The Surge

Slate’s guide to the most important figures in politics this week.

Welcome to this week’s edition of the Surge, which marks the first of countless editions in the next year-and-change devoted to the 2022 midterm elections, which … are starting to look like they may go a wee bit shit for Democrats! One thing Democrats can do, at least, is gerrymander the hell out of the few states they have total control of, even if that means saying bye-bye to the only House Republican they like. One thing Republicans can do to help Democrats is nominate horrendous candidates in important states, and they’re working hard on that.

Let’s start with the phoniest Trump suck-up match in the country.

Josh Mandel holding a microphone against a red, white, blue, and purple background
Josh Mandel. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by USA Today Network via Reuters Connect.

Rank 1

Last Week

1. Ohio Senate

Send in the clowns.

It is worth considering what the Senate GOP Conference is losing and what it stands to gain in 2022. It is losing to retirement, among others, Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, and Ohio Sen. Rob Portman. Beyond Mitch McConnell, if you needed just three Republican senators who knew what they were doing enough to keep the government functioning, it might be these precise three. There’s a good chance, too, that the three Republicans who replace them will be the three worst senators in the entire body. Case in point: the Ohio Senate Republican primary, a world-historical marvel of national decline. J.D. Vance is a Yale-educated venture capitalist bestselling author who is pretending to be a more mean-spirited version of Donald Trump. He went from voting for Evan McMullin in 2016 to now yelling at “establishment Republicans” who are risking American “sovereignty” by welcoming Afghan refugees. One of Vance’s main competitors is former state Treasurer Josh Mandel, who has always looked like a 14-year-old boy but only now is perfecting the politics of one. Mandel, who’s already twice failed to become a U.S. senator and is now “fighting to protect the Judeo-Christian bedrock of America,” believes his ticket is praising people who come to work sick during a pandemic and tweeting polls of whether Mexican or Muslim immigrants would commit more crimes in the U.S. This is what a contest for Donald Trump’s endorsement looks like in today’s election environment, and it will likely get worse the longer that endorsement dangles in the open. The damage done during this mess of a GOP primary will, at least, give the favorite for the Democratic nomination, Rep. Tim Ryan, a small chance even in a state that’s considerably reddened.

Rank 2

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2. Illinois’ 16th District

How many ways can Adam Kinzinger lose his seat?

Illinois GOP Rep. Adam Kinzinger put his neck on the line to speak out forcefully against Donald Trump’s plentiful abuses of power, and now he lends bipartisan credence to the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection. Democrats appreciate his patriotism and placement of country over party. But … and they’re super sorry about this … now they kind of need to eliminate his congressional district?? Since Republicans have a national redistricting advantage, Democrats need to maximize their gains in the states where they have total control of the process. That puts a lot of pressure, specifically, on Democrats in New York and Illinois. In Illinois, Democrats are looking to shore up a couple of incumbent Democratic districts and take GOP Rep. Rodney Davis’ district. Due to the census results, they have to get rid of one district, too, and eliminating Kinzinger’s 16th—a broad exurban swath stretching from the Wisconsin border to the Indiana border—is the ideal candidate to resolve these issues. Kinzinger is aware that he may be written off—and also, that if he somehow is spared in redistricting, he would have to survive a House Republican primary where he’d be a top Donald Trump target for revenge. But he also knows that if the national environment is good for Republicans in 2022, he might be well-situated for a statewide general election for either governor or senator (again, if he can get through a primary). You laugh. But Republicans did win Illinois Senate and gubernatorial races in the 2010 Democratic wipeout.

Rank 3

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3. Maryland’s 1st District

Will Democrats do the Lord’s work and get rid of Andy Harris?

Is this really the third most important 2022 story to watch? Eh. But the Surge is from Maryland (go crabs, crabs are No. 1) and deeply cares about this, so here we are, Maryland. In the last redistricting, Maryland congressional Democrats went from a 6–2 advantage over Republicans to a 7–1 advantage. In doing so, they packed Republican votes into the 1st District, gifting Rep. Andy Harris a blood-red kingdom for a decade. What a pain that’s been! Harris, a Freedom Caucus member who recently set off a metal detector to get onto the House floor because he was carrying a gun, is most famous regionally for blocking D.C. from implementing its own marijuana legalization referendum. He has been a culture-war busybody since he was in the state Senate, trying to defund the University of Maryland because some students held a showing of a porno. The question now is whether the state Assembly’s Democratic supermajorities will eliminate his district and go for the 8–0 shutout, even if that means making some of the other Democratic seats slightly less safe (but still pretty safe!) for incumbents. The way Democrats should think about this is as follows: What would Republicans do in this situation? Well, they would find a way to prevent Democrats from voting entirely. So Democrats should at least feel free to draw the most aggressive map.

Rank 4

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4. Florida Governor

A competitive race, or a Democratic attention sink?

The delta variant has been positively kicking Florida’s ass. And given Gov. Ron DeSantis’ controversial efforts to prevent localities from instituting mask mandates, his numbers are taking a hit. His approval rating is underwater, and recent polls show him trailing both of his most likely Democratic gubernatorial competitors, Charlie Crist and Nikki Fried. One way to look at this is that national Democrats may have a good opportunity to take out one of their most despised villains, and a potential 2024 presidential candidate, and grab back the Florida governorship for the first time since the 1990s. Another way to look at this, though, is to see that Democrats will begin to think they can do that, devote untold sums of money and emotional energy to the effort, and then lose by like 20 points. First, it’s Florida, where Democratic hopes were utterly flattened in the 2016, 2018, and 2020 elections, and the environment will probably be better for Republicans in 2022 than it was in any of those cycles. Second, the delta surge in Florida will crest and burn out—it may already be doing so—and DeSantis will declare victory and ask what all the fuss was about. Taking out MEGA PRESIDENTIAL FRONT-RUNNER RON DESANTIS in a gubernatorial reelection would be a flagship victory for Democrats in 2022, even if everything else went to hell. But it may be too good to be true.

Rank 5

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5. Georgia Senate

Can Raphael Warnock draw the worst opponent in the country for a second straight cycle?

The most endangered Democrat in the Senate this cycle is Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock, who is running for a full term after winning a special election runoff in January. Warnock won that runoff for a few reasons: He was an excellent candidate, Trump’s lies about a stolen election depressed Republican turnout, and he was running against the worst candidate whom party leaders thought would be a good candidate in recent memory, Kelly Loeffler. Well, Warnock is still an excellent candidate, but Republicans will be pretty energized to vote him out this time around. It’s possible, though, that Warnock will once again draw an absolutely terrible opponent: Former Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker, at Donald Trump’s urging and with his full backing, joined the Georgia Senate race this week. While Walker would bring star power to the race, he has some major red flags on his resume. An Associated Press report from last month revealed that Walker “repeatedly threatened his ex-wife’s life, exaggerated claims of financial success and alarmed business associates with unpredictable behavior.” Walker also only just recently—like, very recently—moved back to Georgia after decades living in Texas. Mitch McConnell, for one, is really nervous about Walker’s candidacy. And that probably only made Trump push Walker to run more.

Rank 6

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6. Pennsylvania Senate

The hot Democratic primary issue this cycle: Joe Manchin.

We’re still waiting on Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson to announce whether he’s running for reelection. (And, just generally, to announce what his deal is.) Until then, Democrats’ best opportunity to pick up a Senate seat comes in Pennsylvania, where retiring GOP Sen. Pat Toomey is leaving an open seat. Republicans are still getting their field in order. The Democratic side, however, could be a wild ride. Among the announced candidates are moderate Rep. Conor Lamb, idiosyncratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, young state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta from Philadelphia, and EMILY’s List–backed physician and Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh. Lamb only recently entered the race, and Fetterman currently has the most cash and support in early polls. One thing we’ll be interested in watching as this unfolds: the extent to which Senate Democrats’ leading centrists, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, become a storyline in a Democratic Senate primary that’s not in either of their states. Fetterman has been vocal about the need to get rid of the Senate filibuster, and regularly trashes both Manchin and Sinema for their role in defending it. Lamb recently got on board with ditching the filibuster. He did, however, hold a fundraiser with Manchin earlier this spring. Expect that to come up as Manchin, much to progressives’ frustration, works to downsize the $3.5 trillion spending package Democrats are eyeing for the fall.

Rank 7

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7. New Hampshire Senate

Waiting for the other Sunu-shoe to drop.

One race where the danger for Democrats of getting screwed is being significantly underdiscussed is in New Hampshire, where Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan, who won in 2016 by only about 1,000 votes, is up for a second term. This is a case where candidate recruitment can make all the difference. The state is waiting, and waiting, and waiting, for New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu—a Republican who’s not as popular as he once was but is still quite popular, especially among independents—to announce what he’s going to run for in 2022. Mitch McConnell and NRSC chair Rick Scott are practically camped outside his home begging him to run for Senate, as his entry would make this one of the premier matchups of the cycle. Sununu is drawing the whole thing out to tortuous effect, saying he may not make a decision until winter. He has some of the same questions that a lot of governors, used to wielding executive power in their own domains, have about running for Senate. Specifically: Why in the world would I want to commute to Washington each week to serve in a glorified lunch club? This is a guy who could quit politics and go back to managing a ski resort. But even if choosing to run for the Senate when you could be doing anything else is a stupid idea, which it is, pressure campaigns like this have a way of succeeding when the opportunity is too good to miss. And if Sununu does run, Hassan is in deep trouble.