Voters went to the polls across four Southern states on Tuesday to vote in primary elections and brought with them a sharp reversal of some narratives from earlier in the election cycle. Candidates favored by the national Democratic Party establishment did very well on the whole, and while the GOP remains a very solidly conservative party, they don’t seem to have let any kooks or weirdos win key races this time around.
Except, that is, for Donald Trump, who is still president and veered weirdly off script the same night to suggest that maybe turning out to vote for GOP candidates this November isn’t important. Successes for the GOP establishment Tuesday night, however, included cementing Medicaid expansion’s status in Arkansas — providing further evidence for the stickiness of this policy in even the most conservative states.
Georgia Republicans, meanwhile, have too many reasonably normal, well-qualified GOP contenders and are going to be faced with months more of infighting as two statewide elected officials slug it out to try to face Stacey Abrams in the general election.
And while progressive ideas continue to flourish in the post-2016 Democratic Party, the vehicle for bringing Bernie Sanders’s political revolution down ballot continues to struggle to establish itself as a real difference-maker.
Last but by no means least, Abrams herself not only has a chance to make history as the first black woman elected governor of any state in the union but is also at the vanguard of a larger trend that had other exemplars Tuesday. The post-Obama Democratic Party is suddenly ready to nominate black candidates for tough races in majority-white jurisdictions, a sea change in the party’s thinking about a demographic group whose votes it relies on heavily.
Here’s what you need to know.
Winner: the DCCC
House Democrats’ official campaign arm didn’t get its preferred nominee in every race, but it did expunge an embarrassing situation in TX-7, a very strong pickup opportunity in the Houston suburbs. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) decided months ago that journalist Laura Moser, who’d returned to the district after years spent living in DC, was an unacceptably weak candidate.
That led the committee to blast her in unusually harsh terms in advance of the first round of Texas primary voting, which ended up having the perverse effect of drawing Our Revolution into the race as a Moser endorser and helping her secure a spot in the runoff.
The party committee never likes to lose, but to lose this one would have been an especially grievous blow since it had gone nuclear on her. Establishment-preferred candidates also won in TX-21 and TX-23, and while the DCCC picked Lexington Mayor Jim Gray over Amy McGrath, who beat him in KY-6 tonight, they can live with McGrath, who in many ways fits exactly the model they normally look for in a recruit.
Loser: the GOP mobilization strategy
The party that holds the White House almost always loses ground in the midterms, and that’s almost always in part because of differential mobilization. People who hate the incumbent look to the midterms as an opportunity to take out their wrath, while people who like him generally feel chill about things and may tune out politics. So the “in” party invariably sends the president out on the stump to try to rally the faithful with speeches about the critical importance of the midterms.
But Donald Trump is not a conventional politician, and when his staff tries to make him do normal things, like say the midterms are important, he tends to go off script. He did so Tuesday night at an anti-abortion event, saying things like, “I’m not sure I really believe that,” and, “I don’t know who the hell wrote that line.”
Trump just stepped all over GOP midterm messaging.— Dan Diamond (@ddiamond) May 23, 2018
“Your vote in 2018 is every bit as important as your vote in 2016 — although I’m not sure I really believe that,” Trump ad libs. “I don’t know who the hell wrote that line.” pic.twitter.com/tk6G7CfD4H
Somewhat ironically, Trump actually has a good deal more riding on the midterms than the typical president. Congressional Republicans have been running interference for him with special counsel Robert Mueller and, perhaps more significantly, completely blocking any oversight of his financial conflicts of interest.
Even an extremely narrow Democratic majority in just one house of Congress would mean a vast increase in the level of scrutiny Trump faces and at least potentially could lead to the unraveling of his whole presidency. Whoever wrote the speech, the notion that Trump should try to turn out his base could end up being the good advice that he just didn’t take.
Loser: Our Revolution
Bernie Sanders’s post-campaign national political organization endorsed two House candidates in fiercely contested primaries — Laura Moser and Rick Treviño — and they both lost rather badly.
Stacey Abrams, who won the Democratic governor’s nomination in Georgia, was also an Our Revolution endorsee, but she was backed by virtually every Democrat with a national political profile, and nobody will see this as a case of Sanders’s support in particular putting her over the top.
What’s more, it’s far from clear that Abrams really was the more progressive choice in that race. And one week ago, Jane Kleeb — the chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party and an Our Revolution board member — made sure the group didn’t endorse Kara Eastman and her challenge to the more moderate, establishment-backed candidate Brad Ashford, but Eastman won anyway.
Just before primary day, Our Revolution was the subject of a scathing profile in Politico, and questions about the judgment of its leader, Nina Turner, are provoking some calls for a shakeup from left-wing journalists. With Sanders’s policy ideas more influential than ever inside the Beltway, his group’s failure to make a real impact on an organizing level this time around is striking.
Winner: Medicaid expansion
It’s not the most unexpected outcome in the world that incumbent Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson held off a primary challenge from a former television journalist most famous for establishing her gun range as a “Muslim-free zone.”
But in a world where Donald Trump and Roy Moore can win primaries, it at least wasn’t totally obvious that Jan Morgan couldn’t beat Hutchinson.
That’s especially because there was a bona fide policy disagreement between them on Medicaid expansion in which Hutchinson was genuinely more moderate than the vast majority of the national GOP establishment. Hutchinson’s Democratic predecessor, Mike Beebe, made Arkansas one of the reddest states to accept the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion, and though Hutchinson has used waivers to shift the program in a more conservative direction, he also fought affirmatively to keep the expansion.
His victory helps cement the idea that expansion states don’t un-expand, and that pushing for expansion is smart politics for governors — even Republican governors in very red states.
Loser: Georgia Republicans
While the primary battle between Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans on the Democratic side attracted the lion’s share of the media attention, the primary on the Republican side is likely going to end up being more consequential. Abrams, for better or worse, won handily and will get a clean shot at winning an upset victory in the November general election.
Republicans, by contrast, have a problem.
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Secretary of State Brian Kemp are both, by all normal standards, perfectly solid recruits for the GOP — established politicians with a proven ability to win statewide elections in Georgia. But the presence of a series of fringier candidates in the race ensured the neither Cagle, the frontrunner, nor Kemp (who is running as a quasi-outsider despite being secretary of state) could get a majority of the vote. The two men will need to run against each other in a runoff that won’t be held for another two months.
That means nine long weeks of two Republicans who honestly aren’t that different from each other finding reasons to slam their opponent and competing to position themselves as the most fanatically right-wing option in the race — weeks that Abrams will be able to use to introduce herself to voters on her own terms and set up the campaign she wants to run for the fall.
Winner: black Democrats
African Americans have been a core pillar of the Democratic Party’s electoral base for decades now, but until recently it’s been extremely rare to see black candidates nominated to run outside of safe majority-minority districts.
When Barack Obama captured his party’s nomination for Illinois Senate in 2004, it was as a candidate who started out as an extreme underdog and benefited from the flukey implosion of his rivals’ campaigns. Obama getting elected president started to change things, and Cory Booker and Kamala Harris followed him into the US Senate — though, like Obama and Carol Moseley Braun before him, they were holding down safe seats.
On Tuesday, Stacey Abrams won a statewide nomination for a different kind of race. A Democratic nominee in Georgia is definitely an underdog, but she’s not a sacrificial lamb — Democrats sincerely believe they have a shot at winning this race, and Abrams was the national party’s preferred choice.
Something very similar is true of Colin Allred in TX-32. Hillary Clinton carried this traditionally very red district in parts of Dallas and its northern suburbs, so Democrats know they have a real shot. Their standard-bearer, as of Tuesday night, will be an African-American civil rights lawyer and former NFL player. And Allred, even more so than Abrams, was an “establishment” pick; national party leaders like their odds with him.
Neither of these races is a gimme, and both might lose in the end. But you lose 100 percent of the elections you don’t contest, and picking black nominees for tough races is new for Democrats.