Republicans spent Wednesday in a perpetual state of high-fiving after coal baron and convicted criminal Don Blankenship lost his bid for the party’s U.S. Senate nomination in West Virginia. The party, according to President Trump, had nominated candidates “who have a great chance of winning in November.” Turnout, according to Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), was way up in key states. Democrats, according to Congressional Leadership Fund President Corry Bliss, were in disarray. A poll from CNN was the cherry on top of the whipped cream: “Democrats’ 2018 advantage is nearly gone.”
What does all of this spin have in common? Like Blankenship’s chances of victory, it’s overrated and overdetermined. (The evidence of a Blankenship surge was based entirely on internal polls which were never released to the media.) After five state primaries — Texas will not finish its two-step process until May 22 — we are starting to get our first good look at the midterm landscape.
Myth #1: GOP turnout suggests a “red wave” coming
On Wednesday, both Gardner and Bliss pointed to results in Ohio, the week’s busiest primary state, as proof that Democratic turnout was flagging. (Of the four states that voted Tuesday, only Ohio has a governor’s race this year.)
“The GOP outperformed Democrats in every single statewide race, and GOP turnout was up 48 percent over 2014,” Bliss told the New York Times columnist Frank Bruni in an interview. “Maybe the wave is going to skip Ohio.”
A 48 percent increase sounds like a lot, and it is, but there’s more to the story. In 2014, Republicans had no competitive race in their primary; Democrats had a token primary for governor. And from 2014 to 2018, Democratic turnout was up by 54 percent, an improvement on the Republicans.
What if we compare 2018 to 2016, a year when both parties had heated presidential contests? Both parties’ overall turnout, unsurprisingly, was way down. But Republican turnout was down by more. Compared to 2016, turnout in the Democrats’ primary fell by 45.2 percent; turnout in the Republican primary fell by 58.4 percent.
There was plenty of good news for Republicans in Ohio. For example, in eight of the nine counties that backed Barack Obama for president in 2012 and Donald Trump in 2016, Republican primary turnout exceeded the Democrats’ numbers.
What a lot of the second-day analysis missed, however, was that the Ohio Republican Party fully engaged in its primary, endorsing Attorney General Mike DeWine for governor and Rep. James B. Renacci (R-Ohio) for Senate. Democrats, burned by their 2016 presidential race, decided to stay out of the endorsement process. It was up to front-runner Richard Cordray and his rivals to build their own get-out-the-vote operation.
“We wanted to be scrupulously neutral,” said Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez, who spent the days before the primary with the party’s campaigns in Ohio. “If you run a GOTV operation, you run the risk of violating that principle.”
In other states, signs of new Republican enthusiasm were hard to find. In West Virginia, both parties saw a surge in turnout compared to their 2014 primaries, but Democrats — still a majority of registered voters, though that’s shrinking — outvoted Republicans. In North Carolina, there were more Democratic primary votes cast in two districts, the 2nd and the 9th, than Republican votes. In Indiana, 506,492 votes were cast in a three-way Senate primary. Eight years ago, the last time the state held a midterm Republican primary in a Senate race, 550,369 votes were cast.
Myth #2: Democrats are being dragged down by primaries.
This is a story line that just won’t die — and probably shouldn’t, pending the messy primaries next month in California. It’s fueled by cable TV coverage of the Trump administration, which exists in a universe much like our own, but where the Democratic Party is led by Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) and Stormy Daniels’s attorney, Michael Avenatti. In that universe, Democrats are so unhinged by their opposition to Trump that they’re nominating the most left-wing candidates possible. Another version of the argument: Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.) might be able to win a party convention, but in primaries, voters will ruin their candidates with litmus tests.
“The energy is with the Sanders wing of the party, not the Clinton wing,” Bliss told Bruni. “If the Democrats nominate Bernie-lite candidates who want to do nothing but impeach the president, they’re not going to win in November.”
But the results from Illinois, Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio and West Virginia argue against this. So far, in every swing seat race that pitted a more left-wing nominee against a party-favored center-left nominee, the left wing has lost. In two primaries — Illinois’s 12th district and Ohio’s 7th district — the Democrats nominated candidates who pledged not to back Nancy Pelosi for Speaker of the House.
In Indiana’s 2nd district, health-care executive Mel Hall, who had donated to Republicans in the past, held off a Democrat who challenged his party bona fides. (She ran on universal Medicare, and he didn’t.) In West Virginia’s 3rd district, Democrats nominated State Sen. Richard Ojeda, a hard-to-define populist candidate who nonetheless voted for Trump over Clinton. (No Republican nominated so far this year has admitted breaking from his party in 2016.)
In North Carolina’s 9th and 13th districts, Dan McCready and Kathy Manning easily defeated more left-wing candidates, by 66 points and 40 points respectively. McCready’s 82.8 percent of the vote was actually higher than the vote for all but one incumbent North Carolina Republican — Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) — who faced a primary Tuesday. One of those other incumbents, Rep. Robert Pittenger (R-N.C.), became the first member this year to lose his primary.
None of these candidates ran on impeachment. When asked by The Washington Post last week whether Trump had committed impeachable offenses, both McCready and Manning suggested that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III should be allowed to complete his investigation; McCready then pivoted, while Manning suggested that a Democratic Congress might want to probe the Trump administration’s spending on the president’s travel and vacations.
Myth #3: Republicans got exactly the candidates they wanted.
Well, they didn’t get Blankenship, and thus evaded disaster. And Democrats will quietly admit that Mike Braun, the businessman and state senator who blew past two congressmen to win his Senate primary, was probably the best nominee the party had to challenge Sen. Joe Donnelly.
But Democrats are less worried about West Virginia and Ohio than they were at the start of the year. In Sen. Joe Manchin III’s (D-W.Va.) state, Democrats were most worried about Rep. Evan Jenkins (R-W.Va.), a former Democrat who had blown the party out in its traditional southwestern strongholds. Duty and Country PAC, which the party created to meddle in the primary, spent $1.8 million attacking Jenkins. It spent just $47,000 attacking Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, a former lobbyist and transplant from New Jersey, who is now the Republican nominee. Democrats have been wrong before — consult the Hillary Clinton campaign’s 2015 memos about how Donald Trump would be easy to beat — but as of Tuesday night, they believed the weaker of the GOP’s two legitimate candidates won the nomination.
In Ohio, Democrats pointed out that Renacci — who jumped into the race after longtime rising star Josh Mandel quit it for personal reasons — had only muddled through. Though the state GOP had endorsed both DeWine and Renacci, 66,233 Republicans who backed DeWine left their ballot blank in the Senate race. And while Renacci won his northeast Ohio base, he lost three of the nine counties — the ones along Lake Erie — that had switched from Obama to Trump.