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The Sweep: Why So Many GOP Governors Are Facing Primary Challenges
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The Sweep: Why So Many GOP Governors Are Facing Primary Challenges

Plus: It’s never too early to start thinking about 2024.

Thank you for being part of this grand experiment in journalism that we’re embarked upon at The Dispatch. Our stated mission is to “engage citizens with fact-based reporting and commentary on politics, policy and culture—informed by conservative principles.” And that’s certainly what we’ve tried to offer you here at The Sweep, but that doesn’t capture the community that you have built for us all. Every week, I love diving into the comments section with our members where people disagree with curiosity and good faith and, dare I say, joy. What else can I say? Y’all make an engaged citizenry look good.

This will be our last Sweep of the year, but we’ve got some exciting new plans for 2022. First, this newsletter will move to twice a week as the midterms heat up! The first one will look familiar to you–campaign quick hits, plus deep dives on races or data that we’ve seen. The second installment will come directly from the desk of Chris Stirewalt—his thoughts, feelings, and wisdom on what he’s seeing across the political tundra. 

And since we are broadening our reporting and analysis, we’re also going to reband this as The Dispatch Politics with The Sweep at the start of the week and Chris’ Cornucopia toward the end. Just kidding, it’ll be called Chromodynamics With Chris. That doesn’t sound right either. We’ll just have to wait until 2022 to find out. 

Now back to it…

Campaign Quick Hits

Campaign Consultant Quote of the Week: “It’s country club versus country,” said David Mowery, a Montgomery, Alabama-based political consultant who has worked for both Republicans and Democrats. “There is a weird dynamic where a lot of your business folks are also social conservatives. They just don’t want to be gauche about it. Wearing a .44 on your belt, a Ten Commandments T-shirt and a tricorner hat is outré.” Gauche? Outré? Alabama? Indeed. 

Where Things Stand Headed Into ‘22: “Disapproval of the president stretches across most demographic groups, with his level of disapproval topping 50 percent among white and non-white voters, people living in cities and in rural America, and voters in every age range except those over 74 years old. … Two-thirds of independent voters disapprove of Biden, including half who strongly disapprove. Both numbers are up at least 30 points since he took office,” writes Matt Loffman at PBS.

Adding insult to injury, “According to The Economist’s analysis of polling conducted with YouGov, an online survey firm, an average of 29% of American adults under the age of 30 approve of the job Mr Biden is doing as president. But that compares with 50% who disapprove. The net rating of -21 points is the worst for any age group.”

Murphy Out: Rep. Stephanie Murphy, centrist Democrat from Florida and leader of the Blue Dog coalition, became “the 22nd incumbent House Democrat to forgo a reelection bid next year,” according to Politico. These retirements are turning the Democrat’s chances of keeping the House from an uphill climb to a vertical one.

Frustration at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee: Rachael Bade over at Politico has some extraordinary reporting about how vulnerable Dems feel about the place that’s supposed to be singularly focused on keeping their House majority. Read the whole thing here, but there are some wowzer lines from current House Democrats worth highlighting:

On DCCC Chairman Sean Patrick Maloney: “I think Sean Patrick’s ‘leadership’ — and please use air quotes on that — at the DCCC is the reason why we should not have elected colleagues running that organization. Because it’s not about protecting the majority; it’s about Sean Patrick Maloney. … We’ve got a vanity project.” 

On forcing members to embrace the Democrats brand: “If you want to win purple and red seats, you have to distance yourself from other Democrats. He is a part of this ‘party purity’ march that is just going to ensure that we are DEEP in the minority.”

On embracing the “Trump-as-boogeyman strategy”: “This is crazy to me that the DCCC is rolling out a playbook that they know doesn’t work and that they encouraged people in 2018 not to use.”

On  the DCCC using the threat of withholding campaign money to bully members into tough votes like the $3.5 trillion budget: “Authoritarian. [The DCCC] has basically silenced the most vulnerable members of our party because they’re afraid.”

On the whole mess: “This is a real f***ing problem.” 

We’re headed into primary season and a lot of Republican governors suddenly have a challenge on their hands. Audrey takes us into the fight on the right.

GOP Governors Get High Profile Primary Challengers

Thirty-six gubernatorial seats are up for grabs next year, and as elections analyst J. Miles Coleman of Sabato’s Crystal Ball wrote this summer, many Republican incumbents “have drawn primary challengers who are at least somewhat credible.” Why? In the post-Trump era, potential candidates have seen outsiders overcome traditional incumbent campaign advantages like fundraising connections and retail politics, especially if they can capitalize on the former president’s popularity with the base or court his endorsement. 

In Georgia, Trump has endorsed former Republican Sen. David Perdue to challenge Gov. Brian Kemp in what will undoubtedly be a messy and expensive primary. Shortly after Perdue announced his candidacy, Kemp’s campaign accused Perdue of running “to soothe his own bruised ego, because his campaign for U.S. Senate failed to inspire voters at the ballot box— twice.”

The race has already put many state legislators on edge. Earlier this month, for example, Axios reported that 25 of Georgia’s 34 GOP state senators sent Perdue a letter in November pleading with him to join them in “endorsing and supporting” Kemp for reelection. 

Five months out from the GOP primary, it’s hard to know how Perdue’s Trump endorsement will play in a newly minted battleground state that Biden won narrowly in 2020. “If Brian Kemp can easily dispatch David Perdue, maybe going into the general election, he’ll have a decent primary win under his belt and maybe with some of the soft Republicans or independent voters he’ll have this halo effect,” Coleman said in an interview.

Historically speaking, unseating an incumbent governor has always been extremely challenging. Here’s a fun fact to trip up your political junkie friends, per Sabato’s Crystal Ball: “Overall, just five governors have lost primaries since 1996 out of 179 who have sought renomination in even-numbered years.” 

That said, even in GOP gubernatorial primaries where incumbents are strongly favored to win reelection, Republican challengers—especially those endorsed by or aligned with Trump—still have the potential to shake up the race. 

In Texas, for example, political observers have noted the rightward lurch from Gov Greg. Abbott after former state Sen. Don Huffines jumped in to challenge him. As the Texas Tribune reported in October, “Huffines, a wealthy business owner and former state senator from Dallas, said in an interview [in October] that he believes his campaign has been ‘extremely influential’ and ‘certainly the main reason — if not 100% of the reason — [Abbott’s] moved to the right, including all session last spring and the special sessions.’ ”  

Abbott is still favored to win reelection, with 53 percent of registered Texas voters approving of his job performance in a Quinnipiac University poll published December 8. (That same poll found him leading Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke by 15 points, with 90 percent of Republicans saying they support him.) 

Ahead of the general election, Coleman emphasized, it will be worth watching whether Republican candidates like Huffines gain enough traction to generate a high percentage of “protest votes” against Republican incumbents this gubernatorial cycle. The same goes for GOP gubernatorial candidate Jim Renacci—who ran unsuccessfully for a U.S. Senate in Ohio in 2018 and is now challenging Republican Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio—and Trump-endorsed Idaho gubernatorial candidate and Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, who is vying for Republican Gov. Brad Little’s seat. Little has not yet confirmed whether he plans to run for reelection.

Another interesting, albeit far less competitive, GOP gubernatorial primary is in Alabama, where two nontrivial GOP candidates have launched bids to unseat Republican Gov. Kay Ivey, one of the most popular incumbent governors in the country. Lindy Blanchard, a former ambassador to Slovenia under the Trump administration, abandoned her multimillion dollar U.S. Senate campaign earlier this month and announced that she is now running for governor. (In a strange turn of events, she’s also decided to rebrand herself as “Lindy” rather than “Lynda,” the name that was tied to her U.S. Senate campaign.) Blanchard reportedly met with Trump to discuss a potential endorsement.

Also competing for Ivey’s seat—and Trump’s endorsement—is road developer Tim James, the son of former Republican Gov. Fob James, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2002. “Trump is by far, without any close second, the leader of the Republican Party, and I believe it is highly probable that he won Georgia, Arizona, Michigan, and probably Wisconsin,” James told The Dispatch in October. 

Broadly speaking, Coleman thinks the high number of what he calls “at least somewhat credible” GOP incumbent challengers may simply be a function of higher political engagement in a post-Trump era, as evidenced by the shockingly high turnout in Virginia’s closely watched gubernatorial race last month. “I think we may be going into a time now where political engagement in off-year elections and presidential elections as well is just higher,” Coleman said. “So what’s naturally going to come from that? Well, you’re going to probably have more candidates running for office.”

Not to mention the fact that today’s political environment is simply abysmal for Democrats. With inflation as high as it is, and Joe Biden’s approval ratings and domestic agenda in the gutter, many presumptive Republican candidates are undoubtedly thinking: Why not run?

When it comes to D.C. holiday parties, rank speculation around 2024 is the equivalent of talking about the weather. And recently I’ve been hearing folks kicking the tires on Florida Gov. DeSantis, wondering if he can sustain his dominance in the GOP field. Here are my thoughts. 

Is DeSantis the Scott Walker of 2024?  

Echelon Insights—founded by Godmother to the Brisket Kristen Soltis Anderson and Friend of the Pod Patrick Ruffini—have been polling the 2024 GOP field for months now. As I’ve said before, it doesn’t tell me a lot about who is actually positioned to win in any contest—especially without knowing whether Trump is in or out—but it does tell me who GOP primary voters have heard of and who is getting the attention of conservative media. 

But is Icarus flying too close to the sun, a la former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker? 

From February through early June 2015, Walker led (61) or was tied in (15) in two-thirds of the (115) polls that FiveThirtyEight recorded. And yet he was out of the race by September 2015–out of money and barely registering above the margin of error in the polls. Tim Pawlenty suffered a similar fate in the 2012 cycle, dropping out in August of 2011 despite lots of buzz around his candidacy after 2008.

But neither Walker nor Pawlenty ever had any polling that looked like this. Sure, Walker led in dozens of polls for months—by single digits. In fact, the largest lead he ever had against the field was 6 points. DeSantis is 18 points ahead of Pence—the former vice president with near universal name ID. And while Pawlenty captured the hearts of donors after 2008, he didn’t catch fire with actual voters. Pawlenty never broke out of single digits in any poll, and he was often polling at 1 and 2 percent.

So where does that leave DeSantis? Nowhere. Because DeSantis can’t make any decision about whether to run until he knows whether Trump is in. DeSantis is young—43 years old (or exactly half the age Joe Biden would be at the end of a second term in 2028)—and popular with the base. Why spend months being beat up by Donald Trump as the underdog when you could wait it out a cycle in the Tallahassee governor’s mansion until 2026 with two years to gear up for a 2028 run?

We’re going to try out a new section of this newsletter with a mini dive into a race you may not have heard about yet and why we’re putting it on our 2022 watch list. Audrey is kicking us off this week in Arizona. 

Midterm Spotlight: Tanya Wheeless

The Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission is gearing up for a Wednesday map deadline that will determine the fate of the state’s congressional incumbents. One race we’re keeping a close eye on is Arizona’s 9th Congressional District, where Democratic Rep. Greg Stanton is likely facing a credible challenge from GOP candidate Tanya Wheeless, who formerly served as deputy chief of staff to Republican Sen. Martha McSally.

We’ve heard from several Republican consultants and operatives that Wheeless’ campaign is striking a far less Trumpy tone than the generic MAGA-centric candidate kickoff ads that dominate today’s GOP campaign landscape. Check out her campaign announcement video, in which Wheeless—whose mother immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico—casts Arizona as the land of opportunity. “Unlike every other Republican video that you see for Congress, [U.S.] Senate, governor or whatever, she’s not angry,” said Arizona-based GOP consultant Barrett Marson in an interview. 

“There are a couple issues where she throws a bit of red meat to the base,” Marson said, referencing her contempt for “career politicians” and cancel culture. “Otherwise, it’s like, ‘Arizona’s a beautiful place. I love it here. We can do better, but it’s so great here,’ ” Marson continued. 

Stanton may have defeated his GOP opponent by 23 points in 2020, but redistricting renders his political future uncertain. “People are just kind of right now writing it off, but Stanton could probably be in some trouble depending on how they redraw those lines,” Lorna Romero, who served as legislative director for former Republican Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona from 2011 to 2015, told The Dispatch back in September. Republicans, for their part, are already on the offensive: Following Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin’s win in Virginia last month, the NRCC placed Stanton’s district—along with 12 other Democratic incumbents—on its list of new targets for 2022.

That said, Wheeless is still trailing Stanton in the fundraising department. According to FEC filings, Stanton has raised $668,286.09 this year as of last quarter and has $1.3 million in cash on hand compared to Wheeless, who has raised only $207,713 by comparison.

“One of the things that will be very interesting to watch for the low-information voter—if you Google her and look at her picture, she looks an awful lot like Kari Lake,” Marson said in reference to the Trump-endorsed GOP candidate for governor in Arizona.

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.