The 5 Most Consequential Primary Races of 2022
Winter is coming ... this summer in Alaska and Wyoming.
General elections are for common folk. You know, regular people.
Because we live in a two-party dominant system, the arguments waged in general elections are streamlined and the voting patterns are largely partisan and predictable. Most anybody can cruise their way through a conversation about a general election, no matter how passively interested or ill-informed. General is literally the root word for … generalists!
But primaries … oh primaries are uncomfortable family feuds where rivalries run more personal and bruises last longer. The distinctions are trickier and there’s often more than two people in the fray. This not only makes them more fun, but instructive. Primaries tell us about the animating arguments beating inside the heart of each party. They pry open and pick at its weakness, risking the health of the entire organism. They test just how far candidates and their hired guns will go to bury one of their own. They gauge a person’s willingness and ability to reconcile, heal and then unite.
They’re sticky and notoriously harder to poll.
And obviously, they’re earlier — which means you need to prepare sooner and be engaged longer if you’re really going to get their ins-and-outs. Hence, why the first post of my beautiful, dark, twisted Substack-life is primary-focused.
Before you evaluate any authoritative list of the most important political races of the 2022 midterms, be sure to note if they’re incorporating the primary match-ups that precede the main event in November. You can’t really have a handle on the latter piece of the puzzle until you properly understand the former.
There will be ample time to dive into much deeper detail of particular primary races as time goes on. But as a jump starter, people love lists! And let’s be honest, you’re still hungover from New Years (or is that Omicron!?).
So let’s keep this focused and straightforward and present the 5 most consequential primary races you need to know about as 2022 — the year of our Ye — commences.
(Listed in descending order of consequence)
5. TEXAS, March 1st: (R) Attorney General Ken Paxton vs. George P. Bush vs. Louie Gohmert vs. Eva Guzman
Is Ken Paxton bulletproof?
Despite being under indictment for securities fraud since 2015, the Texas attorney general went on to win his re-election by 4 points in 2018, a banner year for Democrats.
Now as he pursues a third term in 2022 as the state’s chief law enforcement official, Paxton’s also facing an FBI investigation into whether he committed bribery to help a wealthy donor.
The mere fact that a trio of well-known Republican candidates have decided to challenge him is evidence of blood in the water.
Or is it?
Paxton may still hold the silver bullet by wielding the endorsement of one Donald J. Trump.
The presence of a Bush in the race — Land Commissioner George P., the 45-year-old son of Jeb — gives this downballot skirmish a special electric glow.
The late entrance of Rep. Louie Gohmert, the ardent Trump ally who filed one of the failed lawsuits to overturn the 2020 presidential election results, adds an even quirkier dynamic.
Gohmert is abandoning a safe House seat in northeast Texas to try to convince conservatives that Paxton is a risk to keeping the seat in GOP hands.
On his campaign site, Gohmert warns:
“Keep in mind, under Texas law, if someone wins a Texas primary, and is indicted after the primary, his name cannot be removed from the ballot.”
But Paxton’s already been indicted and Texas voters have essentially shrugged and sent him back to work.
The outcome of the 2015 Trump- (Jeb!) Bush spat rearranged the power pieces for the next decade of national politics.
If Paxton survives (a May 24 runoff is required if no candidate breaks 50%) and exterminates this latest attempt at a Bush revival, chalk up another embarrassment for a family that used to hold a dynastic grip on The Lone Star State.
Given the Trump factor, the Bush name and the extraordinary legal position of Paxton, the victor of this bout will receive special attention at the early opening of the 2022 primary season.
4. PENNSYLVANIA, May 17th: Lt. Gov. John Fetterman vs. Rep. Conor Lamb vs. State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta vs. Val Arkoosh for the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination
Politicos had assumed the fight for the Democratic nomination to replace retiring Republican Sen. Pat Toomey was mostly a 2-man affair between the hulking, bald media-friendly progressive, John Fetterman and the trim, more subdued, Kennedyesque-manicured moderate, Rep. Conor Lamb.
Then, just before the holidays, Malcolm Kenyatta — a third candidate who is Black, gay and just 31 — crashed that narrative by dropping an internal poll showing it is he who is in second place to Fetterman, the front-running Democrat who had the earliest jump into the contest last February.
As the only candidate having appeared on statewide ballots for lieutenant governor in 2018 and U.S. Senate in 2016, Fetterman still looks like the Goliath biker bar bouncer being chased by the lesser knowns.
But there’s now an inkling that it’s Kenyatta — and not Lamb — who is the larger threat for an longshot upset.
Lamb’s team is “overplaying the hand that Pennsylvania voters want a more Bidenesque moderate,” says one Democratic operative from the state who has managed campaigns, whereas the Philadelphia-based Kenyatta has demographics and geography on his side.
What Kenyatta doesn’t have, at the moment, is enough money. He’s raised only $1.2 million in total and ended September with just $300,000 in the bank.
That’s not enough to win in a state as vast as Pennsylvania — so he’ll need considerable outside help, a negative assault to injure Fetterman and a few more lucky breaks to pull it together.
What’s most interesting is that while on paper Lamb looks like the best profile to follow in the footsteps of Pennsylvania’s even-keeled senators of Toomey, Bob Casey and Arlen Specter, he currently looks like one of the longest shots to get there.
In what’s likely to be an onerous year for Democrats, whichever nominee emerges could end up in the high-stakes position to save the Senate for their party.
3. ALASKA, Aug. 16th: (R) Sen. Lisa Murkowski vs. Kelly Tshibaka vs. ?
The dead of summer night of August 16th is shaping up to be most consequential primary date on all of the 2022 calendar.
It will play host to two megawatt races in small, less understood states that will demonstrate just how gladiatorial Donald Trump’s power remains inside the Republican Party.
One is in Alaska, where a 2020 ballot initiative which changed the primary system makes the calculation even more precarious in a place most national reporters haven’t stepped foot in. (Disclosure: I spent time in Alaska in 2010 to chronicle Lisa Murkowski’s miraculous write-in campaign.)
Three-term Lisa Murkowski is the Republican senator Trump most wants defeated and he’s already lined up his blessing and team behind Kelly Tshibaka, a former state administration commissioner.
The wrinkle here is Alaska’s new system where all candidates, regardless of party, will run together on the same Aug. 16 ballot. The top four move on to the general, where ranked choice voting will be applied.
This means it’s virtually impossible that Murkowski will “lose” her primary. But her placing and percentage will go a long way to tell us whether she can survive the November general election amid Trump’s wrath.
There’s no Democratic candidate in the race yet, but the Alaska Democratic Party is actively trying to recruit State Sen. Elvi Gray-Jackson, an African-American, who served in Anchorage municipal government before ascending to the legislature.
The level of success of Gray-Jackson’s candidacy — or that of any Democrat — is crucial for Murkowski, given she’ll need a substantial amount of Democrats to overcome Tshibaka’s MAGAfied support base.
“The only group of voters she’s right side up with Democrats,” said a Republican operative working against Murkowski. “So when a real Democrat enters, who actually supports Lisa Murkowski on their first choice?”
In the general election, voters will rank the four candidates, 1 through 4. If no candidate tops the 50% marker in the November election, the fourth place finisher is eliminated and his or her votes are reallocated to the other three based on the voters rankings.
Hit 50% + 1 and you’ve got a winner.
Thing is, Murkowski’s never gotten to 50% in her prior races. In 2016, she scored 45%. In 2010, it was just 39% — still remarkable for a write-in effort after losing her primary to Joe Miller.
You have to go back to 2004 when she even came close, with 49%.
Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated the new ranked choice voting system.
2. GEORGIA, May 24th: (R) Gov. Brian Kemp vs. David Perdue
The hardest feat to accomplish in all of politics is to defeat a governor in a primary.
But it does happen about once a midterm cycle. (In 2018, it was Kansas’ Jeff Colyer who fell to firebrand Kris Kobach, who is the reason there’s a Democrat occupying the Jayhawk state’s governor’s mansion today. Thanks to J. Miles Coleman for the reminder.)
But Georgia is no ordinary intraparty spat.
Trump has been out to decapitate Gov. Brian Kemp, ever since he resisted Trump’s call to overturn Georgia’s presidential election result. Perdue, the former single-term senator ousted in last year’s runoffs by about 55,000 votes, initially eyed a rematch for his old seat. Then Trump came calling and the Mar-a-Lago brute force charm offensive took hold.
But as much as No. 45 looms over a fight that will split Peach State Republicans, the more significant question is whether the throw-down will hand the governorship to Stacey Abrams, who lost the 2018 race by about … 55,000 votes (almost the identical margin of Perdue’s 2021 runoff loss.)
If Perdue dislodges Kemp but then falls to Abrams, Trump will be blamed, much as he was for the 2021 result. If Kemp survives and loses to Abrams, there’s another case to hold Trump culpable for a Georgia loss.
Sometimes the thorns tossed during primaries are overhyped. Many a politician has undergone a brutal primary fight to win the general. But if Trump wages a sore loser campaign against a renominated Kemp, it’ll be one of his most consequential decisions of next fall.
The upside for Georgia Republicans is their primary is relatively early, giving Kemp and Perdue the summer to kiss and make up.
But as you well know, Georgia’s fond of runoffs.
If neither Kemp nor Perdue gets to 50%+1 on May 24 — (there is a third candidate, former Democrat turned Trump-backing Vernon Jones) — they’ll go at it for an extra 28 days.
1. WYOMING, AUG. 16th: (R) Rep. Liz Cheney vs. Harriet Hageman
Observing Liz Cheney over the last several weeks, there’s a part of me that believes she’s resigned to her fate, but has decided to use her last year in Congress as a play for history against former President Trump’s dystopian attempt at a purge of our democratic society.
After a year of voting to impeach Trump, losing her House leadership post and being unrecognized by her own home state party, she could’ve decided to assume a lower profile and — like fellow Trump nemesis Mitch McConnell — stuck to a script of attacking Democrats for spending and inflation in a play for penance.
Instead, she’s decided to poke the bear. Her reading of Jan. 6 text messages from Fox News hosts — who were revealed to be just as privately outraged by the mayhem and violence during the Capitol riot as any other sane citizen — only inflamed her Republican foes.
Cheney’s performing a rare political act right now: Speaking tough truths with little regard for her own future.
As a daughter of a former vice president, Cheney is her own brand in our nation’s politics. But if you think other brands still matter in the current Trumpublican Party, I’d refer you to what Trump did to the Bushes. (Yes, Jeb, but remember Billy too!)
Still, her attempt at survival against a herculean Trump-led campaign to defeat her tees up the most consequential primary of the year. Harriet Hageman is the name of her opponent — but if it was Bjork would it matter more than the seal of Trump’s endorsement inside a Republican primary?
Ok, maybe. It is Wyoming, where they ride for the brand!
Either outcome has monstrous consequences, for Trump, for those who dare to defy him going forward.
Right now, it looks like advantage Hageman.
The earliest polls have already shown Cheney trailing, with less than a quarter of Republicans saying they’ll vote to re-elect her. If that holds, in one-party Wyoming, Cheney will need thousands of Democratic votes to survive.
The bigger surprise would be if she manages to pull it off.