In Wisconsin, Trump-backed businessman Tim Michels won the GOP gubernatorial against former Lt. Governor Rebecca Kleefisch 47-42%. Timothy Ramthun finished third with just 6% of the vote. Going into this election, Split Ticket respectably issued an ultimately-incorrect LEANS KLEEFISCH rating. But why?
Before any ballots were counted in Tuesday, most election analysts expected the gubernatorial nominating coalition to mirror that of the 2018 GOP Senate primary. While that WOW vs. rural dichotomy held up to some extent in this contest, urban and suburban Republicans did not give Kleefisch the margins that she needed to win.
Perhaps suggesting changing times in the WOW counties, Washington voted for Michels while Waukesha and Ozaukee backed Kleefisch. For now, Michels nomination does not change the fact that the November general election against Democratic incumbent Tony Evers is a TOSSUP.
In a defeat for the moderate New England wing of the Republican Party, the establishment favorites in both Connecticut and Vermont lost to semi-anonymous challengers from the Trump wing. In Connecticut, former House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, a moderate who refused to vote for Donald Trump in 2020, was defeated by the Trump-endorsed Leora Levy. But this was not as surprising of a defeat as the upset in the Vermont GOP primary, where former US Attorney Christina Nolan, a moderate Republican who had the backing of the entire GOP establishment from Phil Scott to Mitch McConnell, lost to Gerald Malloy.
Both races are rated as SAFE DEMOCRATIC in November, with incumbent Richard Blumenthal set to cruise to victory in Connecticut and congressman Peter Welch poised to win Vermont’s Senate seat. The primary thus has no real national implications; however, it serves as one more reminder of the hollowing-out of the moderate Republican wing that once dominated New England politics, and the primary upsets reflect the increasing decline in regionalism. Twenty years ago, such a result would have been unthinkable. Now, it may very well be the new norm moving forward.
In Wisconsin, meanwhile, Mandela Barnes will face off against Ron Johnson in November in a race we have rated at LEANS REPUBLICAN. This race very well could shift to tossup if recent Democratic gains hold and Johnson’s popularity fails to recover — however, for now, we are giving Republicans the edge due to Johnson’s incumbency and Wisconsin’s high concentration of rural, non-college voters, a demographic that Democrats have cratered with of late.
Last night, Republicans won a special election in Minnesota’s 1st district by a lower-than-expected margin. The slim victory complemented an earlier race in Nebraska’s 1st in which the GOP also underperformed. Both contests, along with aggregate generic ballot polling and previous Split Ticket research, suggest that the national environment is currently less Republican than it was before the Dobbs decision.
Before discussing the MN-01 results in detail, though, a quick look will be taken at Tuesday’s contested House primaries for which predictions were offered. To briefly recap, it should be noted that elections were held in the states of Vermont, Connecticut, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.
The most notable House nomination contest occurred on the Democratic side in Minnesota’s 5th district, based predominantly in Hennepin County. In that contest, progressive Congresswoman Ilhan Omar secured renomination just 50-48% against ex-Minneapolis Councillor Don Samuels. The data show that her victory was ultimately powered by a 12 point advantage in the city proper.
Map courtesy of Armin Thomas
While most observers expected Omar to avoid a hotly-contested primary, including Split Ticket, it is less surprising that Samuels kept the race close in hindsight. Compared to fellow members of the so-called “squad”, Omar has visibly underperformed in past primaries and general elections. In 2020, for instance, she was renominated with just 58% of the vote and later underperformed fundamentals more than any other incumbent Democrat according to in-house research.
While it is difficult, if not impossible, to attribute Omar’s narrow margin of victory to any single factor, there are a few that are worth noting. The most prominent is the fact that Omar’s campaign neglected television advertising because, considering it unnecessary to win younger voters. Intraparty chafing in Minneapolis has also been pointed to as a cause for vulnerability; Mayor Jacob Frey endorsed against the incumbent earlier this year.
Given Split Ticket’s prior analysis of extreme politicians taking electoral penalties at the ballot box, there is a strong possibility that Omar will underperform fundamentals in November despite not being at risk of losing her SAFE DEMOCRATIC seat. However, weak primary numbers indicate that a more serious challenger could knock her out in 2024.
In Vermont-At Large and Wisconsin-3, frontrunning state senators Becca Balint and Brad Pfaff secured Democratic nominations, just as Split Ticket predicted. Balint is running to succeed Senate nominee Pete Welch in a SAFE DEMOCRATIC race, whereas Pfaff is currently an underdog against retread Derrick Van Orden in the contest to replace retiring Democrat Ron Kind that is now rated LIKELY REPUBLICAN (flip).
The special election in Minnesota’s 1st district was surprising for multiple reasons, with the Democratic overperformance relative to expectations being the most compelling. Going into the contest, Split Ticket decided to move the seat onto the board at LIKELY REPUBLICAN. While that call ended up being on the conservative side, it was nonetheless a wise way to avoid forecasting a close race as uncompetitive like we did with NE-01 in July.
Map courtesy of J. Miles Coleman & Sabato’s Crystal Ball
The best way to understand results from a particular constituency is to understand that district itself. A map from political analyst J. Miles Coleman at Sabato’s Crystal Ball is provided above that shows MN-01 as it has existed since the 2010 redistricting cycle. The grouping breaks the seat’s 2012 and 2020 presidential results down into three distinct political families.
Group 2 (purple) covers four counties running along the Iowa border. This part of Minnesota is coterminous with the Driftless Area, a region that Split Ticket has written about multiple times previously. As we have mentioned, this turf abandoned its long-held Republican leanings during the 1980s farm crisis but returned to the GOP during the Trump-era.
Why is this group instructive? It tells the story of MN-01’s overall partisan lean and is critical to understanding where the Democrats made up previous ground in Tuesday’s special. As that set of counties shifted into the Obama-Trump category, so did the district as a whole (Obama +2 to Trump +15). 2020 saw the former President carry it by only 10 points, confirming that a modest realignment in the Republican direction had occurred.
Despite that, Democrats have maintained a visible down ballot advantage in this seat in the last few House elections. Almost all of that Trump-era holdover support should be attributed to candidate quality. In 2016, long-time Democratic incumbent and current Governor Tim Walz narrowly won reelection while Trump swamped his seat at the top of the ticket. Another capable candidate, Dan Feehan, narrowly lost here in 2018 and 2020.
It is not controversial to say, then, that Democrats’ choice of ex-Hormel Foods CEO Jeffrey Ettinger, a strong candidate in his own right, probably contributed to their solid performance. That does not mean that Republican nominee Brad Finstad was a bad candidate himself, he was by all accounts quite normal, but rather suggests that Democrats benefitted themselves by running a centered, well-funded candidate in a red district where nominee quality can impact margin. (NE-01 Ds also had a good recruit)
Table produced in-house for Split Ticket
Compared to the 2020 presidential results in the district, Finstad’s 51-47% margin constituted a visible underperformance. However, looking at the available data by county is a more instructive way to analyze the outcome. Generally speaking, the numbers show that Ettinger’s largest marginal improvements were recorded in more-populated counties like Olmstead (Rochester). Put another way, Democratic enthusiasm was highest among well-educated, high-propensity urban and suburban voters.
Map courtesy of Max McCall
Like in NE-01, where Lancaster County (Lincoln) punched above its weight in terms of proportional turnout, MN-01’s bluest county also played a larger role on Tuesday night. Olmstead’s relative turnout share increased by four points, from 24% to 28% of the total vote. Voter participation does not explain clear swings on its own, but it is still critical to account for in context.
Other Notes (MN-01):
- The Legal Marijuana Now vote usually poses a slight burden for Minnesota Democrats. While a significant contingent of the pro-weed electorate probably would not vote for either major party, a case can be made for the argument that most of LMN votes would go to Democrats if they had to be reallocated. The party’s share was only 1.3% of the vote on Tuesday, far less than the 5% figure it posted during the 2020 cycle.
- Had Jennifer Carnahan been the GOP nominee, the Republican margin of victory likely would have been smaller, and Democrats could have actually won outright with a candidate like Ettinger. Having an innocuous nominee like Finstad was a definite boon.
- Because the November election will be occurring in a similar, albeit slightly-bluer seat, Split Ticket will be shifting MN-01 to LIKELY REPUBLICAN. General-level turnout should benefit Finstad significantly.
This result is a further confirmation of a bluer shift in the electorate following the Dobbs v. Jackson ruling, a phenomenon that we first wrote about three weeks ago. It is now the second consecutive special election where Democrats have outperformed Joe Biden’s 2020 margins in, and it comes on the heels of them taking the lead over Republicans in the generic ballot for the first time since November of 2021. Any one of these indicators could be dismissed on their own, but when taken in conjunction with each other, the Washington primary results, and the unpopularity of the Dobbs decision, the strong indication is that there is a signal underlying it all, and it has shown no signs of abating recently.
This, however, is not to say that it cannot change. As Nathaniel Rakich of FiveThirtyEight notes, the president’s party has lost ground in the polls between August and November in every midterm cycle between 2006 and 2018. If a similar phenomenon were to happen this time, the eventual electoral picture would probably end up at an R+2. This scenario would still not exactly be a Republican wave, and such a result would still give Democrats a chance to keep the Senate, but it would almost certainly put the House out of reach for them, whereas they would have an outside shot under a neutral environment. Observing how the polls hold up will be of great interest over the next month as a result, especially as pollsters begin to shift the electorate polls to those of likely voters.
Beyond polling, we have a couple more special elections coming up in New York that may provide extra data on the environment overall. While Split Ticket is hesitant to make overarching judgements from special elections, the data we have suggests that the NY-19 special election at the end of the month may very well be closer than we initially expected. It is currently rated LEANS REPUBLICAN and will be touched on in greater detail in a separate article next weekend. The returns in that upstate New York seat should provide a clearer picture of the GOP’s position in marginal Biden seats.