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Abortion rights shockwave rocks the midterms and 3 other takeaways from primaries

Abortion-rights supporters cheer as the proposed Kansas constitutional amendment that would allow abortion restrictions in the state fails. They were watching election results at the Kansas for Constitutional Freedom watch party in Overland Park on Tuesday night.
DAVE KAUP
/
AFP via Getty Images
Abortion-rights supporters cheer as the proposed Kansas constitutional amendment that would allow abortion restrictions in the state fails. They were watching election results at the Kansas for Constitutional Freedom watch party in Overland Park on Tuesday night.

Tuesday was the biggest primary day left on the 2022 midterm calendar — and there were some telling results that could have implications for this fall, from the state of abortion rights in this country to the risks to Republicans and Democrats posed by former President Donald Trump's influence.

Here are four takeaways from the results in Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri and Washington state:

1. Abortion-rights supporters get a major boost.

Voters in Kansas rejected a ballot initiative that would have opened the door to allowing lawmakers to significantly restrict abortion rights in the state. But it didn't just fail, it failed decisively.

It's the first time voters have weighed in on the issue since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, and it has to be an eye-opener for Republicans. This is conservative Kansas, not New York or California. And it was on the ballot in August because abortion-rights opponents thought it would advantage them with a low-turnout election. But it was no low-turnout affair.

For context, in 2018, only about 450,000 people turned out for the Kansas primary elections. For this ballot measure, it was double. That's about half of Kansas' total registered voters. For a ballot measure in August... wow.

Republican strategists over these last few months have been concerned about how the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe would affect the campaigns. This is going to make them raise some eyebrows with their morning coffee, because this result clearly shows where the energy is on the issue of abortion rights right now.

Now, this was a one-issue race in Kansas, and moderate voters and independents have been saying inflation, gas prices and crime are more important to their vote this fall. But abortion rights has skyrocketed up the list of concerns and engaged a Democratic base that was otherwise depressed.

Republicans were on a glide path to take back the House and potentially the Senate, but abortion-rights supporters now have the potential to help Democrats blunt some of those expected GOP gains in the House and hold the Senate.

2. Trump shows his strength in GOP primaries — again.

In Arizona's key Senate race, Blake Masters won with Trump's endorsement and will face the more moderate Democrat Mark Kelly this fall. Masters is a venture capitalist who has pushed Trump's policies and his election lies.

Masters — who had big financial backing from his friend and mentor, PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, who poured millions into this race to boost Masters — has said for example, that Democrats "pulled out all the stops" to steal the 2020 presidential election and has suggested this year's midterms might not be on the level.

In the secretary of state's race, a Trump-backed conspiracy theorist and election denier, Mark Finchem, who was on the Capitol grounds on Jan. 6, won the GOP nomination. Finchem is now the sixth election denier across the country to win the Republican nomination for the job that often controls election administration in the states.

Four of those places are key presidential swing states — Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico and, now, Arizona.

The big race for Arizona governor between Trump's preferred candidate, Kari Lake, and Karrin Taylor Robson — who had the backing of former Vice President Mike Pence and outgoing Gov. Doug Ducey — was still too close to call on Wednesday morning.

Polls had shown Lake, also an election denier, ahead, but Lake only leads by a couple thousand votes.

In the Missouri Senate race, state Attorney General Eric Schmitt handily defeated the controversial former Gov. Eric Greitens. The day before this race, Trump endorsed "ERIC." Just "ERIC," no last name. That doesn't count for much except trolling.

In Michigan, Trump got a win with his candidate, John Gibbs, ousting Peter Meijer, one of the 10 Republicans who voted for his impeachment following his conduct on and before the Jan. 6 insurrection. Democrats boosted Gibbs, spending millions to help oust Meijer, thinking it would give them a better shot at winning the seat in a general election.

It's a Machiavellian move that's part of a larger trend for Democrats in these kinds of races and has irritated even some Democratic lawmakers. It worked in the short term in this race, but, if Gibbs — and other candidates like him — wins, it would come back to bite Democrats (more on that below).

Two other Republican Trump impeachers were also on the ballot in Washington state, Reps. Jaime Herrera Beutler and Dan Newhouse. The races have not been called, as only about half the vote was in by Wednesday morning. Both incumbents lead Republican challengers narrowly in primaries where the top two candidates, regardless of party, move on to the general election.

If they hold on, they would join California's David Valadao as the only Trump impeachers left standing. Four others announced their decision not to run for reelection, and Jan. 6 committee vice chair and principal Trump antagonist Liz Cheney faces her fate in two weeks in Wyoming.

And Cheney is in a lot of trouble. The latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found that just 13% of Republicans nationally had a favorable view of her, as compared to 60% of Democrats. That's a tough position in a very conservative state, where Republicans outnumber Democrats five-to-one and that went more heavily for Trump than any other state in 2020.

Cheney has been trying to appeal to Democrats in her state, but that is unlikely to work. Why? Let's put it this way: She could win every single non-Republican voter in the state — Democrats, independents, libertarians, Constitution Party members and otherwise unaffiliated voters, and she could still lose by almost 50 points. That's a lot of ground to make up with Republicans.

3. Trump and MAGA candidates are going to be tested this fall.

Sure, Trump took out Meijer. But it's a district President Biden won by double-digits in 2020, and with the hard-line Gibbs, a Trump Housing and Urban Development appointee, on the ballot, it gives Democrats a key pickup opportunity.

In fact, shortly after the race was called, the Cook Political Report changed the race from Toss Up to Lean Democrat.

Sure, Masters won in the Arizona Senate race, but can someone peddling Trump's election lies and who supports Trump's hard-right policies in the ever-more-purple Arizona beat a more moderate candidate like Kelly?

Do these election deniers in secretary of state races win in states Democrats have won in the last several presidential elections when those positions have traditionally gone to fairly nonpartisan people? That's really important, because, as the Jan. 6 hearings have shown, democracy held in 2020, but only because of people who did the right thing.

4. Democrats potentially face a more powerful Trump if he becomes president.

If these candidates do win, though — and it's possible given anyone with a "D" or "R" next to their name in these highly polarized times starts at about 45% in a competitive race — and Trump runs and wins in 2024, he will be in a much stronger position to impose his will than in 2017 when he first took office or in 2021 when he left.

He would control a lot more levers in states, from state parties to elections officials. And those seeds are being sown, as Biden is at his lowest point of popularity, largely because independents concerned with inflation and high gas prices are heavily disapproving of the job he's doing, while Democrats, notably progressives, are disappointed Biden hasn't been able to get more done for them or fight as boldly as they'd like.

But come 2024, Trump could pose an emboldened threat to infighting Democrats — and if Biden runs, as he says he will, his challenge is to get his base back on board to stand up to it.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.