2018 midterms

Lessons From the 2018 Primaries

Voting was up for both parties, but Democrats produced a serious turnout advantage. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The long, eventful 2018 primary election season finally ended on Thursday, September 13, with New York holding its nominating contests for state offices. Some of the proposed narratives we’ve heard over the months for what it all means have faded or morphed, while others remain strong. But here’s a summary of takeaways:

1. Voters were a lot more engaged than in the last midterm. According to the authoritative election analyst Reid Wilson, total turnout jumped from 29 million in 2014 to 43 million this year (a figure not that far off from the 57 million who participated in the 2016 presidential primaries and caucuses, which featured competitive contests in both parties). That doesn’t necessarily mean voters are “enthusiastic” or “excited,” since some of the uptick involves an increase in competitive races attributable to more open seats and more challengers to incumbents.

2. Democrats had a turnout advantage that may mean a general election advantage. According to Wilson’s estimates, Democratic turnout was up 72 percent from 2014. The Republican increase was 25 percent. The Democratic share of total turnout rose from 47 percent to 53 percent (the same as the GOP’s share in 2014). According to an analysis from the New York Times from 2004, the party with the higher primary vote has won the House in all three midterms (2006, 2010 and 2014). But that’s a small sample, and again, the party with fewer incumbents might naturally have more competitive primaries driving turnout.

Primary turnout obviously varies by state. One tabulation of 2018 primary turnout in 38 states showed Democrats with higher increases in 30 and Republicans with higher increases in just eight. Most of the nation’s competitive House seats are in states where Democratic primary turnout increased disproportionately.

3. The Republican Party truly belongs to Donald Trump. The president endorsed 31 House, Senate and gubernatorial candidates who were in competitive primaries (excluding West Virginia, where he endorsed two candidates) 30 of them won. Only Wyoming gubernatorial candidate Foster Friess, whom Trump endorsed on primary day, lost. Yes, most of those candidates were front-runner,s but in some cases the Trump imprimatur clearly made a difference, including gubernatorial races in Georgia, Florida, Kansas and South Carolina; Senate primaries in Ohio and Wyoming; and House contests in Alabama and South Carolina.

It’s also notable that the two Republican senators up for reelection this year who were the chilliest toward Trump, Arizona’s Jeff Flake and Tennessee’s Bob Corker, both retired.

4. It really was an extraordinary primary season for Democratic women. Fifteen women have won Democratic Senate primaries (as compared to seven Republicans); 182 have won Democratic House nominations (as compared to 52 Republicans); and 12 have won gubernatorial nominations (just four Republican women have won primaries). These are all record numbers. The previous high for House nominations by women was just 120.

If, as expected, women voters tilt Democratic in the midterms (said Ron Brownstein in August: “[F]or months, many public polls have shown that about 60 percent [of women] — sometimes slightly more, sometimes slightly less — prefer Democrats for Congress”), the plethora of women on the ballot could create a self-reinforcing trend in which more women elect more of their peers to congressional and statewide office as Democrats.

5. The “struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party” was oversold. Despite a lot of media talk about ideological clashes between “progressive” and “centrist” primary candidates, there was no clear pattern for who won primaries. Some of the notable “progressive” victories were in safe Democratic House districts (e.g., Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s New York 14 and Ayanna Pressley’s Massachusetts A-7) where district diversity and generational change were at least as important as ideology. Over all, “establishment” candidates did pretty well. An analysis of all Democratic House primaries by the Brookings Foundation showed 27 percent of “progressives” and 35 percent of “establishment” types winning.

6. There is, however, a new template emerging for Democratic success in diverse Sun Belt states that should cheer progressives. The ancient formula for Democratic success or survival in Southern and Western red states with reasonably large minority populations was to run fairly conservative campaigns aimed at white swing voters, counting on minority voters to play along. This year, several Democrats are trying to break the mold in ways that could change the party regionally and nationally, such as African-American gubernatorial candidates Stacey Abrams of Georgia and Andrew Gillum of Florida — both of whom defeated “moderate” white opponents in their primaries — Latino gubernatorial nominee David Garcia of Arizona, and white progressive Senate nominee Beto O’Rourke of Texas. All these candidates are looking very competitive in their general elections.

7. Even in conservative states, the old cutting-taxes-and-spending agenda is losing steam. One of the more remarkable trends of the primary season, which accompanied and in some states affected primaries in both parties, was renewed public interest in teacher pay, educational investments, and expanded health care services. A wave of strikes and protests around education issues hit West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona and Colorado. Veteran government-bashing pols like Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker are in serious trouble. Initiatives to force Republican legislatures to expand Medicaid are on the ballot in Idaho, Montana, Nebraska and Utah.

8. A lot could still happen to affect midterm results. Despite a pretty clear pro-Democratic trend that is typical of the losses the White House party usually suffers in midterms (especially when the president’s job approval ratings are as low as Trump’s), there are a lot of close races. The authoritative Cook Political Report rates 30 House races, eight Senate races, and nine gubernatorial races as toss-ups. Despite signs of Democratic enthusiasm, there are still grounds for doubting that young and Latino voters will shake their habits of skipping midterms. Economic trends, developments in the Mueller investigation, Supreme Court confirmations, and even a possible government shutdown could all create the kind of small but significant mini-trends that tip close races. The primaries were by-and-large encouraging to Democrats. But Republican turnout has been up as well, and November 6 could be a battle of polarized voter “bases” that are roughly equal in intensity. We don’t know yet how well each party has mobilized for early voting, in an environment where Republicans have fought to restrict opportunities for voting before Election Day. The six remaining weeks could be wild.

Lessons From the 2018 Primary Season