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6 Takeaways From the 2018 Primary Season, So Far

President, female candidates play key roles in drawing the midterm battle lines

New York Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez set the internet ablaze with her upset of House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joseph Crowley, but overall, the 2018 primaries have been kind to incumbents. (Mario Tama/Getty Images file photo)
New York Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez set the internet ablaze with her upset of House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joseph Crowley, but overall, the 2018 primaries have been kind to incumbents. (Mario Tama/Getty Images file photo)

With only three states left to hold primaries this year, the battle lines have firmed up for a midterm election that could also determine the future for President Donald Trump.

Democrats need to net 23 seats to take control of the House, which would give them a platform to block the president’s agenda and launch their own investigations of his finances and the 2016 election that could rival those already underway at the Justice Department.

It’s no surprise Trump’s influence has played a big role this primary cycle, from the record number of women and minority candidates who ran, to the success of Republicans who have embraced the president. Here’s a deeper dive into some of the lessons we’ve learned.

It’s actually a fine year to be an incumbent

After the stunning primary losses of Reps. Joseph Crowley and Michael Capuano — both longtime incumbents with loads of clout in the Democratic Party — it’s easy to think of incumbents being swept out in record numbers. But that’s really not the case. So far this cycle, four House incumbents have lost primaries. In addition to Crowley and Capuano, Republicans Mark Sanford and Robert Pittenger also got booted this year. That’s about average for non-redistricting cycles, a little less than four members per year since 1968. Greater primary losses by incumbents in redistricting years can often be attributed to new congressional maps, and not necessarily an anti-incumbent wave.In 2010, President Barack Obama’s first midterm election, only four House members lost renomination, but Republicans went on to gain a net of 63 seats in November. In 2006, just two incumbents lost primaries, but Democrats ended up with a 30-seat gain. In 1994, four incumbents got primaried, and Republicans went on to net 54 seats.ICYMI: Trump Says Wall Is Coming, Predicts a ‘Red Wave’ in November

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The Trump factor

Midterms are generally referendums on whoever occupies the Oval Office. This primary cycle, we’ve seen candidates on both sides of the aisle coming to terms with the way they want to talk about the president.On the Republican side, loyalty to Trump has defined Republican primaries in the House and Senate. Take Indiana, where GOP Senate candidates competed over who was the staunchest Trump ally. Rep. Todd Rokita carried around a cardboard cutout of the president and donned a red “Make America Great Again” hat in ads. Rokita lost the three-way primary to former state Rep. Mike Braun. Sanford’s loss in South Carolina was seen by some as evidence that loyalty to the president now defines the GOP. Trump’s endorsement in contested party primaries also helped some embattled incumbents such as Reps. Dan Donovan of New York and Martha Roby of Alabama. Roby had disavowed Trump’s campaign in 2016 but has since worked to repair her relationship with the president and his supporters.

On the Democratic side, antipathy toward Trump is widely understood to be driving a swell of new candidates and voters. But Democrats in swing districts and states, particularly in places Trump carried, have had to balance criticizing the president while focusing on so-called kitchen table issues.

Democratic leaders have stressed focusing on issues such as health care and the GOP tax overhaul, rather than being solely focused on opposing the Trump administration. That’s why leaders have largely warned against campaigning on impeachment, instead encouraging candidates to highlight issues that directly affect voters’ lives.

Money doesn’t always matter

The two Democratic challengers who defeated House incumbents won even though they were vastly outspent. Ocasio-Cortez spent about $197,000 through June 6, the last reporting period before her primary win, a good portion of the $301,000 she raised. That’s compared to $3.1 million spent by Crowley.Pressley, in Massachusetts, spent less than half as much as Capuano — $767,000 to his $1.7 million.

Outside money also wasn’t enough to help Republican businessman Kevin Nicholson win the Wisconsin Senate primary. His billionaire backer spent more than $10 million, but Nicholson lost to state Sen. Leah Vukmir, whose own billionaire supporter’s super PAC spent nearly $3 million on the race.

More Democrats are rejecting corporate PACs

An increasing number of Democratic candidates in diverse districts are rejecting corporate PAC money. Many who have won primaries are also making that rejection a key part of their general election campaigns.After Tuesday, 116 candidates who do not take corporate PAC money have won their primaries, according to the group End Citizens United, which advocates a campaign finance overhaul. These candidates are instead relying on donations from individuals and other groups.

Democrats are electing more women and minorities

As Democrats react against the perceived racism of the Trump administration, they have flocked to support primary candidates with ever-more diverse ethnic backgrounds and personal experience. Winners this cycle include Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib and Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar, who are poised to become the first Muslim women in Congress. In New Mexico, Deb Haaland is on track to become the first Native American woman elected to Congress. And Texas Democrats picked Veronica Escobar and Sylvia Garcia, both widely expected to become the state’s first Latinas in Congress.As of this week, 476 women have run in House primaries this cycle and 230 have won, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. On the Senate side, 53 women filed and 22 won. In both cases, the vast majority of the candidates who filed and won were Democrats.

Democrats have momentum on their side

Democrats are besting Republicans in turnout and fundraising in races across the country, trends that buttress predictions of a blue wave in November. 

Republican pollster John Couvillon, who has studied turnout for several election cycles, told NPR the indicators he is tracking this year show Democratic enthusiasm that matches what he saw in 2006, the last time the party flipped the House. 

“What I’m seeing, with the exception of a handful of states, in state after state, are huge increases in Democratic turnout relative to the increase in Republican turnout, when you look at 2014 versus 2018 turnout,” he said. “From looking at primary turnout as evidence of partisan enthusiasm, I’m seeing it on the Democratic side.”

Democratic candidates have also proved to be prolific fundraisers this cycle. Senate Democratic incumbents have broken fundraising records in a handful of races, while House Democrats have also been raking in campaign cash, some even surpassing select Senate candidates. According to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, more than 70 Democratic challengers outraised their Republican opponents in the second fundraising quarter, which ended June 30. That includes more than 50 challengers who outraised GOP incumbents. Even Democrats in costly primaries have been able to replenish their campaign accounts ahead of competitive general election contests.

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