A round of primary elections in seven U.S. states on Tuesday outlined some potential struggles facing Democrats in November’s midterm elections, but the results also called into question the degree to which unquestioning loyalty to President Donald Trump is a requirement for Republican candidates.
In several states, most notably California, Democratic turnout was low, something that analysts say signals disengagement among the party’s core voters who might fail to turn out to support Democratic candidates in November.
In two major California cities, voters also sent a strong message about rising crime. A politically progressive district attorney in San Francisco was recalled, and in Los Angeles, a billionaire former Republican won the most votes in the mayoral primary with a campaign that focused on quality of life issues including crime and homelessness.
In multiple Republican primary elections across the country, incumbent members of Congress who voted in favor of the creation of a congressional committee to investigate the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021, survived primary challenges, despite criticism from former President Donald Trump.
In the U.S., primary elections allow voters to narrow a sometimes broad field of eligible candidates down to a small number. Often they produce just two candidates, representing the Democratic and Republican parties. The winners of primaries typically face off on the ballot in the November elections.
Democratic turnout in question
“One consistent theme for 2022 is that Republican turnout has been more robust than Democratic turnout, particularly as compared to 2018,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
Early returns, Kondik told VOA, suggest that was true on Tuesday night. “If you believe that this is a Republican-leaning cycle, and that Republicans are poised to do well in November, more robust Republican turnout is consistent with that story,” he said.
Crime as an issue
In the Los Angeles mayoral race, former Republican Rick Caruso, a wealthy property developer, appears to have come in first, with Democratic Congresswoman Karen Bass a close second. Votes are still being counted, but if the result holds, the two will face each other in November.
Caruso, who left the Republican Party in 2019 and only registered as a Democrat this year, spent millions of his own money on the race. He campaigned as a crime-fighter who would also work to address the profusion of people experiencing homelessness in the city.
Further north in San Francisco, a city known for its progressive politics, voters overwhelmingly chose to recall Chesa Boudin, a public defender-turned district attorney, who was in the middle of his first term. Boudin’s philosophy of not prosecuting low-level criminal activity and abolishing cash bail was seen as a major contributor to increased crime in the city.
The two results are a reminder that a major point of attack that Republicans will use against Democrats is the perception that crime, particularly in urban areas, is rising in the United States.
However, Kondik, of the Center for Politics, warned against reading too much into a result like Boudin’s recall.
“Are Democrats vulnerable on law and order issues in this election? Yeah, probably. Republicans are running on it a lot, and a lot of Democrats feel like they were hurt by the association with ‘Defund the Police’ rhetoric in 2020,” he said. “But we didn't need San Francisco to tell us that. I didn't find it to be particularly meaningful.”
Good night for governors
Of the states that voted Tuesday, three will hold gubernatorial elections in November, and in each of them the result was good news for the sitting governor.
With ballots still being counted, California’s Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, running in an open primary where the top two finishers advance, was comfortably ahead on Wednesday. Newsome, who survived a recall vote last year, is expected to win another term easily.
In South Dakota, sitting Republican Gov. Kristi Noem won the Republican primary with more than 75% of the vote and is expected to cruise to another term in November.
In New Mexico, sitting Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, ran uncontested and will face Republican Mark Ronchetti, a former Senate candidate and television meteorologist in November, a race she is expected to win.
Congress in balance
In midterm elections, the party of the sitting U.S. president typically loses seats, and the same is expected to happen in 2022. That is especially significant this year, because the Democratic Party holds very narrow majorities in both houses of Congress, and could easily lose control of both of them.
One hope for Democrats was that Republicans would nominate especially radical candidates in some congressional races, and while there were several on ballots across the country, relatively few of them won.
“Given the strong political headwinds facing them, Democratic hopes for holding down their losses this fall rests partly on GOP primary voters nominating the more flawed GOP candidate in crowded primary contests,” said an analysis published Wednesday morning by Amy Walter, Jessica Taylor, and David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report.
“However, that didn’t pan out for Democrats on Tuesday,” they added. “The more electable GOP candidate emerged victorious in states like California, New Jersey, Iowa, and New Mexico.”
Defying Trump not (necessarily) fatal
In Republican primaries across the country, there were five incumbent House candidates running after they bucked the party’s leadership, and former President Trump, by voting in favor of the creation of a select committee to investigate the January 6 assault on the Capitol.
In California, with only 32% of the vote tallied, Rep. David Valadao was the leading Republican candidate in the open primary, with 26.7% of the total vote, and he appeared poised to move on to the November election as the GOP nominee for his seat.
In Iowa, Mariannette Miller-Meeks ran unopposed for the Republican nomination.
In Mississippi, Rep. Michael Guest came in second in a tight race against former Navy pilot Michael Cassidy, but because neither achieved a majority of the votes, they will meet in a run-off.
In New Jersey, veteran GOP Rep. Chris Smith won renomination with 58% of the vote, and in South Dakota, incumbent Dusty Johnson won the right to run again with 59% of the vote.
While the four who faced challengers all survived, none won by the huge margins that incumbents usually enjoy in primaries. However, the fact they stood up to the former president and weren’t summarily ousted suggests that crossing Trump is not quite as politically poisonous at the ballot box as many in the GOP had assumed it would be.