Tuesday’s primary election in five states could ultimately go down as the most important this year. But one thing is certain: It has to go down as the wildest.
Take Pennsylvania. The last week of the primary contests for governor and US Senate seemed as though it had it all: a stroke, two surging candidates who’d attended the Jan. 6 rally that preceded the Capitol riot, a celebrity doctor, a former hedge fund manager married to a former White House staffer, and a positive COVID case. And if that wasn’t enough drama, the Senate seat up for grabs represents the only vacant seat in a swing state.
Meanwhile, in North Carolina, there was the referendum on a controversial House member whose political collapse was the stuff of legend. And in Idaho, an intraparty soap opera for the ages finally reached its conclusion.
All of that culminated Tuesday in a frenzied primary night that served up a few key conclusions about where we are in America at this particular moment. Take a look:
The center did not hold
Primary contests are largely about the heart and soul of a particular political party. Usually, it comes down to this choice: Do voters of a party want to put forward someone for the general election who best represents their values? Or do they want a more moderate candidate who gives them the best chance at winning a general election?
In contests all over the five states, there was a consistent theme. The candidate representing the political base won. This shouldn’t be terribly surprising given what we know about who votes in primaries. That, and the fact that politicians representing the center are having a hard time winning in this polarized age.
This meant that it was a good night overall for both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, who saw candidates they backed win key contests for the Senate and Congress on Tuesday. In Pennsylvania’s Democratic primary for Senate, Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, who endorsed Sanders for president, easily defeated Representative Conor Lamb, who backed Joe Biden. By the way, Fetterman had to vote via an emergency absentee ballot from a hospital room because he suffered a stroke over the weekend.
The Republican side is too close to call, but the latest returns show Trump-backed Dr. Mehmet Oz just slightly ahead.
Trump’s candidates also won Republican primaries for governor in Pennsylvania, Senate in North Carolina, and a key congressional race in the same state.
There are limitations to what Trump can do
Trump’s endorsement continues to be a strong, defining factor in Republican primaries for the House and Senate. But there are limits to what Trump can and cannot do. For example, Tuesday continued the pattern that Trump has yet to knock off a single Republican governor he didn’t like.
In Idaho, there has been a long-running, almost comical feud for years between Governor Brad Little and Lieutenant Governor Janice McGeachin, who were elected separately four years ago. This race doesn’t fit easily into some political template. While McGeachin had Trump’s endorsement, Little is no moderate. In fact, he just signed into law some of the most restrictive laws on abortion and transgender rights in the nation’s history.
What Little is, however, is popular. He crushed McGeachin and one other opponent on Tuesday.
It was another moment where Trump simply couldn’t knock off an incumbent governor just because he didn’t like the person. Republican governors from Utah to Arkansas to Maryland to New Hampshire and Vermont (and even Florida) have been among those who have given the most pushback to Trump, and there is very little he is able to do about it.
While a Trump-backed election denier got the Republican nomination for the open Pennsylvania governor’s seat, the Idaho contest could be a preview for Georgia’s Republican primary for governor if Brian Kemp coasts to a win against a Trump-recruited opponent.
Of course, this particular limit to Trump’s power in state capitals won’t change the tenor in Washington. But it does ensure that there is at least one perch within the Republican Party where leaders can criticize the former president and survive, which these days isn’t a small thing.
A concession without claims of election fraud is important
Since the 2020 election, there was a concern that things were headed the wrong way for American democracy. The acute fear: Anytime a MAGA candidate lost a race, there would be screams of election fraud, no matter how baseless the claim or how bad the loss. But on Tuesday night, that didn’t happen in an important race. And that could be a good sign.
There have been endless headlines and stories about Representative Madison Cawthorn during his first two years in Congress. Many of those focused on his often-astounding comments, meant to gin up the MAGA base.
With all that in mind, it was hard to tell what Cawthorn would do if he lost his bid for reelection on Tuesday. He did ultimately lose, but then he did something perhaps unexpected. He conceded.
Cawthorn, who lost by less than 1,500 votes, could have easily claimed fraud or sought a recount. He was certainly targeted by members of the Republican political elite who had had enough of his antics, which included saying that his Republican House colleagues have cocaine-fueled orgies and that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was a “thug” (as opposed to Russian President Vladamir Putin). But he didn’t point to any of that and he didn’t yell about fraud.
Is it a sign that the MAGA-base could concede lost elections this fall? Maybe. Or perhaps Cawthorn had just had enough.
Black candidates are gaining momentum
Not to be overlooked is the fact that Democratic voters in Kentucky and North Carolina nominated Black candidates for the US Senate for the first time ever. In Kentucky, Charles Booker won his second attempt at the Democratic nomination for Senate and will face off against Rand Paul. In North Carolina, Cheri Beasley won the nomination and will take on Trump-backed Representative Ted Budd for the Senate.
Both are considered underdogs given the latest Republican leanings of their respective states and the fact that Republicans are polling better this midterm year. But the primary wins are not to be ignored.
They come after Black candidates were nominated in South Carolina and Georgia in 2020. Indeed, another Black candidate, Kathy Barnette, was surging in the final days of the Pennsylvania Republican Senate contest, though she is currently in third as the votes are tallied.
Given that only 11 Black people have ever been elected to the US Senate, these wins mark an important a sign of progress and a potential hint of what is to come.