Politics / January 26, 2024

In a Predictable Election Season, There Are Still Surprises Out West

Nothing much is happening in the presidential primaries. But local races in California, Nevada, and Arizona may shift the political landscape.

Sasha Abramsky
From left, US Representatives for California Katie Porter, Adam Schiff, and Barbara Lee, Democratic candidates for the California Senate, participate in the National Union of Healthcare Workers Senate Candidate Forum in downtown Los Angeles on Sunday, October 8, 2023. (Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

While most of the political oxygen this week has been taken up by New Hampshire, to my mind the more interesting political developments have been occurring out West, as important Senate races take shape in California, Nevada, and Arizona.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m as happy as anyone to watch Trump have a hissy fit because Haley refused to immediately kiss the ring after his underwhelming primary win in New Hampshire. And I’m certainly not above enjoying the sight of the Orange Man threatening permanent banishment from MAGA-world for any funder who continues to drip money into Haley’s probably doomed, mildly anti-Trump campaign. But let’s set that aside and take a look at three Senate races that count.

In California this week, the top four contenders to replace Laphonza Butler, who stepped in as a temporary senator after Diane Feinstein’s death last year, took part in a televised debate. Polls show that Adam Schiff is the favorite; the big question is who, in California’s open primary on March 5, will come second and face him in the general election. Barbara Lee and Katie Porter are vying for California’s more progressive voters; meanwhile, former Los Angeles Dodger Steve Garvey is running as a sort of Schwarzenegger-styled Republican, talking about practical concerns such as homelessness and public safety while generally steering clear of the more polarizing culture-war issues of the day. Garvey doesn’t have a political background, giving him very little political baggage—but he does have at least a modicum of name recognition from his glory days back in the 1980s. In a recent poll, he came in second, edging out both Lee and Porter.

Not surprisingly, Porter spent much of the debate on the offensive against Garvey, who looks to be her most immediate threat to advancing into the general election. The low-hanging fruit, in a state where barely a third of voters supported Trump in 2020, was to tag Garvey as a Trumpite. Porter, along with the other two Democrats, pressed Garvey repeatedly on whether he would vote for Trump in 2024, and Garvey repeatedly ducked the question. In fact, Garvey’s response was a case study in disingenuousness. He would have to look at what both presidential candidates had done, he said, before making up his mind on how to vote.

What the candidates have done? Let’s see… On the one hand: insurrection, tax fraud, sexual assault, use of openly fascist language on the campaign trail, misuse of government office to secure personal gain from overseas governments, support for family separation policies, Muslim travel bans, flirting with white nationalists and paramilitaries, calling for the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to be executed, and an expressed willingness to invoke the Insurrection Act in order to sic the military on domestic opponents. On the other hand: presided over three-plus years of job growth, one of the largest infrastructure bills in US history, large-scale investments in green energy, and made a few physical stumbles and verbal gaffes that FoxNews has twisted into being signs of senility. Close call.

The ex–first baseman isn’t going to be California’s next senator, but he could conceivably make it into the general election runoff, where he will likely lose handily to whichever Democrat he squares off against.

Less predictable are the outcomes of the races in Nevada, where Jacky Rosen is up for reelection, and in Arizona, where Kyrsten Sinema isn’t running for reelection as a Democrat but might yet try to reclaim her seat as an independent.

Analysts in Nevada say that if Rosen’s GOP opponent is Sam Brown—a veteran who was severely wounded by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan in 2008, and who was recruited as a candidate by the National Republican Senate Committee in an effort to field more moderate, reasonable candidates who would have some appeal to independents—it will be a close race. But the GOP base in Nevada has been anything but predictable in recent years; in 2022, it chose the election-denying Adam Laxalt to run against Catherine Cortez-Masto, and, despite the GOP’s high hopes in that election, he lost—along with a slew of other election-denying candidates in Nevada. Currently, the GOP state chair, Michael McDonald, is facing felony charges for his role in the fake-electors plot in 2020.

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Given the mood of that Nevada base, and given that Brown is now being portrayed by his opponents as the “establishment” choice, it’s entirely possible that a less palatable candidate than Brown will win in the June senate primary—a candidate such as Jim Marchant, an extreme election-denier who ran for, and lost, the race for secretary of state in 2022. If so, that would be a marvelous gift for Rosen, and would likely ensure her reelection by a large margin.

Which brings me to Arizona—and a far more delicious story than Trump’s histrionics in New Hampshire. Sinema isn’t running as a Democrat, which is a smart strategy because, given her miserable record in the Senate these past years, she wouldn’t win that primary. If she decides to throw her hat into the ring as an independent, in all likelihood her Democratic opponent in the general election will be progressive Representative Ruben Gallego, who is all but certain to win his party’s primary. And her Republican opponent seems fated to be failed gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, who has fine-tuned her appeal as a Trump-of-the-West, feeding the outrage machine with a drip-drip of innuendo, conspiracy-thinking, and misinformation. Recent polling has shown Gallego and Lake basically tied in a head-to-head, with the Democrat assuming a narrow lead if Sinema is included as an independent candidate.

This week, however, Lake dropped a political bomb that exploded all over the state Republican Party. She released a tape of Arizona GOP chair Jeff DeWit offering her what seems to be a bribe, paid for by unnamed important people back East, if she would drop out of the race in favor of a candidate seen as being more electable. DeWit asked the candidate how much money she would need in order to accept a corporate job instead of running for the Senate.

This week, months after the conversation took place, Lake’s team apparently gave the chair an ultimatum to resign or reckon with leaks of even more damning recordings of his conversations. Perhaps not unwisely, DeWit chose to resign.

Lake clearly hopes that publicly humiliating DeWit will serve to shore up her control over Arizona’s GOP base. In the same way as Trump has driven out all so-called RINOs from the national Republican Party, so Lake is now hoping to reshape the Arizona party entirely in her image. In that, she’ll probably be pushing at an open door. The Arizona GOP has long been on the cutting edge of extremism, its state legislators at the far-right edge of anti-immigrant policies, its national congressional delegation pocked with extremists such as Paul Gosar.

But there’s precious little evidence that Arizona’s electorate as a whole is on board with Lake’s vision. After all, the state has been trending purple-to-blue in recent election cycles. In 2022, Lake lost the governor’s race despite an anemic campaign by her Democratic opponent, Katie Hobbs. In 2024, the more voters start paying attention to what’s on the line, and the more the dysfunction of the state GOP is on display—bribery, secretly taped conversations—the less palatable Lake will be as a candidate. With independents not sold on Lake’s candidacy, the numbers suggest that if Gallego runs a strong campaign, he should be able to edge out both Sinema and Lake. Now surely that’s worth more political oxygen than Trump’s latest temper tantrum?

Sasha Abramsky

Sasha Abramsky, who writes regularly for The Nation, is the author of several books, including Inside Obama’s Brain, The American Way of PovertyThe House of 20,000 Books, Jumping at Shadows, and, most recently, Little Wonder: The Fabulous Story of Lottie Dod, the World’s First Female Sports Superstar. Subscribe to The Abramsky Report, a weekly, subscription-based political column, here.

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