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Primary Round-Up: 6/14

Texas-34 (GOP Success in South Texas)

Last night concluded the closely-watched special election campaign in Texas-34, a seat that runs north along the Gulf Coast from the heart of the Rio Grande Valley to the greater San Antonio area. Republican Mayra Flores defeated Democratic attorney Dan Sanchez 51-43.3%, avoiding a runoff in this Biden +4 district. She will be the first Mexican-born woman to serve in the nation’s lower chamber. The heavily-Hispanic 34th was formerly held by Democrat Filemon Vela, an overperforming incumbent who resigned earlier this year to become a lobbyist.

Split Ticket hit the nail on the head with a Leans Republican rating that corresponded well to the 52.5-47.5% GOP advantage in the partisan composite vote. We also correctly predicted that Flores would surpass the 50% threshold needed to win outright (she’s at 51% as of this writing). Although our expectations proved correct, it is worth nothing that they were neither controversial nor out of step with conventional wisdom.

Given the lackluster political environment for Democrats, President Biden’s sagging approvals, and Trump’s strong 2020 performance South Texas, most analysts expected Flores to comfortably win. In addition to those conditional boons, Flores benefitted from the fact that national Republicans diverted more attention to her race than their Democratic counterparts.

Sanchez was outspent 10-1, a significant ratio in a region where spending is critical to fruitful voter outreach. Perhaps more attention from the DCCC could have forced Flores into a runoff, but the ultimate outcome likely still would have broken in the GOP’s favor.

This district, like much of South Texas, is traditionally Democratic. Even with the continuously-favorable Republican trends that manifested themselves in last night’s returns, the Democrats’ residual down-ballot strength was still partly observable. In sparsely-populated Kenedy County, for instance, the vote was tied by partisan makeup. Kenedy was Trump +32, Vela +8 in 2020 – so last night’s results are not shocking or bad for Republicans. Jim Wells was another county in which the combined Democratic vote exceeded Biden’s 2020 share, albeit narrowly.

But Republicans posted starker improvements in critical Cameron and Hidalgo counties, suggesting that down-ballot Democratic strength, while still present, is evaporating in this political environment. Change in Cameron, the 34th’s most populated county, was particularly strong. The GOP took 52% of the vote there compared to Trump’s mere 43% in 2020.

Of course, there are also major caveats to note before extrapolating anything earthshattering from those results. The most important equivocation is certainly turnout. Rural Hispanic turnout is historically weak, especially in midterm cycles. By extension, an off cycle special election is essentially the perfect storm for poor voter participation. Only 28,000 votes were counted in yesterday’s race, a relatively small sample of the electorate all things considered. One must also keep in mind that the Democratic campaign arm basically ignored this race, leaving Sanchez out to dry.

The aforementioned stipulations are not an attempt to discount Republican victory, since Democrats would have almost certainly still lost a hypothetical runoff even if they had spent here. They are rather expressed to urge caution in making wider conclusions. Last night showed that Republicans continue to make visible gains in South Texas and that assumptions about a GOP national environment are well-founded.

The 9 point rightward shift in partisan composition did not, however, indicate a total collapse of Democratic support in the region. Perhaps our initial thoughts on Republicans doing better in South Texas than elsewhere in the country this November will prove false. Either way, Split Ticket would like to stress that while this result is excellent news for Republicans, it’s best to limit its perceived implications to South Texas alone.

Now that Flores is the victor, she will have a few months of incumbency. This November, she is set to face Democratic Congressman Vicente Gonzalez in the redrawn 34th. That district is Biden +15, but the presidential partisan lean is not the best indicator of its true competitiveness in this environment. Since the March primary, Split Ticket has rated this race Leans Democratic. If this fall’s results are similar to the special election’s, Gonzalez will be favored to hold the new seat by a slim single-digit margin. That result would align with our current rating.

Looking at South Texas as a whole, Republican fortunes still appear rosy. The Trump-won 15th district, rated Likely Republican, is expected to comfortably back Monica de la Cruz. To the west, a nail-biter Tossup race is brewing between controversial conservative incumbent Henry Cuellar and Republican challenger Cassy Garcia. Cuellar’s runoff win stopped us from moving the 28th to Leans Republican, but his residual appeal might not be enough to save him this year.

The 34th could also end up as a Tossup by November depending on how the campaign runs its course, though we’re not there just yet. Flores will need to replenish her depleted warchest as she prepares to face Gonzalez, a well-funded incumbent who abandoned the 15th district to seek safer territory. A Flores reelection might be unlikely at this point, but it is not at all out of the question if the environment continues to worsen for Democrats.

This Flores vs. Gonzalez race is the second member-on-member general election occurring in this redistricting cycle. The other is a Safe Republican race in the redrawn FL-02 between (R) Neal Dunn & (D) Al Lawson.

Maine

In Maine’s 2nd district, former Congressman Bruce Poliquin secured the GOP nomination to face moderate Democrat Jared Golden in the fall. He bested right-wing opponent Elizabeth Caruso 61-39%, a somewhat unimpressive margin. He stands a good chance of flipping the rural, Trump +6 seat in northern Maine in the fall if the environment breaks hard enough in the GOP’s favor.

This race stays Tossup for now because Golden is an extraordinary Democrat who generated uncanny levels of crossover support in 2020. Poliquin is not an exceptional candidate, but he is good enough to win in a Biden midterm with gubernatorial nominee Paul LePage dominating his district at the top of the ticket. We’d like to see more data, particularly polling evidence, before moving this one into the GOP column this early on.

Nevada

Both of Nevada’s statewide races ended up going as expected. Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo won the Gubernatorial nomination with roughly 40% of the vote. Attorney Joey Gilbert took 28%, accentuating a north-south geographic divide between Clark and Washoe counties. Embarrassingly, former Senator Dean Heller received only 14% of the statewide vote. Lombardo was generally considered the most redoubtable general election contender. He now enters a Tossup race against Governor Steve Sisolak.

The GOP Senate primary was equally-predictable. Former Attorney General and 2018 Gubernatorial nominee Adam Laxalt secured the nomination 56-34% over Sam Brown. Laxalt, the descendant of U.S. Senators Paul Laxalt and Pete Domenici, had former President Trump’s endorsement. He will now face off against the late Democrat Harry Reid’s hand-picked successor: Senator Catherine Cortez Masto. Like the other statewide contests, the high-stakes Senate race is rated Tossup.

Nevada had some interesting Congressional primaries too. Incumbents Dina Titus (D-NV01) and Mark Amodei (R-NV02) defeated their fringe opponents Amy Vilela and Danny Tarkanian. Vilela’s loss was particularly-large, with Titus securing over 80% of the vote in her redrawn district.

Republican nominees were also decided in competitive districts 1, 3, and 4. Each of these single-digit Biden seats takes in part of Las Vegas and its surrounding turf, giving the GOP a chance to run the gamut 4-0 if everything breaks in its favor. For now, though, Split Ticket rates districts 1 and 4 Leans Democratic (though they could shift rightward). The 3rd is a Tossup, and will likely be the easiest carry for Republicans.

In the 1st, retired Army Colonel Mark Robertson surprised us by winning his primary with 30% of the vote. He defeated Carolina Serrano, political operative David Brog, ex-judge Cynthia Steel, and former Congressman Cresent Hardy. Robertson faces Dina Titus in the fall.

Republicans got their ideal nominee in the 3rd, where mainstream conservative April Becker took almost 2/3rds of the vote against myriad opponents on her right. Becker will be taking on Susie Lee, the Democrat who succeeded Jackie Rosen in 2018.

In the 4th, perhaps the least likely Democratic-held seat to flip at the moment, NV GOP-endorsed candidate Sam Peters won the nomination after a competitive primary battle against Stefanik-endorsed Assemblywoman Annie Black. The incumbent here is Steven Horsford, a man who has served two stints in Congress.

South Carolina

President Trump had two horses in the running in the Palmetto State: Katie Arrington (SC-01) and Russell Fry (SC-07). Congressman William Timmons (SC-04) also posted a relatively-weak primary performance.

In the 1st district, incumbent Republican Nancy Mace avoided a runoff and won renomination 53-45%. The backbones of her victory were Charleston and Beaufort counties, which she won 63-37% and 53-46% respectively. The latter had been Arrington +11 in 2018, but most of that vote seemed to just be anti-Sanford in hindsight. Arrington’s best county was Berkeley, which she won 50-47%. Ultimately she did not do well enough in Charleston, Beaufort, or Berkeley to win. Despite losing out, the ex-President congratulated Mace on a hard-fought win after the result was certified. Safe Republican

Trump’s birthday present was realized in the northeastern 7th district, primarily based in Horry County (Myrtle Beach). Incumbent Republican Tom Rice voted for the former President’s second impeachment on grounds of integrity, an act that now seems responsible for his political demise. Trump-endorsed State Representative Russell Fry won 51-25%, humiliating the incumbent. Rice graciously conceded after having been fried without need for a runoff election. The Trump sentiment does run stronger-than-average in the 7th, but David Valadao’s weak performance in CA-22 suggests that other impeachment Republicans could be in more trouble than expected over the coming months. Safe Republican

The Greenville/Spartanburg-based 4th district is no friend to incumbents that it perceives as being insufficiently-conservative. Congressman William Timmons avoided a runoff against pastor Mark Burns with just over 52% of the vote. He had previously voted against impeachment and the Jan. 6th commission, so there was really no “cardinal sin” on his record. 2010 served as historical precedent to some extent. That year, incumbent Republican Bob Inglis lost his primary runoff 70-30% to Trey Gowdy after coming out in favor of Cap and Trade legislation. Safe Republican

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