Data for Progress (@DataProgress) uses data to illuminate the most important stories in the country. To that end, we’re working with Robert Wheel (@BobbyBigWheel) to bring comprehensive coverage of the primaries for a new series, "data for politics." Data for Progress co-founder Sean McElwee (@SeanMcElwee) will provide some insights from the data.
The Big Picture (@SeanMcElwee):
Women Are Over-Performing In Primaries
It’s been commented on frequently, but women continue to perform incredibly well in primaries. According to Data for Progress analysis of Daily Kos data, of the 29 primaries in competitive districts that have occurred so far, women have won 15 of them. The Kos data is limited to only competitive districts, meaning that there’s no evidence that women are only winning in places where Democrats are unlikely to compete in November (to see the districts analyzed, see here). There are some races not in the Daily Kos dataset, such as WV-01 (Kendra Fershee), WV-02 (Talley Sergent) and PA-14 (Bibiana Boerio) where women have won primaries and could win in a wave, so if anything this slightly understates how well women are performing.
Ideology Is Scrambling The Pundits
Robert hits the nail on the head when discussing ideology in the races below, and it’s not surprising - he’s watching each race day by day. Pundits who come into the races late can often miss the finer points that really define the races. One key thing to keep in mind is that the Sanders versus Clinton primary didn’t come down to ideology in the minds of many voters. The chart below shows self-placement on a seven-point services and spending scale for Sanders and Clinton voters in the American National Election Studies 2016 survey. As you can see, the candidates had a similar base of support, though Clinton voters were somewhat more likely to place themselves in the center. As I’ve argued, the party is pretty united on key ideological questions likely to come up in primaries, and in many cases the establishment candidates have embraced the left. Gina Ortiz Jones, who picked up a DCCC endorsement after a strong first-round performance, supports Medicare for All, and DCCC endorsee Randy Bryce supports defunding ICE.
The Races (@BobbyBigWheel):
Let’s dive in! Obviously the big ticket game was Stacey Abrams. Democrats are appropriately excited about her - her landslide primary victory shows she's obviously got political skill. John Barrow won the Secretary of State race down-ballot without a runoff, meaning Abrams won over primary voters that were also willing to pull the lever for a white male Blue Dog. Keep in mind that if you believe in a Big Comey Effect (I do) that Georgia would have either gone blue or only narrowly Republican, and as it stands it was more Democratic than Ohio. And its fast growing suburbs are full of college-educated Republicans and people of color who could be mobilized and provide a margin of victory.
But I'm a House race guy, so let's look at the House race results.
Texas had runoffs for three races in seats that went for Clinton (TX-07, TX-23, TX-32) and three races in seats that went for Trump but have either retiring or complacent Republican incumbents and where Democrats feel cautious optimism heading into the fall (TX-06, TX-21, TX-31). The establishment favorite won in all six of them, though in some cases, the establishment favorite was a progressive who performed strongly in the first round of voting.
Does this mean the center is reasserting itself? Not really. In TX-32 there wasn't much ideological difference between the candidates and the winner, Colin Allred, was simply seen as the better candidate. In TX-23 it was a mainstream progressive vs. an insurgent contest but the insurgent candidate, Rick Trevino was running a shoestring campaign. Notably, if he really wants to move Democrats to the left he should run against Blue Dog Henry Cuellar in neighboring TX-28 in 2020 (one of the most below replacement Democrats in the House, according to our model). But Gina Ortiz Jones is a pro-single payer lesbian Filipina. It's impossible to imagine her as an establishment candidate at the start of the decade. It shows just how liberal the “establishment” has gotten.
And of course there's the highest profile House primary: Lizzie Pannill Fletcher and Laura Moser in TX-07. Heading into it I thought Fletcher would win with around 60 percent, though a win in the 50s wouldn't have surprised me. The left is energized after all, even if this is a seat where Clinton beat Sanders 65-35.
But Fletcher surpassed everyone's expectations by winning 67-33. Was this an instance of the center reasserting itself? I don't think so, it was just that Moser didn’t have a good feel for the district and wasn’t able to put together an effective campaign. A lot of the coverage I read leading up to the primary insisted that there was little separating the candidates ideologically. I listened to a debate and that wasn't the case - Moser is to Fletcher's left on health care, marijuana legalization and impeachment, among other issues. So if the media couldn't suss out that she was the more liberal campaign that was a failure by her campaign to communicate that to them, and they likely had a similar problem communicating to voters as well.
Another race where you could argue the center reasserted itself was in TX-21, where Joe Kopser beat Mary Wilson by 16 points, 58-42. I thought Kopser was doomed heading into last night - he actually finished behind Wilson in the initial primary 31-29 and the other two candidates that received 40 percent of the vote were more ideologically aligned with Wilson. Kopser was running as a moderate Democrat who’d made feints toward the right, such as support for a border wall. So after Brad Ashford was upset last week I figured someone who didn't have Ashford's name recognition in a similarly ideologically charged primary would be done for.
But I discounted the quality of Kopser's campaign. Ashford was a lackadaisical campaigner but Kopser was assiduous in courting voters. He had a ton of local endorsements as well. Meanwhile Wilson was no Kara Eastman - it took her a while to professionalize her campaign and I think ultimately she was just out-hustled by Kopser.
So candidate quality matters. Democratic primary voters seem to have a good idea of what their districts want and are willing to vote for candidates to their own right if they think they're more electable. Kopser is basically from central casting as a Texas candidate - he's a West Point graduate turned clean energy executive with an accent straight out of King of the Hill. That doesn't count for nothing.
If you're looking for a common thread in those four primaries it's that Democrats voted for a candidate that resembled their district. It wasn't just Kopser that reflected his district. Allred is a former NFL player running in North Dallas. Ortiz Jones is an Air Force vet running near Lackland Air Force Base. Fletcher is a corporate lawyer running in the same district that was the springboard for George H.W. Bush's career. People generally like candidates that seem familiar, seem like real people, which can often trump ideology. That's the lesson from Texas.
The high profile race from Kentucky was the clash of the titans in the 6th District, as Amy McGrath beat Jim Gray, who had the endorsement of the Blue Dog caucus. And this really was a clash of A-List candidates. Gray is the mayor of the biggest city in the district and won the seat even as he lost to Rand Paul in 2016. Meanwhile McGrath made a splash with her viral ad about serving as a Marine pilot.
It seems like McGrath had a great plan for winning the seat. She knew Gray, mayor of Lexington, would win its Fayette County. Fayette provided more than half of the Democratic presidential vote in the seat so in most states that'd be a death sentence for her campaign. But Kentucky, which last voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in 1996, still has a lot of Demosaur voters who are conservative politically but still registered with the party, with many county-level offices still dominated by Democrats. McGrath ran up her margins outside Fayette (which only cast 1/3 of the Democratic vote in this primary) and beat Gray 49-41. She also released an internal poll showing her up 15 on incumbent Andy Barr. I think that may be a bit optimistic - even if the seat's ancestrally Democratic it still backed Trump 55-39. But if McGrath can beat Jim Gray, she can beat Republican Rep. Andy Barr in November.
There are two suburban Atlanta districts that Trump only narrowly won - GA-06 (the Ossoff seat) and GA-07 - that Democrats appear ready to contest heavily in November.
In the 6th Lucy McBath finished in first despite her late entry into the race. She'll face Kevin Abel in the runoff. McBath is famous as the mother of Jordan Davis - the African-American teen who was shot and killed because he was playing his music too loud. She became a gun safety activist and switched from running for the state legislature to running for Congress right before the filing deadline. This rankled a lot of local activists but she got a lot of outside help from groups like Everytown for Gun Safety and being the only woman in a Democratic primary is never a negative. She'll face Abel, a white male centrist candidate in a year when those aren't doing too well. If the DCCC wants to save some face by backing a POC in a contested primary over a more moderate candidate, this is a prime place to do it. Of course, doing so does run the risk of upsetting local activists, which they've been doing far too much this year.
In the 7th David Kim will face Carolyn Bourdeaux in the runoff. Bourdeaux only narrowly finished ahead of Kim in the first round of balloting - a bit shocking as she was apparently running the most active campaign of anyone here and Kim seemed to be coasting a bit after making an initial splash. I haven't seen a ton of ideological space between the two of them yet, but I'm hopeful voters will have a better idea of which one is the more reliable liberal by the runoff. I suspect that candidate is Bourdeaux because Kim didn’t even vote in 2016.
Former State Rep. Clarke Tucker easily won his primary to take on Rep. French Hill in the Little Rock-based 2nd. The most intriguing story to me was how Paul Spencer, the reformist candidate backed by Tech Solidarity in their Great Slate, would do. I think Tech Solidarity had the right idea at going after under-the-radar races but by picking candidates well before the recruitment period had completed it meant that their Great Slate included some less than ideal candidates. Spencer may be pro-reform, but he's also pro-life and I suspect that's a big reason why he ended up finishing in third.
The Great Slate also includes Jess King (PA-11), who went from running in a Republican-leaning seat that only narrowly went for Trump to one that is virtually unwinnable (something that was foreseeable). And Mad Hildebrandt (NM-02), is another candidate that looked good on paper until the DCCC recruited a progressive Latina to run in a primary that'll likely be dominated by Latinx voters.
But they also backed a pair of candidates - Jared Golden (ME-02) and JD Scholten (IA-04) - who seem to be great fits for their seats. I think their heart is in the right place, they just need to fine tune their tactics. So Tech Solidarity, consider this an olive branch. Let's join forces with Data For Progress and prop up the most viable grassroots candidates we can find.