Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Five Thoughts on Last Night's Primaries

In what has become something of a recurring feature on the blog, last night six states held primaries/runoffs and one state had a special election, so that seems more than enough reason to take a look at some of the odder things that happened.  Here's what stood out to me:

The Stunning Victory of Thad Cochran

Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS)
Just a few weeks after Eric Cantor lost in one of the most stunning defeats in years, Thad Cochran pulled off another stunning upset.  Honestly-this victory defies all logic of politics.  Incumbents almost never win runoffs where they were behind in the primary (even if they were in the lead they frequently fall).  Throw in the fact that Cochran is a 36-year incumbent, fumbled throughout the last three weeks, and is clearly poorly-practiced on the stump, and the question becomes: how the hell did he win this election?

The answer, in truly bizarre fashion for a race that has just stunned since it started, is in the African-American community.  Yes, that's right, the bedrock of the Democratic Party turned out in enormous numbers after Cochran reached out to the communities of north Jackson.  This came despite the fact that Democratic pundits across the country universally agreeing it would be easier for the Democrats to beat McDaniel than Cochran in the general election.

Most people called Cochran's appeal to black voters a gambit (at best).  African-American voters historically don't turn out for primaries in as strong of numbers, and certainly not to vote for a man who has been largely opposed to President Obama's agenda (in exit polls in north Jackson, most voters said this was the first time they had ever voted for a Republican).  And yet, it seems to have worked.  What caused this is something that political scientists are going to have to pour over, but it almost assuredly had to do with both McDaniel's past comments regarding race and women (which Cochran had made a key point of his campaign in the past few weeks) and McDaniel's reaction to Cochran reaching out to the black community (a senator should be a senator to all, not just some, and constituents don't like it when you don't listen to them even if you aren't going to vote for them).

This victory begs two pertinent questions for the future, though.  One is what this win means for how Thad Cochran will vote in what is surely going to be his final term in office.  Without the pressure of running again, will Cochran be a little bit more willing to cross the aisle?  I'm not saying he's going to start praising the president at every turn, but there is some precedence of an incumbent moving to the middle after being rejected by their own party and saved by the other (Lisa Murkowski and Joe Lieberman both spring to mind).  Particularly on things like unemployment benefits, education reform, and spending bills-will Cochran be a new ally for Harry Reid or the White House?

The second question is more pertinent for DSCC political strategists: how the hell did Thad Cochran get record African-American turnout when Democrats continually struggle to do so in Midterms?!?   With major Senate and gubernatorial races in Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina this November (all states with more than 20% of the population being black), how can Democrats learn from what happened in Mississippi today to help the likes of Mary Landrieu and Michelle Nunn win their crucial elections?

What is the Status of the Tea Party?

We'll move on from Cochran/McDaniel in a second here, but the last point that this election poses is what is going on with the Tea Party?  Just a few weeks after a random challenger rocked past the House Majority Leader the Tea Party had literally everything going for it in Mississippi but dropped the ball.  What exactly does this mean?  The Tea Party has by-and-large had an awful campaign season-establishment Republicans have consistently won in states like North Carolina, Idaho, Kentucky, and now Mississippi, and even in Virginia it's not like the Tea Party was organized there.  In addition to Cochran last night, the Tea Party couldn't get Tom Tancredo into the general (the NRSC and NRCC must have been popping champagne on that one considering how damaging Tancredo would have been for the campaigns of Cory Gardner and Mike Coffman).  This question is probably unanswerable for now, but it's a serious question heading into the 2016 primaries, as someone like Ted Cruz or Rand Paul are surely going to be pushing for the Tea Party banner, and as a result of that the question has to be asked: what exactly is the Tea Party worth?

The Republicans Get Their Women

Elise Stefanik (R-NY)
One of the more important pushes of the year for the Republican Party was to start closing the giant gap between Democratic women in Congress and Republican women.  While the Republicans still lag badly (the Democrats have far more women running for competitive and left-leaning seats than the Republicans do competitive and right-leaning seats), they definitely have a few more women on the board.  The Republicans scored a huge coup in the open 21st district of New York, where Elise Stefanik (a former aide to Rep. Paul Ryan) won the primary for Rep. Bill Owens' seat.  This is one of the best chances the GOP has at picking up a seat in Congress as the Democrats' nominee is lackluster and this is a very marginal district.  Stefanik is only 29-years-old, positioning her to possibly be the youngest member of Congress in January and the first Millennial in Congress, both of which would be huge feathers for a party that struggles with young voters and in particular young female voters.

In addition to Stefanik, the Republicans advanced Patrice Douglas into the runoff in Oklahoma's fifth district, which should bode well for her if she can win (this is a solidly Republican district, so winning the runoff is tantamount to winning the seat), and though she was unopposed, it's worth noting that Mia Love in Utah got one step closer to being the first African-American woman to be elected to Congress as a Republican.  Again, these are all steps that pale in comparison to what Democrats have achieved with women in Congress, but it's a strong start.

The Cautionary Tale of Richard Hanna

I'm still not sure what happened with Doug Lamborn in Colorado-did he vote for the Farm Bill or something to tick off the right?  That barely there win came completely out of nowhere.  However, I can explain Richard Hanna, who is one of only three House Republicans to have endorsed gay marriage, and that fact almost cost him his seat.  This wasn't a race on a lot of people's radars, and though he still won, it will likely serve as a cautionary tale for Republicans in marginal district who may want to come out for gay marriage but fear a primary challenge.

Also, a note to the DCCC-it is completely unacceptable that we didn't have a candidate in this race on the off-chance that Hanna had lost.  Mitt Romney only won this seat by .4% of the vote-this would have been competitive had Hanna lost to a conservative challenger, something we all could have seen coming.

A Not So Great Night for Democrats

Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice (D-NY)
If you've seen I've focused exclusively on Republicans so far, it's because they had far more primaries than the Democrats.  Thanks to the Tea Party movement, there's simply more primaries on their side, but the recurring story of those Tea Party challenges is that the Republicans have, state after state, consistently struck victories for establishment and party-favored candidates.  No incumbent has lost a seat that the Republicans won't hold anyway.  With the exception of Bruce Poliquin in Maine a few weeks ago, no Republican's victory made the Democrats more likely to win, and certainly not last night with Cochran, Stefanik, and Bob Beauprez in Colorado making it more likely the Republicans will control both houses of Congress.  The Republicans by-and-large have had a truly superb election season.

The Democrats admittedly didn't have as much riding on last night, but what they did have going for them was a mixed bag.  Pushing aside the fact that Democrats were hoping for some of the Tea Party challengers in New York or Colorado to be successful (to enhance their candidates in November), their actual results were a bit meh.  Charlie Rangel won't lose his district (no Democrat could), but he's an embarrassment to the party and the Democrats should have sent a message in Harlem by voting him out of office.  Oklahoma Democrats (yes, there is such a thing) don't have a prayer of winning against Rep. Jim Lankford in the general election for the Senate, but they at least had a scandal-free, sitting state senator in Connie Johnson to vote for in the primary, but thanks to people randomly voting (who does that, especially in a primary?!?), perennial gadfly Jim Rogers (who persistently wins huge vote totals in Oklahoma despite never campaigning or debating) pushed her into a runoff.  This depletes Johnson's resources for the general, and part of why Democrats occasionally like to run strong on-paper candidates in states like Oklahoma is to see what areas of the state have become more in-their-column.  Depleted resources mean less accurate results.

The news wasn't entirely bad.  The Democrats got their preferred candidate to succeed Carolyn McCarthy in Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice and in Maryland the Democrats wisely chose Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown over controversial Attorney General Doug Gansler to be their gubernatorial candidate.  But this is lackluster for the Democrats considering how few elections they had last night, and something they should be looking hard at themselves for in the coming months and certainly headed toward November.

Those were my standouts-what about yours?  What really shocked you about last night's elections?

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