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6 takeaways from primaries in Pennsylvania, North Carolina and more

Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Idaho, Kentucky and Oregon held their midterm primaries on May 17. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)
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The primary that some dubbed Midterm Super Tuesday is — mostly — in the books, as voters in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Kentucky, Oregon and Idaho cast their primary votes.

Below, some takeaways.

1. Trump’s scorecard adds some red marks

The primaries so far have been a mixed bag for former president Donald Trump’s endorsements. He helped push Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance over the top, but Nebraska governor candidate Charles Herbster lost (partly because of other issues).

Tuesday brought more reason to doubt Trump’s status as a GOP kingmaker, even as Trump-y candidates continue to win plenty. Trump notched one big win but two high-profile losses, with the biggest race yet to be decided.

The big win was in the North Carolina Senate race, where Rep. Ted Budd’s candidacy was among Trump’s earliest endorsements; Budd overcame early grumbles about his campaign to defeat former governor Pat McCrory. That’s a clear win for Trump.

Trump-endorsed state Sen. Doug Mastriano also won the nomination for Pennsylvania governor, but he was already well on track to victory before Trump backed him in recent days. So that one doesn’t really count for much.

Trump risked more in primaries for Pennsylvania Senate and Idaho governor, and the last one fell through — badly. Idaho Gov. Brad Little easily turned aside far-right Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, who never really caught on despite an early Trump endorsement. Little is leading by more than 20 percentage points.

Trump also lent embattled Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) a late attempted lifeline, but it wasn’t enough. Cawthorn fell to state Sen. Chuck Edwards. As with Herbster, other high-profile GOP officials endorsed against Trump’s pick, and Cawthorn’s major personal issues ultimately overwhelmed him.

In the Pennsylvania Senate race, Trump-backed Mehmet Oz is leading by 0.2 percentage points, but many absentee ballots remain to be counted, and rival Dave McCormick’s campaign is expressing confidence the race will swing for him. Oz could still salvage it, but, remember, he’s already the second candidate Trump backed here: The first, Sean Parnell, withdrew over his own personal problems.

The Post’s Annie Linskey discusses former president Donald Trump’s uneven influence across key primary races on May 17. (Video: Mahlia Posey/The Washington Post)

Trump’s endorsement did appear to pay dividends in a couple of lower-profile House races, with Jim Bognet winning in Pennsylvania’s 8th District and Bo Hines apparently headed for victory in North Carolina’s 13th. (Hines, a 26-year-old former college football player, has been compared to Cawthorn but recently distanced himself from that comparison for perhaps obvious reasons.)

All eyes now turn to Oz. As with Vance, polls before and after the endorsement, combined with the eventual results, suggest Trump’s endorsement helped a fair amount. It just might not have been enough, with plenty of voters bucking Trump’s pick here and elsewhere — and more tests to come.

The winner will face Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D) in the general election.

2. What Mastriano portends

If you want to know how national Republicans view their new nominee for Pennsylvania governor, just look to the statement by the Republican Governors Association after Mastriano’s win.

It contains no words of praise for Mastriano, merely noting that he won the primary — handily, it turns out, by 24 points — while going after Democratic nominee Josh Shapiro. And then it concludes, conspicuously: “The RGA remains committed to engaging in competitive gubernatorial contests where our support can have an impact in defending our incumbents and expanding our majority this year.”

Subtext: Don’t expect us to go all-in on Mastriano.

It’s hardly a secret that national Republicans wish Mastriano weren’t their nominee. The primary voters had other ideas. Now the party must deal with having as its nominee an election truther who approached the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and spoke at a conference promoting QAnon and 9/11 conspiracy theories.

This is not the only Pennsylvania race that has Republicans staring down the barrel of a seemingly less-electable candidate: In the contest for the party’s Senate nomination, Oz might not have had Kathy Barnette’s murky personal history and record of extremist statements, but some polls showed more Republicans disliked than liked him, which is highly unusual.

Mastriano joins some other election conspiracists in winning GOP backing for key races. The general-election battles ahead in races in Michigan, Georgia and elsewhere will say plenty about how far is too far — in voters’ minds — when it comes to contesting the 2020 election and undermining democracy.

3. The spectacular fall of Madison Cawthorn is complete

The story of Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) is at once remarkable and remarkably sad, as Politico’s Michael Kruse wrote in a recent profile — and now it has taken a particularly dismal turn.

Less than two years ago, Cawthorn was the future of the GOP. The 25-year-old soon-to-be-congressman gave a Republican National Convention speech from his wheelchair, after which he rose to his feet.

Even in that speech, though, you could see the sloppiness creeping in. Despite it being a prepared speech to a high-profile audience, Cawthorn badly botched historical facts — even as he emphasized the importance of understanding history.

On Tuesday, after less than a single full two-year term, Cawthorn lost his primary. After a series of ugly personal revelations and most of his party turning on him as a result, his campaign took less than one-third of the vote — a stunning showing for an incumbent. He could have been saved by a crowded field — Edwards won with less than 35 percent of the vote — but not even that could save Cawthorn from himself, or from his abandonment by leaders of his party (save for Trump).

4. A mixed bag for the left wing

As with the Republicans, there were signs Tuesday that Democrats aren’t exactly going with the most moderate, broadly appealing candidates — as highlighted by Fetterman’s win over Rep. Conor Lamb in the Pennsylvania Senate primary.

But in the races most targeted for statement wins by left-wing groups — and also by well-heeled PACs looking to thwart potential “Squad”-esque members — the party also veered away from some of its most liberal candidates.

Two weeks after a landslide loss in an Ohio by top Bernie Sanders ally Nina Turner, liberal groups failed to push through a couple of key candidates in North Carolina: Durham County Commissioner Nida Allam and former state senator Erica Smith. Both lost by sizable margins. Smith lost 2 to 1 to state Sen. Don Davis, whose votes with Republicans on some abortion bills were a late focus of Smith and her allies. Both Allam and Smith were also subject to an expensive and concerted push by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, among other groups.

The story was somewhat similar in Kentucky, where a state representative prominent in the racial justice movement, Attica Scott, lost. State Sen. Morgan McGarvey had about 63 percent of the vote to Scott’s 37 percent — although Scott wasn’t expected to win.

But another favorite of the left and potential Squad member, Pennsylvania state Rep. Summer Lee, appeared to be narrowly edging out her primary opponent in her congressional race. And Rep. Kurt Schrader of Oregon appears likely to lose his primary to a more-liberal challenger, attorney Jamie McLeod-Skinner.

5. Biden’s pick in Oregon trails badly

There’s a reason we focus on Trump’s endorsements: Because he makes a lot of them, and he’s obviously trying to maintain control of the party during an uncertain time. But President Biden has made a couple of endorsements, too, including for Rep. Shontel M. Brown (D-Ohio) in her landslide over Turner.

It’s worth noting that one of those endorsed — Schrader — is losing pretty badly. Schrader trailed McLeod-Skinner, about 61 percent to 38 percent with 53 percent of the vote in on Wednesday morning. Schrader is a moderate who sometimes alienated fellow House Democrats on spending bills — and who, because of redistricting, was campaigning in a very different district than in years past.

Backing an incumbent facing a primary challenge is kind of a no-brainer for a president, but it’s looking as if Oregon voters had little regard for Biden’s advice.

6. Crypto makes a very bad investment

Speaking of the Democratic establishment getting one wrong: Biden aside, the party more broadly didn’t fight too hard for Schrader. But a PAC affiliated with House Democratic leaders did spend $1 million on a candidate in the neighboring 6th District, Carrick Flynn. Flynn is trailing state Rep. Andrea Salinas, 38 percent to 19 percent.

That investment in an apparently losing candidate, though, pales to Flynn’s biggest benefactor: cryptocurrency billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried. His Protect Our Future PAC spent more than $11 million on Flynn — a stunning sum for one out of 435 House seats — and it appears to have failed badly.

Flynn ultimately benefited from $13 million in outside spending … for 19 percent of the vote.