Five takeaways from a bruising primary season
The primaries in Florida and New York this week marked the final major nominating contests of 2022, and the country’s attention is now poised to shift to the general elections that will determine control of Congress for the next two years.
Primaries for both parties stretching from March through this week offered up some key hints about the two main parties and their voters, as well as what the coming fall campaign season could look like.
Here are five takeaways from the 2022 primaries:
The GOP is still Trump’s party — and 2020 is still top of mind
Former President Trump may have left the White House more than a year and a half ago, but this year’s GOP primaries proved that he remains the most influential Republican in the country.
The impact of Trump’s endorsements was clear: he shaped Republican messaging, scrambled primary contests and elevated to victory candidates that even some top GOP officials had concerns about.
Perhaps no issue was more important in obtaining Trump’s endorsement than the 2020 presidential election and his false claim that it was rigged against him. Republican candidates frequently echoed that talking point on the campaign trail — with some centering their races around it — hoping to win the former president’s favor.
The end result: In most of the nation’s high-profile Republican primaries, voters sided with Trump.
All of the GOP nominees in the most competitive Senate races were backed by the former president ahead of their primaries. Of the six House Republicans who ran for reelection after voting last year to impeach Trump for his role in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, only two won renomination.
And candidates who have questioned or flat-out denied the results of the 2020 election will be on ballots across the country in November, having secured nominations for governor, Senate, House and secretary of state.
Of course, there are a few exceptions. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, for instance, won in a landslide against his Trump-backed primary opponent, former Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.). And in South Carolina, Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) made it through her primary against Trump-endorsed Katie Arrington.
Still, if the 2022 Republican primaries made one thing clear, it’s that GOP voters are still overwhelmingly aligned with Trump.
Democrats largely played it safe, but progressives scored some key wins
Despite ongoing debates over the direction of the Democratic Party, voters across the country largely sided with more moderate or establishment-backed candidates in their primaries, apparently seeing them as their best bets for winning in an otherwise punishing political environment for Democrats.
In Ohio, for example, former state Sen. Nina Turner, a progressive former co-chair of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) presidential campaign, lost for a second time to Rep. Shontel Brown (D-Ohio), who had the support of the party establishment.
Likewise, Rep. Henry Cuellar (Texas), a conservative South Texas Democrat, narrowly defeated progressive Jessica Cisneros in a race that drew intense national attention.
Nevertheless, it wasn’t all bad for the party’s left flank.
Progressives won Senate nominations in two key swing states. In Pennsylvania, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman beat out Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.), a moderate who cast himself as the candidate better able to court suburban and rural voters, while Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes won the chance to challenge Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.). And just this week, Central Florida Democrats tapped Maxwell Alejandro Frost, a Sanders-backed gun control activist, to succeed Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) in the House.
Still, this year’s primaries were far from the ideological turning point that progressives were hoping for.
It was a tough season for a lot of House incumbents
There are still a few primaries left, but 2022 is already on track to see the most U.S. House incumbents lose renomination in more than two decades.
So far this year, 15 House members — nine Republicans and six Democrats — have lost their bids to return to Capitol Hill, according to Ballotpedia, which has been tracking the losses.
In some cases, the circumstances were simply out of members’ control, mostly because of the decennial redistricting process.
This week, for example, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), a 30-year veteran of the House, lost her primary to fellow longtime incumbent Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) after redistricting combined their Manhattan congressional districts. From the get-go, one of them was bound to lose.
But in other races, incumbents suffered from their political choices, most notably, their votes to impeach Trump. That decision spelled the end for Reps. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), Tom Rice (R-S.C.), Peter Meijer (R-Mich.) and Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.), all of whom were defeated by Trump-backed primary challengers who hammered them for their impeachment votes.
Others, like Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.), found themselves on the losing end of their primaries after becoming the subject of various controversies.
Democrats found their footing
For the first half of the year, Democrats were staring down some daunting problems. Their legislative agenda in Congress had largely stalled out, inflation was reaching its highest levels in decades and their main political foil was no longer in the Oval Office.
To make matters worse for Democrats, they were also contending with the reality that the party in power almost always loses ground in Congress in midterm elections.
That fact may still hold true. But things have notably shifted for Democrats in the months since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. That decision gave the party a powerful message with which to rally voters fearing an erosion of protections for reproductive rights and helped reenergize Democrats amid concerns over complacency.
Perhaps the biggest turning point for Democrats came in Kansas, when voters rejected by a wide margin a proposed amendment that would have stripped abortion rights from the state constitution.
Since then, Democrats have homed in on a clearer messaging strategy: they’ve warned what GOP congressional majorities would mean for reproductive rights, touted the passage of a massive tax and climate bill and sought to cast themselves as a steady hand in government.
Of course, while Democrats’ midterm prospects appear to have brightened somewhat, they’re still facing a brutal political landscape and strong historical headwinds that could give an edge to Republicans.
But Republican voters are still energized
The outlook may be brightening for Democrats. But this year’s primaries have still given credence to what Republican leaders have been claiming for over a year: GOP voters are motivated.
In top-of-the-ticket races across key battleground states, Republican primary turnout repeatedly outpaced Democratic turnout, a sign that GOP voters are eager to cast their ballots this year.
In Georgia, nearly a half million more Republicans voted in the Senate primary than Democrats. In Arizona, more than 200,000 more voters cast ballots in the top Republican primaries. The turnout advantage also holds true in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Nevada and Florida.
To be sure, the higher Republican turnout may not have been due to voter enthusiasm alone. In Georgia, for example, Republicans saw a hotly contested gubernatorial primary, while the Democratic candidate, Stacey Abrams, went unchallenged for the nomination.
The same is true is North Carolina, where Republicans were faced with a choice between Rep. Ted Budd (R-N.C.) and former Gov. Pat McCrory in the primary to succeed retiring Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.). Democrats, meanwhile, had already largely coalesced behind Cheri Beasley as their nominee.
But Florida’s most competitive race was on the Democratic side, and Pennsylvania and Wisconsin had hotly contested contests on both sides of the aisle.
And for much of the year, public polling has shown that Republicans are more enthusiastic to vote in November than Democrats are. But as Democrats’ prospects have improved, they’ve also begun to close that enthusiasm gap.
A Morning Consult poll released last week showed that 65 percent of Republican voters are either “extremely” or “very” enthusiastic to cast their ballots in the midterm elections. Meanwhile, 62 percent of Democrats said the same.