump and DeSantis — has changed the normal midterm dynamics and with them Florida’s red trend.
Rubio still has to be favored, but polls show Demings within striking distance, with the incumbent leading by 2.8 percent in the RealClearPolitics averages. In this race, an upset would severely damage Republican prospects of retaking the Senate this year.
Incumbent Democratic senator Catherine Cortez Masto’s election in 2016 was one of the final accomplishments of longtime Democratic titan Harry Reid, whose seat Cortez Masto won. But her opponent, Republican Adam Laxalt, represents an equally powerful legacy as the grandson of former Nevada governor and senator Paul Laxalt, and also the son of former New Mexico senator Pete Domenici (who had an extramarital affair with Paul Laxalt’s daughter). The younger Laxalt is a former state attorney general who has been a close ally to Donald Trump, whose 2020 campaign in Nevada he chaired. As I noted earlier this year, he’s a candidate with a very clear identity: a “pure-vanilla MAGA with name ID borrowed from his forebears.”
There’s not a lot that’s unpredictable about either candidate, so the outcome is likely to depend on the relative success of two very efficient turnout machines in a very evenly divided state that showed a slight pro-GOP trend in 2020. Like most incumbents, Cortez Masto has maintained a financial advantage in the early going, but national Republican sources will likely make sure Laxalt doesn’t lack any resources he needs.
Polls show a very close race. Thanks to a pro-Republican mix of pollsters publishing recent surveys, the RealClearPolitics averages currently give Laxalt a 1.3 percent lead. But this state, perhaps more than any other, is one where the results are likely be determined by a late candidate gaffe or some shit in the national winds. There is also a highly competitive governors race in Nevada, along with three toss-up House races and a secretary of State’s contest featuring a virulent election-conspiracy theorist as the Republican nominee.
Even as Democrats have made major gains nationally to even the playing field despite early signs of a pro-Republican midterm wave, some Republican candidates all but left for dead are posting money-driven comebacks — including Dr. Mehmet Oz. After all sorts of early general-election stumbles and misfires (notably his effort to dramatize the rising price of crudités), the former TV doc has been getting some traction raising questions about the health of Democratic lieutenant governor John Fetterman, who suffered a stroke shortly before the May 17 primary. Oz has used Fetterman’s reluctance to agree to candidate debates to raise doubts about the populist Democrat’s fitness to serve, though they have now agreed to a single debate on October 25.
Part of Oz’s comeback is based on heavy spending on his behalf, mostly blasting Fetterman as soft on crime. The Trump endorsee is also benefitting from slowly but surely healing wounds from a close and highly fractious primary. And Democrats are privately nervous about Republican overperformance in polls of the state in 2016 and 2020, though that was with Trump on the ballot.
Fetterman has led in every public poll since the general election began, but his margins have declined from mid-double to low-to-mid-single digits. As in Georgia, the debate could really matter, particularly if the doctor’s less-than-impartial diagnosis of the Democrat’s disability proves either inaccurate or insensitive.
One of the great mysteries of contemporary politics (to Democrats, anyway) is how Wisconsin’s two-term Republican senator Ron Johnson keeps winning elections in one of the country’s most closely divided states. When he upset veteran Democrat Russ Feingold in 2010, it was written off as a by-product of that year’s GOP tsunami. When he upset Feingold again in 2016, it was overshadowed by Donald Trump’s victory in Wisconsin and in the Electoral College.
By now, nobody is underestimating Johnson’s odds of survival a third time, even though his personal favorability numbers are generally underwater and he refuses to play the purple-state game of trying to appeal to swing voters with sweet reasonableness. As I noted at the beginning of the cycle, Johnson has actually gone in the opposite direction, devolving from being a conventional conservative with an old-school fetish for balanced budgets to one of the Senate’s great conspiracy theorists.
Johnson may have simply desensitized Wisconsin voters to his wackiness, or perhaps it indirectly reinforces his image as one of those businessman outsiders (like you-know-who from Mar-a-Lago) who radiates authenticity even if he’s authentically wacky. In any event, recent polls show Johnson in another close race against Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes, who managed to more or less clear a crowded primary field before winning easily in early August. The incumbent can be expected to exploit Barnes’s early-career progressive reputation to paint him as an extremist. And racial undertones will be ever present, particularly in very segregated Greater Milwaukee.
The well-regarded Marquette Law School poll showed the contest statistically tied in mid-September (the same poll showed incumbent Democratic governor Tony Evers narrowly leading Trumpy Republican challenger Tim Michels). This is another Senate contest that could be determined by late national trends or a loud campaign development. Don’t be surprised if Johnson survives yet again.
While the Peach State Senate race may get the most attention, the contest that will drive Georgia politics on November 8 and for years to come is the gubernatorial rematch between durable Republican governor Brian Kemp and rock-star Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams. The two savvy pols battled regularly when Kemp was a vote-suppressing secretary of State and Abrams was a renowned voting-rights champion, and then again when they directly faced off in a 2018 gubernatorial contest that Kemp very narrowly won after questionably deploying his power as state election chief (which provoked Abrams into withholding a formal concession, though she did not contest Kemp’s right to become governor). Abrams went on to deliver the official Democratic response to Trump’s 2019 State of the Union Address and to tantalize Democrats with a possible 2020 presidential or vice-presidential run; Kemp went on to tangle with Trump in the aftermath of Joe Biden’s victory in Georgia along with two Democratic Senate wins, for which Abrams’s voter-mobilization efforts deserve partial credit.
The Abrams-Kemp rematch was initially overshadowed by Trump’s astoundingly unsuccessful effort to purge Kemp along with Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in the May 2022 Republican primary — Trump’s worst defeat of the entire primary season. Kemp emerged with a united Republican Party and a chastened 45th president, and has since taken advantage of a strong economy to dish out tasty tax-cut and gas-price treats to Georgia voters, and even trying to co-opt Abrams’s signature Medicaid expansion proposal with a small extension of health-care benefits tied to a work requirement.
While Kemp has led consistently in most general-election polls (the best recent poll for Abrams, from Quinnipiac, showed the incumbent up by two points), Abrams was able to build up a spending advantage as an unopposed primary candidate while the governor was fending off Trump’s guy David Perdue. But both candidates are so well known in Georgia that ads may matter less than the ground game. As usual, Democrats will depend on early voting, though they will not be able to utilize the exceptionally generous voting-by-mail rules Raffensperger put in place in 2020 temporarily in recognition of the pandemic.
Kemp remains the betting favorite, but if national developments do Democrats any favors, Abrams is in a position to take advantage.
Like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, Michigan is a traditionally Democratic state where the MAGA version of the GOP has driven some gains among non-college-educated white voters. Michigan was also ground zero for some of the most virulent demonstrations against COVID precautions, making incumbent Democratic governor Gretchen Whitmer a target of much venomous rage and even a kidnapping attempt.
But in the 2022 midterms, abortion appears to have replaced COVID precautions as the red-hot issue in Michigan, and this is an issue that tends to favor Democrats like Whitmer.
After the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision let states abrogate abortion rights, Michigan Republicans sought to enforce a previously moot 1931 statute making the performance of abortions a felony, with only an exception for abortions necessary to save the life of the mother. Democratic governor Whitmer, a sexual-assault survivor, battled in court against the law, which one judge declared unconstitutional under existing state laws (the ruling is under appeal), and has helped secure a ballot initiative in November that would explicitly recognize abortion rights in the state constitution. Because Republican gubernatorial nominee and conservative commentator Tudor Dixon is a staunch defender of the 1931 anti-abortion law, there’s not much question abortion policy is on the ballot in Michigan this year, and support for the constitutional amendment will probably help Whitmer get out her vote.
Dixon is trying to shake her identification as an election denier (which is likely what won her a late preprimary endorsement from Donald Trump). She is also trailing Whitmer in fundraising, which isn’t surprising since the Democrat was unopposed for her nomination while Dixon had to survive a multicandidate scrum.
Whitmer leads in the RealClearPolitics polling averages by 9.5 percent, but Michigan is another state where polls have recently overestimated Democratic performance. If Whitmer does win, and also drives through an abortion-rights constitutional amendment, her prospects as a potential national candidate will become even brighter.
When extremist GOP state legislator Doug Mastriano turned a Trump endorsement and divided opposition into a victory in Pennsylvania’s May 17 gubernatorial nomination, a lot of Republican insiders despaired. The fiery former combat veteran was one of Pennsylvania’s better-known 2020 election deniers; he was present in Washington on January 6 but apparently did not enter the Capitol. He also held an array of dubious policy positions, favoring a near-total ban on abortion without exceptions while calling legalized abortion “a national catastrophe.” His call for slashing public-education funding and turning the revenues into vouchers usable in private schools (or for homeschooling) has alarmed teachers and many parents. And he’s maintained ties to a notorious anti-Semite, Andrew Torba, whose website, Gab, is a favorite among far-right extremists. Meanwhile, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Josh Shapiro won his primary without opposition and has avoided the kind of controversies Mastriano seems to court. Shapiro is best known for investigating and cracking down on the Catholic Church’s cover-up of clerical sexual abuse of children in a much-praised exercise of his office’s powers.
But it’s the fact that Pennsylvania’s governor appoints the state’s chief election officer that makes the possibility of Mastriano occupying that office really scary. Mastriano, who tapped the notorious 2020 Trump campaign lawyer Jenna Ellis as a “senior adviser,” strongly encouraged the Pennsylvania legislature to recognize alternative (i.e., fake) Trump electors to usurp the certified Biden electors from Pennsylvania, which led to his being subpoenaed by the House Select Committee investigating the events of January 6 (the candidate has been battling the committee in court over the scope of and procedures for its questions). Mastriano is also a member of the America First Secretary of State Coalition, a group of candidates for chief election official positions that explicitly embraces Trump’s lies about 2020 and calls for such “reforms” as the abolition of early voting in person or by mail.
Mastriano has tried to keep his campaign’s general-election focus on generic Republican issues like inflation and crime instead of his own inflammatory views. But he has trouble staying out of trouble. Most recently, a New Jersey newspaper reported that Mastriano was registered to vote in his native Garden State as recently as July 2021.
Shapiro leads in the polling averages by five points, but the race was within the margin of error in recent polls from Emerson and the Trafalgar Group. A significant Republican wave that lifts all boats equally might be enough to put this particularly dangerous MAGA figure in power in Harrisburg in time to interfere with the 2024 presidential election.
Believe it or not, Alaska’s sole representative in the House at the moment is a Democrat, Mary Peltola (who is also the first Native Alaskan to serve in Congress). She defeated former governor and vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin and early Republican front-runner Nick Begich III in the state’s first ranked-choice general election following a top-four primary (since one qualifying candidate dropped out, there were just three candidates competing in the special election to complete the late Don Young’s term in the House). That happened mostly because a lot of Begich voters refused to make the fellow Republican Palin (whose act is getting pretty old to many Alaskans) their second-choice candidate; many returned the second line blank.
The same day as the special general election, the same candidates competed in the regular top-four primary for a full House term. Peltola finished first with 37 percent of the vote; Palin was second with 30 percent; and Begich was third at 26 percent. Another Republican, Tara Sweeney, finished fourth, but she dropped out almost immediately.
My guess was that Republicans might consolidate support behind Begich in the general election, having watched Palin lose the seat to a Democrat for the first time since 1973. But according to two rare general-election polls (from AARP and from Dittman Research) voters look to be splitting much as they did in the special election, with Palin running well ahead of Begich and well behind Peltola. According to both polls’ calculation of ranked-choice voting, once Begich is again eliminated, Peltola will again beat Palin in the final accounting and remain in Washington as an unlikely Democratic vote in what is almost certain to be a closely divided House.
By most accounts, Peltola is getting some positive attention for her brief tenure in Washington. She was smart enough to hire Young’s former chief of staff to serve as her own top staffer, providing the continuity that Alaskans — famously sensitive to federal policies affecting their vast holdings in the state and also Alaska’s oil and gas resources — want as a semi-colony of the federal government. If it all turns out the way the AARP poll suggests, this could be the last hurrah for Sarah Barracuda, at least in Alaska. She might do better relocating to a state where memories don’t persist of her resigning the governorship abruptly in 2009 as though she had become bored of it after being on a national ticket.
Under Michigan’s new 2022 congressional map, veteran Fifth District congressman Dan Kildee’s Flint and Saginaw base is now in a reconfigured Eighth District that also includes the Republican town of Midland (his uncle Dale Kildee represented Flint in Congress for 36 years). According to Daily Kos Elections, the new Eighth District was carried by Joe Biden by 2.1 percent, making it one of two median districts and a national bellwether for 2022.
Democrat Kildee will face Republican former local prosecutor and news anchor Paul Junge, who gave up a position in the Trump administration’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in 2020 to run unsuccessfully for Congress in the old Eighth District. The two candidates are reasonably well-matched in resources. While Junge is a longtime Trump supporter, he does not subscribe to the 45th president’s 2020 election fables.
Both candidates are running on national party themes, though Kildee is relying on his very high family-name ID to give him the win, and Junge is hoping for at least a slight national breeze in the GOP’s favor. The winner has a good chance of being in the postelection House majority, hailed as a conquering hero.
In another bellwether race in a median district, two-term incumbent Democrat Elaine Luria is battling to hold on against Republican challenger and state senator Jennifer Kiggans for a seat that includes much of Virginia’s Hampton Roads area. Luria is in some respects tailor-made for this district that depends on defense facilities, as a 20-year naval officer who was among the first women to spend an entire career on combat ships. She upset Republican incumbent Scott Taylor in 2018 and then beat him in a rematch in 2020. But the district remains more conservative than is comfortable for many Democrats; it is calculated that Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin beat Terry McAuliffe in the district by a 55-44 margin.
Luria is a certified Democratic moderate, but she is also a member of the January 6 committee who like her colleagues is not shy about accusing Donald Trump of horrific deeds. In her moment in the sun in July, Luria (along with Republican Adam Kinzinger, who is retiring from the House under extreme pressure) put a spotlight on Trump’s inaction during the Capitol Riot, documenting with multiple witness his very clear understanding of what was going on and his refusal to do his duty. This hearing (and others) gave Luria some national exposure and likely won her some campaign donations. But it also painted a MAGA bullseye on her back, which Kiggans is certain to try to support. The Republican is also a combat veteran (a Navy helicoptor pilot, in fact) with a centrist reputation that she appears to have decided to abandon this year. She’s one of just four Republican state senators to support a wildly unnecessary audit of Virginia’s not-very-close presidential election, and she’s not willing to accept that Biden won the election.
As an incumbent, Luria out-raised Kiggans going into the contest, but pro-Kiggans PACs have poured money into the district and run anti-Luria ads, as Walter Shapiro noted:
Before this campaign is over, voters in the Second District may, through GOP repetition, come to assume that it’s the “Biden-Luria” administration in Washington. Asked about the effect of the January 6 committee on the election, Dennis Free, chairman of the GOP committee in the Second District, said, “I think it will hurt Ms. Luria because she’s concentrating on things that don’t concern the country.” In Free’s telling, it’s all about inflation and immigration — and not about the first coup attempt since the Civil War.
This is a contest with national implications, totally aside from its potential impact on control of the House.
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