The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democratic voters reject tradition, choosing outsiders in their quest to regain power

Stacey Abrams won the Democratic primary in Georgia's gubernatorial race. She could become the country’s first black female governor if elected in November. (Video: Stacey Abrams)

Fresh faces with compelling life stories prevailed in Democratic primaries across several Southern states Tuesday, beating candidates with deeper political pedigrees and more governing experience in several key races.

The results marked an ongoing embrace by Democratic voters of non-politicians, women, veterans and nonwhite candidates to lead the party’s effort to take back control of the House and governors’ mansions this fall.

Voters in Kentucky nominated Amy McGrath, the first Marine woman to fly in an F-18 fighter jet in combat, for a key House seat in Lexington over the candidate favored by party leaders, a two-term mayor who ran on a promise to bring “adult supervision” to Washington.

In Texas, Democrats nominated two lesbian candidates with military or law enforcement backgrounds, one Latina and the other Filipina, for key races. And Georgia voters gave former State House minority leader Stacey Abrams a shot to become the first black, female governor in the country.

For Democrats, the results marked a reassertion of the party’s fealty to the rising American electorate — unmarried, young and racially diverse voters. The Democratic contention that it is the party of the future was muddled in 2016 by a presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, who first arrived in the White House 23 years earlier and campaigned to continue the policies of the sitting president.

Now, Democratic primary voters are looking to candidates who claim to embody the changing face of American politics.

“We are writing the next chapter of Georgia’s future, where no one is unseen, no one is unheard and no one is uninspired,” Abrams said at a victory rally Tuesday night. “I hope that you will all join us in the fight for the future.”

With both parties trying to put their best foot forward for November's general election, here are five things to watch in this summer's preliminary elections. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Chuck Burton/The Washington Post)

The dynamic shaping Democratic races was not driving contests on the other side, as Republican primaries revolved more on ideological purity, fidelity to President Trump and defiance against Washington political leaders.

In GOP primaries Tuesday in Texas and Georgia, candidates who promised to support the president and crack down on illegal immigration triumphed.

In Georgia, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Secretary of State Brian Kemp advanced to a runoff, after a campaign in which Cagle talked about banning “sanctuary cities” and Kemp talked about personally rounding up “criminal illegals.”

In some of Texas’s safest Republican seats, former Navy SEAL Dan Crenshaw held an early lead in a race after recanting some 2015 Facebook posts in which he had called Trump’s rhetoric “hateful.” Bunni Pounds, a Republican strategist endorsed by Vice President Pence and retiring Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.), was in a tight race with a state representative who billed himself as “the earliest supporter of Trump of anyone in this race.”

The victory of McGrath in Kentucky’s 6th District delivered a second defeat in two weeks for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Another first-time female candidate, Kara Eastman, won the nomination for Nebraska’s only competitive House race last week, over the DCCC’s chosen candidate, former congressman Brad Ashford.

But those successes also carry some risk, putting the Democrats’ fate into untested hands. Indeed, Republicans jumped on both defeats for the Democratic establishment an example of liberals putting forward a weaker general-election candidate.

Democratic strategists say they feel good about McGrath’s chances in Kentucky, despite having recruited her rival to the race. Internal party polling conducted before the primary gave McGrath a lead over Rep. Garland “Andy” Barr (R), in a district that Trump won by 15 points in 2016.

But claims to electability and debates over policy positions have not been the driving forces in many of the Democratic primary races.

In Arkansas’ only competitive House race, state Rep. Clarke Tucker defeated several more liberal candidates after running campaign ads that focused on his own battle to overcome cancer. In Georgia’s 6th District — where Rep. Karen Handel (R) had prevailed in a pricey 2017 special election — and the neighboring 7th District, black gun-control activist Lucy McBath and Asian American education CEO David Kim led in early counts.

The winners in Texas included a Filipina Air Force intelligence officer, Gina Ortiz Jones, and a black civil rights attorney who once played in the NFL, Colin Allred. Both emerged from crowded primary fields that included rivals with deeper experience in government and party politics.

The victorious Democratic candidate for governor, former Dallas County sheriff Lupe Valdez, is running to become the first Latina in the position if she wins. Her opponent, Andrew White, the son of former Texas governor Mark White, said he planned to “continue my dad’s legacy.”

Both Ortiz Jones and Valdez are also openly lesbian and saw little backlash to their identity even in more conservative parts of the state.

“The question of whether we can elect someone LGBT at statewide level has been put to rest,” said Annise Parker, the president of the LGBT Victory Fund and the first openly gay mayor of Houston. “For a lot of people, LGBT candidates have relatable life experiences.”

In the most-watched House race in Texas, lawyer and community activist Lizzie Fletcher, another candidate preferred by the DCCC, defeated Laura Moser, whom party strategists viewed as a long shot in a district that includes the suburbs of Houston. Moser, who resisted Fletcher’s strategy of reaching out to moderate Republicans, had briefly become a champion of national liberals who were angered by party attempts to intervene in the race.

Both Fletcher and Moser shared key defining traits that helped get them to the runoff: They were the only two women in a seven-member field, and neither had previously held elected office.

“They came up with the support of their community, doing it the old-fashioned, retail politics way, as opposed to someone who might feel coronated because they have been part of the party,” said Ilyse Hogue, the president of the pro-abortion-rights political group NARAL. “It’s why primaries matter — people get a chance to fully participate in the process.”

The trend has held in other states as well. On May 14, at the Connecticut Democratic Party’s convention, two-time statewide candidate Mary Glassman nearly lost the endorsement for the state’s open House seat to Jahana Hays, the 2016 National Teacher of the Year, who had never run for office before.

The next day, Pennsylvania Democrats ousted a one-term lieutenant governor, blocked a three-term congressman’s comeback run in favor of a female state legislator, and backed an Allentown-area attorney over a longtime county district attorney who had begun the race with high name recognition.

Seven Democratic women will be running in November for the 18 Pennsylvania U.S. House districts, which have all been held in recent years by men. At least four of those women are favored to win their contests because of the composition of the district.

There’s no clear ideological trend in Democratic races — in part because even more center-left candidates have embraced liberal positions on Medicare expansion, gun control and abortion rights. Supporters of single-payer “Medicare for all” were trounced in Arkansas’s 2nd District and Texas’s 23rd District on Tuesday; they were triumphant one week earlier in Pennsylvania and Nebraska.

Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), who has recruited and helped raise money for veterans-turned-candidates, said that McGrath is “a force to be reckoned with” in Kentucky and that even Democrats who had recruited her rival, Jim Gray, would get behind her.

“My criteria are very simple: They’ve got to be extraordinary servant leaders, they’ve got to be in winnable races, and they’ve got to be our best chance to win the seat,” Moulton said. “The D.C. establishment wisdom is often wrong. Congress is about representing people of your district with integrity.”

At Abrams’s victory party in Atlanta, supporters celebrated the historic nature of the primary, while admitting that the general election might be a slog.

“Historically and presently, we continue to be overlooked,” said Perri Chandler, 35, a diversity facilitator with the Anti-Defamation League. “But still we try, we thrive and we succeed at levels that are seldom acknowledged.”

Shannon Gaggero, a 36-year-old community organizer, said that white voters like herself needed to “educate people” on Abrams’s qualifications.

“This is not about identity politics,” said Gaggero. “She is the most qualified person for the job, and how dare you overlook her because she is black.”

Correction: Amy McGrath is the first Marine woman to fly in an F-18 fighter jet in combat, not the first Marine woman to fly one.

Vanessa Williams in Atlanta contributed to this report.