Notes for the Week of January 23rd
My weekly look at politics from the 2024 Senate outlook the RNC Chairwoman fight to rising stars in both parties
In 2021, a photo of freshmen Reps. Ashley Hinson (R-Iowa), Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), and Stephanie Bice (R-Okla.) going to vote at the Capitol together prompted some social media discussion of a counter-“Squad” — the group of high profile far left Democrats of color that had received so much attention in their first term. And while incendiary far right Reps. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) have drawn more attention than any of the other Republican women who captured seats in 2020, I’ve always found the trio of Hinson, Mace, and Bice far more interesting.
All three knocked off Democratic incumbents in 2020. Hinson is 39, Mace is 45, and Bice is 49. In a smart party, they’d be the future. But a fascinating thing has happened in recent months: after their districts got redrawn, all three women got reelected — Bice and Mace comfortably in districts where they’ll probably be safe for a long time. Now, there is a caveat regarding Mace: a federal district court has ruled her district is now an illegal racial gerrymander, so it may get more challenging for her in 2024 (the ultimate outcome probably hinges on a Supreme Court ruling coming later in the term on the rules surrounding what constitutes a racial gerrymander, and I expect the Court to significantly narrow what qualifies). But Bice won by almost 22 points and Mace won by 14. Meanwhile, Hinson won by just over 8 points, a much narrower margin.
Yet, in the first weeks of the new Congress, we’ve seen Mace critique her own party on numerous topics — including the hottest button issues like abortion and immigration. I have some skepticism about anything Mace says, because she started her first term by strongly criticizing January 6th, before lurching in a Trump-y direction when she drew a primary challenger and faced blowback in her district. But she does seem to have pivoted back toward the center. And Bice is the Republican lead in a working group trying to devise a viable, bipartisan paid leave program.
Hinson, on the other hand — the one of the three in the most naturally competitive district, hasn’t departed from the party line on anything of significance (she and Mace supported the Respect for Marriage Act in December, while Bice did not, but that seems more like a generational thing than a departure from Republican orthodoxy).
Now Hinson has generated leadership buzz, and her mentor Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) told Politico last summer that she was a ‘“potential senator or governor in Iowa, without a doubt.”’ So it’s possible that she’s thinking more broadly about the politics in Iowa — which has lurched rightward over the last decade — or about the politics of the GOP conference, which are decidedly inhospitable to any sort of moderation.
But the dichotomy is interesting, and offers good insight into the culture of the GOP and its problems moving forward. Bice and Mace seem more more attuned to developing a conservatism that might be palatable to their own generation of voters — one that seeks common ground and aims to address national problems. Hinson’s caution and adherence to the party line, by contrast, may be what positions one to advance in the party. The problem is, if the GOP doesn’t eventually sound more like Bice and Mace do right now, it’s going to have a massive electoral problem…
Several leading Race Raters are out with their initial Senate ratings for 2024. We already knew the map isn’t particularly hospitable for Democrats — just by virtue of how many seats they have to defend and how few targets they have.
I basically agree with most of the ratings. I’d side with the Crystal Ball in saying that Joe Manchin’s West Virginia seat leans Republican. I do think he could beat the carpetbagging Rep. Alex Mooney — when you’ve run for office in multiple states without a real convincing reason as to why it should render you unelectable — but unless Republicans screw up their nomination process again, Kyle Kondik’s rationale for why Manchin starts as an underdog is sound. It’s a stark reminder of just how far West Virginia has moved over the past 30 years — it voted for Michael Dukakis in 1988 even as he was getting blown out nationally, and as late as 2010, 4 of the 5 members of the state’s congressional delegation were Democrats — and liberal Democrats at that.
I’d place both Michigan’s Open Seat and the seat of Pennsylvania’s Bob Casey in the likely Democratic category. My rationale is the case I’ve presented in previous columns: Casey — who is battling cancer and hasn’t decided for sure to run again as he approaches treatment — has won his three elections by 17 points (against an incumbent senator no less!), 9 points and 13 points. And Republicans’ Pennsylvania problems run far deeper. It’s hard to see Casey losing unless we have a 1980 level Democratic wipeout, and there isn’t a lot of evidence that such an election is in the offing.
And in Michigan, yes, it’s an open seat. But Democrats have a very deep bench and they’ve won all but one U.S. Senate race in the state since 1972 — in the massive GOP wave election of 1994. Again, it’s not an impossible state for Republicans — but it would require a Republican blowout at the presidential level and maybe an ugly Democratic primary for it to happen.
The bottom line is Democrats are confronting a daunting cycle, one that has gotten more daunting with the mess in Arizona. But I don’t think it’s impossible for them to have a reasonably good cycle, in which either Manchin loses and they hold everything else, or in which they lose the Senate, but only by one seat, after Manchin loses and Republicans pick up a seat in either Arizona, Montana, or Ohio. Unlike the last time this cycle came up in 2018, Republicans have far fewer low hanging seats to grab.
In Montana, Jon Tester is a strong, battle tested incumbent — he won by four points in 2012 even as Barack Obama was losing the state by 14 points. And the two Republican representatives in the state, Matt Rosendale and Ryan Zinke, both of whom are thought to be eyeing the seat, have major weaknesses. Zinke’s tenure as Interior Secretary was whatever the opposite of distinguished is (Scandal tarred? Checkered? Embarrassing? Pick your adjective of choice!). And Rosendale is an extremist — one of the holdouts who refused to support Kevin McCarthy for speaker until he made massive concessions — who is also susceptible to charges of carpetbagging. Tester also just beat him in 2018, even as Republicans picked up four Senate seats in red states. Furthermore, it’s rare for someone to lose a Senate race and turn around and beat the same opponent 6 years later. And both Zinke and Rosendale won by underwhelming margins in 2022. The biggest risk for Democrats is that Tester may retire because there probably isn’t another Democrat who could hold the seat, absent unusual circumstances.
In Ohio, the picture of blurrier, but Sen. Sherrod Brown is a strong candidate and he has a history of outrunning the rest of the Democratic ticket in the state — in 2018, he ran ahead of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Richard Cordray by almost 7 points. And Ohio voters have recent history of ticket splitting: in 2022, Democratic Senate candidate Tim Ryan outran his party’s gubernatorial candidate Nan Whaley by 9.5 points. The cautionary note for Democrats would be twofold: first, in 2012, the only presidential election year in which Brown has run, he only outran Barack Obama by .2 percent. And in both 2016 and 2020, Donald Trump won the state by roughly 8 points. So if Brown outruns Joe Biden by 7 points, he could still lose narrowly.
If I had to make predictions today, I’d expect Manchin to lose, and only one of Brown or Tester to survive. Arizona is far too muddled to predict until we see if Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I) runs for reelection. We also need to see some three way polling in that race to see if Sinema or Rep. Ruben Gallego (D) has any shot in a three way race.
I also think it’s not impossible that Democrats manage to play offense somewhere. Both Sen. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley are incredibly polarizing figures, and Sen. Rick Scott has had nothing but brutally close elections for both governor and Senate. It seems possible that at least one of them faces a close race (maybe Cruz who did worse than other Republicans on the ballot in Texas in 2018). That being said, Democrats have been promising a resurgence in Texas for 20+ years without winning a single statewide race, so I’ll believe it when I see it.
Overall, if Joe Biden is losing, it could be a big Republican night in the Senate. But the cycle isn’t quite as bleak for Democrats as conventional wisdom says it is. One lesson of 2022 is that given our level of polarization, status quo elections will become more the norm, in which both parties pretty much hold their territory…
I’m not sure I see the end game for Republicans in the fight over raising the debt ceiling. If they think that Democrats are going to agree to drastically cut domestic discretionary spending in exchange for nothing more than raising the debt ceiling, they might be delusional. For a deal to work, each party has to get something it wants. Raising the debt ceiling, by contrast, is something that has to happen because of the potential economic consequences of not doing it, but it’s not achieving a Democratic goal, or really giving Democrats anything. So at a moment when they control the Senate and the White House, and Republicans only have the House, doing such a deal would be lunacy for Democrats. It would create massive blowback from their base — and rightfully so.
The problem for Speaker Kevin McCarthy is what exactly can he give Democrats to get them to commit to domestic spending cuts? Defense spending cuts? The hawkish wing of his party has already warned against such cuts. Tax increases on the wealthy? A non-starter with the GOP that for sure would cause a revolt from the right fringe of McCarthy’s caucus.
And his problem is now compounded by having three far right members on the House Rules Committee — which controls which bills get votes on the floor and under what rules. The appointment means that McCarthy either needs the support of those three members or some of the panel’s Democrats to get something onto the floor. Democratic leaders are sure to play hardball if they’d ever provide the votes to get out of the Rules Committee.
Maybe McCarthy could trade Democrats something that doesn’t cost anything monetarily, but it’s a struggle to see what that is given how far right the center of gravity of his caucus is on most cultural issues. The calculus on budget caps is also complicated by the fact that the GOP is going to insist on spending more money on border security. That would mean any plan to rollback domestic spending involves even more draconian cuts to everything from medical research to social welfare programs about which Democrats care a lot.
It’s also not clear if McCarthy can pass a debt limit increase through the House with all Republican votes — even one including big spending cuts. His margin is just that small and his conference that fractious. And without that, he doesn’t have a lot of leverage in talks with the White House and Senate Democrats.
Now McCarthy has time to come up with a plan or a workaround. But it sure seems this wasn’t the right fight for McCarthy — no matter how much his base might’ve wanted it. He’d have been far wiser to fight on issues like border security and crime, where the GOP might’ve had more popular support and which really animate their base. The two most likely outcomes of the standoff — the U.S. defaults, creating economic chaos and fierce political backlash or McCarthy capitulates and passes something with mostly Democratic votes that contains a fig leaf sort of concession — maybe some sort of commission to look at entitlement reform? — seem likely to create a political mess for the McCarthy…
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