How much collateral damage will there be in the 2018 midterms?

How much collateral damage will there be in the 2018 midterms?
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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 John TrumpChasten Buttigieg: 'I've been dealing with the likes of Rush Limbaugh my entire life' Lawmakers paint different pictures of Trump's 'opportunity zone' program We must not turn our heads from the effects of traumatic brain injuries 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.

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It is also possible however, that the large number of Democrats running may split the party, pitting the Bernie SandersBernie SandersNevada Democratic debate draws record-breaking 19.7 million viewers 'Where's your spoon?' What we didn't learn in the latest debate Ocasio-Cortez defends Warren against 'misogynist trope' MORE wing against the mainstream wing, producing nominees who are too far to the left to win in the general election.

 

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 LipinskiAmerica needs a transformative transportation bill: It will take walking and biking to get there More than 200 lawmakers urge Supreme Court to 'reconsider' Roe v. Wade Democratic group to only endorse attorney general candidates who back abortion rights 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 VeaseyHonoring our nation's heroes House votes to condemn Trump Medicaid block grant policy Democrats decry Trump's push to slash number of accepted refugees 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 QuigleyHillicon Valley: Officials worry about Nevada caucus technology after Iowa | Pelosi joins pressure campaign on Huawei | Workers at Kickstarter vote to unionize | Bezos launches B climate initiative The Hill's Campaign Report: Bloomberg to face off with rivals at Nevada debate Tech for Nevada caucuses under scrutiny after Iowa debacle MORE and Danny DavisDaniel (Danny) K. DavisIllinois Rep. Davis endorses Biden ahead of Iowa caucuses Both sides of the aisle call for local, state, federal cooperation on homelessness The Hill's Morning Report - Impeachment trial a week away; debate night 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 KinzingerBlagojevich calls himself a 'Trumpocrat,' praises Trump after release from prison Sanders slams Trump pardons as part of 'broken and racist criminal justice system' Illinois GOP House delegation blasts Blagojevich commutation: 'The face of public corruption' MORE faced an opponent who attacked Kinzinger for being a career politician. In Texas, three Republicans — John CarterJohn Rice CarterGun control group plans to spend million in Texas in 2020 Democrats launch bilingual ad campaign off drug pricing bill Overnight Defense: Erdoğan gets earful from GOP senators | Amazon to challenge Pentagon cloud contract decision in court | Lawmakers under pressure to pass benefits fix for military families MORE, Kenny MarchantKenny Ewell MarchantGun control group plans to spend million in Texas in 2020 Gaetz filing ethics complaint against Pelosi for 'destroying' Trump speech House GOP wants Senate Republicans to do more on impeachment MORE, and Randy WeberRandall (Randy) Keith WeberOvernight Energy: Trump credits economic progress to environmental rollbacks | Vote to subpoena Interior delayed by prayer breakfast | Dems hit agency for delaying energy efficiency funds Democrats hit DOE for holding back energy efficiency funds GOP lawmakers call for provisions barring DOD funds for border wall to be dropped 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.