Takeaways from the Wyoming, Alaska primaries

John Lapinski, a political scientist in the School of Arts & Sciences and director of elections at NBC News, discusses the election results and what they could mean for November’s midterms.

Liz Cheney speaks at a podium outside as sun sets
Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) speaks Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2022, at a primary Election Day gathering at Mead Ranch in Jackson, Wyo. Cheney lost to challenger Harriet Hageman in the primary. (Image: AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Political consequences continued this week for some but not all critics of former President Donald Trump. As had been expected, U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney lost her primary in Wyoming on Tuesday to a candidate backed by Trump, while in Alaska, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, another Trump critic, advanced from her primary. What do these results tell us about November general election, the state of the GOP, and Trump’s hold on the party?

Penn Today spoke with political scientist John Lapinski of the School of Arts & Sciences to find out. He is faculty director of the Robert A. Fox Leadership Program, director of the Program on Opinion Research and Election Studies, and faculty director of the Fels Institute of Government and also director of elections at NBC News. When NBC declares a winner, it’s because Lapinski has called it. Here, he shares his take on the primaries and what they can tell us about both parties and the fall midterms.

Would you characterize these primaries as a test of Trump’s influence?

When you look at the 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump over the Jan. 6 riot, only two have survived politically. These primaries were sort of the final maraschino cherry on the sundae, so to speak. Trump has an extremely strong hold on the Republican Party. It’s not complete, and we’ve seen some states resist Trump, like Georgia in particular. But Trump is the head of the Republican Party right now; that is clear. The Wyoming and Alaska primaries didn’t determine that, but they continued to show that.

What does the choice of Harriet Hageman over Cheney tell us?

I would never want to say that Wyoming is the litmus test for determining the Republican Party, since it is the most Republican state in the country. What it is signaling is that the Republican Party has changed across the entire country, but Cheney didn’t do that. Cheney became a national celebrity and is a key member of a family in Wyoming that already had national celebrity. Regardless of what people think of Dick Cheney, his roles as vice president and in Congress before that cemented him as a national figure, not just a Wyoming figure. But Liz Cheney gave up on winning that state a long time ago. She has been a strong representative for Wyoming, but she also has had her eye on national party politics. I’ve known for a very long time that Cheney was going to lose, and so I wouldn’t want to put that much weight on Wyoming.

What are your thoughts on Cheney’s hinting that she might run for president in 2024?

I think she meant it. She just went on NBC’s ‘Today Show’ and said she’s going to do everything she can to stop Trump. One way she might effectively do that is to run in the Republican presidential primaries, but I wouldn’t rule out an independent run. If she were to run as an independent, she would pick up Democrat votes because many Democrats admire her, but she would probably pick up more Republican votes. If it was a very close election, and she splintered away some votes, that could end Trump.

I was joking that those primaries were sort of a ‘Star Wars’ event for two reasons. One, because a candidate running for Senate in Alaska against Murkowski has a last name that’s pronounced like Chewbacca, Kelly Tshibaka. And second, if you remember Obi Wan saying that if you strike him down, he’ll become more powerful than you can ever imagine, Cheney could become much more powerful not being in Congress by potentially altering presidential politics.

Why did the situation play out differently for Murkowski?

First of all, it was because it was a ‘jungle’ Senate primary, in which the top four candidates will advance to the general election, regardless of party. So, there was no way she wasn’t going to advance. She has an extremely long history in Alaska, and Alaska is not as ideological as some states. It is a different kind of state, with a whole different culture. Voters still value people who they think served their states well, and many people think that Murkowski has served her state well.

It’s still going to be a tough race in November, when you look at what happened in the primary. She won 43.7% of the vote and Tshibaka won 40.4%. That’s close. One thing we learned is that these rules matter. After the jungle primary, it moves to the general elections and the ranked choice will determine who wins. Ranked choice is a somewhat complicated process that has voters rank their preferred candidates, with the votes for the lowest-finishing candidates coming into play only if no one gets over 50%. That ranked choice will be very important and who comes in third will really matter because how those votes split will really matter.

What does this say about the state of the GOP?

Everybody likes to say that the GOP is in turmoil, but they aren’t in as much turmoil as people think. The MAGA component of the GOP has won, and there aren’t many Liz Cheneys out there. There are divisions in the Republican Party, but I think the divisions in the Democratic Party are just as great. For instance, look at what happened to Ilhan Omar in Minnesota, one of the most progressive members of Congress. She only won by two points. That could have easily flipped the other way and she could have lost. There are big fights within the Democratic Party between the progressives and the non-progressives. In the Republican Party, the fights are a little different, but neither party is completely division-free.

Does this give us a preview as to what might happen in the midterms?

At the beginning of these primaries, people really thought the economy was in tatters, primarily because of inflation. People were unhappy in a lot of different dimensions and a number of factors have made the environment much better for the Democrats.

Going into these primaries, the Republicans were extremely strong favorites to win back the House, and probably take the Senate. But over the course of these last several months, the Democrats have had some good news, and they might have a slight advantage in the Senate and it’s very close in the House. That’s a big change over the course of a couple of months. We don’t usually see that but it’s not surprising because of the number of issues supported by Republicans that are not supported by the majority of the American public.

Can you highlight a few of those issues?

Obviously, abortion is one. A large majority of Americans support abortion access under conditions of rape or incest or life of the mother. But there are a number of Republicans arguing against that and people get scared when they hear that kind of talk. There’s also been talk of limiting access to contraception. People think that that’s extreme, and voters don’t like extreme.

There have also been some tactical errors on the Republican side, like voting down the burn pit bill that affects 3 million veteran soldiers. They ended up supporting it, but a lot of people were wondering what was going on with the party there. Republicans have had a very bad summer, and then combined with President Biden getting part of his agenda passed. This has revitalized the Democrats.

The Inflation Reduction Act wasn’t exactly what Biden wanted, but it did accomplish some of what he wanted to do, like the climate portion, the minimum 15% tax on corporations, and helping prescription medicine costs, which will be extremely popular especially with the elderly, given how it relates to Medicare.

What are the most important takeaways from the Wyoming and Alaska primaries?

There were actually no surprises, and the results just cemented the shift that has happened in the Republican Party. One thing we saw is we’re probably not going to know the results of the Alaska special election involving Sarah Palin for two weeks, because the rules are extremely complicated. Even though there are completely legitimate reasons for the results to take a while—it takes a long time to process ballots and count absentee votes—that’s a difficult situation in some ways because so many people don’t trust elections now. I think the American public is a little impatient waiting for results, and sometimes that impatience leads to distrust. I think there will be a lot of distrust in November. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think I will be.

John Lapinski is the faculty director of the Robert A. Fox Leadership Program, director of the Program on Opinion Research and Election Studies, faculty director of the Fels Institute of Government in the School of Arts & Sciences at Penn, and director of elections at NBC News.