National News

5 Takeaways From Tuesday’s Primary Elections

Posted June 6, 2018 11:12 a.m. EDT
Updated June 6, 2018 11:19 a.m. EDT

The battle for control of Congress was front and center Tuesday night, with races taking shape in several intensely contested House seats in California and New Jersey. But there were revealing elections in the Midwest and the South, too, underscoring President Donald Trump’s power in the Republican Party and the different ways Democrats hope to loosen his hold on red-state America.

Here are some of our takeaways:

Money Matters in California

National Democrats spent over $7 million in an effort to ensure they had a candidate reach the general election in three House districts in California held by Republicans. Their decision to not take their chances in the state’s “top two” system — in which the top finishers in nonpartisan, open primaries face each other in November — appears to have been a wise investment.

It was still uncertain early Wednesday whether a Democrat would secure the second slot in the race against Rep. Dana Rohrabacher. But the party’s decision to intervene in the seats held by Reps. Ed Royce and Darrell Issa, Republicans who are retiring, paid off: The Democrats angered some of their own activists but appeared likely to advance candidates in both districts.

And the Democrats also got a bit of a lesson about the risks of not intervening, in the race for the seat held by Rep. Jeff Denham. Democrat Josh Harder got little outside help and appeared poised to barely edge out a little-known Republican challenger because the other five Democrats split more than 30 percent of the vote.

It did not come cheap, but if Democrats secure a narrow House majority in November they will have done so in part because they decided to aggressively compete in June.

Trump Voters Can Have Long Memories

Rep. Martha Roby, R-Ala., talked about building the wall. She voted to repeal the health care law. She backed the president’s tax bill.

And yet.

Less than two years after saying she could not support Trump in the presidential campaign, Roby appeared to pay a political price Tuesday, failing to clear the threshold — half of the vote — necessary to avoid a runoff for her seat.

A key question now: Will Trump — who can be slow to forgive those who have opposed him — come forward to bolster Roby before her runoff in July, as many party officials hope? The answer will say a lot about whether the president can be persuaded to rally behind candidates, even those he might not adore, if congressional leaders nudge him.

Though the seat will almost certainly remain in Republican hands, House Republicans are loath to lose another female lawmaker from their ranks. (Some female members, like Marsha Blackburn and Diane Black, both of Tennessee, are already leaving to seek higher offices.)

And while some voters Tuesday plainly intended to punish Roby for her past position — articulated in 2016 after the publication of the “Access Hollywood” video on which Trump made vulgar comments about women — her opponent in the Republican runoff, Bobby Bright, has his own baggage: He used to be a Democratic congressman, until Roby defeated him in 2010.

Democratic Voters Have Limits

Within 24 hours after his federal corruption trial ended in a hopelessly deadlocked jury, Sen. Robert Menendez quickly secured the endorsement of every major Democrat in New Jersey, essentially clearing the field of potential primary challengers before any could even begin to test the waters.

But on Tuesday, Lisa McCormick, an unknown candidate with no federal finance filings, no television ads and no real campaign apparatus, earned nearly 40 percent of the Democratic primary vote.

It was a clear protest vote from many Democrats who have not completely forgiven their senior senator’s transgressions, which resulted in the corruption trial and a subsequent bipartisan admonishment for ethics violations.

Of course, Menendez’s Republican opponent, Bob Hugin, has been reminding New Jerseyans constantly, spending nearly $4 million before a primary vote had even been cast. Menendez has largely kept a low profile — minus a raucous high school rally kickoff — and maintains a sizable war chest.

While New Jersey is a reliably blue state and Menendez has maintained leads in all polls (though the most recent one was much closer), the fact that many of the state’s Democrats marched into polling places and voted for a woman they probably didn’t know anything about shows a simmering level of frustration.

Three Wins for Obama Diaspora

This year, 70 former Obama campaign or administration staff members are running for state and local offices, according to the Obama Alumni Association, a volunteer group.

On Tuesday, three of them won their primary elections.

In New Jersey, Andy Kim, who most recently served as the director for Iraq on the White House National Security Council, joined the Obama administration in 2009 in the State Department. He ran unopposed in the 3rd District to take on Rep. Tom MacArthur.

Tom Malinowski, also in New Jersey, served as an assistant secretary of state for roughly three years, starting in 2014. He won his primary in the 7th Congressional District to take on Rep. Leonard Lance.

And in New Mexico, Deb Haaland, who could be the first Native American woman in Congress, won her primary to replace Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat who is making a run for governor. Haaland was the Native American vote director in New Mexico for Obama’s re-election campaign.

However, not all of the Obama diaspora was successful Tuesday. John Norris, who was commissioner of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission under Obama for four years, lost his primary bid for governor in Iowa to Fred Hubbell.

The Year of the Woman Hits a Snag

Democrats have celebrated their class of candidates as a triumph of diversity, with liberal women leading the charge in congressional races. But the primaries Tuesday also highlighted the party’s more traditional instincts where powerful executive offices are concerned: In three important governor’s races, Democrats passed over female and minority candidates to nominate well-funded, well-known white men.

In Iowa, Democrats overwhelmingly picked Hubbell, a wealthy businessman, from a field that included Cathy Glasson, a union leader. In Alabama, they nominated Walt Maddox, the mayor of Tuscaloosa, over Sue Bell Cobb, the former chief judge of the state’s highest court. And in California — a state that embodies Democrats’ hopes for a rising liberal coalition nationwide — Democrats rallied around Gavin Newsom, the lieutenant governor and the lone white man among the major Democrats running.

The night was hardly a rout for Democratic women, and in New Mexico it was Lujan Grisham who handily won the nomination for governor. But the convincing wins by Democratic men in most primaries in governor races underscore a persistent political barrier for women and minorities: Voters, including liberal-leaning ones, have typically been less willing to embrace diversity in executive offices than in legislative ones.

There are just two Democratic women now serving as governors and only one Democratic governor who is not white, David Ige of Hawaii. Coming primaries in states like Nevada, Maryland, Michigan and Florida may give Democratic voters a chance to change that — if they want to.