Unassuming party struggles played out in the seven states that held primary elections Tuesday night. Most of these states vote reliably for one party in national elections, but voters showed nuance when it came to some regional races.
California, a blue bastion, for example, hasn’t elected a Republican to statewide office since 2006 and last voted for a Republican presidential candidate when George H.W. Bush ran 34 years ago. But this year, plenty of Democrats are running to beat Republican members of Congress who won back seats in 2020, and the party’s working hard to keep a former Republican from being elected mayor of the state’s largest city.
That state primary as well as ones in Iowa, Mississippi, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, and South Dakota happened Tuesday night. The results of those contests brought polarization, crime, and former President Donald Trump’s sway to the fore.
Votes in some races, particularly in California, are still being tabulated. But here are two losers and five winners from them.
Winner: Political polarization
California’s statewide races often confound outsiders: The state has a top-two system, meaning the two candidates who win the most votes in an open primary advance to the general election, regardless of political party. In past races, like the contest for governor in 2018, that has meant Republicans are locked out of the competition completely, given Democrats’ nearly 2 to 1 advantage in party registration.
This year, Republican statewide candidates did surprisingly well, forcing their way into general elections in statewide races.
Gov. Gavin Newsom will face Republican state Sen. Brian Dahle; Sen. Alex Padilla will face a previous rival, Republican attorney Mark Meuser; and, in a surprising twist, Attorney General Rob Bonta, who was considered at risk over his progressive stance on criminal justice, will face a Republican, Nathan Hochman, instead of the independent candidate many pundits thought might have a better chance at beating him in a general election, former Sacramento District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert.
In a race that will be watched as a bellwether for the future of the California Republican Party, academic Lanhee Chen advanced to the general election for state controller with the most votes in a race that included four other Democratic candidates.
Republican candidates benefited from strong party loyalty from base voters, who did not cross party lines to vote for independents or Democrats. Low turnout also appears to have helped their candidates make the cut for the top two.
Tuesday’s results also suggested there’s shrinking room for independent candidates in California’s elections. Except for one down-ballot race in 2018, independents have never made it to statewide general elections in California’s modern political history and have not had much success in primaries. But given Schubert’s popularity in Northern California for the arrest and prosecution of the serial murderer known as the “Golden State Killer” and her willingness to leave the Republican Party in 2018, it was believed Schubert would break this trend.
Two Republicans outperformed Schubert in nearly every county. Another prominent independent, author Michael Shellenberger — who received outsize national media attention — garnered just 4 percent of the vote as of Wednesday morning.
There are roughly as many registered independents (called “no party preference” voters in California) as there are Republicans in California. Numerically, that would suggest independent candidates’ results should be in line with those of GOP candidates. But no-party-preference voters hold strong ideological preferences on issues ranging from crime to drought management that lead them to vote for either party, instead of independent candidates.
Broadly, Republican appearances on the general election ballot could end up helping Democrats, given their numerical advantage, and since their supporters will now be unified in voting against a common opponent. That means fewer chances for a state Republican comeback, outside of the localized races and gerrymandered congressional districts where Republicans are already favored. —Christian Paz
Winner: Law and order rhetoric
In San Francisco, a solid majority of voters — roughly 60 percent — opted to recall progressive prosecutor Chesa Boudin, who was elected district attorney in 2019. Since taking office, Boudin has focused on reducing incarceration, ending cash bail, and holding the police accountable for violence. The push for his recall came as some voters worried about crime in the city — even though the overall rate of violent crime in San Francisco is still close to a historic low.
High-profile coverage of “smash-and-grab” robberies as well as violent anti-Asian attacks may have added to perceptions of lawlessness in the city, which could have outweighed the data on the issue for some voters. Those in favor of Boudin’s recall felt like he wasn’t doing enough to hold perpetrators accountable for offenses while those defending him argued the effort was part of a larger Republican push to oust progressive prosecutors.
Now, San Francisco Mayor London Breed will have a chance to appoint his replacement, who’s likely to be more moderate.
In Los Angeles, too, billionaire and former Republican Rick Caruso has stressed the need to reduce crime in his mayoral run, emphasizing his plans to hire 1,500 new police officers and the possibility of penalizing unhoused people who don’t go to shelters. Caruso’s campaign has focused heavily on ramping up fears about crime, as Los Angeles has seen an uptick of certain incidents during the pandemic.
Both Caruso and Democratic Rep. Karen Bass — who has run on the need for more progressive criminal justice reforms — advanced to a runoff this fall, with the former holding a slight lead as of Wednesday morning. Separately, tough-on-crime candidate Raúl Torrez also won the Democratic primary for New Mexico attorney general, in another indication that a focus on law and order resonated with certain voters.
Still, exceptions to this trend exist. In the heated contest to be sheriff of Los Angeles County, incumbent Alex Villanueva was projected to be heading for a runoff. His opponent has yet to be determined (votes are still being counted), but so far, he has won just over a third of the vote.
That Villanueva didn’t win outright could be seen as a stern rebuke of his approach to the job. The county’s Democratic establishment has grown to oppose the sheriff, who ran as a progressive reformer in 2018 before pivoting to a right-wing tough-on-crime stance and going on Fox News and Twitter to attack Mayor Eric Garcetti, District Attorney George Gascon, and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, which oversees the sheriff’s budget.
In another sign that voters have complicated and differing views on justice, Rob Bonta, the California attorney general that Newsom appointed after Xavier Becerra left for a spot in President Joe Biden’s cabinet, also cruised to the top of the field in his primary. That’s despite concerns his more progressive stance on criminal justice and prosecutions would jeopardize his chance at a full term.
And one more note: Pamela Price, a progressive prosecutor in Alameda County, which covers Berkeley and Oakland, finished in first place Tuesday night, qualifying for a runoff against a more moderate candidate, even as voters recalled Boudin across the Bay. —Li Zhou and Christian Paz
Loser: Voter turnout
Voter interest in midterm elections is historically lower than it is in presidential years; it’s worse in midterm primaries. But yesterday’s elections showed even lower interest than in previous years in California, New Mexico, Mississippi, and South Dakota.
California ballots are still being processed, but as of Wednesday morning, turnout stood at 16 percent. Turnout in New Mexico is estimated to be 22 percent; Mississippi totals aren’t yet available, but many precincts were unsure they’d reach 10 percent participation; and South Dakota’s secretary of state said less than 30 percent of voters turned out.
California’s low turnout in statewide races — and in the marquee Los Angeles mayoral primary — is particularly shocking given everything the state has done in recent years to try to facilitate access to the ballot box: universal mail-in ballots, same-day voter registration, drop boxes and relaxed deadlines for counting ballots, and big spending on voting awareness campaigns.
But a combination of voter fatigue and a lack of exciting, competitive statewide races may have contributed to what seems to be the lowest turnout in two election cycles. That low engagement, particularly in Los Angeles County, could explain why the mayoral primary seems to be closer than expected.
In LA County, liberal and moderate voters concerned with crime and homelessness may have turned out at a higher rate. That overlaps with the regions of the county that saw the highest turnout: the affluent hills surrounding the city core and its beachside neighborhoods. —CP
Incumbents of both parties did well Tuesday night across the country, beating back challenges from the left and right or advancing to runoff elections.
In Iowa, seven-term US Sen. Chuck Grassley beat back a Trumpy challenger easily, while incumbents from both parties cruised to victory without challengers in the congressional primaries. Incumbents in Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, and South Dakota also looked safe.
Mississippi’s incumbent members of Congress also fared well, except for Rep. Michael Guest, a Republican who voted to establish a commission to investigate the January 6 attack on the Capitol, who looks on track to end up in a runoff against Michael Cassidy. An incumbent Republican in the state’s Fourth District, Rep. Steven Palazzo, will also face a runoff.
The picture in California is more interesting. Though incumbents all made it into the top two in the primaries, the results in swing districts, especially in Southern California, are setting up competitive races for November that will hinge on turnout (which, as stated above, is a cause for concern, especially for Democrats).
The Central Valley’s 22nd District saw incumbent, pro-impeachment Republican Rep. David Valadao, one of the most vulnerable Republicans in the country, come in second place to a Democrat; Rep. Mike Garcia will face a second rematch against former state assembly member Christy Smith in the 27th District, which is more Democratic now after redistricting; and Republican Rep. Michelle Steel will face a strong Democratic challenger in the 45th District. —CP
Winner: John Thune
Sen. John Thune (R-SD), a top member of Republican leadership, won his primary by an overwhelming majority on Wednesday in a decisive rebuke of former President Donald Trump.
Previously, Trump had called for his ally Gov. Kristi Noem to primary Thune, since he’d criticized efforts to challenge the 2020 election results. At the time, Trump had dubbed Thune a “RINO” and “Mitch’s Boy,” promising that his political career would soon be over.
Noem, however, declined to pursue a primary; instead, she’s running for another term in the governor’s house. She won her primary easily, and a serious challenger to Thune never really materialized. His win is a reminder that it’s still possible for Republicans to buck Trump and succeed. —LZ
Winner: Investigations of January 6
Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-SD) is among those who faced a primary challenge from the right this cycle given his support for an independent commission to investigate the January 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection.
Johnson — along with two other Republicans who backed the commission, Reps. Mariannette Miller-Meeks (IA) and Chris Smith (NJ) — won their primaries on Tuesday, indicating that their support for the panel wasn’t enough to doom their candidacies. (The independent commission these lawmakers backed is different from the January 6 select committee, which begins its hearings this week, and which just two House Republicans supported.)
There is some indication that support for an inquiry into January 6 may have turned off some GOP voters. Two Republicans, Rep. Michael Guest in Mississippi and Rep. David Valadao in California, both of whom supported the January 6 independent commission, have races that are still too close to call. Though both seem likely to advance to a runoff or a top-two contest, it’s notable that on a night where many incumbents ran up high margins of victory against their challengers, neither was able to achieve a decisive victory.
Overall, however, the successes of multiple Republicans who favored scrutiny of the Capitol riot underscore the message that pushback toward Trump isn’t enough to derail every GOP campaign.
The results also point to an emerging split in the Republican Party on the Capitol riot and contesting the 2020 election results. While candidates resisting Trump’s false claims of a stolen election did well Tuesday, other recent GOP winners like Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano have made concerns about election fraud a central part of their platform, and some lawmakers, like Ohio Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, are retiring amid backlash for their stances opposing it. —LZ
Loser: Abby Finkenauer
Former House Rep. Abby Finkenauer, one of a growing number of millennials elected to Congress, was widely viewed as a promising opponent to 88-year-old Sen. Chuck Grassley. On Tuesday, however, she wound up losing to retired Navy Adm. Michael Franken.
No matter what, Grassley, a seven-term incumbent in red Iowa, would have been difficult to beat. But Finkenauer was seen as the Democratic frontrunner to do so. The former lawmaker was known for flipping an Iowa battleground seat in 2018, though she lost her reelection in 2020.
Franken ultimately bested Finkenauer by pulling in more fundraising and emphasizing his ability to build a broad coalition that includes independent voters. Whether he’ll be able to mount a real challenge this fall to Grassley, who’s vying for his eighth term in the Senate, remains to be seen. —LZ