The Democrats’ Texas nightmare is over (for now): For nearly three months, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee reeled from its decision to dump opposition research on Laura Moser, an activist who moved home to Houston from Washington to run for a newly competitive House seat. It backfired in the district, as Moser’s fundraising surged, and she won a slot in the runoff Tuesday.
It backfired in swing seats around the country, as struggling candidates began attacking the DCCC for “meddling” in their race, too. Rick Treviño, a Bernie Sanders-inspired candidate in the Rio Grande Valley, mocked “the DCCC’s terrible track record.” Mary Wilson, a pastor and former teacher in a district south of Austin, beat former Republican Joseph Kopser in the first round of the primary, then said that the DCCC did “not have not the best strategy of how to win.”
On Tuesday, the DCCC got the last laugh as Moser, Treviño and Wilson went down to the party’s preferred candidates. In the first two races, the party had not initially preferred Lizzie Fletcher and Gina Ortiz Jones; after the runoffs, and the bruising coverage of the Moser race, the DCCC backed off. That did a lot to stop the flow of money to Moser, as national liberal groups turned their attention to other races — especially a primary in Omaha, where the DCCC’s candidate lost. But the party ran up the score in Texas, as turnout slumped but voters picked the candidates who had raised the most money and had the most compelling stories — including Dallas’s Colin Allred and the Austin suburbs’s MJ Hegar. It’s quite a turnaround for a party that spent close to a decade in decline; as recently as 2014, it had to scramble to stop a supporter of Lyndon LaRouche in a Senate primary runoff.
The GOP’s future is male (and in the Freedom Caucus): The biggest Republican story out of Texas’s primaries was the defeat of Bunni Pounds, a political strategist whom Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.) had wanted to replace him and had coaxed Vice President Pence into endorsing. But the overarching story was a wave for Club for Growth-backed candidates in safely Republican seats. In three open districts where national conservatives (and Sen. Ted Cruz) made endorsements, the conservatives won, victories that will shift the caucus to the right in 2019.
Based on the primaries so far, that caucus may be more skewed toward men than women. Texas Republicans started the cycle hoping to add at least one woman to their delegation. After Tuesday night, they were left with just one female candidate — Rep. Kay Granger (R-Tex.), who is expected to sail to reelection. Last week, with seven primaries for open seats in Idaho and Pennsylvania, the party nominated six men and one woman — and that woman, attorney Pearl Kim, is expected to lose in a district that backed Hillary Clinton by 28 points in 2016. In the year’s primaries so far, the GOP has nominated just one woman — West Virginia’s Carol Miller — in a seat that the party is favored to win.
If the 2018 election breaks toward Republicans, the party may well send a record number of women to the Senate, with female front-runners in Arizona and Tennessee. And the party is bullish on some female candidates running for House seats next month in California. But the “year of the woman” is, so far, mostly about the other party.
Georgia’s Democratic turnout surge: For years, long before she was a candidate for governor, Stacey Abrams had a theory about Georgia politics. The growing, diverse state had a dormant electorate that could be motivated to vote for Democrats, especially in lower-turnout midterm elections. Exciting candidates would help; just as necessary was a concerted months-long campaign to register and persuade irregular voters.
On Tuesday, Abrams won in a landslide by proving her point. As of this morning, 553,397 voters cast ballots in Georgia’s Democratic gubernatorial primary. That’s short of the 607,660 who voted in the Republican primary — but it is both a record for Democrats in a midterm primary and a reversal of a trend in Republican turnout advantages.
In 2010, when both parties had competitive, open statewide primaries, Republicans cast 285,002 more ballots than Democrats; in 2014, when Gov. Nathan Deal (R-Ga.) was seeking renomination and state senator Jason Carter was the party’s anointed candidate, Republicans held a 291,975-vote advantage.
The Democratic gains came largely in Atlanta and its suburbs, the “black belt” where turnout had lagged behind in previous primaries, and in smaller urban areas. The city of Atlanta is contained in Fulton and DeKalb counties. In 2010, the last competitive gubernatorial primary for Democrats, those counties cast 113,020 votes. Tuesday, they cast 177,079 votes. In Bibb, Chatham, Clarke, Muscogee, and Richmond counties, home to smaller, growing cities outside the Atlanta area, Democrats cast 42,585 votes in 2010 and 76,203 votes this year.
Arkansas’s Democratic turnout swoon: Thirteen states have held at least the first rounds of their primaries, and in only one — Arkansas — Democratic turnout has fallen while Republican turnout has risen, compared with 2014. In that year, both parties held pro forma primaries with strong front-runners. Democrats saw 153,343 voters come out for their primary; Republicans pulled out 179,225 voters, a record in a midterm primary.
This year, Democrats are bearish on their chances of winning any statewide office — they are not bothering to contest two of them — and their turnout reflected that. With a few precincts still out, 106,518 votes have been cast in the Democratic primary for governor, which nominated nonprofit director Jared Henderson. But 203,010 votes were cast in the Republican primary, which nominated Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.) for a second term.
It’s what you might expect in a state where the 2016 election saw Hillary Clinton win a smaller share of the vote than any Democratic nominee for president since George McGovern. But it’s bleak for a party that controlled almost every key office in the state as recently as 2010.
Their only splash of good news: State Rep. Clarke Tucker, the party’s best hope to flip a House seat in the state this year, easily won his primary, and Democrats cast 40,117 votes in the Little Rock-based 2nd District. Rep. French Hill (R-Ark.) faced no primary, so there’s no new data to compare the parties. But in 2014, when Hill was first nominated for the seat, 54,310 Republicans cast votes. While rural Arkansas — and by extension, the entire state — may have slipped out of reach for Democrats, they remain at their most competitive in cities and suburbs.
Kentucky’s Democratic wake-up (and Republican spin problem): The victory of former Marine pilot Amy McGrath in Kentucky’s 6th District represented the rare case in which a party recruited against a candidate and was fine with losing. The reason was in the vote count. McGrath, as expected, lost Fayette County to longtime Lexington Mayor Jim Gray. She clobbered him anyway by winning every other part of the district, as turnout jumped. As MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki first pointed out, turnout in some rural counties was double what it had been during the 2016 presidential primary, when Hillary Clinton won a barnburner against Bernie Sanders. Overall, turnout was up 25 percent from that primary. How often is turnout in a midterm congressional primary higher than turnout in a competitive presidential primary? Don’t bother checking — it doesn’t happen.
What was also striking, as the votes came in, was how Republicans attempted to frame the race. The Congressional Leadership Fund described McGrath as “an ultraliberal candidate who can’t even name the counties she wants to represent in Congress” and described “her support for single-payer health care.” America Rising described her as a “progressive, far-left candidate.” Josh Holmes, former chief of staff for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), called her a “left-winger.”
That sent Kentucky Democrats scratching their heads. McGrath, a first-time candidate, had not run to the left in any way by which that term is understood. While she was once paraphrased as liking the “ideal” of single-payer, she ran firmly against it and for expanding the Affordable Care Act instead. She had not stumbled over the counties in the district, the kind of gaffe that can sink a campaign; she had once dodged a question from a third candidate who asked her to name in which counties three small towns in the district were located. (That candidate, Reggie Thomas, did run on single-payer, and won just 7.6 percent of the vote.)
Obviously, defining political opponents in the most negative terms possible is part of the game. But there’s been a tendency in this year’s primaries, so far, to look for a mirror version of what Republicans went through in some 2010 races. The hard right of the GOP triumphed in 2010, so surely, the hard left of the Democratic Party must be triumphing now. The reality just doesn’t match up.