The first House Republican to vote for Donald Trump’s impeachment and face a Trump-endorsed challenger in a primary paid the price for it in South Carolina. Maine set up a preview of a potential Trump-Joe Biden rematch in 2024. And a heavily Latino swath of southern Texas swung right.
The midterm primary calendar has now worked through nearly half of the states, with primaries on Tuesday in South Carolina, Nevada, North Dakota and Maine.
Here are five takeaways from a night that tested the power of Trump, incumbency and anti-establishment fervor on the right:
Impeachment is a killer
If we’ve learned anything from this year’s primaries, it’s that Trump isn’t invincible. Brian Kemp and Brad Raffensperger both thumped Trump-endorsed challengers in Georgia. A handful of House Republicans who voted to create a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol survived in last week’s primaries. And on Tuesday in South Carolina, Rep. Nancy Mace, despite her criticisms of the former president, was running ahead of her Trump-backed challenger.
But if there’s a limit to how severely a Republican can cross Trump, the other closely-watched House race in South Carolina appeared to lay it bare. Tom Rice, the representative who voted to impeach Trump and never backed off his criticism of him, lost his primary to Trump-endorsed state Rep. Russell Fry.
Some 17 months after Rice voted to impeach, he pulled about a quarter of the vote in the coastal district he’s represented for a decade. Rice said he is at peace with his vote to impeach and hopes to inspire others not to cower to Trump, but he may not have achieved his goal.
For the remaining House candidates who voted to impeach Trump — and who have not retired — the result is foreboding. Rice and his family suffered through personal turmoil, death threats and hate mail, only to see a brutal loss to a Trump-backed foe. Few would want to follow his path.
But Rice was perhaps worse off than many of the others who chose to impeach. Reps. Peter Meijer (R-Mich.), David Valadao (R-Calif.) and Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.) all have somewhat moderate districts where Democrats and independents might support their decision. Herrera Beutler and Reps. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.) also have all-party primaries that could offer some cushion.
Rice had to face an angry GOP base with little buffer.
“He voted to impeach, and Mace did not,” said one South Carolina Republican familiar with the Mace and Rice campaigns.
Trump’s the establishment now
Adam Laxalt had the backing of Trump and a host of prominent national GOP leaders and groups, and he may be fine in his bid to represent Nevada in the Senate. But no matter what the final tally may be, it wasn’t expected to be this hard for a former state attorney general with a political pedigree.
Sam Brown, the wounded Afghanistan veteran and anti-establishment outsider, secured the endorsement of the Nevada Republican Party this spring, and Laxalt and his allies were forced to scramble. In just the last three weeks, the Club for Growth has spent roughly $750,000 on television ads attacking Brown in an effort to shore up Laxalt’s support among Republicans. Laxalt brought Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis out to campaign with him in Nevada, and he received support from Trump last week in the form of a tele-town hall.
And for all of Laxalt’s big-name national support, he and Brown raised similar amounts throughout the primary, with Brown finding success with small-dollar donors.
While Trump remains wildly popular with the Nevada GOP — some 89 percent of Republican voters there view him favorably, according to the latest Nevada Independent poll — he still isn’t clearing most GOP primary fields in 2022.
Teeing up a Trump-Biden preview in Maine
Few states will offer a better preview of a potential Joe Biden-Donald Trump rematch in 2024 than the gubernatorial race that got set up Tuesday in Maine.
Paul LePage, the former Republican governor back to challenge Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, could hardly be more Trump-like – the kind of brash, vulgarity-prone politician who told former President Barack Obama to “go to hell,” and blamed the state’s heroin epidemic on drug dealers with names like “D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty” who, LePage said, come to Maine and return home after impregnating a “young white girl.”
He has boasted that he was “Donald Trump before Donald Trump.”
And then there’s Mills, who is … not that.
“LePage, I’m not even sure what the right word might be for his attitude toward governing. Flamboyant, maybe?” said David Farmer, a Democratic political operative who was deputy chief of staff to LePage’s predecessor, Gov. John Baldacci. “A lot of vitriol. A lot of headlines. And Mills has governed with no drama, like Biden in a sense.”
He said, “Just like at the national level, we’re seeing those forces clash again.”
The Maine election won’t draw a perfect line to 2024. Mills has a better public approval rating than Biden. It’s only one state. But the cost of living and inflation are weighing just as heavily on Mainers as they are voters nationwide. And with the primary settled, we’re already getting a look there at how Republicans will run against an incumbent chief executive.
LePage is pummeling Mills — as Trump is Biden — over the state of the economy. And in a sign that Republicans will not likely abandon the culture wars anytime soon, the GOP is up with ads criticizing Mills for a video that was on the state Department of Education website of a teacher explaining transgender identity to kindergarteners.
Democrats take a blow in Texas
House Republicans made huge inroads in their effort to turn South Texas red, capturing a heavily Latino — and historically Democratic — district on Tuesday night. Republican Mayra Flores will become the first Republican to represent her South Texas district in modern history.
Democrats’ nightmare here is twofold. They have lost a crucial seat in their razor-thin House majority, putting the squeeze on their ability to pass legislation for the rest of the year. But Republicans have also gained crucial momentum in a region they are targeting seriously in the fall. South Texas took a hard swing to the right in 2020, buoyed by Trump’s popularity in the region. This race demonstrates that that was not a fluke. Even though Biden carried this district by 4 points in 2020, Flores has built a comfortable edge over Democrat Dan Sanchez.
The special election, prompted by Democrat Filemon Vela’s resignation, was held under the old congressional district lines. The new boundaries take effect in the fall, which will turn the district into one that Biden would have won by 16 points. But the power of incumbency and the cachet from her upset will give Flores a fighting chance to hold it. And Republicans now feel even more confident that they can flip two other Democratic-held seats in the Rio Grande Valley that will be even more competitive.
Dean Heller’s demise
Tuesday could have marked the beginning of former Sen. Dean Heller’s comeback campaign.
Instead, Heller was running far behind in Nevada’s Republican gubernatorial primary. With more than a third of the expected vote in, Heller was trailing not only former Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo, who was leading, but also two other contenders, lagging in single digits.
If the results hold, it’s hard to see how Heller will be able to overcome this loss and rebuild his image with Nevada voters should he want to run again.
Heller, who delivered newspapers to the governor’s mansion as a kid growing up in Carson City, has wanted to be governor for decades. He first contemplated making a bid for the office in 1998 and briefly thought about running in 2018 until it became clear then-state Attorney General Adam Laxalt planned to run.
Heller earned a reputation in the early days of his political career for being a maverick who wouldn’t toe the party line. He first ran for the state Assembly as a 30-year-old Republican pro-abortion-rights Mormon.
But by his 2018 Senate re-election campaign, Heller was fending off attacks from Democrats and Republicans alike who accused him of flip flopping on key issues — namely, whether to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act and his support for President Donald Trump, who he had declared he was “99 percent against” just two years earlier. Despite Trump’s endorsement — which some of his supporters viewed as tepid at best — Heller lost his re-election bid by 5 percentage points.
Instead of returning to his mavericky roots this cycle, though, Heller leaned hard to the right, calling President Joe Biden an “illegitimate” president and calling the state home to the “worst election laws in the country.” Lombardo, meanwhile, has recognized that Biden was legitimately elected.
And what did Heller get for his efforts? Trump still endorsed Lombardo, and barring a dramatic turnabout in the vote-tallying on Wednesday, Heller’s political career is all but dead.
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