Election News

The Road to 270: Delaware

May 18, 2020

The Road to 270 is a weekly column leading up to the presidential election. Each installment is dedicated to understanding one state’s political landscape and how that might influence which party will win its electoral votes in 2020. We’ll do these roughly in order of expected competitiveness, moving toward the most intensely contested battlegrounds as election day nears. 

The Road to 270 will be published every Monday. The column is written by Drew Savicki, a 270toWin elections and politics contributor. Contact Drew via email or on Twitter @SenhorRaposa.

Straddling the Mason-Dixon line, Delaware is quite a curiosity. With just three counties, it is the second smallest state by area in the United States. Home to affluent whites and a sizable African-American population, there's no state quite like the First State. Delaware gets to know its politicians and expects to see them. Voters get to know their representatives and, in Congress, that means they pretty much stay there as long as they want.

2000: A legend falls

In 2000, longtime Senator Bill Roth (R) faced a spirited challenge from Governor Tom Carper (D). This was a watershed election. Roth had never faced a competitive reelection bid as Senator but with Delaware's shift to the Democratic Party, he was viewed as being on shaky ground. A two term Governor, Carper was by 2000 a fixture of Delaware politics. Having served six years as State Treasurer, 12 years as Delaware's Congressman, and then eight years as Governor, Carper was the ultimate Democratic candidate to take on Bill Roth.

Roth, 79 at the time, was a political legend in Delaware. A two term Congressman before he entered the Senate in 1971, he was known for his expertise on taxes and other financial issues. Per the Almanac of American Politics, Carper had been mentioned as a candidate against Roth in the 1988 and 1994 cycles. Carper opted to run for reelection in 1988 and then successfully ran for Governor in 1992. Bill Roth was not in the best of shape by 2000, having collapsed twice during the campaign including during an interview. Carper won by 12 points and has easily won reelection ever since, having garnered at least 60% of vote in his three races since then.

Carper's performance was about 1% worse than Al Gore's that year. Looking beneath the surface, Carper was weaker than Gore in the Wilmington suburbs and around the state capital of Dover. Tom Carper really showed much stronger appeal with rural voters than Al Gore did.

Geography

Delaware's geography is relatively simple. The state has three counties, each of them unique in their own way.

  • New Castle County: Home to Wilmington, New Castle County comprises about 60% of the state's population and is the heart of Democratic support in the state. The once Republican suburbs are now almost all blue.
  • Kent County: A mixture of suburban and rural areas, Kent is home to Delaware's capital - Dover. Kent is the only swingy county in the state, frequently alternating between Democrats and Republicans.
  • Sussex County: Southern Delaware is the most rural part of the state and home to a number of poultry plants. Dominated by Republicans at all levels of government, Sussex last voted Democratic for President in 1996.

Congressional politics

During his long tenure in the Senate, Joe Biden participated in a number of significant events. By 1987, Biden had risen through the ranks to chair the Senate's powerful Judiciary Committee. Biden faced enormous pressure from outside liberal groups to derail the nomination of Robert Bork to be an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court. President Reagan had nominated Bork in July 1987, a month after Biden declared his intention to run for President in 1988. According to the Almanac of American Politics, Biden helped sway wavering Senators Howell Heflin (D-AL), Dennis DeConcini (D-AZ), and Arlen Specter (R-PA) from breaking ranks and advancing Bork's nomination to the full Senate.

Joe Biden's 1988 bid for President ultimately fell apart after plagiarism allegations surfaced. Biden would try again 20 years to no avail, though it did result in him becoming Barack Obama's running mate that year. After eight years as Vice President, Joe Biden considered running for President again in 2016 but ultimately decided against it - following the death of his son Beau. Biden would make his third bid for the Presidency in 2020 and after a long slog, ended up rather easily defeating his main rival, Senator Bernie Sanders.

In his three presidential bids, Joe Biden's biggest opponent has always been himself. Known for his off the cuff speaking style, Biden has demonstrated an ability to connect with voters of all stripes. Frequently gaffe prone, Biden has a habit of sticking his foot in his mouth - having on a number of occasions over the years told people not to vote for him.

Since November 2010, Delaware's junior Senator has been Chris Coons. A moderate Democrat, Coons was elected in a 2010 special election against Republican nominee Christine O'Donnell. In response to a resurfaced 1999 clip of her on Bill Maher's Politically Incorrect which featured her admitting to having dabbled in witchcraft, O'Donnell produced an iconic video where she addressed her comments by saying "I'm not a witch". In a stunning upset, O'Donnell had defeated Rep. Mike Castle in the Republican primary earlier that year. Castle, a moderate Republican was enormously popular in the state, had won reelection in 2008 with 61% of the vote -- in fact, before that 2010 primary defeat, he had never lost an election.

Castle would have been the clear favorite to win the Senate seat amidst the national Republican wave of 2010. Despite the national environment, Democrats flipped Castle’s open House seat with former Lt. Governor John Carney – it was one of just three seats that flipped from red to blue that year. Democrats have held the seat since. Castle also remains the last Republican elected Governor of Delaware, with his reelection in 1988.

Coons often rankles the left, drawing a primary challenger this cycle just as his senior colleague did in 2018. According to Morning Consult's most recent poll from Quarter 4 of last year, Coons had a net approval of +56 among Democrats so he should be in little trouble. The general election is not expected to be much of a race either with it rated as 'Safe Democratic' by the three major political forecasters.

Serving as Delaware's sole representative in the House is Lisa Blunt Rochester (D). A former staffer to Tom Carper during his governorship, Blunt Rochester is well versed in Delaware politics. A member of the center to center-left New Democrat Coalition and the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Blunt Rochester is the most liberal member of Delaware's congressional delegation. Her committee assignments - Agriculture and Education - reflect her state's priorities well. A prominent African-American female politician in the state, Blunt Rochester is often mentioned as a successor to Tom Carper should he retire in 2024. To date, only two black women have been elected to the U.S. Senate1 1The first, Carol Moseley Braun (Illinois) was elected in 1992, serving one term. Kamala Harris (California) is serving her first term after being elected in 2016. and should Blunt Rochester run, she would be heavily favored to win in this solidly Democratic state.  

State level politics

At the state level, Delaware is increasingly dominated by Democrats. The party has controlled the Governorship since 1993 and maintained a trifecta since 2009. 2018 marked a turning point for Republicans in the state. Two members of GOP leadership were defeated for reelection. Senate Minority Whip Greg Lavelle and House Minority Deborah Watson were defeated in upsets. Treasurer Ken Simpler, a moderate Republican was defeated and State Auditor Tom Wagner retired, resulting in the office flipping to Democrats.

At the gubernatorial level, Democrats have won six of the last seven races by double digits. Governor John Carney was elected in 2016, defeating State Senator Colin Bonini (R). Carney was elected Congressman in 2010 when Rep. Mike Castle (R) ran for the Senate seat vacated by then Vice President Joe Biden. Prior to his three terms in the House, Carney served as Lieutenant Governor of Delaware - under Governor Ruth Ann Minner (D). As Governor, Carney has generally posted high approval ratings (even pre-pandemic) and none of the major elections forecasters consider the race competitive. Republicans are likely to nominate a replacement level candidate against him.

Joe Biden's son Beau, a former National Guardsman and Attorney served two terms as Delaware's Attorney General. Beau Biden was a popular figure in the state, facing no Republican opponent for his second term in 2010. Biden declined to run for a third term in 2014 and instead announced a bid for Governor to succeed term limited Governor Jack Markell. Lieutenant Governor Matt Denn ran for the open Attorney General's office and won. After several years of battling brain cancer, Beau sadly died in 2015. Attorney General Matthew Denn surprisingly announced his retirement in August 2017, after twelve years of holding statewide office. 

In the 2016 elections, Republicans gained one seat in the Delaware Senate. In addition, Senator Bethany Hall-Long (D) resigned to become Lieutenant Governor, meaning the chamber was deadlocked. In Delaware, the Lieutenant Governor serves as President of the Senate and Hall-Long broke the tie in favor of her party, thus giving them the control of the chamber. Democrats successfully defended Hall-Long's district in a special election in 2017, giving them 11 seats to Republicans 10. The party picked up an additional seat in 2018, giving them the current 12-9 majority.

Presidential outlook

Hillary Clinton only carried the First State by 11% in 2016 but with Joe Biden likely atop the ticket, Delaware's three electoral votes are solidly in the Democratic corner this year. Its been a long time since Joe Biden was on the ballot in his home state. A lot has changed in the intervening years and Delaware's urban/rural divide has only grown stronger. However given the former Vice President's popularity in his home state, it stands to reason there will be a number of voters who cast their ballots for Trump in 2016 but will vote for their former Senator this time around.

Next Week: Mississippi

Reports in this series:

Reversing Course, Justin Amash Will Not Run for President

May 16, 2020

Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan said Saturday that he would not run a 3rd party campaign for president in 2020.  

Amash, who left the Republican Party last summer to become an independent, announced in late April that he was forming an exploratory committee to seek the presidency. He officially joined the Libertarian Party, becoming its first U.S. House member.  He was expected to seek the party's nomination at its convention later this month.

As Michigan law precludes running for both president and congress, Amash said at the time he would not seek reelection to his House seat.  It is not clear if his position on that will shift with today's announcement.

 

Cook Political Sees Perdue's Georgia Seat as Increasingly Competitive

May 15, 2020

Cook Political updated its 2020 Senate ratings Friday, moving Georgia - the seat held by David Perdue (R) - from Likely to Leans Republican. This aligns it with the special election being held for Georgia's other Senate seat, as well as the forecaster's rating for Georgia in the Electoral College.

Read the Cook analysis >>

Here's the updated Cook Senate ratings map.  Click or tap for an interactive version to create and share your own 2020 Senate forecast.

GOP Gains U.S. House Seat as Mike Garcia Wins California Special Election

May 13, 2020

Republican Mike Garcia has won the special election in California's 25th congressional district. His opponent, Democrat Christy Smith conceded Wednesday afternoon, citing Garcia's lead in the vote counted thus far.

The current vote tally:

Garcia's victory is welcome news for California Republicans after the party lost seven congressional seats (including this one) in the 2018 midterms.  Once seated, Garcia will complete the term of former Rep. Katie Hill, who resigned last fall. Smith and Garcia will face off again on November 3, this time vying for a full two-year term in the 117th congress.

Republican Garcia Leads in California District 25 Special Election

May 13, 2020

As expected, most of Tuesday's elections were decided pretty quickly.  Among the more notable races:

  • Republican Tom Tiffany prevailed in the Wisconsin 7th district special election; keeping that seat in GOP hands
  • Kara Eastman easily won the Democratic nomination in Nebraska's 2nd district; setting up a rematch of 2018 against incumbent Republican Don Bacon
  • Joe Biden received over 77% of the vote in Nebraska's Democratic presidential primary, winning at least 27 of the 29 available delegates

California District 25 Special Election

The one race that remains undecided is the special election to fill the vacancy in California's 25th district.  Republican Mike Garcia has a lead of 56%-44% in the votes that have been counted thus far.  While Garcia seems more likely to win here than not, no winner has yet been declared. The vast majority of ballots in this race were cast by mail, and many remain to be processed.  

If Garcia does win, it will be the first GOP pickup of a Democratic-held U.S. House seat in the state since 1998.

Regardless of the outcome, Garcia and Democrat Christy Smith will meet again in the November general election, as the seat - along with all others in the U.S. House - is up for a regular two-year term. Given the dynamics of a presidential election year, Tuesday's results may not be predictive of how the rematch will play out.

Live Results: Two Congressional Special Elections and Nebraska Primaries

May 12, 2020

Two congressional vacancies will be filled via special election Tuesday. In addition, Nebraska is holding its scheduled primary election.  Follow live results below, beginning at 9:00 PM Eastern Time, after polls close in Nebraska and Wisconsin.

California District 25

The more competitive of today's two special elections will be for this Los Angeles-area seat that has been vacant since former Rep. Katie Hill (D) resigned last year.  Hill had been serving in her first term, after defeating incumbent Republican Steve Knight in the 2018 midterms. It was one of seven GOP-held seats in the state that Democrats flipped that year on their way to taking control of the House.

Knight's attempt at regaining the seat he held for two terms was unsuccessful as he finished third in the top two primary.1 1If a candidate had received a majority of the vote in the primary, that person would have been elected. Democrat Christy Smith, a member of the State Assembly, finished first with 36% of the vote. Republican Mike Garcia, a former Navy fighter pilot, was second with 24%. Across the large 12-person field, however, the vote was pretty evenly split between the two parties.  Most analysts see the race as a toss-up.

Regardless of the outcome of today's election, both Smith and Garcia will be on the ballot again in November, vying for a full two-year term. Turnout may be the ultimate driver in both cases. A standalone special election often yields lower turnout, in which case the most reliable voters - older, white Republicans - may make the difference.  However, in November, a much higher Democratic turnout associated with the presidential election is expected.  Of course, nobody really knows how this will play out in an election conducted during the pandemic.  The vast majority of ballots are expected to be cast by mail, with some in-person polling places open.

The first results are expected after 11:00 PM Eastern Time.  However, as is often the case in close California elections, we may not know the winner for many days.  If Garcia wins, it would be the first GOP pick up of a Democratic-held House seat in the state since 1998.

Wisconsin District 7

Tuesday's other special election takes place in Wisconsin's largest congressional district by area. The 7th district covers much of the northern part of the state and has been vacant since former Rep. Sean Duffy (R) resigned his seat in September.  The special election pits Republican state Senator Tom Tiffany against the Democratic nominee, Tricia Zunker, the president of the Wausau School Board.

This is a conservative district; Duffy won reelection in 2018 by 22 points.  As such, Tiffany is expected to prevail, keeping the seat in GOP control. Polls close at 9:00 PM Eastern Time.

Nebraska Primaries

The Cornhusker State holds its presidential and congressional primaries Tuesday.  The most closely-watched race will be for the Democratic nomination in U.S. House District 2.  The winner will meet the incumbent Republican, Rep. Don Bacon in November.  Bacon will be seeking a third term; both his prior wins were by two points or less in this highly-competitive Omaha-area district. District 2 is also likely to get a lot of attention in the presidential race, as its electoral vote is seen as a toss up.  

Polls close at 9:00 PM Eastern.

In the Democratic presidential primary, Joe Biden is expected to get most of the state's 29 pledged delegates. He is currently about 550 delegates short of the 1,991 needed to clinch the nomination.

There are other contested primaries for congressional races; none are associated with a race expected to be competitive in November.  There is also a GOP primary for president; Donald Trump long ago clinched renomination.

More Nebraska Results >>

The Road to 270: Montana

May 11, 2020

The Road to 270 is a weekly column leading up to the presidential election. Each installment is dedicated to understanding one state’s political landscape and how that might influence which party will win its electoral votes in 2020. We’ll do these roughly in order of expected competitiveness, moving toward the most intensely contested battlegrounds as election day nears. 

The Road to 270 will be published every Monday. The column is written by Drew Savicki, a 270toWin elections and politics contributor. Contact Drew via email or on Twitter @SenhorRaposa.

According to the Almanac of American Politics, Montana’s first white settlers were prospectors looking to mine the mountainous western part of the state for gold, silver, and copper. Later arrivals to the state were ranchers and wheat farmers, who made their homes in the flatter eastern part of the state. Politically, miners favored Democrats -- and would eventually organize into unions -- while farmers in the east voted Republican, like their counterparts in other Great Plains states. From the onset, this geographic tug-of-war produced a state with a vibrant political scene. 

While these previous divisions have given way to a more modern urban/rural polarization, there are traces of history in the state’s political landscape. Montana is just one of three states west of the Mississippi River that supported Donald Trump in 2016 but lack right to work laws, a reflection of its pro-labor history (the other two are Alaska and Missouri).
At the presidential level, Big Sky Country is thoroughly Republican territory -- the last Democrat to carry its 3 Electoral College votes, Bill Clinton in 1992, did so with just 38% of the vote.

In the final weeks of the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama made an aggressive push for The Big Sky State. The McCain campaign never considered Montana a battleground state but the Democrats made a serious push for it. Montana was an unusual target for Democrats, with the state having voted Republican in the past several presidential elections but the presence of Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) on the ballot made it a target. The arch libertarian conservative Paul was on the ballot as the Constitution party's nominee, despite not actually campaigning for the nomination. Montana was an unlikely battleground in 2008. The state is heavily white, rural, and gun friendly but Obama's message powered him to a remarkable 47% of the vote. Looking down the ballot, though, Montana has been more open to supporting Democratic candidates than its neighboring states. As a result, this red state should feature several competitive contests this year.

Down ballot: a flattop hero and prairie populism

Throughout the last century, Montanans have made clear distinctions between their presidential and senatorial preferences. Since the 17th Amendment established the direct election of senators -- beginning with the 1914 congressional elections -- Montana has only elected three Republicans to the Senate. In the 26 presidential elections that have taken place since then, it favored Republican nominees in 18 contests.

Of the state’s current roster of elected leaders, perhaps the career of Sen. Jon Tester (D) best exemplifies the moods and character of state politics. Literally level-headed (thanks to his trademark flattop haircut), Tester grew up on his family farm and lost three fingers in a meat-grinding accident. He was elected to the State Senate in 1998 and by 2005, had risen to become its President. Though President Bush carried the state twice by easy margins, his popularity had slipped by the 2006 midterms.

With his time in the state senate, Tester was well-positioned to challenge then-Sen. Conrad Burns (R), who was seeking a fourth term. Despite some liabilities, Burns was no pushover -- in fact, as of this writing, he is the only GOP senator Montanans have ever popularly reelected. In an expensive race, Tester emphasized his rural background and accused the septuagenarian Burns of losing touch with the state. Tester won that race by fewer than 3,600 votes out of the over 406,000 cast -- it was the closest raw-vote margin of any senatorial race that year, and ultimately helped flip control of the chamber to Democrats.

If Tester was running against an unpopular president in 2006, Republicans were hoping to flip that dynamic in 2012. That year, the GOP was optimistic about beating him and landed a top recruit in Rep. Denny Rehberg, who had represented the state in the House since 2001. Rehberg emphasized the unpopularity of the Affordable Care Act, and most polls gave him the lead. On Election Day, Tester’s down-to-home image seemed to endure: as Mitt Romney carried the state 55%-42%, he was reelected by four percentage points.

In 2018, Tester was running as a senator from the party out of power, but another close race seemed in the cards. His voting record was more liberal than other red state Democrats up that year. After making multiple visits to Big Sky Country that cycle, it was clear Trump was on something of a personal mission to beat Tester. In this small state where local connections are paramount, what may have saved Tester is that he was still able to ‘out-Montana’ his opposition. He faced state Auditor Matt Rosendale (R), who had moved to Montana in 2002 from Maryland; questions about his residency played prominently into Democratic attacks. In the end, Tester was reelected with 50.3% -- the first of his three races that he earned a majority of the vote in.

Tester's success over the years exemplifies how Montana sometimes behaves more like a purple state than a solidly red one. Representing a state with the third highest proportion of veterans in the nation, Jon Tester has made veterans issues a key priority during his time in Congress. Two of Tester's committee assignments -- Indian and Veterans' Affairs, reflect the needs of his state well. A living embodiment of Prairie Populism, Jon Tester should serve as a model to other red state Democrats.

Geography

As with Montana’s early days, the east/west divide is dominant. Though the state today has a sole at-Large congressional district (MT-AL), it had two from 1913 to 1993: one covering the western half of the state and the other the eastern half. Some projections have it regaining its second seat after the 2020 Census. If Montana secures its second seat, the familiar east-west split seems likely to emerge.

  • Western Montana. Nestled in the Rocky Mountains, western Montana is home to three of the five largest cities in the state (Missoula, Bozeman, and Butte) as well as the state capital of Helena. The bulk of the growth in the state has been in the western half, particularly Gallatin County (Bozeman), the sole Romney -> Clinton county in the state. Missoula County, which houses the University of Montana, often gives Democratic candidates their largest raw vote margin of any county. Lake County -- just north of Missoula -- is one of the state’s prime political bellwethers.
  • Eastern Montana. Though mostly rural, this region is home to the state’s largest city, Billings, as well as the bulk of the state's Native American population. Still, as with the Great Plains states, eastern Montana is dominated by sparsely-populated but strongly Republican counties -- the reddest county in the state, Garfield, gave Trump 91% in 2016, but cast just 718 votes. In fact, if the state’s old eastern-based Second District were in place, it would have given Trump a 63%-30% vote. 

Congressional politics

In a state that’s produced more than its fair share of consequential lawmakers, it’s worth pointing out that Tester holds the seat of the most prominent senator in state history: Democrat Mike Mansfield. Mansfield was the longest-serving Majority Leader ever, leading the chamber from 1961 to 1977. As Majority Leader, he was charged with passing Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights and Great Society bills through Congress. On foreign policy, though, Mansfield would emerge as a critic of LBJ’s efforts in the Vietnam War. His pacifist tendencies seemed reminiscent of another prominent Montanan: Jeannette Rankin. The first woman elected to Congress, Rankin was the only member of Congress to have voted against U.S. entry into both World Wars. Another popular figure in Montana politics in recent years was the longtime Senator Max Baucus (D). Baucus, a conservative Democrat was known as a champion of Montana's industries. Baucus was ideologically to the right of his caucus on guns and environmental issues but he proved to be a solid fit for his state. 

In 2014, Sen. Steve Daines became the first Republican ever to be popularly-elected to the state’s other seat. A conservative Republican, Daines served one term as the representative for Montana's At-Large Congressional District (MT-AL) before he was elected to the Senate. Like Alaska's Dan Sullivan, Daines lacks the distinct political identity of his state's senior Senator. As a Congressman and now Senator, Daines has a been a reliable vote for the Republican majority and closely tied himself to the President. Although he easily won the open seat in 2014, Daines won't be sailing smoothly this time. He faces a competitive race from Governor Steve Bullock (D). Although polling suggests the race is a tossup, the partisan lean of Montana in a Presidential year warrants caution. No doubt Bullock will run ahead of the Democratic presidential nominee (almost certainly Joe Biden) and is a strong candidate in his own right, but he’d still need a significant chunk of Trump voters to defect. In this increasingly polarized era, voters aren't splitting their tickets as much as they used to -- this is why Sabato’s Crystal Ball is keeping the race at Leans Republican.

First elected to the House in a 2017 special election is the controversial businessman Greg Gianforte. Most known for his assault on The Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs, Gianforte has kept a low profile during his time in the House. In 2016, Gianforte was the Republican nominee for Governor against Steve Bullock and is running for Governor again this year. The founder of a customer relationship software company, Gianforte was heavily targeted by Democrats in the 2018 midterms. The Bozeman native was ultimately successful in his reelection bid despite the millions in spending by outside groups. Despite the success Democrats have found at the Senate level, the state's sole US House seat has proven elusive since Rep. Pat Williams (D) retired in 1997. 

Even if Democrats lose the House race this year, they may have hope in 2022. As discussed earlier, Montana seems posted to regain its 2nd Congressional District following the 2020 Census. The redistricting process is controlled by a five-member independent commission, consisting of two members from each party and a Chair elected by the four members. Redistricting is likely to result in another east/west split -- Republicans will undoubtedly keep the eastern seat, while the western district will likely be only light red, giving Democrats an opening.

State level politics

At the state level, the GOP controls both chambers of the legislature and most statewide offices. 2016 proved to be something of a breakout year for statewide Republicans. Going into that cycle, Republicans only had one row office, the Attorney General; currently they have everything but the governor and lieutenant governor’s offices. Democrats have actually won the last four gubernatorial elections, with Brian Schweitzer (2005-2013) and Steve Bullock (2013-present).

Montana is a relatively insular state, making authenticity a key factor in state races. To that end, Democratic success at the gubernatorial level has relied on genuine candidates. A modern prairie populist (and at times controversial), Schweitzer is a lively character with a penchant for sporting bolo ties. The more low-key cowboy-esque Bullock is a former state Attorney General who first ran for Governor in 2012, promising a continuation of Schweitzer's policies. The GOP nominated a capable candidate in former Rep. Rick Hill that year, but Bullock narrowly prevailed. Bullock’s reelection in 2016 was especially impressive, considering Trump’s 56%-35% margin in the state. This year, the Montana gubernatorial contest is looking like a true toss-up, with competitive primaries on both sides.  

Presidential outlook

Montana's three electoral votes seem safe for President Trump, but don't be surprised if the margin of victory is narrower than in 2016. As political science professor Jacob Smith has documented, Montana consistently swings against the incumbent President. The Big Sky state is home to one of the nation's most reliable bellwether counties: Blaine County. Home to the Fort Belknap reservation, the county is split evenly between Native Americans and whites. Blaine County has voted for the winner of presidential elections all but twice in its entire history (its only misses being 1912 and 1988). In 2018, Sen. Tester improved on Gov. Bullock’s 2016 showing there, illustrating the importance of Native Americans to the Democratic coalition in the state. Likely Democratic nominee Joe Biden is unlikely to make a major push for this ruby red state but it will see a great deal of spending downballot. With competitive US Senate, US House, Gubernatorial, and state legislative races there's a lot to look at in the Big Sky Country this year. 

Next Week: Delaware

Reports in this series:

Gubernatorial Rating Changes from Sabato's Crystal Ball

May 7, 2020

Sabato's Crystal ball has made three changes to its gubernatorial ratings, all favoring the incumbent. These moves leave Montana as the only highly-competitive race among the eleven governorships up for election in 2020.

In North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper is favored to win a second term; that rating moves from Leans to Likely Democratic.  Meanwhile, incumbents Chris Sununu in New Hampshire and Phil Scott in neighboring Vermont each look likely to win a third term - those go from Leans to Likely Republican. Those two New England states are the only ones where terms are two years instead of four.

In Montana, Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock is termed out; his entry into the U.S. Senate race against incumbent Republican Steve Daines has made that race much competitive. The gubernatorial race is still taking shape; both parties have competitive primaries on June 2 and the general election is seen as a toss-up.  It is a little surprising that these statewide races are so competitive in a year where President Trump is expected to easily win the state's three electoral votes.  Drew Savicki will discuss Montana politics in the next Road to 270 installment on Monday.

Click the image below for an interactive version of the forecast.

 

The Road to 270: Alaska

May 4, 2020

The Road to 270 is a weekly column leading up to the presidential election. Each installment is dedicated to understanding one state’s political landscape and how that might influence which party will win its electoral votes in 2020. We’ll do these roughly in order of expected competitiveness, moving toward the most intensely contested battlegrounds as election day nears. 

The Road to 270 will be published every Monday. The column is written by Drew Savicki, a 270toWin elections and politics contributor. Contact Drew via email or on Twitter @SenhorRaposa.

In the closing days of the 1960 presidential election, Democrat John F. Kennedy and Republican Richard Nixon were racing towards the finish line. In what turned out to be one of the closest elections in American history, the decisive state may well have been one of the newest: Alaska.

As Alaska and Hawaii were both admitted to the Union in 1959, the presidential election of 1960 became the first to feature all 50 states. In an anecdote that political analyst Kyle Kondik recalls in his 2016 book, Nixon pledged to visit every state. After putting it off, the Republican finally made the trek up to Alaska on November 6th, 1960, two days before the election. Nixon’s visit likely helped him secure the state’s three electoral votes, as he carried the state 51%-49%.

Still, what if Nixon had, instead, spent that time making his final pitch to voters in states with more electoral votes, like Illinois, Missouri, or New Jersey? Kennedy’s final victory hinged on his razor-thin margins in those states.

While Alaska is more safely Republican in presidential races these days, its politics is a fascinating mix of elastic coalitions, large personalities, and occasional family feuds.

A Right (Write?) of Center State

Since Nixon’s narrow 1960 win there, the Last Frontier has voted for Republican presidential nominees in all but one election -- Lyndon Johnson took it, in his 1964 landslide. The 2008 campaign put Alaska into the spotlight: its governor at the time, Sarah Palin, was tapped to be the GOP’s vice presidential nominee that year. The state's economic position on industries like oil has made it an odd fit for the Democratic Party, which has gradually embraced environmentalism from the mid-20th century onward. Owing to its history, Alaska's brand of Republican politics can be described as libertarian conservatism.

To understand the quirky nature of Alaska politics, look no further than its 2010 Senate election. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R) faced the challenge of a lifetime in her primary, from Tea Party-backed attorney Joe Miller. Miller had the support of notable figures like Palin (by then out of office) and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), two darlings of the nascent Tea Party movement. In the months and weeks leading up to the GOP primary, Miller began to close the gap with Murkowski in private polling. In what Palin called a ‘miracle on ice,’ Miller won that primary 51%-49%.

Following her primary loss, Murkowski carefully evaluated her options and made the decision to stage a write-in campaign for the general election. Framing herself as the pragmatic candidate, she cited the ‘extremism’ of Miller and the ‘inexperience’ of the Democratic nominee, Scott McAdams (then mayor of the small city of Sitka). As the Republican nominee, Miller received full support from both the Alaska Republican Party and the Senate Republican conference. Murkowski's write-in campaign led to an iconic ad which featured a young girl spelling out her name at a spelling bee.

Murkowski’s ad paid off: 39% of voters wrote her name in on their ballots, placing her ahead of Miller, who took 35%. As she pointed out frequently, that was the first successful write-in campaign for a Senate seat since the late Sen. Strom Thurmond’s 1954 effort in South Carolina.

As wacky as that election was, it was typical in one sense: Alaska voters have a history of doing their own thing.

Geography

Lacking counties, Alaska’s geography is more complex than that of other states. Alaska is divided up into five geographic regions and 20 boroughs (19 organized and one unorganized). The five regions of Alaska are: 

  • Southwest. With the bulk of Alaska's ports, the southwest region is home to commercial fishing and Native fishing villages that dot the landscape. The largest population center in this region is Kodiak.
  • Far North. The home of the Inuit people, this is one of the more remote regions of Alaska. The annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race runs from Anchorage to Nome, covering the vast Alaska wilderness. Also of note in the Far North is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, an area the state's congressional delegation has long pushed to open up to drilling for oil.
  • Interior. Interior Alaska features much of the state's road network, which connects Fairbanks and its surrounding suburbs to Anchorage. As Alaska's second largest city, Fairbanks is home to the main campus of the University of Alaska and a number of military installations. The Interior region is one of Alaska's most educated.
  • Southcentral. 65% of Alaska's population calls this region home. Anchorage is Alaska's largest city and one of the most politically divided areas in the state, with the city sending nine Republicans and seven Democrats to the Alaska House of Representatives.
  • Southeast. This heavily-forested region houses the state capital of Juneau, along with indigenous communities and a once robust mining presence. 

Congressional Politics

With just three Electoral College votes, Alaska has one of the smallest congressional delegations in the nation, but two of its members carry outsized importance in Congress. Representing all of Alaska in the House of Representatives since 1973 is the oft-cantankerous Rep. Don Young (R). Young is a colorful character known for his off-the-cuff comments and larger-than-life personality. Now Dean of the House -- due to his status as the longest-serving member of the body -- Young is a passionate supporter of Alaska's industries. He came to Congress in a 1973 special election, held in the aftermath of the death of Rep. Nick Begich (D). Young, then a state senator, ran for the seat in 1972, but Begich won reelection, despite disappearing during a plane trip weeks before (he was later presumed dead).

Young has been attentive to local concerns over the years, which has earned him the support of many Alaska Natives. Ideologically, Young is a moderate Republican with a history of bucking his party. Although he remains a highly influential figure in Congress, his status has declined in recent years. House Republican term limits means he no longer occupies the top spot on the Natural Resources Committee and the abolition of earmarks substantially reduced his clout. Unlike many of his GOP colleagues, Young is no stranger to the House minority -- he worked under Democratic rule for his first 22 years in the chamber.

In 2012, Young made waves with a rare bipartisan endorsement video of now-Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI). At the time, Hirono served with him in the House and was in a competitive Senate primary in Hawaii. The ad is a reminder that the delegations from the country’s two non-contiguous states often have reason to work together on Capitol Hill.

Young has faced a few close races over the years. Although he is a perennial prospect on national Democrats’ retirement watch list, the Dean of the House, at age 86, shows no signs of slowing down. Young is likely to remain in office as long as voters want him to.

In the Senate, after surviving that turbulent 2010 election, Lisa Murkowski is the state’s senior Senator. Her father, Frank Murkowski, served in the Senate from 1981 until his 2002 election as governor. Upon taking office as Governor, Murkowski appointed his daughter -- then-State Representative Lisa Murkowski -- to the Senate seat he was vacating. Her appointment was controversial and it resulted in voters later stripping their governors of the ability to fill vacancies in the Senate via appointment. Perceived nepotism may have been a factor in the elder Murkowski’s defeat -- in his 2006 primary, he placed third in a field led by then-Wasilla mayor Sarah Palin (the families have a rocky relationship).

Since then, Lisa Murkowski has had better electoral fortunes than her father, though her races have been competitive. She faced voters for the first time, at the statewide level, in 2004. She began by successfully turning back a primary challenge from then-State Senate President Mike Miller. Though President Bush carried the state 61%-36%, Murkowski faced a strong general election challenge from the state's previous governor, Democrat Tony Knowles. Still, she was elected in her own right, 49%-46%.

As one of the most moderate Republicans in the Senate, Murkowski is often a pivotal vote for the majority. In the summer of 2017, she was one three Republicans -- along with the late Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) -- who voted against repeal of the Affordable Care Act. In fact, Collins and Murkowski are the only two pro-choice Republicans currently serving in the chamber. When it comes to guns and environmental issues, Murkowski's views reflect her libertarian state well.

In 2016, running with the Republican nomination, Murkowski faced a rematch, of sorts. Her 2010 GOP opponent, Joe Miller, ran as a Libertarian. She was reelected with 44% to Miller’s 29%. As a result, Murkowski is the only senator to win three terms with less than 50% of the vote each time.

Alaska's junior Senator is Republican Dan Sullivan. Elected in the red wave of 2014, Sullivan defeated Democratic incumbent Mark Begich that year -- Begich is the son of the man Rep. Young replaced in Congress. Unlike Young and Murkowski, Sullivan is a reliable party line vote. During his 2014 campaign, Sullivan espoused a number of differences between himself and Murkowski. The previous year, Murkowski came out in favor of same sex marriage. Sullivan also ran on his opposition to abortion rights, another difference between himself and his state's senior Senator.

Sullivan's background in the Marine Corps is an asset in this military-heavy state. A lawyer, Sullivan clerked for several judges in the state before joining the Bush administration in 2002. He was appointed state Attorney General under Gov. Palin and then continued in that position until 2010. Palin’s successor, Gov. Sean Parnell, appointed Sullivan to Alaska's Department of Natural Resources, which he led until he launched his Senate campaign in 2013. 

Senator Sullivan is up for reelection this year and could potentially face a competitive race. His likely opponent is neurosurgeon Al Gross, who is running as an independent with the support of the Democratic Party. He has fundraised well, outraising Dan Sullivan in the most recent quarter and Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball recently shifted the race from 'Safe Republican to 'Likely Republican'. Sullivan is still the clear favorite but the race merits watching.

Analyst Eric Cunningham last year wrote an article on the increasing trend of the parties running independents rather than a candidate with a party label. In the 2012 US Senate election in Maine, former Governor Angus King ran with no party affiliation just as he did in his two gubernatorial bids and did not receive support from either party committee. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) spent in Maine but did not endorse King or the Democratic nominee that year. In the Senate, King caucuses with Democrats but remains an independent.

State Level Politics

Alaska, at the state level, is quite unique. It is one of the few states in the nation that elects no statewide officeholders, besides the Governor. With one exception, Republicans have held the Governorship from December 2002 (in Alaska and Hawaii, governors take their oaths of office in December) to present.

From 2014 to 2018, the Governor was an independent, Bill Walker. Walker, a former Republican Mayor of Valdez, ran on a unity ticket with Democrat Byron Mallott. Owing to his unpopularity, Gov. Walker suspended his bid for reelection in 2018 and endorsed the Democratic nominee, former Sen. Mark Begich. The Governor’s Mansion fell back into GOP hands, as Begich lost 51%-44% to then-State Sen. Mike Dunleavy (who is currently the subject of a recall campaign).

In the legislature, Republicans hold a supermajority in the state Senate while the state House is controlled by a coalition of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. Whether the coalition remains depends on if its Republican members are successful in their primaries this year.

The Native Vote

Native Americans account for 15% of the population in Alaska, the largest in the nation. Alaska Natives have increasingly voted Democratic in the past few presidential races, but certain Republicans are able to win them over. In 2016, Sen. Murkowski was stronger in the Native-heavy western half of the state than in the whiter eastern parts. In the 2018 U.S. House race, Don Young was able to win some crossover support from this group while Begich easily won them in his unsuccessful gubernatorial bid.

Presidential Outlook

There is little doubt that Alaska will vote for President Trump in the fall. One thing to watch, though, is the state’s affinity for third parties. In 2016, Trump carried the state 51%-37%, with the remaining 12% going to third parties. Only Utah, Idaho, and Vermont gave third parties a higher aggregate share. In 2000, Green Party nominee Ralph Nader -- who is often accused of spoiling the election in favor of Bush -- took 10% in Alaska, his best showing of any state.

Next Week: Montana

Reports in this series:

Rep. Justin Amash Becomes First Libertarian Member of Congress

May 4, 2020

Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan has become the first Libertarian member of Congress.  The move comes just days after the Republican-turned-independent announced his intention to run for president.  Libertarians will select a nominee at the party's convention, which begins May 22.

To focus on his presidential bid, Amash also announced last week that he would not stand for reelection to his current seat. This may have reflected a political reality - his prospects for winning a 6th term had grown dimmer. In addition, Michigan law precludes someone from running simultaneously for both offices.

U.S. House

With the move by Amash, the U.S. House now has 232 Democrats, 196 Republicans and one Libertarian. There are six vacancies. One of these, in Maryland's 7th district, will be filled by Democrat Kweisi Mfume, who won a special election there last week.  Special elections to fill two other seats are upcoming next Tuesday, May 12. These are in California's 25th district and Wisconsin's 7th district.