With the midterm general election only five months away, citizens across the country are watching with bated breath to see which candidates will be chosen to represent their party this primary season. As of June 7, twenty states have held their mix of Senate, House, and gubernatorial primaries.
Undoubtedly, this election cycle will have plenty of topics for discussion and public debate - from fears of a looming recession to the war in Ukraine to more recent discussions of gun control. However, for Democrats, the outcome of these primaries - indeed, the election as a whole - will be a litmus test of Biden’s performance while in office. For Republicans, the outcome will largely be a test of how closely aligned the party is with former President Trump.
Rather than going through each primary’s winners, let’s look at the results from a broader perspective and determine what they mean for the parties as a whole.
Even after his presidency, Trump has remained the most prominent figure within his party. Despite his ban from Twitter last year, Trump has maintained his online presence thanks to his new social platform Truth Social, enabling him to announce his support for loyal GOP candidates. But how have his endorsements played a role in affecting the outcome of these primaries?
As Elaine Kamark from Brookings notes in her article analyzing the first four rounds of primaries, of the 405 candidates running for the Republican nomination in the House and Senate, Trump formally endorsed 63, with 90% of House endorsements for districts that lean strongly Republican. She notes, however, that 54 of these 63 endorsements are for incumbents and/or uncontested seats and thus cannot be a strong determining factor due to incumbent bias in elections. Moreover, of these nine endorsements, only Madison Cawthorn (R-SC) lost, but only by a small margin - attributable, experts say, to the slew of scandals, district flip-flopping, and disorganization during his term in office.
Interestingly, Kamark found that not all Republican candidates have embraced the “Trumpist movement.” More than half of those running (216, or 53.3%) made no mention of Trump or his platform, signaling a great divide in these red districts/states and an identity crossroads for the party.
However, in the May 24 primaries, Trump faced his most significant setback so far. In Georgia, incumbent Governor Brian Kemp (R-GA) blew it out of the water with a staggering 73.7% of the votes against his Trump-endorsed challenger David Perdue who only received 21.8%. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, most well-known for his notorious phone call with the former president rebuking attempts to change the 2020 election results, won against Trump-endorsed Jody Hice. Trump’s two open-seat House picks for Georgia did not fare any better, both of whom came second place and moved on to the runoff election.
Though much more successful in the June 7 primaries, Trump wasn’t gambling with much political capital, to begin with, as he endorsed neither candidates in heavily contested primaries nor challengers to Republican incumbents. In fact, Trump refrained from endorsing any candidates in two of the seven total states: New Jersey and New Mexico (both of which he lost by double digits), indicating his strategy of playing his cards carefully while doubling down on his loyal following. There was, however, a close call for former U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke (R-MT) in Montana, who led Al Olszewski (R-MT) by a nail-biting margin of 42-41. Trump-backed Zinke despite his resignation in 2018 amid a financial ethics investigation over misuse of authority.
It’s been nearly a year and a half since Biden’s inauguration. During his campaign, supporters hailed him as a mainstream Democrat with years of experience under his belt. But how has his moderatism and long-standing political career helped bolster his party’s support, and what can we glean about the party’s direction through these primaries?
Typically, modern presidents enjoy a “honeymoon period,” a phenomenon whereby incoming presidents enjoy a bout of relative popularity that gradually declines as time goes on. As the numbers now stand, 56% disapprove and 41% approve of Biden’s performance in office, which recent social and economic upheavals have influenced no doubt. But, is perceived incompetency the only cause, or is there an underlying and growing dissatisfaction with the moderate sector of the Democratic party to which Biden closely attaches himself? These questions can be answered by taking a look at the primaries so far.
What characterizes this election cycle especially is the ideological struggle between the moderate and progressive wings of the Democratic party. What is striking is that voters appear to be more drawn towards progressive ideals rather than the ‘progressive’ label. As the Vox article notes, “What many of the Democrats who won this week [May 17] have in common is that they all embraced progressive priorities tailored to where they were running.”
Take John Fetterman’s (D-PA) win against incumbent Senator Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania, for example. Despite denying the progressive label, Fetterman ran on what could be called “blue-collar progressivism,” which appealed to many old-school centrists and the more progressive and diverse new generation of voters.
“Just being a centrist anymore, it’s hard to get things done. There’s shrinking room left in the middle,” says Philadelphian Democratic strategist Mustafa Rashed.
Examples like these are happening across the country. Even Biden’s presidential seal of approval isn’t enough to be the end-all factor. In Oregon, Biden-endorsed moderate Representative Kurt Schrader (D-OR), who has served seven terms, lost to newcomer progressive Jamie McLeod-Skinner. Relatedly, Tina Kotek (D-OR), Oregon’s longest-serving and the nation’s first openly lesbian speaker of the House, also won her gubernatorial primary as a progressive.
But despite these wins for progressives, they still have faced some troubling losses. For example, in two close-call runoff primaries in Texas, challenger Jessica Cisneros (D-TX) lost by 281 votes behind Henry Cuellar (D-TX) and Ruben Ramirez (D-TX) lost only by a slim margin of 30 votes to incumbent Michelle Vallejo (D-TX).