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Hot or not, in or out: Our forecast of 2022’s most interesting Southern political races

Trump’s sway will be key metric in outcome of midterm elections across region

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

Decision 2022(CFP) — 2022 has dawned, and with it a mid-term election year in which most Southern states will decide who gets to be their governor and congressional races across the region will play a key role in deciding which party controls Congress.

Of the eight Southern states with open races for governor this year, seven will feature incumbents seeking re-election, with the only open race in Arkansas, where former Donald Trump spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders appears on her way to victory.

Nine U.S. Senate seats will be up, with open races in Alabama and North Carolina and Georgia Democratic U.S. Senator Raphael Warnock battling for a full term after winning a special election runoff in 2020.

Here is a look at some of the hottest races, and likely biggest political stories, of the upcoming year.

Reapportionment Primary-Palooza

The redrawing of new U.S. House maps after reapportionment has set up two Southern primary contests, one in each party, where incumbents will need to defeat a current colleague to stay in Congress.

In Georgia, Republican mapmakers have pitted Democratic U.S. Reps. Lucy McBath and Carolyn Bourdeaux against each other in Atlanta’s suburbs. McBath’s existing district in the northwest suburbs became too Republican for her to survive; Bourdeaux’s in the northeast suburbs actually became more Democratic with the addition of areas that had been in McBath’s orbit.

The two women — who campaigned with each other in 2018 and 2020 and differ little politically — will face off in what is likely to be an expensive primary. McBath has a stronger national profile and fundraising operation, but the district now centers on Gwinnett County, which Bourdeaux currently represents.

One caveat is that voting rights groups are suing the block the new map, which, if successful, could provide a wrinkle ahead of the March filing deadline.

In West Virginia, the loss of one of the state’s three U.S. House seats sets up a primary contest between Republican U.S. Reps. David McKinley and Alex Mooney for a new district that includes the northern half of the state.

However, this race will have more of an ideological flavor than the primary in Georgia. Mooney, a former Washington lobbyist who moved to the state in 2014 from Maryland to run for Congress, is a member of the ultra-conservative, anti-establishment Freedom Caucus. McKinley, a seventh-generation West Virginian and former state party chair, is more aligned with the Republican Party’s establishment wing.

Expect to hear a great deal in this race about McKinley’s vote in favor of establishing a bipartisan commission to investigation the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol, which Mooney opposed.

The Power of Trump

The former president has already been active in offering endorsements and pursuing revenge, particularly against Georgia Governor Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger for refusing to indulge his claims of widespread fraud in the state’s 2020 vote.

Trump recruited former U.S. Senator David Perdue to run against Kemp, setting off what is likely to be a bare-knuckled brawl in the Republican primary ahead of a stiff challenge from Democrat Stacey Abrams. He also endorsed U.S. Rep. Jody Hice’s bid to unseat Raffensperger.

And in one of the strangest early developments of the 2020 campaign, Trump also reportedly encouraged his former ambassador to Slovenia, Lindy Blanchard, to drop out of the U.S. Senate race to run instead against the very popular Alabama Governor Kay Ivey, in a fit of pique over cancellation of a July 4th Trump rally (a decision Ivey did not actually make.)

Trump has also waded into the attorney general’s race in Texas with an endorsement of incumbent Ken Paxton, who has drawn a gaggle of primary challengers (including Bush family scion George P. Bush and stalwart pro-Trump U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert) after a criminal indictment and FBI bribery investigation.

Taking down Ivey would seem a long shot at this point; Kemp is holding his own against Perdue in early polls; and Paxton race seems likely to be headed to an unpredictable runoff in March. So it remains to be seen whether the Trump endorsement machine will produce results in 2022.

Trump has also endorsed in three U.S. Senate races. In Georgia, his nod put Herschel Walker on a glide path to the Republican nomination, but his chosen candidates in Alabama (U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks) and North Carolina (U.S. Rep. Ted Budd) are facing tough primary battles against more establishment candidates.

Adding to the MAGA Squad

Trump’s election has led to the rise of a core group of MAGA-philes in the House – social media savvy, outspoken, and willing to pounce on fellow Republicans who display the slightest scrap of bipartisanship. Among this group are Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Greene, Florida’s Matt Gaetz, the aforementioned Gohmert and Brooks, and North Carolina’s Madison Cawthorn.

In 2022, they are hoping to add to their numbers by offering endorsements and fundraising help to like-minded candidates across the South and around the country, which will put them in position to be power brokers if Republicans take control of the House (a prospect likely to give House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy heartburn.)

Some of these candidates are little known and will face tough climbs against incumbent Republicans. But it is worth noting that both Greene and Cawthorn followed this same playbook successfully in 2020, going from unknowns to the halls of Congress with lightning speed.

Southern Black Woman in the U.S. Senate?

No black woman has ever been elected to represent a Southern state in the Senate. This year, Democrats are poised to pick two black women as their Senate nominees – U.S. Rep. Val Demings in Florida and Cheri Beasley in North Carolina.

Demings, the former police chief of Orlando who served on the first House impeachment committee that investigated Trump, faces an uphill climb against Republican U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, particularly with his strong core of support among Hispanic voters in South Florida. But with her national profile, she has been posting strong fundraising numbers that could make the race competitive.

Beasley, the former chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, may have better prospects in running for an open seat in a race where Republicans are slogging through a multi-candidate race in which Trump has intervened in favor of Budd.

A victory by either in November will make history.

Palmetto State “RINOs”

The most serious insult that can be hurled in Republican politics these days is to call someone a RINO – a Republican in Name Only.

Two incumbent U.S. House members in South Carolina have been branded with the RINO label by their critics – Nancy Mace in the Lowcountry and Tom Rice in the Pee Dee – and are each facing multiple challengers in their respective Republican primaries.

Mace was among the few Republican House members to offer criticism of Trump after the January 6th Capitol attack, although she did not vote to impeach him. Rice did, which got him censured by the state’s Republican Party, and he compounded his sin among the MAGA fervency by supporting the bipartisan commission to investigate the attacks.

As a result, Mace has four GOP challengers; Rice has 12. Trump has encouraged their challengers but has yet to announce a favorite. His blessing may be good enough to earn a runoff slot against the incumbent.

Thinking Outside The Box

After Warnock won a January special U.S. Senate election runoff in Georgia, he immediately become the Republicans’ primary 2022 target. Yet, no sitting U.S. House member ventured to take him on, nor did the three Republicans who ran against him in 2020.

Enter Herschel Walker, University of Georgia football hero and NFL standout. Though he carries significant personal baggage and has not a whiff of political experience, he does have the one accessory every Republican candidate wants in 2022 – Trump’s blessing.

Trump’s endorsement didn’t clear the primary field, but it did get Republican Senate leaders in Washgington behind Walker’s candidacy – taking a significant leap of faith in a race against a charismatic Democrat with Obama-level political skills.

Is this a gamble that will pay off or blow up? The answer may decide control of the Senate.

Beto O’Crist for Governor

The good people of Texas told Beto O’Rourke that they didn’t want him to be their senator in 2018, even after he spent $80 million trying to persuade them otherwise. The good people of Iowa and New Hampshire told him they didn’t want him to be their president in 2020, without nearly as much money going down the drain.

But not willing to take no and no for an answer, O’Rourke is back again, running this time for governor against incumbent Republican Greg Abbott. Only this time, he’s running in the gun-loving Lone Star State after telling a Democratic presidential debate audience that he was in favor of confiscating their assault weapons.

But lest you think Beto is the region’s most resolute embracer of questionable causes, he pales in comparison to Florida’s well-tanned political chameleon Charlie Crist, who is running for governor again this year after losing two statewide races in the past eight years and metamorphosing from a conservative Republican into an independent and then into a liberal Democrat.

Which begs the question: What part of “no” don’t you understand?

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West Virginia’s Jim Justice is South’s most popular governor; Georgia’s Brian Kemp the least

Morning Consult poll shows Democratic governors with aggressive COVID-19 strategies with higher approval than GOP governors who have resisted mandates

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

(CFP) – West Virginia Governor Jim Justice is the South’s most popular chief executive, with Alabama’s Kay Ivey close behind in new polls on gubernatorial approval from the polling firm Morning Consult.

The polls, taken over the course of the last four months and released November 11, also show that Georgia Republican Brian Kemp’s approval rating among registered voters was just 42%, making him the region’s least popular chief executive as he heads into what is expected to be a tough re-election battle next year against furious opposition from Donald Trump.

The poll in Kentucky had better news for Democrat Andy Beshear, whose approval rating stood at 54%, despite taking considerable fire from Republicans over his COVID-19 policies.

Beshear will face voters again in 2023, as will Mississippi Republican Tate Reeves. However, the approval rating for Reeves, who may face a primary challenge from House Speaker Philip Gunn, stood at just 49%, making him and Kemp the only two Southern governors with approval ratings below 50% ahead of a run for his third term.

Morning Consult did not report disapproval numbers, so it was unclear if Reeves and Kemp were actually under water in their approval numbers, with more people disapproving than approving.

The approval rating for Florida Republican Ron DeSantis, who has taken the leading in fighting mask and vaccine mandates, stood at 52% ahead of a Democratic challenge in 2022. Texas’s Greg Abbott, who has taken a similar line of resistance against mandates, had an approval rating of 50%.

Three of the region’s Democratic governors who have been more aggressive with COVID-19 mitigation measures – Beshear, North Carolina’s Roy Cooper and Louisiana’s John Bel Edwards – had higher approval ratings than DeSantis and Abbott, although within the poll’s margin of error.

Justice’s approval rating stood at 65%, despite a string of headlines about financial and regulatory problems for companies owned by his family and an odd dispute about whether he should be hired to coach a boy’s high school basketball team.

Ivey, who became governor in 2017 when her predecessor resigned in a sex scandal, had an approval rating at 62%, as she heads into a re-election race in which she will be heavily favored.

However, she, too, has run afoul of Trump over cancellation of a June rally in Mobile, and he is reportedly trying to find a primary challenger to run against her.

Tennessee’s Bill Lee and Oklahoma’s Kevin Stitt also appear to be in strong shape for 2022, with Lee’s approval at 55% and Stitt’s at 54%.

The other Southern governor up next year, South Carolina’s Henry McMaster, stood at 52%.

Arkansas’s Asa Hutchinson has a 57% approval rating as he heads toward the exit due to term limits – despite being one of the very few elected Republicans willing to offer criticism of Trump.

Hutchinson has said he will not back Trump if he runs for the White House again in 2024 and that relitigating the 2020 election would be a “recipe for disaster.” He has raised his national profile in recent months, with numerous appearances on Sunday talk shows, prompting speculation that he might make his own presidential run in 2024.

Kemp has drawn Trump’s active wrath for refusing to go along with his efforts to overturn the 2020 election results in the Peach State. Former Republican U.S. Senator David Perdue is considering a primary challenge, and the GOP nominee will likely be facing Democrat Stacey Abrams, whom Kemp narrowly beat in 2018.

Two Southern Democratic governors who are in the middle of their second and final term – Edwards and Cooper – had positive approval ratings, at 53% and 52%, respectively.

Morning Consult gathered the responses from July 21 to October 20 among registered voters in each state. The margin of error was +/-4%.

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U.S. Rep. Nancy Mace is lone Southern Republican to support Steve Bannon contempt vote

South Carolina lawmaker was one of just nine Republicans to support criminal referral for former Donald Trump aide

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

South CarolinaWASHINGTON (CFP) — South Carolina U.S. Rep. Nancy Mace was the lone Southern Republican to vote to hold former Donald Trump adviser Steve Bannon in contempt of Congress for refusing to cooperate with the panel investigating the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol.

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U.S. Rep. Nancy Mace, R-South Carolina

The House voted 229 to 220 on October 21 to hold Bannon in contempt for refusing to comply with the committee’s subpoenas for documents and a deposition. Mace was one of just nine Republicans to support the contempt citation, which Republican leaders had lobbied their caucus to oppose.

Mace, a first-term lawmaker already facing three 2022 primary challengers in her Lowcountry district, cast her politically risky vote as a defense of the Constitution and warned Republicans that they are better off leaving the subpoena power intact in case they take the House majority next year.

“We will want this same tool in our toolbox to release the spigot, investigating the crises facing our nation: the southern border, the botched exit from Afghanistan, and Antifa, for starters,” she said in a statement after her vote. “We will need the same subpoena power upheld today.”

But Mace also took a swipe at the work of the January 6th committee, which she voted against when it was created by the House in June.

“I want us to imagine the positive impact on our country if Congress invested the same amount of time, energy and effort into investigating violent acts and domestic terrorism within groups such as Antifa or Black Lives Matter,” she said. “We’d all be better and safer for it.”

Bannon has based his refusal to cooperate with the committee on a claim of executive privilege, which has been asserted by Trump. But Mace said Bannon needed to appear before the committee and make that claim himself, rather than ignoring the subpoena.

“Executive privilege protects the advice given to the President. That protection can be invoked when called before Congress,” she said. “When Congress issues a subpoena, that individual must appear before Congress and invoke that privilege.”

Mace was sharply critical of Trump after the January 6th attack, but she did not vote in favor of his impeachment. Her vote to hold Bannon in contempt is likely to fuel complaints from Trump supporters in her district that she is insufficiently supportive of the former president.

All of her three current Republican challengers — T.J. Allen, Ingrid Centurion or Lynz Piper-Loomis — are political newcomers, and none have raised significant money. But the filing deadline isn’t until March, leaving time for another big-name candidate to join the field with Trump’s blessing

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Black U.S. Senate candidates in the South piling up impressive amounts of campaign cash

U.S. Senators Raphael Warnock and Tim Scott have raised more money than any other Senate candidates nationwide

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

Decision 2022(CFP) — African American candidates have historically faced a structural barrier in gaining election to high office — difficulty raising the money needed to run a competitive race. But in 2022, black candidates appear to be kicking down that barrier in Southern U.S. Senate races.

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U.S. Senators Raphael Warnock and Tim Scott lead national fundraising totals

Six Southern African American candidates have each raised more than $1 million; three have raised more than $10 million. And more than a year before election day, Democratic U.S Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia has raised more money than any other Senate candidate in the country, $44 million.

Behind Warnock is Republican U.S. Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, at $31 million.

In the 150 years since Reconstruction, just two African Americans have been elected to represent a Southern state in the U.S. Senate — Scott and Warnock, who are both up for re-election in 2022 and amassing mountains of cash.

But the four other Southern African American candidates trying to join Scott and Warnock in the Senate are also pulling in impressive amounts of campaign money, the possession of which doesn’t ensure victory but the absence of which would certainly spell defeat.

In Georgia, Warnock is likely to face another black candidate, Republican Herschel Walker, the NFL and Georgia Bulldog great whom Donald Trump inveighed to get into the race.

In the third quarter of 2021, Warnock and Walker combined raised $13.3 million for what is likely to be among the most competitive races of the 2022 cycle; Warnock pulled in $9.5 million to $3.8 million for Walker.

Trump’s endorsement has not cleared the Republican primary field for Walker, who faces a multi-candidate primary before he can get to Warnock,. However, in his first five weeks in the race, Walker has already raised more money than any of his primary rivals.

Unlike Warnock, Scott is not facing a competitive race in the Palmetto State in 2022. But his haul during the third quarter — $8.4 million — is stoking speculation that Scott may be filling his cash cupboard for a possible 2024 run for the Republican presidential nomination.

In Florida, Democratic U.S. Rep. Val Demings — who raised her a national political profile as an House manager in the first Trump impeachment trial — raised $8.5 million in the third quarter, eclipsing the $6 million raised by her likely Republican opponent, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio. But he’s raised $19 million overall so far, compared to her $13.5 million.

Neither Demings nor Rubio appear likely at this point to face a serious primary challenge that would deplete their coffers before turning their fire on each other.

In North Carolina, former Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley raised $1.5 million in the third quarter. While that total was not as impressive as some of the black candidates in other races, it was more than any other candidate in her race in either party, although she remains slightly behind her strongest white rival for the Democratic nomination, State Senator Jeff Jackson, in overall fundraising.

In heavily Republican Kentucky, former State Rep. Charles Booker from Louisville is considered the longest of long shots to unseat U.S. Senator Rand Paul, running as a self-styled “progressive.” But he, too, has taken in $1.7 million, tapping into national Democratic anger at some of Paul’s statements during the COVID-19 pandemic.

At this point in the cycle, five of the six Southern African American candidates — Warnock, Scott, Demings, Walker, and Booker — are likely to be their party’s nominee, while Beasley’s fundraising will make her competitive in North Carolina’s Democratic primary. That number of major party Southern African-American nominees will shatter historical precedent.

The races in Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina are also likely to be among the most hard-fought, and expensive, in the country, with African American candidates in the mix for victory, while Scott could use 2022 as a springboard to bigger and better things.

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Former South Carolina U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham running for governor

Lowcountry Democrat lost his U.S. House re-election bid in 2020

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

South CarolinaCHARLESTON, South Carolina (CFP) — Former Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham officially launched his 2022 campaign for governor on April 26 with a broadside against the Republican establishment that has reigned supreme in Columbia for two decades.

“The challenges that we face are not because of our people. They’re because of our politicians,” Cunningham said in a video launching his campaign. “After 20 years of trying the same thing, it’s time for something different.”

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Democrat Joe Cunningham announces run for governor

Cunningham hit State House Republicans and incumbent Republican Governor Henry McMaster for focusing on new abortion and voting restrictions and loosening gun laws as residents struggled to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Governor McMaster has been cheering them on, every step of the way,” Cunningham said. “It’s embarrassing.”

And although a Democrat hasn’t won a governor’s race in the Palmetto State since 1998, Cunningham pointed to his own 2018 U.S. House win as evidence that his campaign is not a lost cause.

“To those who say a Democrat can’t win in South Carolina, well, we’ve heard that before,” he said.

Cunningham, 38, a Charleston lawyer, shocked the political world in 2018 with his win in the state’s 1st District, part of a Democratic wave that swept the party to House control.

However, he could not hold the seat in 2020, losing to Republican Nancy Mace despite raising and spending more than $7 million for the race.

With his name recognition and fundraising prowess, Cunningham will be the prohibitive favorite for the Democratic nomination to face McMaster, who will be running for his second full term as chief executive.

News of Cunningham’s candidacy drew some praise from Republican U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, who told The State newspaper that Cunningham would be “a formidable opponent.”

However, he also noted that his own re-election race in 2020 — where he won by 10 points despite $100 million in spending against him — shows that South Carolina is “still a pretty Republican state.”

Video of Cunningham’s announcement:

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