Sen. Patrick Leahy’s Retirement Could Create a Domino Effect of 0pen Seats

Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy (D)

By Jim Ellis

Nov. 17, 2021 — Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy (D), the Senate President Pro Tempore and fifth longest-serving senator in American history, announced Monday that he would not seek a ninth term next year.

The decision was a surprise in that few expected the senator to do anything but run despite some cryptic comments he made earlier in the year. Sen. Leahy will retire as the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee after previously heading both the Agriculture and Judiciary Committees. He came to national prominence as the 10-year Judiciary Committee chairman.

As the Chittendon County State’s Attorney, Leahy first ran for the Senate as a little known underdog and was able to win a close general election in the Watergate year of 1974. In those days, Vermont was a Republican state. He was then re-elected in 1980, ’86, ’92, ’98, 2004, ’10, and ’16. Over his long electoral career, he averaged 60.6 percent of the vote over the eight elections.

During all of that time, he had one close call after his original victory, beating Republican Stewart Ledbetter by 2,755 votes in his first re-election during the 1980 campaign cycle. After that, in only one contest did he drop below 60 percent.

In his first election, with a combined vote on the Democratic and Independent Vermonters ballot lines, he was able to defeat Republican Richard Mallary and Bernie Sanders, the latter of whom drew 4.1 percent of the vote on the Liberty Union Party ticket.

After a string of Republican senators exiting, five in all with two more — Sens. Ron Johnson (R-WI) and John Thune (R-SD) — not yet revealing their 2022 political plans, Sen. Leahy becomes the first in-cycle Democrat not to seek re-election. The five departing Republicans are Richard Shelby (AL), Roy Blunt (MO), Richard Burr (NC), Rob Portman (OH), and Pat Toomey (PA).

Vermont, however, is unlikely to become a competitive open seat. Eight-term at-large Rep. Peter Welch (D-Norwich), who has the same constituency as a senator, is well positioned to succeed Sen. Leahy and is expected to soon announce his candidacy.

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The “Fail Up” Senate Candidates

By Jim Ellis

Nov. 16, 2021 — There is an interesting phenomenon developing in the 2022 US Senate races, and that is the number of currently leading primary nomination candidates who have lost their last race. No less than five current US Senate contenders, all topping the latest polling, were defeated the last time they were on the ballot, some even in political campaigns for offices with less prominence.

In recent election years, we’ve seen a number of candidates lose a race and then attempt to “fail up” in the next campaign year. Most of the time, the same result occurs. The seemingly lone exception to the rule is Georgia Sen. Jon Ossoff (D), who lost a special election for the US House in 2017 only to run for the Senate in 2020 and be elected.

Turning to 2022 and the unusually high number of such “fail up” candidates allows us to see if this pattern can reverse itself, or if the vast majority of these contenders will again find themselves on the short end of the vote totals when their election cycle ends either in the nomination contest or general election.

The 2022 “fail up” Senate candidates are Abby Finkenauer (D) in Iowa, Adam Laxalt (R) from Nevada, Pat McCrory (R) and Cheri Beasley (D) in North Carolina, and Pennsylvania’s Sean Parnell (R). Dr. Al Gross, who lost the 2020 Senate race in Alaska is a possibility to enter the 2022 race in the Last Frontier, but so far has not announced his candidacy.

Finkenauer, a Democrat, is a former state representative and congresswoman from Dubuque, Iowa. She was elected to the House in 2018, only to lose her seat after one term, 50-47 percent, to current US Rep. Ashley Hinson (R-Marion/Cedar Rapids).

Finkenauer is leading in early polling for the Senate Democratic nomination as she and retired Navy admiral and defeated 2020 US Senate candidate Mike Franken battle to challenge venerable Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) who has won seven US Senate elections. Early polling finds Finkenauer trailing by close to 20 points.

Laxalt was elected Nevada’s attorney general in 2014, but with only 46 percent of the vote in a place where his party swept all of the statewide offices in that election year with his being the lowest victory percentage. Laxalt then entered the open 2018 governor’s race but lost to current incumbent Steve Sisolak (D), 49-45 percent. The latest polling (September) finds him trailing Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D) by five points in a Mellman Group survey but holding a two-point lead in a study from WPA Intelligence.

North Carolina actually features candidates in both parties leading in nomination polling after losing their last race. McCrory is the former governor who lost his 2016 re-election campaign, even while Donald Trump and seven other Republicans were winning their statewide elections.

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North Carolina’s Rep. Cawthorn Switching Districts in 2022

By Jim Ellis

Nov. 15, 2021 — With the newly enacted North Carolina congressional map being vetted and analyzed, candidates for the various districts are beginning to come forth. One surprising move is the decision from freshman Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-Hendersonville) to run in new District 13 instead of where his home and the majority of his current constituents reside, in new District 14.

Rep. Madison Cawthorn

Cawthorn, at at the age of 26, is the youngest member of Congress; he was elected to represent the 11th District in 2020, succeeding Mark Meadows, the former Trump chief of staff who left the US House to enter the White House. The 11th has traditionally been the number for the district that sits in the Tar Heel State’s far western corner, anchored in Asheville and nestled among the Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina borders, but the newly enacted congressional map changes its number to 14.

Though the seat in its present configuration has become strongly Republican, that was not always the case. Throughout the 1980’s the district became one of the most politically marginal CDs in the country. During that entire decade, the 11th switched repeatedly back and forth between Democrat James Clarke and Republican Billy Hendon.

Once businessman and former state legislator Charles Taylor defeated Rep. Clarke in 1990, he was able to hold the district for eight consecutive terms until losing in 2006 to Democrat Heath Shuler, the former star University of Tennessee quarterback and NFL player. Shuler represented the district for three terms before retiring, leading to Meadows winning the first of his four elections. Rep. Cawthorn then recorded a 55-42 percent win in 2020 to keep the seat in the Republican column.

The new iteration of the westernmost North Carolina district returns to a more politically marginal status with a statistical history producing Republican victories in the low 50s rather than the high 50s. The adjacent new open 13th District, which annexes the western part of the Charlotte metropolitan area and moves to the Buncombe County line, becomes the region’s new safe Republican seat.

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Nevada and Utah Maps Released

Nevada 2021 proposed Congressional redistricting map

By Jim Ellis

Nov. 12, 2021 — Two new proposed redistricting maps were released early in the week, both of which the Dave’s Redistricting App personnel, from the statistical analysis website that specializes in redistricting, call partisan gerrymanders. Democrats drew the Nevada map in anticipation of the special state legislative session beginning next week; Republicans crafted the Utah plan that has now cleared both houses of the state legislature.

In 2020, two of the Las Vegas area congressional districts turned in close re-election victories for Democratic incumbents, Rep. Susie Lee (District 3: 49-46 percent) and Rep. Steven Horsford (District 4: 51-46 percent). The Democratic controlled legislature is looking to improve their districts, from a partisan perspective, but that comes at the expense of Rep. Dina Titus’ downtown Las Vegas CD (District 1) that will become more competitive should this map be enacted as currently drawn. Titus’ 2020 victory spread was 62-33 percent.

Utah 2021 proposed Congressional redistricting map (click on map to see larger view)

The Utah Republican legislature’s redistricting team has designed a new map that would give all four Republican incumbents equivalently strong GOP districts. The big winner is freshman Rep. Burgess Owens (R-Salt Lake City), who sees his marginal district grow from one that produced only his plurality Republican victory over then-Rep. Ben McAdams (D) into the safest Republican seat in the state.

As with many of the smaller population western states with an expansive land mass and one metropolitan area that dominates the entity, the Republican map drawers chose a pie-shaped option, that is a plan where all of the state’s congressional districts share a piece of, in this case, the Salt Lake City metro area.

The Nevada map, on paper, is designed to send three Democrats and one Republican to the US House. The lone Republican, Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Carson City), will again have the northern 2nd District, a seat too far from Las Vegas to take any part of the metro area.

The geography, and the number of people in Nevada’s northern sector, makes drawing a 4D-0R map almost impossible. Therefore, in order to help craft three districts that Democrats should win in typical election years, the map drawers packed as many Republican voters as possible into the one northern district.

Dave’s Redistricting App’s analysts divided the new districts on a partisan basis, but their percentages are estimates. Almost 30 percent of the Nevada electorate registers as Nonpartisan, so dividing only into Democrat and Republican segments may not be particularly accurate.

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Sununu Won’t Take Senate Plunge

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) will not run for the Senate.

By Jim Ellis

Nov. 11, 2021 — New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) held a long awaited news conference this week to announce his political plans for 2022. The governor had been the Republicans’ top recruitment prospect to challenge vulnerable Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan, but the three-term state chief executive has chosen to eschew a tough Senate challenge and will instead run for a fourth gubernatorial term.

Though Sununu, like his father before him, has been elected three times as governor, he is still only in his fifth year of service. New Hampshire and Vermont are the only states that have two-year gubernatorial terms. In fact, for a 146-year period, no one had served more than one term as the state’s top office holder. The only governor in New Hampshire history to serve four terms is Democrat John Lynch, who was in office from 2005-2013.

Gov. Sununu’s decision certainly changes the New Hampshire political landscape and will cause potential candidates to begin assessing their chances both in a Senate race against Hassan and as a gubernatorial contender opposite Sununu. Attention now may turn to two-term US Rep. Chris Pappas (D-Manchester).

The Republicans, with trifecta control of the New Hampshire political system in that they hold the governor’s office and have majorities in both houses of the legislature, are looking to change the marginal 1st Congressional District, the seat that has defeated more incumbents than any CD in the country since 2004, into a Republican domain. Doing so would concede the politically marginal 2nd District to incumbent Democratic Rep. Annie Kuster (D-Hopkinton/Concord).

Pappas, aware that a significant change in his district could make him an underdog for re-election, was likely headed into an open governor’s race if Sununu decided to run for Senate. Now that he would have to take on a popular incumbent, his next political move may be less clear.

Turning back to the Senate picture, incumbent Hassan still remains as the most vulnerable Democrat seeking re-election in 2022; so where do Republicans go now? Looking at the crowded 1st District race, two contenders stand out as potential statewide candidates.

Gail Huff Brown, a long time New England television news reporter, is the wife of former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, and she has already announced her congressional candidacy. Former Sen. Brown, himself, would also be a possibility since he has already run for the Senate once in New Hampshire. Matt Mowers is the 2020 1st District nominee who held Rep. Pappas to a 51-46 percent re-election victory. He, too, is an announced congressional candidate but it appears possible that at least one of the aforementioned could instead enter the Senate race.

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