Sabato's Crystal Ball

What Happened in the June 12 Primary

Maine experiments with ranked-choice voting, the Virginia GOP backs Stewart for Senate, and Sanford loses renomination in South Carolina

Geoffrey Skelley and Kyle Kondik, Sabato's Crystal Ball June 14th, 2018

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KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE:

— Maine became the first state in modern U.S. history to use ranked-choice voting (also known as instant-runoff voting) in a statewide election. But this was not the first time that a state used a form of ranked voting or preferential voting. In the early 1900s, a number of states tried out ranked-voting methods, including in statewide contests for offices such as U.S. Senate and governor.

— In Virginia, Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart (R) narrowly defeated state Del. Nick Freitas (R) 45%-43% to win the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate. Anti-Stewart forces rallied late to boost Freitas, but came up just short, much to the chagrin of many GOP leaders. Women won five of the six Democratic primaries for the U.S. House, including in all of the competitive House seats.

— In other primaries, the most notable result was Rep. Mark Sanford (R, SC-1) losing his primary to state Rep. Katie Arrington (R). Arrington likely will be fine in November but we’re moving the district from Safe Republican to Likely Republican.

Table 1: Crystal Ball House ratings change

Member/District Old Rating New Rating
SC-1 Open (Sanford, R) Safe Republican Likely Republican

Maine’s ranked-choice voting experiment

In one way, Maine offered the most interesting results of the night, and not only because of who appears to have won some of the party nominations for governor and Congress. The Pine Tree State became the first state in modern U.S. history to use ranked-choice voting (also known as instant-runoff voting) in a statewide election. RCV or IRV involves voters ranking their choices on the ballot rather than selecting just one candidate such that the eventual winner earns majority support via first-choice votes or first-choice votes combined with second-, third-, or more choice votes after eliminating the last-place candidate in each counting round. Because the counting process for this system can take time to sort out, some Maine races remain uncalled. Election Night tabulations only accounted for first-choice votes, so outcomes remain up in the air unless a candidate won a majority. The seven-way Democratic primary for governor will not be decided for a few days: Maine Attorney General Janet Mills (D) led with about 33% of the first-choice votes ahead of attorney and former 2008 U.S. House candidate Adam Cote at 28.5%, with activist Betsy Sweet (16%) and former Maine Speaker of the House Mark Eves (14.5%) in third and fourth. The ME-2 Democratic primary also remains uncalled, though state Rep. Jared Golden (D) had 49% of the first-choice votes in a three-way contest. Assuming he wins just a few second-choice votes from voters who backed the third-place candidate, Golden should win. In the Republican gubernatorial primary, businessman Shawn Moody (R) won outright, capturing 56% of the first-choice votes. (All results are as of Wednesday afternoon.)

This was not the first time that a state used a form of ranked voting or preferential voting. In the early 1900s, a number of states tried out ranked-voting methods, including in statewide contests for offices such as U.S. Senate and governor. James Bucklin, an election reformer and later a Colorado state senator, proposed one such system that found use in around a half-dozen states. The system generally worked like this: In multicandidate races, voters were supposed to cast ballots with their first and second choices for an office. If no candidate won a majority of first-choice votes, then the second-choice votes were added to the totals of the top-two first-choice vote getters, and the candidate with the most votes would then win. However, voters realized that if both their choices finished in the top two, their votes would actually cancel out in the second-choice round. Moreover, if a voter’s second choice did not finish in the top two, that voter’s second-choice vote was wasted. These problems led to a preponderance of “bullet voting” where voters voted for only their first choice to avoid potentially canceling out their vote.

In total, 10 states used a form (not necessarily Bucklin’s system) of ranked voting for primary elections for statewide offices at least once in the early 20th century: Alabama, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, North Dakota, Washington, and Wisconsin. In 1925, Oklahoma passed but never used a ranked-voting scheme. The Sooner State primary law required voters to rank their top two choices in three- or four-candidate races and their top three choices in races with more than four candidates. If voters failed to rank a sufficient number, their votes would not count. The state court threw that law out prior to the 1926 election, which operated under traditional plurality-wins rules. Washington utilized a system somewhat similar to the proposed Oklahoma system, in that the Evergreen State required voters to cast a ballot marking both a first and second choice in any race with four or more candidates; otherwise the ballots were discounted.

The short-lived ranked-voting systems in Florida, Maryland, Minnesota, and Wisconsin operated somewhat similarly to the ranked-choice voting system that Maine used on Tuesday. In the cases of Maryland, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, if no candidate won a majority, their formats dropped the lowest-ranking candidate based on first-choice votes, and then assigned the second-choice votes of those who cast a ballot for the dropped candidate to the remaining candidates. This process repeated itself until someone won a majority of the vote. In Maryland, the ranked-vote primary assigned county delegates to candidates for a binding vote at the state convention, while the other states had a direct primary by popular vote count. Florida operated for a time under the Bryan primary law, which worked somewhat differently from the formats used in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Instead of sequentially eliminating the lowest-ranking candidate and assigning second-choice votes, the Bryan law dropped all but the two highest-ranking candidates by first-choice vote and then assigned the second-choice votes cast by voters who backed one of the eliminated candidates.

However, none of these systems worked the same as the ranked-choice system used in Maine, where voters could rank every candidate in, for instance, the seven-candidate Democratic field for governor. Rather, those old systems generally only called for a first- and second-choice vote. The use of RCV and IRV has progressed in recent times, mostly in cities around the United States, but Maine became the first state to use it in modern times for statewide elections. It appears that RCV will remain a part of Maine elections for some time to come: A referendum to stop the state legislature’s attempt to quash RCV successfully passed 54%-46% on June 12. Legal efforts to stop the use of RCV will continue, but it may be used in congressional general elections in November. However, because of the state constitution’s wording about gubernatorial elections, traditional plurality wins voting will still apply.

Many articles about RCV in Maine have made the point that the election and reelection of controversial Gov. Paul LePage (R) helped precipitate the movement to change the voting system to RCV instead of using the traditional first-past-the-post system. LePage won in 2010 with 38% while center-left independent Eliot Cutler took 36% and state Senate President Libby Mitchell (D) garnered 19%. Four years later, LePage won reelection with 48% while then-Rep. Mike Michaud (D, ME-2) captured 43% and Cutler — running again — won 8%. Maine’s tendency to elect governors with pluralities rather than majorities long predates LePage’s 2010 win. Going back to the 1958 cycle — so starting around the time of Alaska and Hawaii’s first elections as U.S. states — Maine has the second-highest share (56%) of plurality winners in gubernatorial contests, trailing only Alaska (60%). The Last Frontier and the Pine Tree State have the same number of total plurality winners — nine — from 1958 to 2017, but Maine has one more gubernatorial election than Alaska in that time frame (a 1960 special election). Table 2 lays out the data on plurality winners in that time span for the 50 states.

Table 2: Number of plurality winners in gubernatorial elections by state, 1958 to 2017

Notes: This table includes only winning gubernatorial candidates who won with less a majority of the vote. Arkansas (22 elections), Delaware (15), Iowa (19), Kentucky (15), Louisiana (15), South Carolina (15), South Dakota (19), and Tennessee (15) had no plurality winners in gubernatorial elections from 1958 to 2017. In October 1987, Rep. Buddy Roemer (D, LA-4) won a plurality with 33% in the initial election for Louisiana’s governorship, finishing ahead of second-place Gov. Edwin Edwards (D), who won 28%. Because no candidate won a majority, Roemer and Edwards were set to face each other in a runoff under Louisiana’s rules. However, Edwards withdrew from the runoff, a move that elected Roemer by default. While Roemer did win the governorship without a majority, he presumably would have done so in the runoff had Edwards stayed in the race, so Louisiana is credited with no plurality wins.

Given Maine’s propensity to elect governors with less than 50% of the vote — it has done so in nine of the past 11 elections, including four victors who won with less than 40% — it is understandable that many Mainers would want to try out a different voting system. RCV results are supposed to provide broader support for the eventual winners by ensuring that a majority supported the victor in at least some fashion. However, to apply this system to general elections for governor, the state constitution will probably have to be amended. Still, in our federal system states get to decide many aspects of their electoral systems, and Maine’s use of RCV offers us a chance to see how the system works in state and congressional elections.

Virginia’s vote

In the Old Dominion, voters picked congressional candidates in the busiest federal primary day in the commonwealth’s modern history. The GOP primary for U.S. Senate probably received the most attention on Election Night because of the close margin. Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart (R) narrowly defeated state Del. Nick Freitas (R) 45%-43%, with minister E.W. Jackson winning 12%. Freitas led throughout much of the night, but in the end Northern Virginia’s vote helped put Stewart just over the top. Anti-Stewart forces rallied late to boost Freitas, but came up just short, much to the chagrin of many GOP leaders. Stewart has promised to run a “vicious and ruthless” campaign against Sen. Tim Kaine (D) in the general election, but begins the race as a huge underdog. The fundamentals are on Kaine’s side: Virginia voted for Clinton by five percentage points and 2018 is a midterm election with a relatively unpopular Republican president in the White House. The polls are on Kaine’s side: He has led Stewart by double digits in general election horserace polls and has a decent approval rating among Virginia voters. The state of play is on Kaine’s side: The incumbent had 67 times more money in his campaign war chest than Stewart as of May 23, so Stewart will need help from outside Republican and conservative groups. However, he will likely receive little outside assistance because GOP money will mostly flow to much better Republican targets in the 10 seats Democrats are defending in states that Trump carried in 2016, as well as to the three or so seats that Republicans are going to have to seriously defend (Arizona, Nevada, and Tennessee). The Crystal Ball continues to rate the Senate race in Virginia as Safe Democratic.

Down-ballot, primaries for Congress continued the 2018 trend of nominating women: In five of the six Democratic primaries, women won the party’s nomination, including in all of the competitive House seats. In VA-2, only women were on the ballot, but retired Navy commander Elaine Luria (D) will face incumbent Rep. Scott Taylor (R) — who easily won renomination in his primary — in November. In VA-7, former CIA officer Abigail Spanberger (D) won by a crushing 46-point margin over Marine veteran Dan Ward (D), a larger margin than most expected. Spanberger will meet incumbent Rep. Dave Brat (R) in the fall general election. In the most watched Virginia primary on the Democratic side, state Sen. Jennifer Wexton (D) won a large plurality (about 42%) of the vote in a six-way primary. She will face incumbent Rep. Barbara Comstock (R), who won renomination in her primary. Comstock’s primary did signal that she may have some trouble with her base: Her opponent, conservative Air Force veteran and 2014 Senate candidate Shak Hill (R), won 39% of the primary vote. Comstock remains one of the most vulnerable Republican House incumbents in a Toss-up race. VA-5, Virginia’s other competitive House seat, did not hold a primary because neither party opted to use that method to nominate, but in that race a woman will also be the Democratic nominee (journalist and filmmaker Leslie Cockburn).

Other June 12 races

There generally were few surprises across the primary landscape on Tuesday night. That extends to the primary loss by Rep. Mark Sanford (R, SC-1), who was defeated by state Rep. Katie Arrington (R). Sanford, a sometimes-critic of President Trump, had other liabilities, like lingering weakness from an infamous extra-marital affair during his tenure as South Carolina’s governor. Sanford only won his 2016 primary with 56% of the vote, and it was clear that Arrington was pushing him. He is now the second House member to lose renomination, joining Rep. Robert Pittenger (R, NC-9). SC-1 is now an open seat, and Democrats hope their nominee, lawyer Joe Cunningham (D), can push Arrington in a district that Trump won by 14 points, down from Mitt Romney’s 18-point win in 2012. We’re moving SC-1 from Safe Republican to Likely Republican: This was and is a fringe Democratic target no matter who won the Republican primary.

Elsewhere in South Carolina, Gov. Henry McMaster (R) faces a runoff against businessman John Warren (R), who came on late to take the second-place spot from Catherine Templeton (R), who long seemed like McMaster’s main rival. McMaster got about 42% to Warren’s 28%, so Warren has more ground to make up in the short two-week runoff period, but no one would be shocked if an outsider businessman won a GOP primary. The winner will face state Rep. James Smith (D) in a state where Democrats face an uphill battle no matter the political environment.

Voters in Nevada and North Dakota formalized Senate battles between Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) and Rep. Jacky Rosen (D, NV-3) as well as Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) and Rep. Kevin Cramer (R, ND-AL). One could argue that Heller and Heitkamp are, respectively, each party’s most vulnerable Senate incumbent (Heller definitely is, Heitkamp may or may not be). Nevada Democrats also picked Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak (D) as their gubernatorial nominee; most observers seemed to believe Sisolak was the strongest opponent for state Attorney General Adam Laxalt (R) in a Toss-up race.

Familiar faces won primaries in two competitive open-seat House races in the Silver State: former Reps. Steven Horsford (D) and Cresent Hardy (R) will face off in NV-4, while frequent candidate Danny Tarkanian (R) again won the nomination in NV-3, where he will face philanthropist Susie Lee (D), who unsuccessfully sought the NV-4 Democratic nomination last cycle. We rate both districts, each of which was close in the last presidential election, as Leans Democratic.