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Primaries show divisions are not only between the parties, but within them

Mixed results on influence of big endorsements, super PACs

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., had a big smile as he arrived for a vote in the Capitol on Wednesday, a day after GOP voters in North Carolina's 11th District nominated the candidate Tillis was backing instead of first-term Rep. Madison Cawthorn.
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., had a big smile as he arrived for a vote in the Capitol on Wednesday, a day after GOP voters in North Carolina's 11th District nominated the candidate Tillis was backing instead of first-term Rep. Madison Cawthorn. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Primaries in five states Tuesday showed mixed results for both parties, as progressives claimed wins and saw losses while former President Donald Trump’s endorsement held more power in some races than others.

Spending by outside groups fueled competitive races on both sides of the aisle in several states but didn’t always carry the day. 

The high-profile Senate Republican primary in Pennsylvania was one of a handful of races that had not been called Wednesday, despite Trump using his company’s social media platform to urge former television host Mehmet Oz to declare victory. At the time, Oz’s lead over hedge fund manager Dave McCormick was under 2,000 votes, well within the range for a statewide recount to be ordered.  

The Democratic primary in Pennsylvania’s 12th District between state Rep. Summer Lee and attorney Steve Irwin also had not been called by The Associated Press as of Wednesday afternoon. Nor had moderate Oregon Rep. Kurt Schrader’s bid for another term, in which he trailed liberal challenger Jamie McLeod-Skinner.

But while progressives were counting both Lee’s and McLeod-Skinner’s potential wins as victories, two candidates they backed in North Carolina — Erica Smith in the 1st District and Nida Allam in the 4th — lost. So did Attica Scott in her race for Kentucky’s open 3rd District seat, although winner Morgan McGarvey shared her support for such programs as “Medicare for All,” the Green New Deal and universal prekindergarten. 

The tight margins in some of Tuesday’s primary races showed that not only are Americans deeply divided along partisan lines, but also within their own parties about the direction they want candidates to take in Washington.  

PAC spending fuels close races

Super PACs, even the biggest ones, showed once again they don’t necessarily have superpowers. 

The crowded Democratic primary in Oregon’s new 6th District was a good example. There, top PACs, including the House Democratic leadership-aligned House Majority PAC, spent millions to boost political newcomer Carrick Flynn. Cryptocurrency billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried also funded a super PAC that backed Flynn, who conceded the race to state lawmaker Andrea Salinas, who had numerous endorsements and some big-bucks support of her own from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’ BOLD PAC.

“Andrea won despite being outspent 13-to-1 — her victory defeated the odds and demonstrates the true strength of her candidacy,” Arizona Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego, who chairs BOLD PAC, said in a statement. “BOLD PAC is proud to have played a key role in helping power her campaign to victory.” 

Former Federal Election Commission Commissioner Karl Sandstrom, a political lawyer with Perkins Coie who recently moved to Portland, Ore., said the ads for Flynn were nonstop. (He actually lives in the district of Rep. Suzanne Bonamici but said the media markets overlap.)

“I have never seen as many ads for a candidate for any office as I saw for Carrick Flynn,” said Sandstrom, who counts BOLD PAC as a client. “It really raises the question of how effective television is any longer.”

But in some cases, progressives said super PAC spending affected Democratic primaries, and to mixed results.

Aaron Chappell, the political director for the progressive group Our Revolution, said spending from a super PAC funded by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and new PACs formed by cryptocurrency investors took a toll on candidates who lost, like Smith and Allam in North Carolina, and made races like Lee’s in Pennsylvania more competitive. 

The same groups have been spending heavily in primaries across the map this cycle. But there isn’t an obvious way for progressives to push back on their efforts, Chappell said. 

“I don’t think there’s a way to match this money,” Chappell said. “This is a long-term problem. I don’t know the answer offhand, how we can regulate this, but we have to talk about it, we have to call this problem out right now. This is insane that a couple of issue groups can spend this much money and have a real impact on races.” 

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee called on Speaker Nancy Pelosi to denounce what it called misinformation campaigns funded by AIPAC, cryptocurrency PACS and the pharmaceutical industry.

“Those progressives who lost were falsely accused of being bad Democrats — a rich accusation from groups like AIPAC that endorse insurrectionist Republicans,” Adam Green, the group’s co-chair, said in a statement.

Pro-Israel America, a group supporting Lee’s opponent, Irwin, in retiring Rep. Mike Doyle’s solidly Democratic district in the Pittsburgh area, noted that he closed a 20-point gap in the final weeks of the campaign.

“Irwin came from behind and is right now only less than half a percentage point from victory, showing that as voters learned more about his policy positions throughout the race, they increasingly supported his campaign and rejected Summer Lee’s brand of divisive politics,” Jeff Mendelsohn, the group’s executive director, said in a statement Wednesday. 

Kingmakers? Not always

Final results in the primary between Schrader and McLeod-Skinner in Oregon’s 5th District were delayed because a printing error made counting ballots in Clackamas County south of Portland much more labor intensive. But partial results showed Schrader behind, and raised questions about the value of the endorsement he got from President Joe Biden.

Progressive groups and lawmakers, including Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, had endorsed McLeod-Skinner, an attorney and emergency response coordinator, over Schrader, a member of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition. 

In the GOP, meanwhile, the influence of big players was also tested. Trump and the anti-tax Club for Growth, which feuded in the May 3 Ohio Senate primary and backed different candidates in Pennsylvania’s Senate race, both backed Rep. Ted Budd in North Carolina’s Senate GOP primary. The partnership helped Budd easily defeat former Gov. Pat McCrory and former Rep. Mark Walker on Tuesday. Both Trump and the club also backed Bo Hines in North Carolina’s 13th District, where he cleared the 30 percent threshold to avoid a runoff in a crowded primary that also included former Rep. Renee Ellmers. She finished fifth in an eight-way race. 

But Trump’s last-minute appeal to voters in the 11th District to give first-term Rep. Madison Cawthorn a second chance wasn’t enough, and Cawthorn lost a tight race to state Rep. Chuck Edwards, suggesting that the former president’s support doesn’t translate to a given victory.

[Trump backing not enough to save Cawthorn in NC primary]

Cawthorn’s personal controversies included being stopped for carrying a loaded gun through an airport checkpoint, and he angered some constituents by initially saying he’d run in a different district. Edwards also didn’t defeat Cawthorn alone. He received significant help from Results for NC, a super PAC close to Sen. Thom Tillis, which spent nearly $1.5 million on ads attacking Cawthorn that may have helped tilt the race in his favor. 

Making it look easy

Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson, one of the 35 Republicans who voted in favor of an independent, bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, easily won his primary Tuesday, beating back a challenge from attorney Bryan Smith, who had tried to oust the incumbent in 2014.

In one of his campaign ads, Smith called Simpson a “RINO,” short for Republican in name only, criticizing the incumbent as not being conservative enough for the 2nd District and for being a career politician. 

GOP voters didn’t buy it, apparently. 

Simpson took his reelection fundraising effort seriously, raising nearly $1.2 million to Smith’s $650,000. The incumbent, who is 10th in seniority among House Republicans and was first elected in 1998, also benefited from more in outside spending, including from the American Dental Association and American Dream Federal Action.

Trump didn’t endorse in the race. Neither did the Club for Growth, which boosted a losing run against Simpson by Smith in 2014. It’s worth noting that Trump did endorse against the state’s GOP Gov. Brad Little, who still beat Trump’s preferred candidate, Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin.

Support soft from former rivals?

While the Republican nominee in Pennsylvania’s Senate race was still uncertain, winners of competitive primaries began looking to November. That includes Democratic Senate nominee John Fetterman, and Budd in North Carolina, both of whom have to work to unite support among their own voters and their opponents’.

“Democrats need to be unequivocally united in our defense of this democracy, and we will be,” Rep. Conor Lamb, who lost the primary to Fetterman in the race for the open seat being left by GOP Sen. Patrick Toomey, said in a statement. “John’s vote in the Senate is essential to protect this democracy, and he will have my vote in November. I will do everything I can to help Democrats win.”

Not all losing candidates were as clear in their support for the victors. McCrory congratulated Budd for his win but urged his supporters to use their “leverage” in what could be a tight race between Budd and the Democratic nominee, former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley. 

“Right now, we’ve got to do an evaluation of our party. And I want to let you know that you have leverage in this race coming up. You have leverage because our party’s got to recognize you as common-sense conservatives, like I am,” McCrory said in his concession speech. “Now more than ever, we do need to unite, but we also need to unite to ensure that the people running understand you, because you have leverage in this race.”

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