|Dear Readers: We all know democracy is in crisis, but what can we do to fix it? Politics Is Everything is a new podcast from the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia hosted by Carah Ong Whaley, Kyle Kondik, and other members of the Center for Politics team. Each week, episodes will include in-depth conversations with practitioners, academics, students, policymakers, and advocates who are applying their knowledge and experience to improving politics and strengthening democracy. We will also share our expertise from Sabato’s Crystal Ball and engage in thoughtful discussions to inspire informed political and civic participation.
Subscribe to Politics Is Everything on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music, or Stitcher. New episodes include a conversation with Bulwark writer and MSNBC analyst Tim Miller about his new book, Why We Did It, and a discussion with the Crystal Ball’s J. Miles Coleman about today’s article, which documents the history of ticket splitting in midterm Senate and gubernatorial races and ponders which states might produce split outcomes this year.
— The Editors
KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— Over the past several midterms, the number of states splitting their ticket between Senate and gubernatorial races has gone down.
— Still, using more recent history as a guide, it seems likely that at least a few states will cross over.
— The states that split their ticket in midterms are sometimes — and even often — not the ones that see the most competitive races.
A declining trend continues on
Writing for a 1979 edition of Congressional Quarterly’s Politics in America books, Warden Moxley noted that the data compiled in that volume illustrated one of the biggest political trends of the time: split-ticket voting. “In increasing numbers,” Moxley observed, “voters have left old party loyalties behind as they choose ‘the man, not the party.’” During a decade of political upheaval, an antsy electorate seemed to be shopping around between the parties. Indeed, as author Michael Barone pointed out on a podcast last year, the 1970s was a rare decade that ousted 3 presidents — after one resigned, the subsequent 2 were defeated.
Though there is certainly no shortage of volatility in today’s politics, the trend of split-ticket voting has fallen off sharply. For example, 2016 marked the first time in the popular vote era where every state that had a Senate contest voted exactly as it did for president. The last election was not much different on that front: only Maine, a state well-known for its idiosyncrasies, split its ticket.
In midterm years, though, where presidential contests aren’t the main event, the tone may be comparatively less straight-party. Looking ahead to the fall, with Senate and gubernatorial races looming as the biggest statewide contests, we thought we’d explore which states appear most likely to produce a split outcome. Every midterm since the end of World War II has seen at least 1 state vote for different parties for a concurrent Senate and governor race, and typically there’s at least a half-dozen such outcomes.
Table 1 considers all the midterm elections in the postwar era. Over 19 midterms, there have been 165 instances of states splitting their ticket. In 1946, shortly after the last soldiers had returned home from the Pacific theater, only Nevada made the list. We should note that the first few cycles of Table 1 came in years before Republicans could expect to compete in the South, which whittled down the pool of plausible split-ticket state possibilities. From 1962 to 2006, it was common for 10 or more states to split their tickets each cycle — solid evidence of the trend that Moxley described in the late 1970s. While the pattern has tapered in recent cycles, if 2022 falls in line with the 3 most recent midterms, we can still expect 5 or 6 split ticket cases. The question then becomes: Which states are the likeliest to do it?
Table 1: Split ticket states in postwar midterms
Sources: Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections, past editions of America Votes, Wikipedia
One of the most notable characteristics of 2018, the most recent midterm, was that the split was almost all in one direction. Setting aside Maine — which one could, arguably, exclude from the table, as independent Sen. Angus King is functionally a Democrat — each split outcome state sent Democrats to the Senate but chose Republicans as governors.
Limiting our scope to the midterms since 2010, only 3 split-ticket scenarios saw both the Senate and gubernatorial races decided by less than 5 percentage points — and none of those cases were in 2018.
In 2014, Senate Republicans got their ideal recruit against then-Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) in then-Rep. Cory Gardner (R, CO-4). Although his focus on the issue may have ultimately been prescient, Udall was criticized for running a near-single issue campaign as he tried to hit Gardner on abortion politics. Gardner won 48%-46% while then-Gov. John Hickenlooper (D-CO) held on 49%-46%. Further north, Alaska was the only state to oust both a senator and a governor that year — and they were each of different parties. Then-Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK), who had to contend with a national anti-Obama tide, and then-Gov. Sean Parnell (R-AK), who was criticized over his handling of the state’s oil revenues, lost by 2 points apiece.
In 2010, the Land of Lincoln was the only split-ticket state that saw 2 competitive contests. Republicans nominated Mark Kirk, a moderate Republican who represented Chicago’s North Shore in the House at the time, while Democratic nominee Alexi Giannoulias, then the state treasurer, couldn’t get beyond ethical questions stemming from his family’s bank. In what was considered an embarrassment to Democrats, Kirk won then-President Barack Obama’s old seat by less than 2 points. In the gubernatorial race, though, Republicans didn’t field a Kirk-quality recruit. Democrat Pat Quinn, who trailed in most polls after taking over for the disgraced Rod Blagojevich (D), won a full term by less than a percentage point — Quinn’s opponent, then-state Sen. Bill Brady, a downstate Republican, couldn’t replicate Kirk’s showing in the Chicago Collar Counties. In 2014, as veteran Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) was held to the closest reelection margin of his career, Illinois voters went on to split their tickets against Quinn. As another aside, Giannoulias is trying to stage a comeback this year, as the Democratic nominee for Illinois Secretary of State.
Bringing things more into the present, there are 26 states that have both a Senate and a gubernatorial race this year — these are the purple states in Map 1. As we will get into below, there are more than a dozen states where we could see a split-ticket outcome, although some of those states clearly seem more predisposed to it than others, so the eventual tally should be lower.
Map 1: States with Senate and gubernatorial races in 2022
States with at least one non-competitive race
So, as split-ticket states with 2 close contests have been rare in recent cycles, we’ll start our search for potential split outcome scenarios by looking at states that have at least one contest that the Crystal Ball rates as either Likely or Safe.
Every midterm since 1990 has featured at least one split-ticket result in New England, and that should very likely be the case again in 2022. Specifically, New Hampshire and Vermont are prime candidates this year.
Going into this cycle, Senate Democrats were bracing for a scenario where popular Gov. Chris Sununu (R-NH) challenged first-term Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH). In 2016, when Hassan made the jump to the Senate, Sununu replaced her as governor. But Sununu, citing his productivity as the state’s top executive and the dysfunction that often seems to grip the Senate, preferred to stay in New Hampshire — he announced plans to run for a fourth term, which he is heavily favored to win. As Joe Biden carried the state by just over 7 points in 2020, Sununu took 65% in his reelection bid that year, and his coattails were long enough to flip control of the legislature to the GOP. Hassan still isn’t a prohibitive favorite, but we rate her race as Leans Democratic. While her lesser-known GOP rivals have been battling it out ahead of the state’s Sept. 13 primary, she has been running ads aimed at bolstering her bipartisan image.
The situation in next door Vermont is much more clear cut — in fact, it is probably the state most inclined to split its ticket. Earlier this month, Democrats nominated Rep. Peter Welch, who has been representing the state’s At-Large seat in the House since the 2006 elections, to replace the retiring Pat Leahy, the current Senate Pro Tempore. In what was already a longshot race for them, Republicans did themselves no favors by nominating Gerald Malloy, a strident conservative, over former US Attorney Christina Nolan. Nolan had support from Gov. Phil Scott, who is seeking a fourth term himself, and who may be the most liberal Republican currently holding federal or statewide office in the country. In 2018, 203 of Vermont’s nearly 250 towns supported both Welch and Scott — we expect something similar this year.
The only other New England state that features both a Senate and a gubernatorial election this year is Connecticut. A split-ticket result there seems possible, though not likely. With the exception of 2006, which was an odd situation, as then-Sen. Joe Lieberman lost his primary but won as an independent, Democrats have won every Nutmeg State Senate election since 1992 by double digits. Their performance in the gubernatorial elections during that stretch has not been as strong, though: Connecticut elected Republicans from 1994 to 2006, and its past 3 contests have seen Democrats post only narrow wins. However, for this year, Gov. Ned Lamont — who ousted Lieberman in that 2006 primary — is the most popular Democratic governor in the country, according to Morning Consult’s July survey. We have Lamont’s race rated as Likely Democratic and, while National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman Rick Scott (R-FL) at one time seemed to eye Connecticut, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) is in strong shape for a third term.
Since the beginning of the cycle, we have rated both the contests in Scott’s home state as Likely Republican. National Democrats probably consider Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) more of a boogeyman than Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) these days, but we can see both Republicans pulling out clear, if single-digit, wins.
Conversely, we rate both races in Colorado as Likely Democratic. If both races engage, though, Sen. Michael Bennet (D) might be likelier to have trouble than Gov. Jared Polis (D) — which leaves open the possibility of the kind of aforementioned split we saw there in 2014.
In the Midwest, and, while we just yesterday downgraded the GOP’s prospects in the more competitive than-expected Ohio Senate race, we see Gov. Mike DeWine (R-OH) as a solid favorite. With only a relatively short break from 2007 to 2011 — after he was ousted from the Senate — DeWine has held elected office in the state since Jimmy Carter entered the White House. He was also the beneficiary of ticket splitting during the last midterm: as Sen. Sherrod Brown, the Democrat who defeated him in 2006, was reelected by 7 points, DeWine held the open governorship for the GOP. Perhaps importantly, Brown, at the very top of the ticket in 2018, ran far ahead of the other Democrats on the ballot. This same dynamic may play out again in Ohio: Rep. Tim Ryan (D, OH-13) may keep the Senate race reasonably competitive, but Democrats running for other statewide offices may lag behind his showing.
On the other side of the Midwest from Ohio, we’ll say a quick word on another red-trending state, Iowa. Though we’re not expecting a split result there this fall — we have both the Senate and gubernatorial races rated as Safe Republican — the margins may be interesting. Throughout his lengthy career, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), who is known for his down-to-home demeanor and his habit of visiting all of Iowa’s 99 counties each year, has typically been the state’s best-performing Republican. But Grassley will be 89 on Election Day and is receiving an energetic challenge from Navy veteran Michael Franken. Selzer & Co.’s July poll gave Grassley a 47%-39% lead over Franken, while Gov. Kim Reynolds (R-IA) was up by a more comfortable 48%-31%. So even if Republicans keep both offices, which they should, 2022 could be a rare year in Iowa where another Republican outperforms Grassley.
In Kansas, Republican Sen. Jerry Moran seems set to easily win another term, while Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly is locked in a Toss-up reelection race with state Attorney General Derek Schmidt (R). Democrats are hoping that the independent Dennis Pyle, a sitting state senator who is running to Schmidt’s right, may offer Kelly something of a lifeline. Kansas was also the scene of a nationally watched abortion referendum earlier this month. Though the result was widely billed as a victory for Democrats, there were obviously some Republicans who supported the “pro-choice” side — that bloc could be decisive in the fall election. With that in mind, Kelly is working to court moderate Republicans, as she did in 2018.
In the Pacific Northwest, Oregon is almost a mirror image of Kansas: both have hotly-contested gubernatorial races, but the Beaver State has a sleepy Senate election that favors Democrats. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) took 57% in his 2 most recent reelection bids, and this year he faces 2020 GOP nominee — and conspiracy theorist — Jo Rae Perkins. That race is Safe Democratic, but last week, the Crystal Ball moved the state’s 3-way gubernatorial race into the Toss-up column.
Finally, though the Last Frontier is still tabulating votes from its “tundra primary” last week, the gubernatorial race seems at least somewhat less secure for Republicans than the Senate contest. Moderate Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski and her Trump-aligned challenger, Kelly Tshibaka, combined for close to 85% of the primary vote. Though Murkowski, who placed first, probably has the upper hand going into the ranked-choice fall election, it is hard to see the seat not going to one of those Republicans. Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R-AK) will advance to the final round with his predecessor, former independent Gov. Bill Walker, former Democratic state Rep. Les Gara, and (likely) a smaller-name Republican.
Though Alaska wasn’t even a state for the first few midterms in Table 1, it has still seen more instances of postwar split-ticket voting (8) than any other state listed. In the context of 2022, Alaska may be almost a GOP version of Connecticut: the incumbent parties are at some, though not very high, risk of losing the gubernatorial race, while the Senate contests in both seem secure.
States with two competitive races
Moving on the states that are more competitive on both the Senate and gubernatorial fronts, 5 of the 6 closest states in the 2020 presidential election will vote on both offices this year.
In Georgia — the closest state of 2020, going by Biden’s percentage margin — Gov. Brian Kemp scored an overwhelming win in his GOP primary this year. His victory prompted us to shift the rating for his race from Toss-up to Leans Republican. However, it has been our thinking since then that Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) will probably run ahead of former state House Minority Leader Stacy Abrams, who is running in a rematch with Kemp. Aside from his incumbency, Warnock has a weaker opponent, Herschel Walker (R). Polling has generally shown the Republicans doing better in the gubernatorial race than the Senate race.
While Trump’s criticisms of Kemp may actually help the governor earn crossover support by giving him something of an “independent” veneer — even though Kemp is conservative by any reasonable measure — Walker has embraced the former president. It is easy to see there being enough Romney-to-Biden voters in suburban Atlanta to produce a split result in favor of both incumbents. In late July, polling from both Fox News and Insider Advantage put both Kemp and Warnock up by a few points. Given Georgia’s 50% threshold for general elections, it is conceivable that one or even both races advance to a runoff.
Arizona, 2020’s second-closest race by percentage margin, will also feature a newly-elected Democratic Senate incumbent running for a full term. Both its races are Toss-ups, though the most recent polling, from Fox News, shows Sen. Mark Kelly (D-AZ) doing several points better in his race than Katie Hobbs, the current Secretary of State and Democratic gubernatorial nominee, is in her race. During this time in the 2020 cycle, Kelly would sometimes poll double-digits ahead of then-appointed Sen. Martha McSally (R-AZ). But the astronaut Kelly’s numbers eventually came back “down to Earth,” and converged more with Biden’s showing in the state, even though Kelly ran a little ahead of him.
Staying out west, Nevada has been one of the more straight-ticket marginal states in recent cycles. In 2020, lacking a Senate or gubernatorial race, Democrats won the House popular vote there by 2.3%, about identical to Biden’s 2.4% margin. In 2018, Republicans took 45% in the state’s top 2 races. In 2016, now-Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) won her seat by posting a raw vote margin that was within 300 votes of Hillary Clinton’s, although there were some more substantive differences in their coalitions — Cortez Masto outpaced Clinton the rural areas, but ran behind in the Reno area. Third parties also tend to do relatively well in Nevada, which can sometimes be decisive: in 2012, then-Sen. Dean Heller (R) got the same 46% that Mitt Romney took in Nevada, but won as a third party candidate, along with the state’s “none of these candidates” option, combined to soak up almost 10% in his race.
Wisconsin, despite being one of the most quintessentially purple states on today’s map, only split its ticket twice on Table 1, and both instances were in the 1990s — as it sent Democrats to the Senate, popular Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson dominated state politics. In 2018, the Badger State came close to producing a split result — as Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) was comfortably reelected, Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI) only narrowly lost his job to then-state Education Superintendent Tony Evers. As Evers runs for a second term, his sitting lieutenant governor, Mandela Barnes, is the Democratic nominee against controversial Republican Sen. Ron Johnson.
In last week’s post-primary release from the Marquette University Law School’s poll, Evers was narrowly ahead in his race — which was basically expected — while Barnes led Johnson by a surprisingly large 51%-44%. Republicans are planning to ramp up spending in the state, which may soften Barnes’s numbers. If the dynamic between Evers and Barnes persists, one parallel to the race may be Florida in 2018. Throughout much of the general election campaign, it seemed like Andrew Gillum, the Democrats’ gubernatorial nominee, and a non-incumbent, would outperform then-Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), an incumbent who was a few generations older. Though the Democrats narrowly (and very painfully) lost both contests, Nelson came closer to winning.
Finally, Pennsylvania, which has not split its midterm ticket since 1986, is seeing 2 blockbuster contests. After the May primary, we moved the state’s gubernatorial race from Toss-up to Leans Democratic, while we kept the Senate contest in the former — and more competitive — category. Our reasoning was that, in terms of candidate quality, the gubernatorial race offered a starker contrast: state Sen. Doug Mastriano seemed a more polarizing Republican than television doctor Mehmet Oz, while state Attorney General Josh Shapiro (D) has a more concrete record of earning crossover support than his Senate counterpart, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman. While we are keeping the Senate race as a Toss-up for now, it seems reasonable to say that if the election was held today, the Keystone State would not split its ticket — Democrats would win both races.
Though increasing polarization has been a hallmark of the American electorate over the past several cycles, it seems likely that at least a few states will render a split verdict in their statewide contests this fall. We count more than a dozen prospects, with some more promising than others — and some of those cases, like those in New England, will feature relatively low-key races. Perhaps counterintuitively, states hosting multiple competitive contests may behave in a more straight-party fashion than expected. To use a recent example from the Crystal Ball’s home state, while our gubernatorial race received the most attention last year, the lieutenant governor and attorney general offices were also on the ballot — though all 3 results were decided by less than 2 percentage points, Republicans won them all.
Author: J. Miles Coleman