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Notes on the State of Politics: Dec. 7, 2023

A Commentary By J. Miles Coleman


— The pending resignation of former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R, CA-20) and Rep. Patrick McHenry’s (R, NC-10) retirement announcement are notable developments, but they do not precipitate rating changes.

— With New York’s George Santos (R, NY-3) expelled from Congress, a special election in his district will be held in February.

— A recent special election in Utah’s 2nd District stood out as something of an exception: a special election where Republicans overperformed.

— Though Georgia Republicans were ordered to draw a new congressional map, the plan that they produced maintains the state’s existing 9-5 Republican split.

McHenry, McCarthy leaving Congress

As our regular readers are well aware of by now, one thing that we’ve been working to document over the past month or so is the high clip of retirements in the House. On Tuesday, Rep. Patrick McHenry (R, NC-10) joined the roster of members heading for the exits.

Considering McHenry was one of now-former Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s (R, CA-20) top lieutenants while the latter was in power, it seemed likely that yet another retirement was on the horizon. Sure enough, yesterday, McCarthy penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal announcing his plans to depart Congress later this month. After his ouster, the now-former speaker initially insisted that he would stick around Congress, but appeared less enthusiastic earlier this week. With filing deadlines fast approaching—California’s is tomorrow and North Carolina’s is next Friday—both Republicans were under some degree of pressure to announce their plans.

Though McCarthy’s announcement is the more visible part of this one-two punch, it was the less surprising of the pair. As we suggested back in October, it simply did not make much sense for McCarthy, after achieving his goal of the speakership and then losing it after less than a year on the job, to stay on as a rank-and-file member.

Though former Speaker John Boehner (R) once predicted that McHenry would have his job one day, McHenry was not an especially high-profile member—until a few months ago. Following McCarthy’s ouster, McHenry became the House’s acting speaker for about a month. As his party was searching for a permanent McCarthy replacement, McHenry repeatedly insisted that he was not interested in staying in the job long-term.

Aside from taking on what must have been an incredibly frustrating role during the speakership spectacle, term limits may have also informed McHenry’s decision. And no, not those types of term limits. House Republicans are limited to three consecutive terms as the top Republican on committees. McHenry became the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee in January and served as the ranking Republican for the previous two Democratic-controlled sessions of the House. In Texas, retiring Rep. Kay Granger (R, TX-12), who leads the Appropriations Committee, is another termed-out chair.

On North Carolina’s outgoing congressional plan, McHenry’s NC-10 was the reddest district on the map, as it went 69%-30% for Donald Trump in 2020. Though GOP legislators unpacked the seat as part of their remap a few months ago, it remains a secure Republican seat, as it still went for Trump by a healthy 57%-41%. McHenry’s district (as it did for the 2020 cycle) pairs the Winston-Salem area with some of Charlotte’s northern exurbs.

The Charlotte area may be ground zero for the congressional retirement flood: it seems likely that the region will elect four new GOP members next year. In North Carolina, Districts 6, 8, 10, and 14 are all vacant, double-digit Trump seats that border Charlotte’s Mecklenburg County.

As for McCarthy, because he is resigning at some point this month, a special election for his seat will take place sometime next year. His Bakersfield-area CA-20 is the most Republican-leaning seat in California—it was the only district in the state where Donald Trump broke 60%—so there is little question that his eventual successor will retain his party label.

But in the nearer term, McCarthy’s imminent departure—he will become the second Republican to leave Congress in less than a month—will bring the GOP’s majority down to 220-213. Reps. Brian Higgins (D, NY-26) and Bill Johnson (R, OH-6) are slated to resign sometime early next year to take new jobs, which will further impact the makeup of Congress, at least temporarily (they, like McCarthy, hold safe seats).

Santos replacement to be elected Feb. 13

And now, a bit on the other Republican who recently left Congress. When we published last week, it looked like then-Rep. George Santos’s (R, NY-3) time in Congress was coming to a conclusion. After the House Ethics Committee released a damning report on the Long Island Republican, a resolution to expel him was heading to the House floor. Sure enough, Santos was expelled by a 311-114 vote. In getting to that result, a little less than half of the GOP conference joined with a nearly-unanimous Democratic bloc in a vote that House GOP leadership did not whip for.

Republicans in swing districts clearly saw any association with Santos as an electoral liability. In our state, for instance, the sole Virginia Republican to back Santos’s expulsion was Virginia Beach’s Jen Kiggans, who also happens to be the only Biden-district Republican in the delegation. As Managing Editor Kyle Kondik pointed out after the vote last Friday, 18 of the 20 members that the Crystal Ball puts in the Toss-up or Leans Republican categories voted to remove Santos. The sole exceptions were Santos himself and Colorado’s Lauren Boebert (R, CO-3), a far-right provocateur who seems undaunted by her razor-close 2022 reelection margin. Anti-expulsion Republicans tended to skew more ideologically conservative than their pro-expulsion counterparts, although leadership, perhaps not wanting to be down a seat for at least a stretch in the near-future, sided against expulsion.

On Tuesday, Gov. Kathy Hochul (D-NY) announced Feb. 13 as the date of the special election. As we outlined last week, unlike special elections in some other states, the local parties will choose nominees.

On the Democratic side, the frontrunner seems to be former Rep. Tom Suozzi, who held the seat for three terms before launching a longshot gubernatorial bid against Hochul. Though Suozzi seemed to be on the outs with Hochul after that challenge, the two have reportedly made amends, according to the New York Times. While this would seemingly give Suozzi the inside track to the Democratic nomination, we are also watching former state Sen. Anna Kaplan, who has been running for the seat since May.

Last week, we outlined several of the possible Republican options, with state Sen. Jack Martins, retired police officer Mike Sapraicone, Air Force veteran Kellen Curry, and Nassau County legislator Mazi Melesa Pilip standing out as serious contenders. Pilip seems to be getting a lot of buzz lately, and she has an interesting political profile—she is an Orthodox Jew who was born in Ethiopia and previously served in the Israel Defense Forces (a particularly salient aspect of her biography given recent events). She is also apparently still a registered Democrat despite being elected as a Republican, according to Politico, although that wouldn’t necessarily prevent her from being chosen as the GOP candidate in this race.

It seems likely that the parties will select nominees within the coming days. We may note that there is some chance that the special election nominees may not be the same candidates as the general election nominees. The regularly-scheduled primary will be held in June, and voters will get to choose the nominees then (although at the very least, we would expect the special election winner, who would have incumbency, to be renominated for the regular election).

Though elections on Long Island, and in New York more generally, have had some partisan idiosyncrasies, one promising trend for Democrats has been their record in recent special elections. Table 1 considers special elections since the Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling.

Table 1: Post-Dobbs special elections

Note: Last year’s IN-2 special election is excluded because it was held in conjunction with the 2022 general election for Congress.

Until last month’s result in Utah’s 2nd District, Democrats outperformed Biden’s margin in each post-Dobbs special election.

Something to keep in mind for Utah is that the state’s presidential numbers tend to undersell its Republicanism—generally, Trump, who was temperamentally not a natural fit for the state’s Mormon population, ran behind the GOP baseline there. While now-Rep. Celeste Maloy (R, UT-2) improved by just over 6 points on Trump’s margin in her district, her 23-point margin basically matched what now-former Rep. Chris Stewart (R) won by in the 2022 general election.

And looking under the hood at the UT-2 result, one takeaway seems to be that the area’s religiosity did not make it fertile ground for Democrats to ride any anti-Dobbs backlash. State Sen. Kathleen Riebe, Maloy’s Democratic opponent, actually did a few points better than Biden in the Salt Lake County portion of the 2nd District—this is also the least Mormon area of the district. But in the rest of the district, Riebe’s 20% was down from Biden’s 26%.

As an aside, Maloy’s candidacy may have contributed to a notable parochial dynamic: the Mormon-majority rural counties punched above their weight. Maloy is the first Utah member in decades not to hail from the Wasatch Front, a strip of land between the Wasatch Range and the Great Salt Lake that accounts for about three-fourths of the state’s population. In the 2020 election, 33% of the district’s votes came from its Salt Lake County precincts while Iron and Washington counties, in the southwestern corner of the state, accounted for 32% of its votes. Last month, the former fell to 29% while the latter pair went up to 37% (Maloy is from Iron County).

All this is to say that by February, we’ll have a better idea if the Utah result is truly an anomaly compared to the otherwise recently Democratic-leaning House special election landscape since Dobbs or the start of a trend back towards Republicans.

Rearranging packs: Republicans redraw Georgia

As those of us who follow elections for Congress are waiting for the biggest redistricting-related shoe to drop—whether New York Democrats eventually get to redraw their state’s current court-imposed map more to their liking—one other ongoing skirmish in the redistricting wars has been in Georgia.

As October was winding down, a federal judge appointed by President Obama, Steve Jones, sided with civil rights groups in a case challenging the Peach State’s congressional and legislative maps. This decision came as part of the ripple effect that the U.S. Supreme Court’s Allen v. Milligan ruling from earlier this year created. As Jones tossed out the House map, he ordered an additional Black-majority seat to be drawn west of Atlanta. As it seemed clear that state Republicans would not ignore the court ruling—when faced with a similar ruling from the US Supreme Court, their counterparts in next-door Alabama, to say the least, dragged their feet—pro-Democratic groups were hopeful that the replacement map would be more favorable than the status quo.

But, as it turned out, legislative Republicans essentially reshuffled the lines of the districts that already were in Democratic hands. Map 1 compares the districts in the Atlanta-area under the two plans:

Map 1: Old vs new metro Atlanta districts

As with the version that was struck down, the new Georgia map features 9 Trump-won seats and 5 Biden-won seats. As it is, there are no crossover members in the delegation.

Districts 1, 2, 3, 8, and 12, which each have a sizeable rural contingent and are located south of the state capital, were untouched (which is why Map 1 focuses on the Atlanta area). District 2, held by veteran Rep. Sanford Bishop (D), is the sole Black-majority seat that was unaltered in the new map (it would remain the only marginally competitive seat in the state, and is still clearly Democratic-leaning as Joe Biden carried it by 11 points).

In the Atlanta area, districts 4, 5, and 13 have had the same basic layout since the 2002 elections, when the state gained its 13th seat. The 5th District, which included the state capitol, took in most of Atlanta proper, in Fulton County, while just to the east, the 4th District’s center of gravity was DeKalb County—both seats were heavily Black by composition. After the 2000 census, GA-13 was created as a third Black seat that began in Cobb County and snaked underneath the 4th and 5th Districts to grab minority precincts south of Atlanta.

That basic configuration endured after the post-2020 round of redistricting. But one additional wrinkle was that GOP legislators aimed to up their advantage in the state’s delegation. After the 2020 elections, then-Reps. Lucy McBath and Carolyn Bourdeaux were Democrats who held majority-white suburban districts north of Atlanta that were originally intended to elect Republicans—their wins reduced the GOP edge in the Georgia delegation to just 8-6. Though GOP legislators turned McBath’s seat into a double-digit Trump seat, they redrew Bourdeaux’s district into a heavily Democratic Gwinnett County seat—whites, Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians each accounted for at least 15% of the latter, making it one of the most diverse seats in the nation. As Republicans went on to pick up her old seat, GA-6, McBath moved into the newly created GA-7 and defeated Bourdeaux in the primary, creating the current 9-5 Republican delegation.

District 6, previously a polyglot seat on the east side of Atlanta, reappears as a Black-majority seat west of Atlanta. District 13’s long-running configuration is also absent from the new map—as the most heavily-Black seat on the map (the previous GA-13 was two-thirds Black), it was essentially broken in half as its voters were unpacked.

With that, under the new plan, districts 4, 5, 6, and 13 are all between 50% and 55% Black by composition. Though we have no question that all these districts will elect Democrats next year, GOP mappers were not especially kind to the sitting Democratic incumbents. While Reps. Hank Johnson (D, GA-4) and Nikema Williams (D, GA-5) have obvious constituencies, Reps. McBath and David Scott (D, GA-13) were dealt less favorable hands. While we’ll wait to see what they announce, one smart of observer of Georgia politics suggested McBath could be the “modern-day John Barrow.” Barrow was a southern Georgia Blue Dog who proved resilient despite GOP attempts to tamper with his district (although he eventually lost in the red 2014 midterm).

For Republicans, the biggest upside of the new map came in the area just north of Atlanta. With the redraw, Republicans got a crack at shoring up some of their own (potentially) vulnerable seats. Specifically, on the outgoing map, Districts 6 and 11 were Republican-won seats that have swung sharply towards Democrats over the last decade—they were not especially competitive in 2022, but could have been down the road. Under the new map, GA-6 is renumbered to GA-7 and expands further into the state’s northern exurbs while GA-11 trades out some blue-leaning precincts in Cobb County for redder ones in the northern part of the county. These changes bring the 42% that Joe Biden took in each district down to just under 40%. These changes would give Republicans a bit more of buffer in those seats should the current, pro-Democratic trends persist later into the decade.

While Judge Jones may indeed reject the map, for the sake of ratings, we are assuming that the plan—which is making its way through the legislature and is expected to garner Gov. Brian Kemp’s (R-GA) signature—stands.

Indeed, there is some reason to believe Jones will not accept this GOP-drafted replacement plan. In his original ruling, he instructed legislators not to create new majority-Black seats while eliminating minority access seats elsewhere. While Republicans added a new Black-majority seat, they got there by ripping apart the diverse 7th District. Still, it’s possible that at some point, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals may get involved and be more sympathetic to Georgia Republicans. We can imagine that court, where Republican-appointed judges account for a majority of the body, (or even the U.S. Supreme Court) determining that the legislative Republicans’ remedial map is satisfactory.

J. Miles Coleman is an elections analyst for Decision Desk HQ and a political cartographer. Follow him on Twitter @jmilescoleman.

See Other Political Commentary by J. Miles Coleman.

See Other Political Commentary.

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