Democrats, GOP face crowded primaries as party leaders lose control

Dozens of candidates are entering races for seats in critical states across the country as both Democrats and Republicans confront the prospect of crowded primary fields ahead of next year’s midterm elections.

In years past, party leaders have stepped in to anoint a favored candidate, bestowing the title of presumptive nominee on a contender who appeared straight from central casting.

But this year, the democratization of both fundraising and the ability to communicate with voters has robbed each side of much of their power to influence primary voters. The result has been a mad dash to enter the races that will decide which party controls the Senate in the next Congress.


Republicans are a decade removed from the Tea Party movement, which helped reduce the influence of the national party over contested primary elections — a factor that contributed to flawed Republican nominees losing winnable seats in states like Nevada, Delaware, Colorado, Missouri and elsewhere in past cycles.

But for Democrats, the phenomenon of losing control is new.

Consider Pennsylvania, where Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D) entered the race to replace retiring Sen. Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyBlack women look to build upon gains in coming elections Watch live: GOP senators present new infrastructure proposal Sasse rebuked by Nebraska Republican Party over impeachment vote MORE (R) in early February. His stature as a national media darling with an ability to raise huge sums of money might have once scared others out of the race. Instead, the flood of Democratic candidates has mounted.

Less than two weeks after Fetterman entered the race, state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D), a 30-year-old who represents a seat in Philadelphia, entered the race. So did Montgomery County Commission chair Val Arkoosh (D). Rep. Conor Lamb (D), who shares Fetterman’s eastern Pennsylvania base, has made moves toward running. So has Reps. Madeleine DeanMadeleine DeanLiberals tone down calls to 'defund police' amid GOP attacks The Hill's Morning Report - Dems to go-it-alone on infrastructure as bipartisan plan falters Democrats weigh next steps on Jan. 6 probe MORE (D) and Chrissy Houlahan (D), both of whom hold suburban Philadelphia-area seats.

The same situation has played out for Democrats in North Carolina, Wisconsin and Florida, where candidates who might have been seen as front-runners in the past have been unable to dissuade other contenders from jumping into high-profile Senate contests.


“There is sort of a flattening out of the party hierarchy,” said Mark Nevins, a Pennsylvania-based Democratic strategist who is unaligned in his state’s primary so far. “We are currently living in an historic age in which we are coming to a reckoning on issues of race and justice and disenfranchisement, and politics reflects that.”

Martha McKenna, a former top political adviser to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), said candidates are informed and inspired by recent history. After Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaHave our enemies found a way to defeat the United States? Millennial momentum means trouble for the GOP Biden's Cuba problem: Obama made a bet and lost MORE went from the state legislature to the White House in four years, a rush of state legislators or nonpoliticians — Jeff MerkleyJeff MerkleyHuman rights can't be a sacrificial lamb for climate action Senate Democrats press administration on human rights abuses in Philippines Bipartisan congressional commission urges IOC to postpone, relocate Beijing Games MORE in Oregon, Kay HaganKay Ruthven HaganInfighting grips Nevada Democrats ahead of midterms Democrats, GOP face crowded primaries as party leaders lose control Biden's gun control push poses danger for midterms MORE in North Carolina, Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenCould Andrew Cuomo — despite scandals — be re-elected because of Trump? Al Franken to launch 15-stop comedy tour Democrats, GOP face crowded primaries as party leaders lose control MORE in Minnesota — ran for and won Senate seats.

Candidates who might have once stayed on the sidelines because they did not fit what had been seen as the ideal profile now feel freer to make their case. They may hope to emulate the viral fundraising capability demonstrated by Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSenators introduce bipartisan infrastructure bill in rare Sunday session Bipartisan infrastructure win shows Democrats must continue working across the aisle 'The land is us' — Tribal activist turns from Keystone XL to Line 3 MORE (I-Vt.) or Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezOcasio-Cortez: 'More than enough' votes to prevent infrastructure from passing without reconciliation bill Manchin: 'I can't really guarantee anybody' reconciliation package will pass Sunday shows - Delta variant, infrastructure dominate MORE (D-N.Y.). Or they may look to Sens. Raphael WarnockRaphael WarnockHarris's bad polls trigger Democratic worries ObamaCare 2.0 is a big funding deal Kaseya ransomware attack highlights cyber vulnerabilities of small businesses MORE (D-Ga.) and Jon OssoffJon OssoffObamaCare 2.0 is a big funding deal Senate Democrats call for Medicaid-like plan to cover non-expansion states Stacey Abrams PAC tops 0 million raised MORE (D-Ga.), neither of whom fit the stereotype of a Senate candidate in a conservative state, as inspiration.

“After you come off a cycle or two, 2018 and then 2020 when Biden wins, people can feel victory, and people who want to serve in higher office can see a path. We’ve had important victories in the last couple of cycles, so people can see a path to victory for themselves,” McKenna said.

After a string of bad results in the last several cycles in states like North Carolina, Iowa, Maine and Pennsylvania, where candidates favored by the DSCC lost general elections against Republicans, the national party’s grip on the primary process has waned.


“The [state] party organization wants to play a much more vital role in selecting their nominee than having [Senate Majority Leader] Chuck SchumerChuck SchumerManchin on reported boos at Democratic luncheon: 'I heard a lot of nos' Wisconsin GOP quietly prepares Ron Johnson backup plans Senate infrastructure talks spill over into rare Sunday session MORE deciding who their nominee is going to be and putting millions of dollars in. That did not work out so well in 2018,” said Brad Crone, a longtime North Carolina Democratic strategist.

The DSCC has not issued any endorsements or signaled favorites in any races this year, though the committee does not plan to take options off the table.

“At this stage we are carefully assessing the candidate fields, keeping open lines of communication with candidates and working to build the infrastructure we’ll need to win the general election,” a committee spokesperson said in an email.

In 2018, the top super PAC aimed at electing Democrats spent millions of dollars in the primary on behalf of former state Sen. Cal Cunningham (D), a moderate white man whose profile seemed tailor-made to a slowly liberalizing electorate. Cunningham lost a race in which he polled well ahead, after acknowledging an affair.

Now, North Carolina Democrats face their own crowded primary: Former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley (D), a Black woman, is seen as the front-runner against state Sen. Jeff Jackson (D) and former state Sen. Erica Smith (D), who ran against Cunningham two years ago.

In Florida, Rep. Val DemingsValdez (Val) Venita DemingsThe Hill's Morning Report - Surging COVID-19 infections loom over US, Olympics Six takeaways: What the FEC reports tell us about the midterm elections Cuba, Haiti pose major challenges for Florida Democrats MORE (D) said this week she would challenge Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSenate holds sleepy Saturday session as negotiators finalize infrastructure deal Break glass in case of emergency — but not for climate change Democrats join GOP in pressuring Biden over China, virus origins MORE (R). The night before her announcement, Rep. Stephanie MurphyStephanie MurphyLawmakers can't reconcile weakening the SALT cap with progressive goals Select committee member thanks officers who responded Jan. 6: 'You were our last line of defense' House erupts in anger over Jan. 6 and Trump's role MORE (D) appeared in Tallahassee, hundreds of miles from her district, as she lays groundwork for her own bid.

In Wisconsin, Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson (D) entered the race against Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonWisconsin GOP quietly prepares Ron Johnson backup plans Biden's bipartisan deal faces Senate gauntlet Trump urged DOJ officials to call election corrupt 'and leave the rest to me' MORE (R) even before the 2020 elections. He was joined by Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry (D), a former aide in Obama’s White House, state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski (D) and radiologist Gillian Battino. Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes (D) is also said to be exploring the race.

Nelson, 45, is the old man in the race; the other three are all under 40.

“Any one of these candidates if they strike the right chord and are hitting the right notes in their campaign are going to be able to put together the resources to run a primary campaign, and once you’ve got the nomination in our state at least you’ve got a 50-50 coin flip chance of serving in the United States Senate,” said Joe Zepecki, a Wisconsin-based Democratic strategist. “All of that has made it easier for people who do not fit the historical profile of a United States senator think, why not me? And that is a good thing.”

Republicans know the feeling after a decade of Tea Party-inspired candidates — including, to a degree, former President TrumpDonald TrumpSenators introduce bipartisan infrastructure bill in rare Sunday session Gosar's siblings pen op-ed urging for his resignation: 'You are immune to shame' Sunday shows - Delta variant, infrastructure dominate MORE — upended the GOP’s carefully laid plans.


“I think the problem was disenchantment with the Wall Street bailout at the end of 2008. That’s really what launched the Tea Party in winter of 2009 and was the tipping point of changing our primary axis from ‘who’s most conservative’ to ‘who’s more outsider,’” said Brad Todd, a longtime Republican strategist whose clients include Sens. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleyUp next in the culture wars: Adding women to the draft Biden's bipartisan deal faces Senate gauntlet 228 Republican lawmakers urge Supreme Court to overrule Roe v. Wade MORE (R-Mo.) and Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisBiden's bipartisan deal faces Senate gauntlet The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - US gymnast wins all-around gold as Simone Biles cheers from the stands GOP senator credits Sinema for infrastructure deal MORE (R-N.C.). “It became a total replacement framework and you saw it instantly on blogs like RedState and new radio shows like Mark LevinMark Reed LevinSunday shows preview: Feds slam social media over COVID-19 misinformation Mark Levin urges Americans to boycott 'woke' businesses Democrats, GOP face crowded primaries as party leaders lose control MORE. They filled the information gap previously filled by party leader cues.”

This year, Republicans have a new set of competitive primaries ahead. At least five prominent Republicans are running to replace retiring Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanSenators introduce bipartisan infrastructure bill in rare Sunday session Optimism grows that infrastructure deal will get to Biden's desk Biden's bipartisan deal faces Senate gauntlet MORE (R-Ohio); half a dozen candidates of varying prominence are already in the race to succeed Toomey in Pennsylvania; three are running to replace retiring Sen. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrSenate starts infrastructure debate amid 11th-hour drama The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - A huge win for Biden, centrist senators The 17 Republicans who voted to advance the Senate infrastructure bill MORE (R-N.C.) in a field that is certain to grow; and three are running for retiring Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntBiden's bipartisan deal faces Senate gauntlet The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden sets new vaccine mandate as COVID-19 cases surge Former Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon passes on Senate campaign MORE’s (R-Mo.) seat while at least three more take hard looks at the race.

Most of the Republican candidates have kicked off their campaigns by tying themselves closely to Trump. Democrats say Trump has been an inspiration for candidates on their side, too — groups dedicated to recruiting more women, minorities and young people to run all saw a surge of interest after Trump’s 2016 election win, a surge that is fueling some of the interest in this year’s contests.

“When you see more people like yourself doing great, that’s a factor,” Zepecki said. “And when you see what a terrible job and how much controversy one individual member can gin up, it makes it seem more accessible.”