National Themes That Emerged From Yesterday’s Primaries in Trump States

Primary elections were held yesterday in four states that Trump won in 2016: West Virginia, Indiana, Ohio and North Carolina. While these were intra-party battles, it is worth taking a look at whether any themes emerged that might point the way for what to expect between now and November.

As Ed Kilgore notes, party officials will be breathing a sigh of relief due to the fact that favorites won in nearly every election. The reason that will be good news is that it gives both parties the strongest candidate to take on the opposition in the general election.

Nowhere did that happen more profoundly than in the Republican Senate primary in West Virginia. After all the hand-wringing about convicted felon Don Blankenship surging in the polls, he came in a distant third. Attorney General Patrick Morissey will take on Democratic incumbent Joe Manchin in November.

On the Democratic side, the race for Ohio governor pitted a favorite against an opponent who made people nervous. In that one, Richard Cordray handily beat Dennis Kucinich by a huge margin (63/22). Cordray will face Mike DeWine, Ohio’s attorney general and a former U.S. senator.

The one race that could be called an upset brought us the first loss of an incumbent in the 2018 midterm season. Republican U.S. Representative Robert Pittenger of North Carolina lost his party’s nomination for another term in a rematch with 2016 opponent Mark Harris, a right wing Christian minister with close ties to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. That could make the race against Democrat Dan McCready in the Charlotte-suburbs-based 9th District a toss-up.

In these races and others, a Republican theme seemed to be that many candidates attempted to incorporate one of Trump’s messages by tagging their opponent as a member of the swamp. For example:

Mark Harris, a pastor who nearly beat Pittenger in 2016, successfully tagged Pittenger as a part of the “Washington swamp.” Republicans in primaries across the country are questioning their opponents’ pro-Trump bona fides, a strategy that proved effective here.

As we’ve seen with the president, the term “swamp” can be flexibly used to tarnish any opponent and allow voters to project the villainous behavior of their own choosing. It also allows Republican candidates to cast themselves as the “outsider,” another Trumpian theme, regardless of their political history.

In case you haven’t noticed yet, all of the primaries yesterday that have drawn the most media attention have pitted one white male against another. So you have to go down ballot to see the Democratic theme that is emerging.

Women are running for federal office in record numbers in 2018 — and it looks like Democratic primary voters are poised to support those candidates like never before. There were 20 open Democratic House primaries with women on the ballot Tuesday night, and voters selected a female nominee in 17 of them.

It’s a sharp turnaround from past years when female Democrats faced big hurdles in trying to win support from voters. A good number of the primary winners Tuesday night are running in heavily Republican seats with little chance of winning general elections. But they are still part of an important trend: Evidence is building that Democratic voters are tilting toward supporting women this year.

Ron Brownstein identifies another theme that has emerged with Democratic candidates.

Trump’s legal and ethical troubles — which took yet another dizzying turn last week with the scattershot revelations from his new legal adviser, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani — are dominating the national news and blotting out other issues as thoroughly as an eclipse…

But in the district-by-district battle to retake the House, many Democrats are focusing less on condemning Trump’s character than on discrediting the Republican agenda. Central to that mission is arguing that the GOP has benefited the wealthy, and burdened the middle class, with its twin legislative priorities of the past 17 months: passing a large tax cut and attempting to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

While Republicans want to focus on which candidate is the most loyal to Trump and are sure to trot out the same kinds of fear tactics he used to win the presidency (even the bland Tim Pawlenty has conjured up fear mongering about sanctuary cities in his repeat run for governor in Minnesota), Democrats are contrasting those messages with the actual policies Republicans have sought to implement that hurt working Americans.

While most of the races yesterday had their fair share of local and idiosyncratic components, those are some of the national themes we see emerging as we head into primary season.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.