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The Sweep: What We Learned
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The Sweep: What We Learned

A pro-life constitutional amendment fails in Kansas, and Trump-endorsed candidates fare well in Arizona.

Abortion on the Ballot

Abortion was on the ballot Tuesday for the first time since the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, and Kansas voters gave the pro-choice movement a resounding victory. In February 2021, the state legislature voted to put an amendment on the ballot stating that the Kansas constitution “does not require government funding of abortion and does not create or secure a right to abortion.” It would not have immediately affected the legality of abortion, but would have allowed the Republican-supermajority legislature to pass restrictions–something Kansas Supreme Court precedent prevents. The measure failed, and Kansas law will continue to allow elective abortion until 22 weeks and afterward in the case of risk to the mother’s life or risk of “substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function.” 

Abortion rights activists had complained about holding the vote during a primary election, believing it would suppress turnout. They also decried the amendment’s confusing language (a “yes” vote removed abortion rights protections, while a “no” vote maintained the status quo). Despite these concerns, and polling showing a closely divided electorate that slightly favored the amendment, it not only failed but did so by a wide margin—59 percent to 41 percent. Both sides spent nearly $13 million on television ads alone in the campaign. 

But most importantly for our purposes, turnout soared. Compared to the 2018 primaries, nearly twice as many people voted. And clearly the ballot drove the high turnout. About 730,000 voted in the two primaries for governor, but over 900,000 voted on the ballot question. 

This certainly provides additional data to the political question of whether abortion will scramble the midterms. I have said previously I hadn’t seen a lot of support for the notion that this would increase turnout or change votes. Clearly, this changes my calculus. But let me also provide a few caveats:

  • Yes, Kansas is a deep red state at the presidential level—Trump won by 15 points—but it has a Democratic governor. So at least when we are thinking about whether there will be a backlash against GOP state legislators in some of these states passing the most restrictive abortion laws, Kansas is more like Louisiana than Texas. It also made this entire endeavor a lose-lose for the pro-life people. Expectations are everything in politics. If they’d won, it would have been written off as a conservative win in a deep red state; losing means they’ve provided enormous momentum to their opponents. Which really makes you wonder who thought this was a good idea? 

  • The ballot measure clearly drove high turnout—but Kansas has a closed primary system. So while only registered party voters could participate in the gubernatorial race, unaffiliated voters could vote on the ballot measure. This was clearly part of the calculus for the pro-life folks, because they knew that there were more registered Republicans than Democrats in the state who could vote on the other races. 450,000 Republicans voted in the gubernatorial primary, but only 375,000 people voted “yes” on the ballot measure. On the other hand, only 275,000 Democrats voted in the gubernatorial primary, which means that the other 625,000 “no” voters were almost certainly made up of both unaffiliated voters AND Republicans. Not a good sign for the abortion abolitionist movement.

  • As we’ve seen before, voters show fundamentally different priorities on ballot measures than when voting for candidates. The status quo usually has a significant advantage on any ballot measure. And issues aren’t candidates. In 2016, Hillary Clinton outperformed the California ballot measure on gun background checks. By the same token, it’s not hard to imagine these same “no” voters picking pro-life candidates who align with their views on the economy or party affiliation come November. In fact, I expect that they will. 

Extrapolating out to November, I’d say Kansas has me thinking a few things:

  • Most voters were happy with the pre-Dobbs status quo on abortion and the pro-life movement ignores that at its own risk.

  • Abortion ballot measures can drive turnout and I’d expect the pro-choice folks to look for opportunities to literally put abortion on the ballot and not just say “abortion is on the ballot” in reference to candidates.

  • The ballot measure in Kansas didn’t tell me much about how a generic pro-life Republican candidate will do against a generic pro-choice Democratic candidate in the fall. But I’m more open to the idea that it could have a real effect than I was a month ago.

Trump Does Well in Arizona

Former President Donald Trump’s endorsed candidates performed well in Arizona last night. His handpicked candidates for U.S. Senate (Blake Masters), secretary of state (Mark Finchem), and state Senate (David Farnsworth) all won their Republican primaries last night—Masters will compete against Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly and Finchem will face Democrat Adrian Fontes. Because no Democrat ran, Farnsworth will automatically replace GOP House Speaker Rusty Bowers—who was censured by the Arizona GOP for testifying before the House select committee investigating the Capitol riot about Trump’s efforts to subvert Arizona’s 2020 election results.

Trump’s preferred candidate for governor, Kari Lake, is leading Republican challenger Karrin Taylor Robson, though the race is still tight and has yet to be called. The winner will face gubernatorial nominee Katie Hobbs, Arizona’s secretary of state, in November.

Two of Three Pro-Impeachment House Republicans Prevail Against Trump-Backed Challengers

Last week, pro-impeachment, first-term GOP Rep. Peter Meijer made headlines when he called out the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for running ads that propped up his Trump-backed election-denying primary opponent. “I’m sick and tired of hearing the sanctimonious bullshit about the Democrats being the pro-democracy party,” Meijer told Politico. Welp, the DCCC got the candidate it wanted in last night’s primary—John Gibbs, who served in the Trump administration, narrowly defeated Meijer. (The Dispatch’s Price St. Clair has the scoop on Gibbs here.) 

The former president’s lucky streak didn’t extend to the Pacific Northwest, where two pro-impeachment incumbents look poised to advance to the general election (though neither race has been called). As of Wednesday morning, Dan Newhouse of Washington’s 4th District carries 27.3 percent of the vote over Trump-backed GOP opponent Loren Culp, who sits in third place with 21.8 percent—with 47 percent of votes reported. This means Democratic candidate Doug White, who is in second with 26 percent, will likely advance to the general election after last night’s jungle primary.

And with 57 percent of votes reported in Washington’s 3rd Congressional District, six-term incumbent Jaime Herrera Beutler (who carries 24.5 percent of the vote) is well-positioned to advance to face Democrat Marie Perez, who sits in first with 31.8 percent. Trump-endorsed Joe Kent, a Gold Star husband and former Green Beret who came under fire on the campaign trail for his ties to far-right figures and controversial foreign policy views, is in third with 20.1 percent. From the looks of it, Herrera Beutler has a pop-up PAC called Conservatives for a Stronger America to thank—at least in part—for her comfortable lead over Kent. In the lead-up to last night’s primary, the PAC ran ads attacking Kent and propping up fourth-place finisher Heidi St. John as a spoiler candidate to split the MAGA vote.

What made the difference between these races? Michigan has a partisan primary system; Washington just switched to a “top-two finishers advance to the general” system. In fact, that’s why the DCCC ran ads in Michigan in the first place–a partisan primary system creates incentives for each party to want the other party to nominate its weakest candidate so voters are stuck with two options they don’t particularly like.  

By the way, Audrey caught up with DSCC Chairman Gary Peters last week on his party’s effort to prop up election-denying candidates in GOP primaries. Asked specifically about Chuck Schumer’s Senate Majority PAC’s spending $4 million to boost election-denying candidate Ron Hanks ahead of Colorado’s Republican Senate primary last month, Peters told Audrey, “I’m not doing that. The DSCC, we’re not—we’re not engaged in that. But the rest of his party isn’t so sure. Read more about their mixed response HERE.

GOP Senate Chances

Republicans are heavily favored to win back the House at this point—the question is more about how many seats than who will control the speakership at this point. But the Senate is another question entirely. 

Remember that Republicans need to pick up one seat held by Democrats (Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, New Hampshire) and keep all their existing seats (Pennsylvania, Ohio, Missouri, Wisconsin). Losing one of the latter means needing to win two of the former.

After last night, Republicans have one less state to worry about. With the nomination of Eric Schmitt in Missouri, the state is now a relatively safe seat for Republicans, meaning that time, attention, and money can go elsewhere.

Republican leadership had repeatedly said that an Eric Greitens nomination in Missouri could be a Todd Akin repeat—torpeding their chances of holding onto an otherwise easily winnable seat. The panic over Greitens in D.C. circles led to the hilarious-if-farcical “ERIC” endorsement by former President Trump. 

The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel reported that “Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, had lobbied Trump on Monday, urging him not to back Greitens.” But Trump also got calls from RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel and Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley urging him not to back Greitens. On the other side was his son’s fiancee, Kimberly Guilfoyle, making the case for the disgraced former governor. In the end, Politico’s Alex Isenstadt reported that someone suggested Trump just endorse “Eric” and Trump bit, “reasoning that there were pluses and minuses to both, and that by doing so it would provide to each the opportunity to win with his support.”

But even with Missouri in reasonably safe hands, Republicans aren’t in the clear as their Senate nominees candidates struggle elsewhere. Dr. Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania is trailing badly in recent polls. If he loses, Republicans would need to win both Georgia and Arizona. 

Last night’s win for first-time candidate Blake Masters keeps Republicans in the mix to beat Arizona’s Democratic incumbent Mark Kelly. Masters has run a populist campaign—not unlike Josh Hawley ran in Missouri in 2018 or that J.D. Vance is currently running in Ohio—with smart ads that sound like they could have been run by any Midwestern Democrat in the 1990s. But Masters isn’t out of the woods yet. As with Pennsylvania and Georgia, he’ll be on the ballot with a hotly contested gubernatorial race as well. That race is still too close to call in Arizona as of Wednesday afternoon, but the Trump-backed Kari Lake—who has said the 2020 election is “the number-one issue” today—could be a distraction at best and an anchor at worst for Masters … and for Republicans Senate prospects.

In Georgia, it’s the opposite story. GOP Senate nominee Herschel Walker is struggling. Even as polling shows Republican Gov. Brian Kemp leading against Stacey Abrams at the top of the ticket, Walker trails Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock in the Senate race. Despite overall state polling misses of the past, these types of poll results are the most telling because it means at least some of the poll respondents themselves were splitting their vote between Kemp and Warnock or undecided on the Senate race—a bad sign for Walker. 

There’s also warning signs for Republicans. Gas prices are going down. Biden has had legislative and foreign policy wins this month. And, most importantly, no matter how low Biden’s approval ratings are, Republicans are in a statistical tie on the generic ballot question. 

“Unsurprisingly, polls asking Americans which party they plan to vote for in the midterms have historically been more predictive of the midterm results than polls asking about presidential approval,” reports FiveThirtyEight. This makes sense because a lot of Biden’s drooping approval number is being driven by Democrats—in particular progressives—who don’t think he’s doing enough, but when given the choice between a Democrat and a Republican in November, they certainly aren’t voting for the R. 

But there is probably some good news for Republicans on the horizon: 

While the generic-ballot polling and presidential-approval polling don’t always converge, there is one other pattern that’s evident: The generic-ballot polling got worse for the president’s party in all four cycles. 

That matches our previous research finding that the president’s party typically loses ground on the generic ballot as a midterm election approaches — a trend that’s especially pronounced when a Democratic president is in office. As Silver also wrote when unveiling our 2022 midterm forecast in June, most generic-ballot polls at this stage are conducted among registered voters, but by the fall they will be conducted among likely voters — a group that will probably be disproportionately Republican, both because Democrats tend to be more infrequent voters in general and because, currently, more Republicans than Democrats say they are enthusiastic to vote.

Correction: In the section about WA-03’s jungle primary, Audrey originally wrote that Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler had a “comfortable victory” over Kent rather than “comfortable lead” as votes were still being counted.

Sarah Isgur is a senior editor at The Dispatch and is based in northern Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2019, she had worked in every branch of the federal government and on three presidential campaigns. When Sarah is not hosting podcasts or writing newsletters, she’s probably sending uplifting stories about spiders to Jonah, who only pretends to love all animals.

Audrey is a former reporter for The Dispatch.