Voting in the 2022 midterm primaries is over. The countdown to Election Day is on, and Republicans hoping to retake control of Congress from Democrats are confronting headwinds in several key races where nominees backed by former President Donald Trump face tough general election fights.
The November election will also have uniquely far-reaching effects on the context and administration of a 2024 presidential election that could potentially feature a rematch between President Joe Biden and Trump.
Down the ballot, 36 states will elect governors in November, including the five – Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Arizona – that flipped from Trump to Biden in 2020.
The outcomes of those races, coupled with other down-ballot matchups, could have an outsize effect on the next presidential election as Republicans at the state level continue their push to restrict ballot access and put the tools in place to weaponize future fraud claims.
The US Supreme Court decision striking down Roe v. Wade has also emboldened Democrats and given the party new hope that it can turn out swing voters and independents with a promise – in both state and federal races – to either protect, expand or, through Congress, renew abortion rights.
Republicans, meanwhile, are banking on voters’ concerns over the economy, especially inflation, which still ranks as the top issue in most polling, and crime to fuel a backlash to Democrats at all levels.
Here are seven takeaways from more than six months of midterm primaries:
‘Candidate quality’ looms over GOP’s Senate majority hopes
Republicans entered the 2022 midterm election cycle with economic and historical factors behind their bid to win control of the House and Senate in November. But the GOP’s Senate hopes are being complicated by a handful of candidates in key races struggling to make the switch from primary mode to appealing to the broader general electorate.
The seeds of the GOP’s struggles were planted early in the cycle, when establishment Republicans missed out on top recruiting targets in several key states. Among their most significant disappointments were the decisions of New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey to pass on Senate runs.
Trump endorsed a series of first-time candidates in a handful of races that are likely to decide which party controls the Senate, including Masters in Arizona, Walker in Georgia, venture capitalist and author J.D. Vance in Ohio and celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania. All four have struggled since winning their respective primaries, lagging behind their Democratic foes in net approval ratings.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell acknowledged the problems Republican candidates have faced in comments last month at a Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce luncheon.
“I think there’s probably a greater likelihood the House flips than the Senate,” he said. “Candidate quality has a lot to do with the outcome.”
Infighting threatens Republicans’ congressional ambitions
Republicans looking to take control of the Senate should be spending all their time focused on Democrats.
But those troubled candidates have strained relationships among Senate leadership – namely between Sen. Rick Scott, the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and McConnell, the top Republican in the legislative body.
For months, the infighting played out in private, with quiet back biting and second guessing over candidates, strategy and spending. But as the summer dragged on and several Republicans struggled to pivot to the general election, Scott and McConnell’s infighting burst into public.
The eruption came after McConnell’s August airing of his concerns about “candidate quality,” which Scott did not let go unanswered.
“If you trash talk our candidates … you hurt our chances of winning, and you hurt our candidates’ ability to raise money,” Scott told Politico. “I know they’re good candidates, because I’ve been talking to them and they’re working their butts off.”
This was not the first fight between Scott and McConnell. After the Florida Republican rolled out a plan that would have raised taxes on low income Americans and sunset Social Security and Medicare in March, which he subsequently revised, McConnell brushed him back, telling reporters, “We will not have as part of our agenda a bill that raises taxes on half the American people, and sunsets Social Security and Medicare within five years.”
Money is also at the heart of the dispute. Despite raising $181.5 million through the end of July, the Republican Senate campaign committee only had $23.2 million in the bank at that time, a significant disparity to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s $54.1 million despite raising less, $173.1 million, over the same time.
McConnell-aligned forces have jumped into those races in recent weeks, attempting to bail out candidates whose fundraising has lagged well behind their Democratic rivals with huge injections of television advertising.
How bad have things become? When Punchbowl News asked McConnell if Scott, who is worth an estimated $260 million, should personally fund part of the Republican campaign committee, the Republican leader said it was an “interesting idea.”
Trump demonstrates his influence in GOP open-seat primaries
The primary season has demonstrated just how closely the Republican electorate is willing to follow Trump’s lead.
But it also revealed the limits of Trump’s sway. The former President’s biggest miss came in Georgia, where he failed to purge the party of Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger as retribution for their refusal to support his bogus claims of fraud in the 2020 election. The problem with Trump’s bid for vengeance was that GOP voters were otherwise satisfied with their state officials’ performance.
However, open-seat Republican primaries – particularly Senate races – have demonstrated Trump’s dominance.
In North Carolina, he effectively cleared the way for Rep. Ted Budd to advance without a serious challenge. And in Ohio, his late support for Vance – who was polling in third place at the time – catapulted the “Hillbilly Elegy” to victory.
In Arizona, Trump’s support and tech mogul Peter Thiel’s money elevated Blake Masters for the Senate nod. There, Trump squared off with his own former vice president, Mike Pence, and term-limited Ducey in the GOP gubernatorial primary. Pence and Ducey backed establishment favorite Karrin Taylor Robson; Trump endorsed former journalist and election denier Kari Lake. Lake – and thus Trump – won.
Trump-backed candidates also ousted four of the 10 Republicans who voted to impeach the former President following the insurrection of January 6, 2021 – a purge capped off by Trump-endorsed Harriet Hageman’s defeat last month of Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, one of his loudest critics. (An equal number had declined to run for reelection.)
Election deniers dominate Republican nominations
Trump’s influence has elevated scores of election deniers, loading Republican tickets across the country with candidates who have followed his lie that the 2020 election was stolen.
In some states, the entire Republican ticket is Trump backed and election denying, like Arizona, where candidates from Lake, the gubernatorial nominee, to attorney general nominee Abraham Hamadeh have embraced Trump’s lie.
This trend is arguably most troubling in down-ballot races, particularly races for secretary of state. These officials will be tasked with running elections, including in key presidential swing states, should they win in November.
In Nevada, Secretary of State nominee Jim Marchant, an unsuccessful congressional candidate in 2020, said that his No. 1 priority would be to “overhaul the fraudulent election system in Nevada” and that he would not have certified Biden’s 2020 win in the state. In Arizona, state Rep. Mark Finchem has falsely claimed that Trump won the 2020 election, called for the arrest of Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs and proposed widespread restrictions on voting in the state if he becomes secretary of state. And in Michigan, Kristina Karamo – who has falsely claimed that Trump won the state in 2020 – rose to prominence by alleging to have witnessed voter fraud as a poll challenger during the state’s count of absentee ballots.
Democrats have tried to shine a spotlight on these races. Former President Barack Obama will campaign for secretary of state candidates and Biden accused Republicans in a recent speech of “working right now as I speak in state after state to give power to decide elections in America to partisans and cronies, empowering election deniers to undermine democracy itself.”
But some Democratic operatives focused on these races have warned that the party is not focused enough on races against election deniers – cautioning that if one of these election denying candidates wins, the 2024 presidential election could be chaos.
“There are these small races, down-ballot races that are going relatively unnoticed that will determine if we have a free and fair election,” said Hari Sevugan, a senior adviser to iVote, a group focused on secretary of state races. “Who wins these seats in 2022 will not only determine what the election looks like in 2024, but what our democracy looks like the day after.”
Will the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling be a game-changer?
In the days and weeks after the Supreme Court threw out federal abortion rights protections, leadership in both parties seemed uncertain whether the backlash to the decision would drive voters to the polls.
Two-and-a-half months later, the answer seems clear: abortion is a leading issue in 2022 and its impact is being felt at the ballot box.
The current surge in voter registration among women, along with the resounding defeat in August of a ballot measure in Kansas that would have allowed its state legislature to push ahead with an abortion ban and unexpected successes in special elections suggest that the backlash to the high court’s decision could fire up the Democratic base.
As importantly, the issue appears to cut across party lines.
In heavily Republican Kansas, the move to amend the state constitution that would allow the legislature to remove abortion rights protections was defeated by roughly 20 percentage points. Turnout, too, was astronomical – eclipsing general election totals from 2010 and 2014 and amounting to roughly half of all registered voters.
Three weeks after Kansas, Democrat Pat Ryan won a special election for a House seat in upstate New York over Republican Marc Molinaro, who had been favored, with a message largely focused on abortion rights and, in a parallel to the language used by advocates in Kansas, GOP efforts to strip away that “freedom.”
“It was just so clear how deeply this hit people and how scared they were and how sad they were and how angry they were,” Ryan told CNN.
Democrats across the country have now adopted similar messaging. Their candidates could also benefit from added turnout in states like Michigan, which, like Kansas, is holding an abortion rights referendum.
Republicans have largely sought to downplay the issue, insisting in many cases that abortion is not, as Democrats say, “on the ballot.” But new federal legislation to ban abortion after 15 weeks nationwide, introduced by GOP South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham this week, could undercut their argument.
The economy still a drag on Democrats
The energy around the abortion debate can only do so much, however.
Polls and conversations with voters show roaring inflation and rising prices continue to be a significant concern, impacting voters in every competitive state and district across the country.
The Biden administration has attempted to quell those concerns – they named their sweeping health care and climate change bill the “Inflation Reduction Act” – but not all Democratic candidates have lauded their own party’s handling of economic issues.
“Inflation, a broken supply chain and high gas prices – Mainers everywhere are facing tough decision about rising costs,” Democrat Rep. Jared Golden said in an ad for his reelection campaign. Golden goes on to describe himself as a “independent voice” and touts voting against a key portion of the Biden agenda because it would “make inflation worse.”
Republicans like Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota, the head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, have attempted to define this election as “a grocery and gas election,” using inflation as an albatross to hang around every Democratic candidate’s neck.
Abortion has complicated that message – putting Republicans in districts on defense – but with eight weeks to go before Election Day, whether the economy or abortion is the most motivating issue for voters will determine who is better positioned to hold or win the majority.
Big-dollar outside spenders are a new force in Democratic primaries
The combination of redistricting and a wave of House Democratic retirements created a long list of open seats, setting up a series of contentious primaries between moderate, establishment-backed candidates and movement progressives.
But the left, though it is poised to again gain power in the House Democratic caucus, fell short of its ambitions largely due to a barrage of outside spending from new and increasingly aggressive outside groups and super PACs, including one created by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and others, like Mainstream Democrats PAC, largely funded by LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman.
In New York alone, outside groups spent nearly $10 million in House primaries. One of them, called New York Progressive Inc., was funded by the AIPAC-backed United Democracy Project – an expenditure UDP didn’t reveal until after its preferred candidate, former federal prosecutor Daniel Goldman, narrowly prevailed over the more left-leaning state Assembly Member Yuh-Line Niou.
UDP also spent heavily in Democratic races in Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Carolina, Maryland, Ohio and South Texas, succeeding in all but the open seat primary based in Pittsburgh, where state Rep. Summer Lee defeated moderate Steve Irwin.
Progressive groups also dug deep to back candidates like Lee and Greg Casar in Texas, with independent expenditure arms of Justice Democrats and the Working Families Party usually leading the way. Indivisible and the Congressional Progressive Caucus’s campaign arm dipped into some races, too, but they were all outspent – a dynamic that many expect to continue in cycles to come.
This story has been updated.