One thing was clear after the latest round of primaries on Tuesday: Democrats will be spending the next four months fighting among themselves along the familiar battle lines of ideology and identity.
If last week’s primaries focused on GOP efforts to maintain or expand their majority in the Senate, the second big primary night of 2018 was all about Democrats and their chances to win back the House this November. And in both Nebraska and Pennsylvania, Democratic voters picked nominees for battleground seats that the national party didn’t expect — and may not have wanted.
In Nebraska, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee wanted former Rep. Brad Ashford as its nominee for an Omaha-based seat. But Tuesday night ended with liberal Kara Eastman, a social worker, proclaimed the winner by more a thousand votes.
The results weren’t as clear-cut in Pennsylvania, but the victors in a handful of competitive or Democratic-leaning seats speak to the intra-party fights Democrats are having as the party attempts to work its way out of the electoral wilderness.
There were other races on the ballot, too, and the always-looming presence of President Donald Trump. Let’s get to the five takeaways from Tuesday’s races:
1. It was a rough night for Democratic moderates.
Moderate Democrats got a rude awakening on Tuesday night. Aside from Ashford in Nebraska, Northampton District Attorney John Morganelli, another centrist who drew a challenge from the left, lost.
In Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, Morganelli’s moderate views on immigration and abortion once appealed to the blue-collar, ancestrally Democratic district. But national groups, like EMILY’s List and NextGen America, attacked Morganelli for tweeting positively at Trump, and those negative ads took a toll. Morganelli acknowledged to POLITICO before Tuesday that the primary electorate is more liberal than he is, and those primary voters sent a message.
"That’s where the momentum is,” said Greg Edwards, who lost the primary to Morganelli and winner Susan Wild, ahead of Tuesday’s results. “If you try and run a Republican-lite or a Democrat-lite candidate, it suppresses the Democratic vote.”
Another moderate candidate in Pennsylvania, Rachel Reddick, also lost to “proud progressive” Scott Wallace. The self-funding millionaire drenched the airwaves with TV ads that attacked Reddick for recently being a registered Republican.
Ashford, meanwhile, held nearly all the advantages of incumbency in Omaha: high name recognition and party support, named to the DCCC’s “Red-to-Blue” list of favored challengers. But Eastman, a first-time candidate, harnessed liberal energy to beat Ashford in a district that the former congressman lost to Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) in 2016.
Eastman’s victory had liberals feeling emboldened. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a liberal group, said Tuesday night that Eastman’s win should teach Democrats that “the way to inspire voters in 2018 is to campaign on a bold progressive agenda of Medicare for All, higher wages for workers, and other economic populist ideas that help working families and challenge corporate power.”
2. Women won big in Democratic primaries.
Pennsylvania’s all-male congressional delegation will likely add female colleagues in November, after women largely swept through the Democratic primaries on Tuesday night.
Two Democratic women — Madeleine Dean, a state legislator, and Mary Scanlon, a former school board member – won contested primaries for open seats in the Philadelphia suburbs that are likely to turn blue after redistricting gave Democrats a partisan advantage. Democrat Chrissy Houlahan, who ran unopposed, has a fairly clear path to flipping another seat, after Rep. Ryan Costello (R-Pa.) announced that he wouldn’t seek reelection.
In the Lehigh Valley, Wild, Allentown’s first female city solicitor, beat all five of her male opponents in the open race to replace former Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.). Jess King faces an uphill battle against Rep. Lloyd Smucker (R-Pa.), whose district turned a shade redder in the court-drawn maps.
One woman missing from the list is Reddick, who was significantly outspent by Wallace in Bucks County.
In Nebraska, there was Eastman defeating Ashford. And while it’s unlikely Democrats will challenge for the Idaho governorship in November, former state Rep. Paulette Jordan defeated A.J. Balukoff, the party’s nominee for the seat four years ago. Balukoff vastly outspent Jordan on television advertising, but was trounced at the ballot box on Tuesday.
3. Another House Republican fell short.
This time it was Rep. Raúl Labrador who finds his political career stalled after he couldn’t parlay a prominent role on Capitol Hill into a GOP nomination for statewide office. Labrador finished second Tuesday in the Idaho governor’s race, short of Lt. Gov. Brad Little, who captured his party’s nod.
Labrador’s joins a graveyard — or at least purgatory — of other House GOP careers. Reps. Todd Rokita and Luke Messer lost Indiana’s Senate primary last week to a self-funding, one-term former state representative. West Virginia Rep. Evan Jenkins finished second in that state’s closely watched Senate primary last Tuesday.
Labrador was an influential member of the House Freedom Caucus, inserting himself into a number of legislative fights that pitted conservatives against party leadership. But that wasn’t enough in a three-way race with self-funder Tommy Ahlquist — like Labrador, a Mormon — on the ballot.
While Labrador’s candidacy fizzled, one House Republican was successful on Tuesday: Rep. Lou Barletta, who won his party’s nomination to face Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) in November.
Barletta won 63 percent of the vote in a head-to-head race against Jim Christiana, a poorly funded state representative. That’s not an overwhelming show of strength for a candidate who received last-minute aid from Trump in the form of a robocall to GOP voters on the eve of the election.
But it’s also not so weak as to be more concerning than Barletta’s standing against Casey in the polls: He starts the race about 10 points behind the Democrat.
4. There were no Robert Pittengers.
All the House incumbents on the ballot on Tuesday sailed to renomination — unlike Rep. Robert Pittenger (R-N.C.), who was defeated in a primary last week.
That was even true in Pennsylvania, where the 12 incumbents on the ballot were all running in reconfigured districts as a result of the new, court-imposed congressional map in the state.
The closest member to losing was Pennsylvania GOP Rep. Lloyd Smucker, who defeated Chet Beiler, a self-funding candidate he first vanquished two years ago in an open-seat primary. (In an added twist, Beiler is Smucker’s second cousin.)
Meanwhile, Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio — who easily won renomination on Tuesday, capturing more than 90 percent of the vote against a Democratic challenger — will see a familiar face in the general election. For the fifth consecutive election cycle, Republicans nominated former state GOP Chairman Art Robinson to face DeFazio.
The closest Robinson ever came to knocking off the 16-term congressman was in 2010, when he held DeFazio to 54 percent of the vote.
5. Conservative outside groups struggled to shape open GOP primaries.
There were eight candidates on the ballot for the GOP nomination in Pennsylvania’s 13th Congressional District, a solidly Republican open seat in the southern half of the state.
The conservative Club for Growth had a fairly simple message for voters there: Just don’t vote for John Joyce. “If you want a congressman who will stand with President Trump,” said the narrator in an ad the Club paid to air on TV stations in the district, “you don’t want John Joyce.”
House Freedom Action, the political arm of the conservative Freedom Caucus, was more direct, airing ads supporting a specific, alternative candidate.
But Joyce won anyway, skating through just under 22 percent of the vote. His closest opponents finished with 20 percent, 18 percent, 16 percent and 15 percent.
It was the second loss in as many weeks for the Club, which also opposed Troy Balderson, who won a competitive primary in Ohio last week.
The night wasn’t a total loss for the Club: With the Club’s backing, former Idaho state Sen. Russ Fulcher, who primaried Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter from the right four years ago, won the GOP nomination for the House seat left vacant by Labrador.
More tests of the Club’s ability to move the Republican Party to the right on fiscal issues are coming: The group is wading into four separate GOP primary runoffs in Texas next week.