What 2022’s primary results tell us about both parties

The results of Tuesday’s primary elections in several states offer critical insight into the electoral challenges both parties will be forced to contend with in 2022, 2024 and beyond.

On the Republican side, though Donald Trump’s endorsement is clearly not all-powerful — as his track record took a hit in Georgia especially — he is still the most influential figure in Republican politics. It would be a mistake for the G.O.P. rank-and-file, who are eager to put Trump behind them, to write off his primacy with Republican voters.

Though there were fewer major contests for Democrats, several moderate incumbents faced formidable progressive challengers in races that remain too close to call. This dynamic is illustrative of the power of the progressive wing and of the party’s internal divisions — two trends that have brought President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda to a standstill, making Democrats almost certain to lose control of Congress in this year’s midterms.

Given the broader electorate’s rejection of extremism on both sides — of overreaching policies on the left, and of Trump’s erroneous claims of fraud in the 2020 election on the right — Tuesday’s primaries underscore the obstacles each party faces with remaining politically viable in years to come.

With respect to Republicans’ performance on Tuesday, Trump’s revenge plays against incumbents Governor Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in Georgia — who both earned Trump’s ire by certifying the 2020 election results — were decisively rebuked. Kemp swept his primary against Trump endorsee David Perdue, winning by more than 50-points, while Raffensperger won his race over Trump-backed candidate Jody Hice by enough votes to avoid a run-off.

Evidently, Trump’s endorsement is not omnipotent with Republican voters — especially when he is opposing entrenched incumbents, who have a very high reelection rate, to endorse pro-“Big Lie” challengers purely out of spite.

That being said, Trump’s brand of unabashed right-wing politics still dominates the party, and it is virtually impossible for any Republican to be successful by running on an anti-Trump platform. Even in the face of unrelenting attacks from Trump, neither Kemp nor Raffensperger openly trashed the former president, and both candidates made explicit appeals to the Trump wing of the party.

Kemp ran on his economic accomplishments and touted his staunchly conservative track record of implementing sweeping voting restrictions, limiting abortions, opposing critical race theory and transgender rights and loosening gun laws. During the campaign, Kemp deflected when asked about Trump, and went to great lengths not to appear critical of him. 

Raffensperger took a similar approach vis-à-vis Trump, striking a careful balance between appealing to Republicans who were concerned about voter fraud due to Trump’s misguided claims, while still defending the 2020 election results.

Likewise, though Trump rescinded his endorsement of Rep. Mo Brooks in the Alabama primary for U.S. Senate, Brooks continued to tow the Trump line. He held on to his “MAGA Mo” slogan, assumed Trump-like positions on issues like border security, and championed Trump’s lie that the 2020 election was stolen. Brooks is now headed to a runoff election against Katie Britt.

Importantly, Tuesday’s results do highlight the power of Trump’s endorsement in races with no strong G.O.P incumbent, or when Trump backs an embattled incumbent — which also became evident earlier this month in the Republican primaries for U.S. Senate in Ohio, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, as well as Pennsylvania Governor.

Trump’s pick for U.S. Senate in Georgia, Herschel Walker, easily won his primary on Tuesday, as did other Trump allies including his former press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, in the Arkansas gubernatorial race. In Texas, Trump’s endorsee for attorney general, Ken Paxton, handily defeated Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, who boasts the most famous name in Texas politics.

On the Democratic side, the most noteworthy race involved a runoff contest in Texas’ 28th congressional district — between incumbent Democrat Henry Cuellar, one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress, and progressive challenger Jessica Cisneros — that is still too close to call.

Cuellar, who frequently pushes back against the left-wing of his party, has faced attacks from progressives — like Rep. Alexandria-Ocasio Cortez (N.Y.) — for his conservative positions on gun rights and abortion. Even so, Cuellar was endorsed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and other prominent party leaders, as he is viewed in establishment circles as the Democrats’ best chance of holding onto this seat in the general election. The district is rated as a “toss-up” by Cook Political Report, and is one of the main Republican targets in November.

Similarly, in Texas’ 15th district, Blue Dog Democrat Rep. Ruben Ramirez is still locked in a close race against progressive Michelle Vallejo, who was endorsed by the Congressional Progressive Caucus and prominent Democrats like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.). Like Cuellar, Ramirez has the strongest general election prospects, as the South Texas district is competitive but leans conservative.

To be sure, the closeness of the primaries in Texas’ 15th and 28th emphasizes the challenges that establishment Democrats face vis-à-vis balancing the interests of the progressive wing with the party’s goal of remaining politically viable with swing voters and in centrist districts like Texas’ 28th. 

Ultimately, Tuesday’s primary results make clear that both parties continue to move away from the political center. Going forward, it remains to be seen which party, if either, will be able to moderate their positions in a way that enables them to build a lasting winning coalition for years to come.

Douglas E. Schoen is a political consultant who served as an adviser to former President Clinton and to the 2020 presidential campaign of Michael Bloomberg. He is the author of “The End of Democracy? Russia and China on the Rise and America in Retreat.” Zoe Young is vice president of Schoen Cooperman Research. 

Tags 2022 midterms Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Brad Raffensperger Brian Kemp Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Henry Cuellar Herschel Walker Jessica Cisneros Ken Paxton Mo Brooks Politics of the United States sarah huckabee sanders

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