Five things we learned from this year’s primaries
Through a pandemic, protests and partisanship, voters in all but four states have picked party nominees for November’s general election, setting up the clashes that will determine the shape of American politics over the next two years.
Their choices have sent clear signals about where each party’s electorate stands, and what the two warring factions have in common: Both Democratic and Republican voters want change — though there is little agreement on what, exactly, ought to be changed.
As the first general election ballots go out, here are the lessons we learned from the 2020 primary season:
It’s the year of the woman
A century after the ratification of the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote, women are running for office in record numbers.
The two major parties have nominated 296 women to run for U.S. House seats, blowing away the previous record set in 2018, at 234. Forty-seven districts feature two women running against each other, according to a tally maintained by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers.
More women — 60 — ran for seats in the Senate than ever before. Voters in four states — Iowa, Maine, Wyoming and West Virginia — will decide between two female Senate candidates in November.
It helps that both parties are making special efforts to recruit women — albeit for different reasons. Democrats relied on women to win back the House majority in 2018, when 24 of the 43 candidates who flipped Republican-held seats were women. Republicans, who fear a gender gap they cannot overcome, have made a point of recruiting women candidates, though not all have survived their primaries.
All politics is (still) local
It is very hard to beat a sitting incumbent in a party primary. It is easier when that incumbent has lost touch with his or her district.
Eight members of Congress lost bids for renomination this year. In most cases, those who will find themselves out of a job come January were ousted by voters who thought they had gone Washington.
In the midst of a global pandemic, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) did not travel from his Maryland home to his Yonkers-based district for several months. GOP insiders said Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Colo.), who lost to conservative activist Lauren Boebert, rarely traveled home.
Rep. Wm. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) lost to Cori Bush, who began her political activism in protests against police brutality in the wake of the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Bush made an issue out of Clay’s absence from protests this summer over the deaths of Black people in Minnesota and Kentucky at the hands of police.
Reps. Daniel Lipinski (D-Ill.) and Denver Riggleman (R-Va.) each lost renomination after breaking with their constituents over hot-button policy issues. Lipinski, perhaps the last anti-abortion rights Democrat in Congress, lost to a progressive activist who had support from major abortion rights groups. Riggleman lost a renominating convention, restricted to only the most die-hard conservative activists, after he had the audacity to preside over a same-sex wedding.
Some of the long-serving incumbents who held off challenges took constituent services more seriously. Reps. Richard Neal (D-Mass.) and Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), two more House committee chairs who faced progressive activists in their primaries, each campaigned hard to win another term.
The GOP is shifting right
Some election cycles mark ideological shifts in one party or another. The 1994 wave ushered in a new generation of hard-nosed Republicans in the image of Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). The 2010 wave brought the Tea Party to Congress.
This year, a host of Republicans poised to win office in November will make the Tea Party look like genteel moderates.
Boebert is just one of a new brand of arch-conservatives who are likely headed to Congress next year, some of whom have embraced the fringe and fantastical QAnon conspiracy.
In other districts, candidates backed by national Republicans lost primary elections to more conservative challengers. Promising Republican recruits like Pierce Bush in Texas, former Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti in Illinois and Earl Granville in Pennsylvania all lost Republican nominations in potential swing districts to more conservative rivals.
The Tea Party’s arrival in Congress ushered in the Freedom Caucus, a group that caused headaches for Republican Speakers John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). The next wave of Republicans will make life just as difficult, albeit in a much different way, for GOP leadership.
Trump is everything
President Trump loves touting his support among the Republican base, and he is right. The GOP is held together less by an ideology than to a fealty to their party leader; more Republican-registered voters say they are a supporter of Trump (49 percent) than of the party itself (37 percent), according to a recent poll conducted for NBC News and the Wall Street Journal.
Among candidates running for Congress, that number may be even more skewed.
Trump has appeared in a quarter of all advertisements run by Republican candidates this year, according to data maintained by political scientists who run the Wesleyan Media Project. That is more often than any issue mentioned in GOP ads except taxes.
Trump’s popularity among his party’s core supporters has given him the room to diverge from the ideology that has driven the GOP for decades. He has broken with past Republican presidents on free trade, America’s role in the world, spending and deficits.
Trump’s time in power is limited to either the next few months or the next four and a half years. But even out of office, he is almost certainly not going to give up the Twitter feed that has become his bully pulpit. The party of Trump now is likely to be the party of Trump for years to come.
Absentees are king
The share of Americans who voted by mail has roughly doubled this century, from 10 percent in 2000 to almost 21 percent in the 2016 election, according to Pew Research Center.
Some states, like Washington, Utah and Colorado, have already shifted their elections entirely to the mail. A huge majority of voters in states like Arizona, Florida and Nevada also use mail-in voting.
The coronavirus pandemic is hastening those trends across every other state — even in some where absentee voting has never been a major part of the political culture. State after state has set new records for the number of voters casting ballots in the mail, in some cases beating their old records five, 10 or 15 times over.
Most states are well equipped to handle the surge in volume, and many begin counting ballots even before the polls close. But others are not — New York took more than a month to count the absentee ballots cast in its June primary, and Alaska took a week to begin opening their absentee ballots.
The two parties like absentee ballots: Knowing who has returned their ballot gives the parties the ability to focus their scarce resources to the population that has yet to vote.
But as Trump raises the unsubstantiated specter of fraud in the mail — and even urges his own supporters to vote twice, a felony — the heavy reliance on mail ballots has become a factor fraught with dread. In a close race, absentee ballots counted long after Election Day will prove fodder for those on the losing side, and the Russian bot farms determined to undermine confidence in American democracy.