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Midterm primaries might be critical to balance of the Senate

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.)
Greg Nash

The midterm congressional primaries are in sight — with potential consequences for the general election.

This especially is the case in the Senate, currently 50-50, where the outcome of competitive contests — facing both parties — in four or five states will shape the odds for the fall.

If the elections were held next Tuesday, none of this would much matter. With President Biden’s job approval around 40 percent and heading south, inflation at 6 percent to 7 percent and the persistent threat of COVID, Republicans would sweep the House and take control in the Senate.

However, if Biden’s approval rises to even mediocre levels, inflation drops to 3.5 percent and near normalcy returns post-pandemic, these primaries may make a real difference on the margins in the general election.

Three big ones kick off this spring.

On May 17, there’s Pennsylvania, a slightly Democratic-leaning state where GOP incumbent Sen. Pat Toomey is retiring. For the Democrats, the front runner — in polls and money — is current Lt. Gov. John Fetterman. He’s a left-wing populist, a Bernie Sanders supporter, who has a solid base — but party leaders doubt he can win a general election. The strongest alternative may be Rep. Conor Lamb, a Western Pennsylvania moderate who scored a big victory in the first special congressional election in the Trump presidency. But Lamb needs to raise a ton of money quickly to have any chance in the voter-rich East: Philadelphia and its populous suburbs.

The Republican primary is a huge-spending, messy free-for-all topped by two candidates who just moved back to the state. Mehmet Oz, the “Dr. Oz” of television celebrity — a Trumpish candidate with a medical degree, has stirred much controversy on his show, promoting bogus cures, including using hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID. The Republican establishment has little use for him. They favor David McCormick, a rich hedge fund executive and former treasury official who — on the model of Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin — is seen to be a more respectable version of Trump. McCormick has enlisted the support of Trump’s top policy aide, Stephen Miller, whom the left considers a hate monger and who doesn’t resonate respectability.

The November outcome probably will be decided who comes out of the rough primaries least damaged.

A similar story emerges in the May 3 Ohio primary, where there are a half dozen Republicans with money in a scorched-earth fight. Former state treasurer and earlier unsuccessful Senate candidate Josh Mandel, a man never inhibited by principle, is the frontrunner, getting significant support from right-wing groups. A top challenger is best-selling author J.D. Vance — “Hillbilly Elegy” — with deep-pockets support from Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel. Once an anti-Trump moderate conservative, Vance has veered sharply right, winning the endorsement of conspiracy-spouting right-winger Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.).

Ohio has become a very Republican state. But if one of those wealthy other Republicans doesn’t squeak by the front runners, Democrats believe their certain nominee, Rep. Tim Ryan, who has appeal to some working-class Buckeyes who’ve been voting Republican, has a shot in the fall after a GOP bloodbath. The race is for the seat of retiring GOP Sen. Rob Portman.

Likewise in North Carolina, where a primary is slated for May 17. Republicans should be favored to retain the seat of retiring GOP Sen. Richard Burr — but a factor may be how bitter the Republican primary between Trump-backed Rep. Ted Budd, former Gov. Pat McCrory and ex-Congressman and Baptist pastor Mark Walker becomes over the next three months.

Cheri Beasley, former chief justice of the North Carolina supreme court, has a clear field for the Democratic nomination. She is raising more money than any of the Republicans.

Wisconsin is the state with the most vulnerable Republican incumbent: two-term Sen. Ron Johnson. In polls his approval ratings are deeply underwater, as he has embraced some loony conspiracy theories and has been accused of pushing legislation to financially benefit himself. He is a joke to many in the Senate, but twice before — when he won — he was an underdog. An additional fact that may hurt him: He’s breaking a pledge not to run for a third term.

The Democrats in Wisconsin are almost mirror image of Pennsylvania, with Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, an advocate of a single payer government-run national health insurance and other left-wing causes, as the clear front runner in the Aug. 17 primary. That’d be a difficult sell in the general election, though he’s campaigning as a mainstream liberal. Two other contenders who can put their own money into the contest are state treasurer Sarah Godlewski, supported by women’s groups, and Alex Lasry, whose family owns the Milwaukee Bucks professional basketball team.

In the House, with outrageously gerrymandered seats, there aren’t many competitive districts — so primary outcomes matter less for the general election. Two states where legal challenges may force fairer maps could alter that in a few seats: North Carolina and Ohio.

And two GOP freshmen — Peter Meijer of Michigan and Nancy Mace in South Carolina — were among the few Republicans who sided against Trump in January of last year. That’s generated challengers, who probably would be weaker in a general election.

Without a change in conditions, however, most candidates with a “D” next to their name will be in for a rough fall.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for The Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.

Tags 2022 midterm elections Balance of power Bernie Sanders Biden poll numbers control of Senate Democratic Party Democratic primary election Dr. Oz Glenn Youngkin GOP primary election job approval rating Joe Biden John Fetterman Marjorie Taylor Greene Mark Walker Mehmet Oz Nancy Mace North Carolina Ohio Pat Toomey Pennsylvania Peter Meijer Richard Burr Rob Portman Ron Johnson Senate candidate Stephen Miller Ted Budd Tim Ryan US Senate Wisconsin

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