3 Republican Primaries — And A Special Election — To Watch In Minnesota And Wisconsin

3 Republican Primaries — And A Special Election — To Watch In Minnesota And Wisconsin

In summertime, I like to head north to beat the heat — and that’s exactly what we’re doing with Tuesday’s elections. The upper-latitude states of Connecticut, Minnesota, Vermont and Wisconsin are all holding their primaries on Tuesday, and Minnesota — the nation’s north star — is also hosting a special election that could provide clues to the country’s political mood.

If you haven’t been following these elections closely, never fear: As always, FiveThirtyEight is previewing every race with major implications for November. My colleague Geoffrey Skelley will run down the Democratic primaries of note tomorrow, but today let’s start with that special election and three big Republican primaries in two of those states.

Former state Rep. Brad Finstad is in the unusual situation of running in both the special election and the primary for Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District.

Mark Zdechlik / Minnesota Public Radio / AP

Minnesota

Races to watch: 1st Congressional District (both the regular primary and special election)

Polls close: 9 p.m. Eastern

Republican Rep. Jim Hagedorn died of cancer in February, and on Tuesday voters in Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District (specifically, those living within the district’s old, pre-redistricting borders) will choose his replacement for the remainder of his term. Given the seat’s FiveThirtyEight partisan lean1 of R+15, the Republican candidate, former state Rep. Brad Finstad, is favored over Democrat Jeff Ettinger, the former CEO of Hormel Foods.

However, it’s not a guaranteed Republican victory, and regardless of who wins, the final margin could be telling. Special elections are often a bellwether for the results of the November election; if one party consistently overperforms partisan lean in special elections, it suggests that the national political mood favors that party. So far in the 2022 cycle, however, Republicans have overperformed in some special elections, while Democrats have overperformed in others, making it hard to say which party has an advantage.

2021-22 special elections have been a mixed bag

How the final vote-share margins in federal special elections in the 2022 cycle compare with the seats’ FiveThirtyEight partisan leans

Date Seat Partisan Lean Vote Margin Margin Swing
March 20, 2021 Louisiana 2nd* D+51 D+66 D+15
March 20, 2021 Louisiana 5th* R+31 R+45 R+13
May 1, 2021 Texas 6th* R+11 R+25 R+14
June 1, 2021 New Mexico 1st D+18 D+25 D+7
Nov. 2, 2021 Ohio 11th D+57 D+58 EVEN
Nov. 2, 2021 Ohio 15th R+19 R+17 D+2
Jan. 11, 2022 Florida 20th D+53 D+60 D+7
June 7, 2022 California 22nd R+11 R+24 R+14
June 14, 2022 Texas 34th* D+5 R+5 R+10
June 28, 2022 Nebraska 1st R+17 R+5 D+12
Average D+9 D+9 R+1

Partisan lean is the average margin difference between how a state or district votes and how the country votes overall. This version of partisan lean, meant to be used for congressional and gubernatorial elections, is calculated as 50 percent the state or district’s lean relative to the nation in the most recent presidential election, 25 percent its relative lean in the second-most-recent presidential election and 25 percent a custom state-legislative lean.

*Top-two primaries: Vote margin is the total vote share of all Democratic candidates combined minus the total vote share of all Republican candidates combined.

Source: State election offices

However, in the only special election so far to take place after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Democrats had one of their strongest performances of the cycle — coming within almost 5 percentage points of winning Nebraska’s 1st Congressional District despite the seat’s R+17 partisan lean. That may mean Democrats were highly energized in the wake of that decision … or it could have just been due to local factors, like the scandal that ended the career of the district’s former Republican representative or the strength of the Democratic candidate.

The special election in Minnesota’s 1st District may help clarify that. If Democrats come close to winning again — or if they pull off the upset outright — it will be another data point suggesting that the national environment is improving for Democrats. (Another is the fact that polls of the generic congressional ballot have shifted more than 2 points toward Democrats since the Supreme Court decision, and Democrats and Republicans are now essentially tied.2) A late-July SurveyUSA poll of the race for KAAL-TV gave Finstad the support of 46 percent of likely voters and Ettinger the support of 38 percent.

Complicating matters, though, is that this isn’t the only election taking place in Minnesota’s 1st District on Tuesday: The district (this time in its new, post-redistricting incarnation) is also hosting its regularly scheduled primary to decide its nominees for the general election. And while Ettinger has no serious opposition on the Democratic side, Finstad actually faces a rematch from state Rep. Jeremy Munson, whom he defeated 38 percent to 37 percent in the May primary for the special election.

As that margin suggests, the primary could be competitive even though Finstad is the official GOP nominee elsewhere on the ballot. Indeed, he could end up in the unusual situation of getting elected to Congress but then immediately losing “reelection” by not making it to the November ballot. This has also created a dilemma for Finstad’s campaign: court the Republican base by moving right, or tack toward the center to appeal to a general-election electorate? Finstad has opted to campaign as a “problem solver” who will get things done, but that has left the diehard-conservative lane wide open for Munson, who is known as an anti-establishment hardliner in the state legislature and would likely join the House Freedom Caucus if elected to Congress.

After self-funding his campaign and landing Trump’s endorsement, Tim Michels’s prospects of winning the GOP nomination for Wisconsin governor vastly improved.

Samantha Madar / The Post-Crescent / AP

Wisconsin

Races to watch: Governor, attorney general

Polls close: 9 p.m. Eastern

Multiple Republicans are also jockeying for the chance to take out two vulnerable statewide Democrats in the Badger State — and Gov. Tony Evers tops their target list. Almost a year ago, former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch jumped into the race for governor with the support of her old boss, former Gov. Scott Walker, and immediately catapulted to the top of the Republican field. But then, in April, construction executive Tim Michels announced his own bid, and thanks to the sheer amount of money he’s pumped into his campaign — nearly $11 million as of July 25 — he’s emerged as a formidable foe to Kleefisch. Moreover, Michels got a further boost when, on June 2, he received the coveted endorsement of former President Donald Trump. As a result, by mid-June, a Marquette University poll showed a virtually tied race: Michels 27 percent, Kleefisch 26 percent.

That’s the most recent independent poll we have of the primary, which is particularly unfortunate given that businessman Kevin Nicholson, the third-place candidate in the race (10 percent in the Marquette poll), suspended his campaign in early July. Since then, we’ve gotten only an internal poll from a super PAC that supports Michels. It gave Michels an 8-percentage-point lead, but remember that internal polls often exaggerate the strength of their preferred candidate.

In recent weeks, many onetime and current Trump allies have broken with the ex-president and endorsed Kleefisch, such as former Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Ted Cruz. But the ideological fault lines in this primary may be the opposite of what you’d expect. While Kleefisch does have ties to the party establishment, she has claimed that the 2020 election in Wisconsin was “rigged,” while the outsider Michels has been coyer on the subject, saying he doesn’t know whether the election was stolen and that it is time to move on. He also initially resisted abolishing the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission, which most pro-Trump Republicans (including the other candidates for governor) want to do because they blame it for President Biden’s victory in the state (though Michels eventually came around to the idea of eliminating it). 

For what it’s worth, a few Trump true believers, such as his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, have endorsed another candidate, state Rep. Timothy Ramthun, who has centered his campaign on decertifying the 2020 election in Wisconsin. However, he is clocking in only the single digits in the polls.

The other major Democratic incumbent that Republicans are hoping to beat is Attorney General Josh Kaul, who has said that he will not enforce the state’s 1849 abortion ban and is suing to have it effectively overturned. By contrast, the two main Republicans seeking to challenge him, former state Assembly member Adam Jarchow and Fond du Lac County District Attorney Eric Toney, have both said they would enforce the ban. There are no public polls of the GOP primary, but Jarchow outraised Toney by about $542,000 to nearly $113,000 between Jan. 1 and July 25.

A third Republican candidate, attorney Karen Mueller, has focused her campaign more on coronavirus- and election-related conspiracy theories, saying she would investigate hospitals whose doctors refused to administer the antiparasitic drug ivermectin to COVID-19 patients and that the 2020 election should be decertified. However, her anemic fundraising (about $41,000 for the year) suggests she’s not a serious threat to win.


Check back tomorrow to learn more about the Democratic primaries on the ballot on Tuesday — and don’t forget to join us for our live blog of the results, starting Tuesday night at 7 p.m. Eastern. 

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