The blockbuster Republican Senate primary in Pennsylvania is too close to call, and returns from Oregon are still filtering in.
But regardless of what else happens, progressives had a winning night, Madison Cawthorn revealed something new about the ‘Big Lie’ and Pennsylvania Democrats might want to be careful what they wish for.
Here are five takeaways from a primary night where there votes are still being counted.
Trump was also unelectable
State Sen. Doug Mastriano appears to have blown up GOP plans in Pennsylvania.
A far-right election denier and a leading force in the effort to overturn the 2020 election results, Mastriano is viewed by many Republican operatives as a liability in a critical swing state, likely headed for a thrashing in the suburbs in November. Some state Republicans are considering publicly supporting the Democratic nominee, Josh Shapiro, while the Republican Governors Association may not even put money into the race.
This, of course, is the matchup Democrats were rooting for. Shapiro was so sure Mastriano would be the easiest Republican to beat that he aired an ad designed to elevate Mastriano in the primary.
This is probably smart politics. Everything about Pennsylvania’s swing state electorate suggests Mastriano is a dead man walking.
Except for this: Lots of Republicans and Democrats alike felt exactly the same way about Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential primary, back when establishment Republicans were praying for anyone other than Trump to win the nomination and some of Hillary Clinton’s advisers were salivating over the prospect of running against Trump. The climate for Democrats in this midterm election year is no better than it was then. In fact, it’s worse. And Pennsylvania is a swing state for a reason. Trump only lost Pennsylvania by about 80,000 votes in 2020. He won the state four years earlier.
Carl Fogliani, a Republican strategist based in Pittsburgh, said late Tuesday that Democrats might “beware what you wish for.” And some Democrats are feeling the same way.
One Democratic strategist who advises major Democratic donors said Mastriano’s nomination is “the least bad thing” that Democrats could have hoped for in Pennsylvania.
But he said, “There is nothing about this cycle that’s good for Dems.”
Could Mastriano win?
The strategist said, “Absolutely.”
The limits of ‘Big Lie’ politics
The most surprising thing about Rep. Madison Cawthorn’s demise on Tuesday was not that he lost, but that he admitted it.
Of all the Republicans who have lost their primary contests this year, Cawthorn, a pro-Trump, scandal-plagued congressman from North Carolina, would have seemed a natural fit to try out a baseless claim of voter fraud in 2022. His race was fairly close. When he wasn’t talking about group sex and cocaine, he has complained about “rigged” elections before.
But on Tuesday, he didn’t. Instead, Cawthorn conceded.
It’s possible, as one Republican operative put it Tuesday, that “he just wants the pain to end.”
But there’s something potentially more important going on here, too. Trump’s false claims of voter fraud in 2020, while animating many far-right candidacies today, don’t appear to be spreading down-ballot in the early primaries.
Yes, election truther-ism seems likely to resurface in November, when Republicans are running against Democrats, not other Republicans. But Trump’s fraud claims were never so constrained. He called for a do-over after losing the Iowa caucuses to Ted Cruz in 2016.
The other possibility is that Trump’s claims of a stolen election are available to him alone — a conceit not transferable to other Republicans at all.
After Cawthorn conceded on Tuesday, a Republican strategist working on House races across the country said that “without Trump egging it on, they don’t have the backup ammo to keep that message alive.”
Forget party loyalty. It’s all about Trump.
In the days before Trump endorsed Mastriano in Pennsylvania, Republicans terrified that Mastriano would sink them in November had hoped Trump might pick someone — anyone — else, blunting Mastriano’s rise.
They should have known better.
Trump is not the party building type, in the event that wasn’t already clear. And that’s certainly not the point of his sprinkling of endorsements in the midterm elections. He is rightfully taking credit for some Republicans’ victories, as in the North Carolina Senate race on Tuesday. But that isn’t as important for Trump, politically, as burnishing his win-loss record and nurturing adherents to his own cause. Ultimately, the outcome in November doesn’t matter.
In North Carolina, Trump’s support pulled Bo Hines, a 26-year-old who came out of nowhere, to a House primary victory. The endorsement was a show of Trump’s force, but some Republicans view Hines as a vulnerable general election candidate, and the endorsement infuriated some local Republicans who have toiled in the party vineyards for years.
In Idaho, where Trump’s endorsed candidate in gubernatorial race, Janice McGeachin, lost badly on Tuesday, Trump’s needless intervention did nothing other than fuel an intraparty civil war. Same story in Georgia, which holds its primary next week.
Trump was not party building when he took his baseless claims of voter fraud to Georgia after the 2020 election, depressing turnout in two critical Senate runoffs that the GOP ultimately lost. The scores of new voters that Trump drew to the party was a massive boon to the GOP. But there’s no certainty they’ll be around for the long haul, or when Trump leaves the political scene. No one who loses the House, the Senate and the White House on his watch can be said to be committed to party building.
For Trump, the win-loss record in the primaries has become something close to an obsession. But it is designed to be a game that Trump cannot lose. As one Trump adviser said, even a primary loss is not a “loss-loss.” That’s because he’ll get another crack at it in November. He can always endorse a nominee then.
Progressives have a big night
John Fetterman was expected to win the Democratic Senate primary in Pennsylvania for so long that it could be easy to overlook how big a win it was for the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.
And the evening got better after that.
In Oregon, first-time candidate Carrick Flynn, who had the support of the leadership-aligned House Majority PAC, conceded to Andrea Salinas, a progressive state lawmaker endorsed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), in the open 6th Congressional District. In the state’s 5th District, moderate incumbent Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) was trailing progressive Jamie McLeod-Skinner by a wide margin with 46 percent of the expected vote in.
In Pennsylvania, Summer Lee was leading Steve Irwin by a razor-thin margin with 93 percent of the expected vote in.
In North Carolina, two progressives, Nida Allam and Erica Smith, went down in open seat House primaries. But even with those losses — and even if the results in Oregon and Pennsylvania turn — it will go down as a good night for the left.
At a minimum, they have Fetterman and Salinas. And in the Senate, the rest of the map was pretty promising for progressives as well. A night that produced Fetterman — and Charles Booker and Cheri Beasley in Kentucky and North Carolina, respectively — as Democratic Senate nominees is a night progressives can learn to love.
Next week comes another big test for the left — and one where internal polling suggests progressives are in a strong position. That’s in Texas, where supporters of Jessica Cisneros are rallying around the revelation of a Supreme Court draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade, in an effort to unseat Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), an anti-abortion Democrat.
Governors are sticky
No one was going to pay much attention to Idaho, not with Pennsylvania and North Carolina voting on the same night.
But the Trump-backed effort to unseat incumbent Gov. Brad Little was a fairly good test of Trump-ism, its flop a demonstration of Trump’s limits. Trump’s vehicle in Idaho, Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, was far from a perfect candidate. But she had some credibility by virtue of her office. And she knew how to make a splash, using her power to issue executive orders, including banning mask mandates, when Little traveled out of state.
It wasn’t enough. In a state where Trump beat Biden by 30 percentage points and carried all but three counties in 2020, Little was crushing McGeachin when the race was called.
And it’s just a warmup. Next week, in a much higher-profile contest in Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp is widely expected to finish first in the primary, ahead of Trump-backed Sen. David Perdue.
Trump’s endorsement is still the most coveted currency in Republican primary politics. His preferred candidate in an open gubernatorial primary on Tuesday, Mastriano, won. But sitting governors have brands of their own and a familiarity with voters that may matter more than outside intervention — even from the former president. In a party dominated by Trump, it’s an office even Trump is having difficulty figuring out how to crack.