Evan Scrimshaw: The GOP's 2022 Primary Problem

(Evan Scrimshaw returns to speak about the 2022 midterms and the future of the GOP. Follow him at @EScrimshaw)

Trying to talk about 2022 House races is hard - without knowing the new lines, it's really hard to know what bits of political terrain are going to matter, where we'll be spending our collective energy and attention. Fortunately, there is one place that looks likely to be drawn the same way - and that's the Low Country of South Carolina, the current SC-01. Because of the nature of having a VRA district next door, there's not a lot that can be done to the seat - and therefore, it should be pretty similar to the current SC-01 when we get new lines (whenever that is).

The home of affable moderate Democrat Joe Cunningham, many thought Cunningham was home and dry in 2020. He was not, killed by a surge of Trump-ian rural turnout and suburban whites not breaking for Democrats like all the polls said they would. His seat was the classic example of the way that everyone misread the election, and he lost by less than 1.5%. He has raised no public comment on whether he will run again, but a run for statewide office would inevitably lead to a loss, and there's little reason to go there yet. A run at his old job, however, would be illuminating - both of why the conventional wisdom is wrong in a general sense about 2022, and of the GOP's massive, incoming primary problems.

To refer to Nancy Mace as a moderate would be incorrect - she is, after all, a climate denier - but for many on the right, Mace is a target of a primary challenge. Her sin? She voted to affirm Joe Biden as the President, and called out her more seditious colleagues in the process. The lines of US politics being so out of whack - and the bar for decency out of any current Republican elected official so low - that her minimal effort is treated like a revelation. It isn't, of course, anything other than a failure to commit treason, but the soft bigotry of low expectations shows itself here.

Mace wasn't the conservative choice in that primary - that was Kathy Landing, who came in second - but she wasn't unacceptable to the broad sweep of the state party voters. She was a middle of the road Republican, and her status as an acceptable option - if not particularly exciting - was enough. Now, she's going to get a primary challenge from his right, and one probably with more credible endorsements than just Jim DeMint and a couple of ex-Congresspeople. And that could cost the GOP her seat - that is, assuming Cunningham runs.

If Mace loses the primary, then the advantages of incumbency are gone, and the GOP have to face (probably) Cunningham in an open seat race with a disgruntled incumbent as a lame duck and a more conservative challenger on the ballot. If you just had deja vu, it's because that was how Cunningham won in 2018. Had Mark Sanford not been primaried, Cunningham never would have won, but the advantage of running against a non-incumbent conservative was huge. Cunningham would probably start that general election in a consensus Tossup race, which the midterm hipsters would say was Tilt D, if that came to it.

But even a merely competitive primary hurts the GOP, because even if they get Mace through the primary, they're still in trouble. Mace will have to say a series of increasingly right wing things to survive that primary, staking out rhetorical positions - and possibly even legislative votes - that will strengthen her internal position. The problem, of course, is that then becomes fodder for Cunningham to use against her - and when he does, their increasingly socially liberal district will find itself stuck.

Now, if this was just a battle over a single seat on the South Carolina coast, I'd agree that the widespread panic was overblown. But repeat this exercise over every blue or purple district Republican - from Brian Fitzpatrick in PA-01 to every Texas Republican that will be drawn into some Cruz +4, Trump +7-type district anywhere close to Austin, Dallas, or Houston, from upstate New York to southern New Mexico, Republicans are going to face this tension. The focus so many have on the crazies in the 2020 GOP freshman class - and yes, they're nuts - is misplaced, because the craziness isn't in the members, but the voters. These politicians didn't come from nothing, but from a conservative ecosystem - and from Republican primary voters - having detached themselves from reality at some point down the line, and to win a Republican primary now is to have to pander to these voters.

Head over to the Senate, and the risk becomes even more apparent, as some in places like Pennsylvania seek to run moderate Republicans for Senate seats. The notion that Ryan Costello would be a good general election candidate is risible, but even more laughable is the idea that he'd win a primary. With another open primary in North Carolina assured, and a probable open one in Wisconsin coming, the GOP's primary problem could cost itself Senate seats that it will need - maybe not ones that will be crucial for control of the Senate in 2022, but that will certainly be crucial in 2024.

Could the concern be oversold? After all, the GOP has had these problems before, in 2010 and 2012, and while they lost a few winnable seats on the margins, it wasn't as if they were denied House control either of those years. The difference, of course, is that in both 2010 and 2012, white college voters were still overwhelmingly Republicans, and as they are the voters likeliest to vote in primaries, the power of the GOP's crank ascendency - then, the Tea Party - was muted against that strength. Now, a decade on, many of those voters are now Democrats, voting to protect their own social liberalism, meaning that the new crank ascendency is pushing against an open door.

The GOP's problems are very real - their voters are now lower propensity than they used to be, and every bit of evidence that we currently have suggests that they won't turn out without Trump on the ballot. Throw in the risk of their voters throwing away key races, and you see why the conventional wisdom - that the GOP are going to ride the existence of a "Biden Midterm" to a House majority - is so fatally flawed.


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