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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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Veteran Arkansas State Senator Jim Hendren leaves Republican Party to become independent

Decision by Hendren, nephew of Governor Asa Hutchinson, sparks speculation about 2022 bid for governor

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com

LITTLE ROCK (CFP) — Saying he was disturbed by the corrosive effects of hyper-partisanship and the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, veteran Arkansas State Senator Jim Hendren announced Thursday that he was leaving the Republican Party, becoming an independent and forming a new centrist political organization, Common Ground AR.

The move prompted speculation that Hendren could launch an independent bid for governor in 2022, setting up a general election showdown with a Donald Trump-aligned Republican candidate.

State Senator Jim Hendren, I-Arkansas, announces party switch (From YouTube)

In a statement posted to YouTube, Hendren said the attack on the Capitol was the “final straw” that prompted him to leave the GOP, which he has represented for nearly 15 years as a legislator, including four years as Senate majority leader from 2015 to 2019.

“I asked myself what in the world I would tell my grandchildren when they asked one day what happened and what did I do about it?” Hendren said. “At the end of the day, I want to be able to tell my family, my friends, and the people I serve that I did everything I could to do right by them.”

“I’m still a conservative. But I’m one whose values about decency, civility and compassion I just don’t see in my party anymore,” he said. “I haven’t changed. My party has.”

Watch video of Hendren’s full statement at end of story.

Hendren, 57, who represents a district in Northwest Arkansas, comes from a prominent and politically connected Arkansas political family. His father, Kim, is a former legislator, and he is the nephew of Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson and former U.S. Senator Tim Hutchinson.

While not mentioning Donald Trump by name, Hendren made it clear that his decision to leave was prompted by Trump’s impact on the Republican Party.

“I watched the former president actively fan the flames of racist rhetoric, make fun of those with disabilities, bully his enemies, and talk about women in ways that would never be tolerated in my home or business,” Hendren said. “As he did this from the highest office in the land, I realized that my daughters and granddaughters were hearing it, too. And I worried about the example this set for my sons and grandsons.”

“And I watched as this behavior went on with nobody holding him to account and our party leaders too often taking a back seat rather than leading,” he said.

As for a run for governor in 2022, Hendren told the Arkansas publication Talk Business & Politics that he was putting that on the “back burner,” although he said he believes there would be a “hunger” among state voters for such a candidate.

The Republican contest for governor is shaping up as a battle between former Trump press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, who has also been a staunch Trump supporter.

Lieutenant Governor Tim Griffin announced last week that he was dropping out of the governor’s race and would instead run for attorney general.

Responding to Hendren’s decision to leave the GOP, Republican state chair Jonelle Fulmer said Hendren had never voiced his concerns to party leaders and noted that he had welcomed support from the party, including during his re-election race in November.

“This is nothing more than an attempt to garner press for a future independent candidacy for governor, knowing that he cannot compete with the conservative records” of Sanders and Rutledge, she said.

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Sarah Huckabee Sanders running for governor of Arkansas

Former White House press secretary will face battle in competitive Republican primary

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

LITTLE ROCK (CFP) — Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who gained national prominence battling reporters from the White House podium in defense of President Donald Trump, is running for governor of Arkansas.

Sanders, 38, whose father Mike Huckabee, served as the Natural State’s chief executive from 1996 to 2007, announced her entry into the 2022 governor’s race in a video released Monday.

Watch Sanders’s full announcement video below

Sarah Huckabee Sanders announces run for Arkansas governor

“Everything we love about America is at stake, and with the radical left now in control of Washington, your governor is your last line of defense,” Sanders said. “Our state needs a leader with the courage to do what’s right, not what’s politically correct.”

While Sanders will take the Trump brand with her into her run for governor, she faces what is shaping up to be a contentious Republican primary against two current statewide officeholders, Lieutenant Governor Tim Griffin and Attorney General Leslie Rutledge.

Sanders acknowledged the tough primary ahead, saying “my opponents will do everything in their power to destroy me, but I will not apologize for who I am or who I’m fighting for.”

Griffin, in a statement, welcomed Sanders to the race, saying he looked forward “to comparing our experience, track record and vision for the future of Arkansas.” He served as a federal prosecutor and two terms in Congress before being elected as lieutenant governor in 2014.

Rutledge, in a tweet, noted that she has been friends with the Huckabee family “for a long time, and will continue to be after this election.” But she added that the race is “about who has a proven record and not merely rhetoric.”

Rutledge is in her second term as attorney general and served as legal counsel to Mike Huckabee’s 2008 presidential campaign.

Republican incumbent Governor Asa Hutchinson is term-limited in 2022. No Democrats have yet announced for the post.

Sanders served two years as White House press secretary before stepping down to return to Arkansas in 2019. Her tenure was marked by frequent battles with reporters in the Washington press corps, who challenged her truthfulness — which she pointed to as a badge of honor in her announcement video.

“I look on the media, the radical left and their cancel culture, and I won,” Sanders said. “I’ve been tested under fire, successfully managing one crisis after another in one of the most difficult, high-pressure jobs in all of government.”

During the investigation into Russian attempts to meddle in the 2016 presidential election, Sanders admitted to investigators that she lied to reporters in the White House briefing room in 2017 by telling them that she had heard from “countless” members of the FBI who supported Trump’s decision to fire then-FBI Director James Comey. She later described the episode as a “slip of the tongue.”

If Sanders wins in 2022, she will return to the Governor’s Mansion in Little Rock where she spent her teenage years when her father was governor. She would also be the first woman to serve as Arkansas governor.

Sanders was national political director for Mike Huckabee’s unsuccessful presidential campaign in 2008. She joined Trump’s campaign in 2016 and was named as deputy press secretary, before ascending to the top spot in 2017 when Sean Spicer left after a stormy six months.

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