There are two different narratives developing about what will happen in the midterm elections in 2018, and what the primaries have to do with it. Some argue about whether Democrats will be able to use Donald TrumpDonald TrumpJan. 6 panel plans to subpoena Trump lawyer who advised on how to overturn election Texans chairman apologizes for 'China virus' remark Biden invokes Trump in bid to boost McAuliffe ahead of Election Day MORE’s unpopularity as a springboard to capture the House majority.
There are far more Democrats running for Congress than in any previous year — and there are more Democrats running than there were Republicans at this point in 2010. It is possible that the bumper crop of Democrats will fire up the Democratic base and make the party competitive in a variety of places where they are not usually competitive.
There are also questions about the extent to which Donald Trump has remade the Republican Party. Will the president, his campaign style, and his populist issue stances remain popular enough among Republican voters that Trump-ish Republican candidates will decide to challenge party regulars, putting otherwise safe Republican seats in jeopardy?
Both of these scenarios suggest we should pay attention to what happens to House incumbents in the primaries. We know from past wave election years that enthusiasm among party activists tends to spill over into challenges against incumbents. For Democrats, antagonism toward Trump can easily turn into antagonism toward moderate Democrats who are seen as being too willing to support Trump or his initiatives.
For Republicans, the converse may hold true; Republicans who do not reflexively support the president may face primary challengers who adopt Trump’s style and rhetoric. In other words, House incumbents on both sides — particular centrist ones — may wind up in the crosshairs of their own party’s activists in 2018. Some may lose their seats altogether; others may be forced to use up campaign money fending off primary opponents.
Conveniently, the nation’s first two primaries were held last month in Texas and in Illinois – states with enough Democratic and Republican incumbents that we can begin to sort out the 2018 election landscape.
Overall, these two states’ incumbent primaries were less contentious than they have been for the past four election cycles. There have, however, been some intriguing races. On the Democratic side, the incumbent primary that has drawn the most national attention has been Rep. Daniel LipinskiDaniel William LipinskiHouse votes to condemn alleged hysterectomies on migrant women Five things we learned from this year's primaries Hispanic Caucus campaign arm endorses slate of non-Hispanic candidates MORE’s (D-Ill.) narrow victory in southwest Chicago.
Lipinski is a relatively conservative Democrat who originally gained the seat as a result of his father’s last-minute retirement in 2004. Lipinski has drawn primary opponents in most of his reelection bids; 2018 was his closest call. His opponent, Marie Newman, received support from EMILY’s List and from some members of the Illinois House delegation. Every election cycle there are a handful of races that attract this sort of attention; with Lipinski’s challenge out of the way, it is not at all clear that there will be another occasion for liberal groups to focus their attention on unseating a centrist Democrat.
While Lipinski’s race drew the most attention, several other Democrats and Republicans did face somewhat competitive primary opponents. In Texas, African-American Representative Marc VeaseyMarc Allison VeaseyTo fight voting restriction efforts in Texas, the Senate must pass voting rights bill Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Manchin: key energy provision of spending package 'makes no sense' Six moderate Democrats raise concerns about spending bill's energy measures MORE, who represents a district with substantial African-American and Latino populations, faced a Latino opponent, as he had in 2014 and 2016.
Elsewhere in the Chicago area, Mike QuigleyMichael (Mike) Bruce QuigleyProgressives cheer, moderates groan as Biden visit caps chaotic week House Democrats urge Pelosi to prioritize aid for gyms House Intel Democrats express doubts about completing Afghan evacuation by deadline MORE and Danny DavisDaniel (Danny) K. DavisIllinois Democrats propose new 'maximized' congressional map Democrat walks back comments suggesting R. Kelly could be 'welcomed back' in Chicago LIVE COVERAGE: Ways and Means begins Day 2 on .5T package MORE also drew opponents who pulled more than a quarter of the vote. Davis, who represents a heavily African-American district, has always drawn some primary opposition, but Quigley has not.
Quigley’s main opponent, Muslim-American comedian, Sameena Mustafa did not object to any of Quigley’s issue stances but argued that he was not active enough in standing up for progressive values. Mustafa’s campaign, perhaps more than Newman’s, suggests that much of the divide in the Democratic Party in 2018 may be more about style than ideology — liberal activists may line up behind other candidates who promise to be more aggressive.
Republicans, however, had just as many competitive primaries. In Illinois, Adam KinzingerAdam Daniel KinzingerIllinois redistricting proposal creates new Hispanic seat, sets up member-vs.-member races The 9 Republicans who voted to hold Bannon in contempt of Congress Cheney reveals GOP's Banks claimed he was Jan. 6 panel's ranking member MORE faced an opponent who attacked Kinzinger for being a career politician. In Texas, three Republicans — John CarterJohn Rice CarterEarly redistricting plans show GOP retrenching for long haul Bottom line READ: The Republicans who voted to challenge election results MORE, Kenny MarchantKenny Ewell MarchantTexas House Democrat who fled state announces congressional bid Republican Van Duyne wins race for Texas House seat Cook Political Report shifts 8 more House races toward Democrats MORE, and Randy WeberRandall (Randy) Keith WeberNew group of GOP lawmakers file articles of impeachment against Biden 'I want to cry': House Republicans take emotional trip to the border Roy introduces bill blocking Chinese Communist Party members from buying US land MORE — pulled less than 75 percent of the primary vote. What is striking about these campaigns is that the primary challengers were all relatively obscure candidates; none held elective office, none raised very much money, and none generated very much national attention.
These races suggest that there is a residual anti-incumbent vote within the Republican Party, much as there was in 2016, but that the candidates who emerge in these races will have a difficult time attracting interest group or super PAC support.
The early primaries suggest that the activist wings of both parties are eager for a fight. However, they also suggest that party leaders are not aching for a fight. So far, both parties’ big donors are holding onto their money, waiting for the general election. This suggests that the primaries should continue to be interesting, but the stakes in November are simply too high for either side to spend the primary season fighting ideological battles.
Robert G. Boatright is a professor of political science at Clark University and the director of research at the National Institute for Civil Discourse.