2022 midterms

Why Primary Runoffs Will Matter in the 2022 Midterms

MAGA folk would have an easier time purging Wyoming congresswoman Liz Cheney if the state had primary runoffs. Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

U.S. representatives Tom Rice of South Carolina and Liz Cheney of Wyoming entered the 2022 election cycle with giant bull’s-eyes on their backs because they had voted to impeach Donald Trump in January. But while Rice is as toasted as a slice of white bread in a broiler, Cheney could still survive, even though the MAGA rage directed at her is more intense thanks to the lofty House leadership position she occupied before her colleagues stripped her of it in May. The reason is simple: South Carolina has a primary-runoff law requiring a majority vote to secure a party nomination. Wyoming doesn’t.

The large field of opponents Cheney has attracted means she could win a primary with a relatively small percentage of the vote; indeed, she won her first nomination for a House race in 2016 with less than 40 percent of the vote. So the real game going forward is whether Trump or his allies can more or less “clear the field” for the most formidable challenger. In South Carolina (and seven other states, all but one in the South), that won’t be necessary; unless Rice wins a majority (which seems unlikely), he’ll face a single Trump-endorsed opponent in the runoff and will probably succumb.

As Charlie Cook observes in his latest column, the existence or absence of a primary-runoff system may affect quite a few other 2022 GOP primaries, with unpredictable consequences. In the Ohio Senate race, for example, a large field of candidates who know they may need only a plurality to win the nomination are naturally gravitating toward the most motivated Republican voters, who are Trump fans. So the primary is becoming a MAGA festival with the most important audience being Trump himself, whose endorsement could easily lift its beneficiary just enough to edge out others proclaiming eternal loyalty to the Boss. Similarly, in Missouri, “Establishment” Republicans fear that disgraced former governor Eric Grietens, who has revived his career by reminding people that he’s a Trump-style “outsider,” will prevail over a scattered field and risk the loss of a Senate seat in an otherwise safely red state.

If Alabama didn’t have a primary-runoff requirement, skies would be blue for Senate candidate Katie Britt, who has the perfect pre-2016 résumé for a Republican candidate (former Senate chief of staff, a position atop the state’s main business lobby, impeccable fundraising credentials, very churchy, married to a former Crimson Tide football star). The MAGA vote will likely be split between Mo Brooks, one of Trump’s opening acts on January 6, and Lynda Blanchard, Trump’s ambassador to his wife’s homeland of Slovenia. But because Alabama does have a runoff, one of these wild candidates will almost certainly face Britt head-on, and as Roy Moore’s victory in a 2017 Alabama Republican Senate runoff showed, anything can happen.

The primary-runoff system has an unsavory reputation because of its origins as a way for white southerners to marginalize Black voters and candidates. (This interpretation may have it backward since arguably the one-party system that was the real bulwark of white supremacy made runoffs practicable for party primaries that were de facto general elections). And the idea that runoffs discriminate against minority candidates took a hit earlier this year when Georgia, the one state that requires runoffs if general elections aren’t won by a majority, elected Black and Jewish liberal U.S. senators (the latter had finished second in November).

That majority-vote requirements aren’t inherently race-motivated has been made plain in the adoption of top-two systems (in which all candidates compete in a nonpartisan primary with the top-two finishers, regardless of party, competing in the general election) in progressive Washington and California. And most recently, there has been a great deal of progressive support for ranked-choice voting — a.k.a. “instant runoff” voting — in which a majority coalition eventually emerges in rounds of vote counting in which less successful candidates are eliminated and the secondary choices of their voters are tabulated.

RCV has been adopted in Maine for all primary and general elections, and Alaskans have voted to adopt it for general elections (in combination with a top-four primary) beginning in 2022. Municipalities in 14 states are either holding or have been authorized to hold RCV elections, most notably Memphis, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, San Francisco — and New York. In the Big Apple, the jury is out on the controversial RCV feature of the mayoral primary that was finally settled two weeks after Primary Day. Since the most vocal critic of RCV as allegedly discriminating against nonwhite and non-English-speaking voters, Eric Adams, ultimately won, perhaps the conflict over it will subside. But without question, at a time when one major party is systematically undermining the principle of majority rule by manipulating its institutional power to control elections and their outcomes, a majoritarian pushback by Democrats and independents seems likely. And they may even be joined by Donald Trump if plurality-primary winners defy his plans for vengeance.

Why Primary Runoffs Will Matter in the 2022 Midterms