The Hot Seats: An Ohio Special Election Comes Down to Pelosi

A weekly guide to the midterms races everyone is talking about.

Photo illustration: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Danny O'Connor with the "Hot Seats" art.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Alex Wong/Getty Images, and Danny O’Connor for Congress.

Welcome to the Hot Seats, Slate’s weekly guide to the seven midterms races that everyone is talking about now.

Our wonderful July of few primaries is about to give way to a frustratingly busy August. On Tuesday, we’ll finally see the results of a special election that’s growing in national attention (and cost), and by the end of next month, we’ll have some blockbuster primaries in Arizona and Florida. Most general-election campaigns will get into full swing in August, especially as the House leaves for its six-week recess. Hopefully you’ve enjoyed what’s been a relatively quiet week in campaign news. It will get worse.

1. Ohio’s 12th District

Republicans get the Nancy Pelosi slip-up they wanted.
Just as Tuesday’s special election seemed to be trending toward Democrats—with prognosticators moving this longtime red district to “toss-up” status, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into it—the party’s nominee, Danny O’Connor, gave Republicans the opening they wanted. In an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, O’Connor—who had previously said he wouldn’t support Nancy Pelosi for leader—was pressed over whether he would support her in a hypothetical speaker’s vote between her and a Republican. “I would support whoever the Democratic Party puts forward,” O’Connor eventually conceded. This was on Tuesday. By Wednesday, the National Republican Congressional Committee had already put out two ads.

2. Pennsylvania’s 17th District

Conor Lamb takes a big lead in his new district.
Democratic Rep. Conor Lamb, the original boyish anti-Pelosi, New Deal Democratic hero who won a special election in Trump country, will be running in a new, and more favorable, district this fall after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court redrew the state’s congressional map. The new lines mean Lamb will be running against a fellow incumbent, Rep. Keith Rothfus. It’s never easy for Conor Lamb! Unless it is: A Monmouth University survey this week showed Lamb with a 12 percentage point lead, 51 to 39 percent, in this new R+3 district outside Pittsburgh. Cook Political moved the race “toss-up” to “lean Democratic,” a category in which Rothfus joins Virginia Rep. Barbara Comstock as the most vulnerable Republicans in the country.

3. Georgia Governor

Do Democrats have a chance against the GOP’s … interesting … nominee?
Here we have a race in which the two candidates don’t appear to be running in the same galaxy, let alone the same state, for the same seat. In May, Democrats nominated Stacey Abrams, former minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives, for governor. She’s the first African-American woman to win a major party gubernatorial nomination in history, and she’s running on a progressive platform that includes expanding Medicaid, decriminalizing marijuana, and ending cash bail. Her Trump-backed opponent, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, won his runoff Tuesday night. Judging by Kemp’s campaign ads, Abrams could not have drawn a whiter opponent. Several involve terrorizing a teenager named Jake who wants to date one of his daughters; in one, Kemp points a shotgun at the young suitor. A separate ad depicts Kemp in a truck offering personally to round up “criminal illegals.” Folks, I don’t even know. But Cook did move the race to “lean Republican,” with “toss-up” potential, after Kemp’s victory.

4. Michigan Governor

Bernie Sanders gives a last-minute boost to a progressive challenger.
In 2016, Bernie Sanders won the Michigan presidential primary, despite some polls showing him trailing by as much as 20 percentage points. A similar level of historic polling error is what Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a Sanders-esque progressive who’s earned national attention with his bid to become the first Muslim governor of any U.S. state, will need to see if he’s going to win the primary on Aug. 7. Sanders announced his endorsement for El-Sayed, who also has the backing of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, this week. The most recent survey, commissioned by the Detroit Free Press, showed El-Sayed only 3 percentage points behind another candidate, Shri Thanedar. The problem is that they’re both trailing former state Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer and her 49 percent.

5. Texas Senate

Ted Cruz and Beto O’Rourke will debate between infinity or infinity-plus-one times.
Earlier this year, Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke challenged Sen. Ted Cruz to six debates in the Senate race, two of which would be in Spanish. (Someone’s Spanish is a little better than the other’s.) Cruz’s campaign sent O’Rourke a counteroffer this week of five debates, beginning in late August, each on separate policy areas, and to be conducted solely in English. That’s a lot of one-on-one time for a supposedly safe incumbent to be offering an upstart, but Cruz, who was on the debate squad at Princeton, has a high opinion of his debating skills as well as of himself. Meanwhile, O’Rourke has continued with his unusual strategy of agreeing to profiles in New York glossies. This one is in Town & Country magazine and calls him “Kennedyesque,” right there in the subheadline. Stop!

6. West Virginia Senate

Don Blankenship will fight to the death in his quest to solidify Joe Manchin’s re-election.
It didn’t pan out for ex-con coal baron Don Blankenship in the Republican primary this spring. But he won’t let a decisive loss deter him from glory. After hinting that he might try to run as a third-party candidate against Republican Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, Blankenship made it official this week. It’s now a legal question of whether he can get on the ballot: West Virginia has a “sore loser law” that blocks primary losers from running third-party campaigns, one that Blankenship likens to something “the Communist or Nazi party would do.” (Both possible third-party options for him.) The West Virginia secretary of state blocked Blankenship’s bid on Thursday, but Blankenship will now challenge the law in court. Don Blankenship is one of the country’s great bozos of our time.
Manchin’s team would welcome his inclusion on the ballot.

7. North Dakota Senate

Kevin Cramer walks a fine line on Trump’s farm bailout.
The Trump administration announced this week that it would throw $12 billion at farmers who’ve suffered from retaliatory tariffs as part of Donald Trump’s omnidirectional trade war. The question is whether that will be enough to ease the angers of Trump voters in keys districts and states this November. Earlier this week, for example, Vice President Mike Pence visited North Dakota to campaign for the GOP Senate candidate, Rep. Kevin Cramer. While there, he held a roundtable with agricultural leaders, who tore into him over their inability to sell their crops. It’s a delicate balance for Cramer, who’s trying to maintain his support for Trump even while Trump’s pro-tariff policy stance is actively hurting Cramer. It’s the sort of tension that produces wishy-washy statements like this from Cramer, in which he argues that “we want trade not aid,” but also takes credit for the emergency aid, praises Trump, and calls out China.