The main story lines out of Tuesday’s four-state primary night were about the Democrats. The victory of Kara Eastman in Nebraska’s 2nd congressional District was seen as a “tea party moment” for a party that had, up to then, held off any surprises from the left. The defeat of Pennsylvania Democrats John Morganelli and Rachel Reddick — the first a pro-Trump district attorney, the second a veteran who had only recently left the GOP — were described by Republicans as looming disasters.
“They nominated some extreme people,” said Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio), the National Republican Congressional Committee chairman, on Wednesday. “We nominated pretty mainstream folks that will be great candidates in the general election.” Stivers singled out Scott Wallace, a liberal philanthropist in Pennsylvania’s 1st district, as the “worst candidate in the country.”
So, who did Democrats nominate? How did the party change? And what does it mean for November?
John Fetterman’s big takeover. Normally, there’s not much reason to follow primaries for lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania. The victory of Braddock, Pa., Mayor John Fetterman gave voters an exception. For 10 years, the 6-foot-8-inch social worker was an international ambassador for his adopted, battered steel town. He tattooed the dates of the city’s murders on his right arm; he moved his family to a loft across the street from the Edgar Thomson Steel Works.
But he struggled, at first, to break out of Braddock. In 2008, he went against most of Pennsylvania’s Democratic leaders to endorse Barack Obama’s presidential bid; Obama lost the primary. In 2016, Fetterman ran for U.S. Senate and endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)’s presidential bid.
Both efforts were not just quixotic — they were also solidly opposed by leading Democrats. Fetterman felt a “90-mile-per-hour head-wind” in the Senate race. He ran on legal marijuana and Medicare-for-all; national Democrats (Obama included) endorsed a party favorite who endorsed neither of those issues, and Fetterman lost in November.
Fetterman’s win this week represented a major leftward shift in what Pennsylvania’s Democratic Party found acceptable. Polls show Gov. Tom Wolf (D) nearly 20 points ahead of the Republican ticket, giving Fetterman a clear shot at statewide office — albeit one that offers little power. But Fetterman argued that he could change that.
“A big part of the lieutenant governor’s office is going to be about advocacy,” said Fetterman in an interview before the primary. “It’s going to be about championing the positions that progressives here in Pennsylvania support, across the board. It’s an impressive, underused office. I can make partnerships with people like [Philadelphia District Attorney Larry] Krasner and make substantive changes on issues like pardons.”
Krasner, a civil rights attorney who won an upset 2017 victory over the opposition of police unions, has become one of the biggest figures in left-wing politics. His victory was powered by groups like Democratic Socialists of America and Reclaim Philadelphia; his agenda to “end mass incarceration” and the cash bail system has earned national attention from civil rights activists.
The socialist network. As of today, there’s one member of Democratic Socialists of America serving in a state legislature: Virginia’s Lee Carter. Next year, there will be at least three more: Pittsburgh’s Summer Lee and Sara Innamorato; and Philadelphia’s Elizabeth Fiedler. A fourth Pennsylvania nominee, Kristin Seale, is trying to flip a Republican-leaning seat near Philadelphia. The quartet of young, female insurgent candidates are now among the best-known leaders in the Trump-era revival of political socialism.
The resurrection of DSA, which was founded in the 1980s to represent “the left wing of the possible,” has continued with a surprising lack of Democratic Party resistance. In November 2017, Pittsburgh socialists toppled Ron Costa, a district judge from a well-known local conservative Democratic dynasty. Lee and Innamorato ousted two more Costas, by landslides. They did so on a surge of voter turnout. In 2014, 5,061 voters cast primary ballots in Innamorato’s 21st district, and 5,778 cast them in Lee’s 34th district. This year, the numbers were 9,195 and 10,166 — closer to the turnout in a presidential primary.
Next year, those wins and Fiedler’s win will mean that two safely Democratic seats once held by machine politicians will be held by socialists sharing the platform of Sanders: universal health care, free college tuition, equal pay for women and a $15 minimum wage.
In the short term, it also buoys the activists who debate whether to stay inside the Democratic Party and build a beachhead for socialism — no sure thing in the scrambled politics of the Trump era. When Sanders campaigned for Fetterman, one sign in the crowd urged both candidates to join the Green Party; Sanders was nearly interrupted by a protester who stormed the stage, accusing him of selling out to Democrats. But those sentiments are being thwarted by candidates, like Sanders, who’ve opted to change the party through primaries.
New idea: Trusting Democratic women. Eastman’s victory was a genuine defeat for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which had polling that showed Eastman down by 10 points to Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) in the state’s one swing seat. Brad Ashford, the Republican-turned-Democrat who had represented the district for two years, had been down by two points.
But in interviews Wednesday, Democrats didn’t write Eastman off. Emily’s List President Stephanie Schriock, a native of Montana, said that Eastman had done “a fabulous job” in a winnable race and said that the group would take a close look at supporting her. Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), one of the DCCC’s recruiters, said that Eastman ran an intriguing “populist” campaign. “There’s a great populist tradition in Nebraska,” Lieu added, leaving open the possibility that the party might support her.
Some of this was spin. Some of it reflected a reality: The party’s base now strongly believes that it loses elections when the differences between the parties get blurred. Omaha was a resonant case study. In 2017, Democrats united behind Heath Mello, a state senator running for mayor; the national attention on his race prompted questions about his votes for antiabortion legislation. Mello lost, and when Eastman told voters that she was “tired of hearing that Democrats don’t have a backbone,” it was easy to think of the mayor’s race.
Eastman’s race was more closely watched, but the other upset for Democratic women Tuesday came in Idaho, where state legislator Paulette Jordan won the nomination for governor over a wealthy member of the Boise school board who had run and lost in 2014. The races shared one trend: a voter-turnout spike.
In 2014, when Ashford won the primary that would take him to Congress, 16,989 voters turned out in the Democratic primary for Nebraska’s 2nd district. This year, 39,352 voters pulled ballots in the Ashford-Eastman primary. Republican turnout rose from 22,970 to 33,032, but for the first time this decade, Democratic turnout was higher.
The story in Idaho was similar. In 2014, 25,643 votes were cast in the Democratic primary that nominated A.J. Balukoff for governor. This week, 65,785 votes were cast in the Jordan-Balukoff primary. Republican turnout was up, too, and more than doubled Democratic turnout in a state that has not elected a Democrat to statewide office since 1990. Both parties saw the highest vote total in a midterm primary in the history of the state.
Republicans are doing fine, but they’re not excited. There was no real spin necessary for the president’s party: They got every candidate they wanted, some in tough races. They picked up a state legislative seat in the conservative suburbs of Pittsburgh, making up for a loss near Philadelphia. And they truly are excited about running against Scott Wallace, whose first 24 hours as a congressional candidate included a story criticizing his donations to groups that have been critical of Israel.
The caveat: With the exceptions of Idaho and Texas, the party has seen relatively sleepy turnout in primaries this year. On Tuesday, in five Republican-held districts — to be fair, all where incumbents were seeking reelection — the party’s voters were outnumbered by Democratic voters. Those races were in Nebraska’s 2nd district and Pennsylvania’s 1st, 6th, 7th and 17th districts.
Another eyebrow-raising vote came in the 8th district, one of a dozen seats represented by Democrats where candidate Donald Trump won the popular vote in 2016. Republicans pulled out 31,281 voters in a three-way primary won by John Chrin, a wealthy self-funder, and just who they wanted to challenge Rep. Matthew Cartwright (D-Pa.). But 36,040 voters came out to support Cartwright, who had no challenger.
Pennsylvania is a closed-primary state, and Chrin’s path to victory would involve winning plenty of registered Democrats who couldn’t have voted Republican this week if they wanted to. But there’s evidence that the voters who surged toward Trump in 2016 have not been pulled out to vote for other Republicans. The 8th district includes Luzerne County, which went for Obama by five points in 2012, then for Trump by 19 points in 2016. This Tuesday, 11,585 Republicans cast ballots in Luzerne County, while 11,788 Democrats came out for Cartwright. But Republicans got more encouraging news in Monroe County, which Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton narrowly carried in 2016, and which saw Republican primary voters outnumber Democrats.