Tuesday’s primary election was the biggest all year in terms of the number of states voting on a single day — seven — and the races offered some unusual lessons. The themes that emerged felt more like those in a general election, with the “heart and soul” of political parties, a dominant primary season topic in recent years, taking more of a back seat. As such, the contests offer a few clues as to where we may be headed this fall.
Here are four takeaways worth noting from the primary elections in New Jersey, Iowa, South Dakota, Mississippi, New Mexico, Montana, and California.
The era of reform-minded prosecutors could be over (or at least dampened)
Earlier in the year, Donald Trump was essentially the biggest thing being decided on ballots. On Tuesday the major theme, at least in California, was how Democrats viewed crime.
The most consequential election of the day may have been the successful effort to recall San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin from his job as district attorney. Elected in 2019 to the position once held by Vice President Kamala Harris, Boudin was part of a crop of liberal prosecutors around the country who vowed to fundamentally alter the criminal justice system as a way to stem the tide of mass incarceration that has disproportionately impacted communities of color.
Boudin wasn’t the only one. Other elected prosecutors tried similar strategies in Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, and here in Massachusetts, where Rachael Rollins pushed for change when she was the district attorney for Suffolk County.
But crime rose in San Francisco during Boudin’s time in office, as it has in many parts of the country. More acutely, San Francisco residents became vocal about their frustrations with quality-of-life issues they said grew out of control.
Republicans around the country largely funded the recall movement, something that Boudin mentioned often in his campaign. But on Tuesday, he was easily ousted and he conceded defeat. While San Francisco Mayor London Breed isn’t likely to appoint a Republican or conservative firebrand to the position going forward, she has used colorful language about the need to address crime in the city.
This does not suggest the movement is totally over. On Tuesday, New Mexico Democrats nominated a reform-minded candidate to be the state’s attorney general. And Rollins is now the US attorney for Massachusetts.
Trump continues to lose power
Unlike previous primaries, Tuesday’s contests didn’t offer the same kind of binary choices between an obvious Trump-endorsed Republican candidate and one who didn’t get the endorsement. But the fact that so many Republicans who have challenged Trump in the past survived Tuesday without much acrimony might suggest a shifting dynamic.
Consider this first: 5 of the 35 House Republicans who voted in favor of creating a bipartisan commission to look into the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol building all either won or advanced to run-off elections on Tuesday.
Three elections were especially striking. In Iowa, Republican Representative Mariannette Miller-Meeks, who voted for the commission, didn’t even face a primary opponent. South Dakota Republican John Thune, who earned Trump’s ire after he vowed that Trump’s attempt to overturn the election would “go down like a shot dog,” faced nominal opposition. That’s significant. At one point previously, Thune was so worried about how Trump would react that he almost didn’t run for reelection at all.
In Montana, former representative Ryan Zinke left Congress to serve in Trump’s cabinet. He eventually resigned after a number of scandals involving his time as secretary of the interior. But in his comeback bid for a newly created congressional seat because of redistricting, he appeared Wednesday morning to be barely winning his Republican primary with 41 percent of the vote. A winner has not yet been declared.
While last month’s Republican primaries in Georgia served as an acute rebuke to the former president, Tuesday’s results might more subtly show that Republican voters are less inclined to punish their own for simply taking on Trump.
The nuts and bolts of campaigning do matter
Possibly the biggest political upset all year happened in Iowa on Tuesday, by someone who started out as a major underdog but just ran a better campaign.
When Democrat Abby Finkenauer announced she was running for US Senate, she was widely viewed as the likely Democratic nominee who would take on Republican Senator Chuck Grassley in the fall.
She had several things going for her. As a former state legislator and a one-term member of Congress, she was the only one in the field who had previously been elected. She also happened to be a former staffer on Joe Biden’s 2008 presidential campaign and was one of the few in Iowa who endorsed and actively campaigned for him in 2020 ahead of his disappointing fourth-place finish in the caucuses there. And she comes from a union household in a state where that matters in a Democratic primary.
But she ran a horrible campaign. A Republican challenge kicked her off the ballot because she didn’t turn in enough of the required signatures. She appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court, which let her back on the ballot.
Meanwhile, fellow Democrat Mike Franken put his head down and raised serious money. Franken, a retired Naval admiral and one-time staffer to Senator Ted Kennedy, plodded along and outraised Finkenauer. Then he outspent her 5 to 1 on television and digital advertising.
In the end, it wasn’t even close — Franken won with 55 percent of the vote — but still stunning given how it began.
Warning signs for low Democratic turnout
In basically every state and every contest all year so far, Republicans have outpaced Democrats in terms of ballots cast. Much of this was for a simple reason: Republicans had more interesting primaries, where Democrats were often unopposed in the statewide contests.
But it’s possible that Democratic alarm bells will really go off after seeing the low turnout in California so far. The state has some of the nation’s most liberal voting laws, even allowing for mail-in ballots to be counted a week after the election.
And yet, Democratic voter turnout could be 30 percent down for the second consecutive primary election year.
That’s significant for several reasons, the most important of which is that issues like the probable overturning of Roe vs. Wade and prominent gun violence may not actually be animating the Democratic base to act.
Count that as a huge warning flag to Democrats about this fall.