The Trailer: Establishment wins, surging turnout and burning Bushes: Takeaways from this week’s primaries
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In this edition: Lessons from all of May’s primaries, redistricting madness drags into Memorial Day weekend, and the director of Justice Democrats lays out their new strategy to replace centrists.
Sorry, we just typed “Memorial Day weekend” and can’t think of anything else right now. This is The Trailer.
We learned plenty in this month’s primaries, even in the handful of races where candidates are still waiting on recounts. Tuesday’s races in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and southern Minnesota wrapped up a month of expensive, high-turnout party battles, and the first tests of new voting laws passed after Republican outrage at their losses in 2020.
Donald Trump pointlessly wasted his political capital. May was the worst month for the former president’s endorsement record since he entered politics seven years ago. There were caveats. He helped Rep. Alex Mooney (R-W.Va.) defeat a fellow Republican congressman in West Virginia, and he endorsed Ohio’s J.D. Vance as he was gaining ground in the state’s U.S. Senate primary. His early support for Rep. Ted Budd (R-N.C.) helped him cruise to the U.S. Senate Republican nomination in North Carolina. Trump stuck with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) in his race against George P. Bush, which helped Paxton humiliate the state’s most storied Republican political family. (More about that below.)
But Georgia was a debacle for the former president, worse than his candidates were willing to imagine before the polls closed. Former senator David Perdue (R), who’d told reporters that he could “guaran-damn-tee” that polls showing him down by 30 points were wrong, ended up losing to Gov. Brian Kemp (R) by much more — 52 points. Trump’s endorsement of John Gordon, a businessman and attorney who challenged Attorney General Chris Carr (R) over his inability to overturn the 2020 election, did practically nothing; Gordon lost by 48 points.
Trump did give two Republicans running in safely red districts a boost in their House races, with both Jake Evans and Vernon Jones, a former Democrat, advancing to runoffs in their primaries. (Both came in second place.) But MAGA conservatives were counting on Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) to either lose or fall into a runoff with Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.), whom Trump had encouraged to challenge Raffensperger over the 2020 election. Hice did what he was told, scorching Raffensperger for not cracking down on drop boxes or mail voting in 2020. And then he flopped, trailing Raffensperger by 19 points, as the first-term secretary of state hit 53 percent of the vote and avoided a runoff.
“You’ve got all these people spreading their deceit and misinformation,” Raffensperger told The Post’s Amy Gardner after his win, “but it’s not supported by the facts.”
By this week, Trump’s crusade to unseat Georgia’s GOP establishment simply didn’t make sense to most Republican voters. Kemp had signed, and Raffensperger had implemented, new voting restrictions that allowed the party to replace Democratic election officials and reverse the looser ballot rules used in 2020. None of these races were tests of MAGA candidates against moderates. They pitted Trump-endorsed conservatives against conservatives who hadn’t needed Trump to win their first races.
When the “establishment” spends money, it can win. Republicans were always favored to hold on to Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District, where the death of Rep. Jim Hagedorn (R-Minn.) in February created a special election. Democrats hoped the party’s voters would nominate a far-right or flawed candidate, giving them an opening — ideally former state GOP chair Jennifer Carnahan, possibly state Rep. Jeremy Munson (R). And after an endorsement from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and $1.4 million in spending from the pro-Paul Protect Freedom PAC, Munson seemed to have the advantage.
He lost, narrowly, to Brad Finstad, a former USDA official who benefited from $2.2 million in outside spending, nearly half of it from the moderate PAC Defending Main Street. Finstad wasn’t a liberal or moderate Republican, but Munson was one of St. Paul’s most conservative legislators, and donors saw an upside in keeping a potential member of the House Freedom Caucus out of Washington. The money also complicated a Munson strategy that never panned out, convincing D.C. Republicans that he was the candidate who could box out Carnahan. (She ended up in single digits.)
Turnout was up again, mostly for Republicans. Georgia is one of several states where voters don’t register by party and can cast ballots in whatever primary they want. Tens of thousands of Georgians who usually vote for Democrats voted in the GOP primary this week. But that doesn’t explain all of the party’s turnout surge. In 2018, a bit more than 600,000 votes were cast in the state’s Republican primary; on Tuesday, turnout nearly hit 1.2 million. We’ve seen Republican turnout jump like that in states such as West Virginia, where Democrats have been declining quickly. Doubling turnout in Georgia, where Democrats have been gaining ground for years, was significant.
Democrats didn’t slouch, either. Their party had little competition for statewide offices, but more people showed up anyway. In 2018, a bit more than 550,000 voters went to the polls to nominate Stacey Abrams for governor. On Tuesday, more than 720,000 were cast in a race between Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.) and a little-known challenger.
Republicans didn’t double their turnout in other states, but they improved more than Democrats compared with the last midterm primary. In Arkansas, where both 2018 and 2022 featured uncompetitive GOP gubernatorial primaries, statewide GOP turnout rose from a bit under 210,000 to slightly under 350,000. Democratic turnout dropped, from about 108,000 to under 95,000. Arkansas Democrats, who controlled most statewide offices just 12 years ago, have not found their bottom yet.
The vote gap between the parties was just as large in Alabama, where Republicans had competitive races for governor and U.S. Senate and Democrats aren’t investing in either. More than 650,000 people showed up to renominate Gov. Kay Ivey (R), an increase from about 590,000 in 2018. Democratic turnout tumbled, from more than 280,000 votes four years ago to fewer than 170,000 on Tuesday. Even in 2014, when turnout lagged around the country and Democrats ended up nominating a two-time party-switcher to challenge Ivey, 180,000 Democrats showed up.
South Texas Democrats are deeply divided. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.) has declared victory in the Democratic primary for Texas’s 28th Congressional District, and human rights lawyer Jessica Cisneros hasn’t conceded defeat, pointing out to reporters on Thursday that there were enough outstanding ballots to potentially erase Cuellar’s 177-vote lead. In three races against Cuellar — the 2020 primary that she lost and the March primary this year — Cisneros has never come closer to ousting the congressman. It’s possible that the challenger could still win.
But over those races, the district grew more geographically polarized, with liberal voters around San Antonio shifting toward Cisneros and voters closer to the U.S.-Mexico border shifting toward Cuellar. In 2020, when the presidential primary was driving turnout up and down the ballot, both candidates were competitive across the district. In March, Cuellar won 3,773 votes in San Antonio’s Bexar County and the two that neighbor it; on May 24, as of the current count, he won just 2,394 votes there.
Cuellar made up for that with a surge in Laredo and the rest of the Rio Grande Valley. In March, Cuellar came out of Laredo’s Webb County with a 4,470-vote margin over Cisneros. (A third candidate, who went on to endorse Cisneros in the runoff, won 613 votes.) In May, Cuellar stormed past Cisneros, beating her by 7,757 votes in Webb County.
What happened? Cuellar had told The Trailer that immigration and border security, not abortion, were driving votes in the southwest portion of the district. He advertised his support for Title 42, the pandemic-era rule that the Trump administration, and then the Biden administration, used to more quickly deport undocumented border-crossers. Cisneros opposed it.
The Cisneros-Cuellar runoff wasn’t the closest Democratic race in Texas this week. That was the contest for the party’s nomination in the 15th Congressional District, which Republicans redrew to be winnable for their candidate, Monica De La Cruz, after she ran much stronger than expected in 2020. As of Thursday, liberal candidate Michelle Vallejo was winning by a few dozen votes over Ruben Ramirez, a teacher and veteran with more conservative views, and an endorsement from Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D-Tex.), who left the swing seat to run in a safer district next door. The two candidates were dead even in Hidalgo County, which contains McAllen and most of the district’s voters; Vallejo ran strongest outside of San Antonio.
The Bush dynasty is on ice. That can’t count as a “surprise” from Tuesday. The obituaries for George P. Bush’s attorney general campaign were written weeks ago, when public polling found him getting no traction against Paxton. Bush had told The Trailer in March that Trump might reconsider his endorsement of Paxton if the scandal-plagued incumbent was forced into a runoff. But he didn’t, and Bush marched forward to defeat.
It was overwhelming. Bush won just 32 percent of the vote, and carried almost nothing outside of Austin’s Travis County, where he ran just 1,800 votes ahead of Paxton. In March, Paxton ran weakest in the East Texas counties represented by Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.), which was one reason he was forced into the runoff — a potential boon to Bush that never panned out. Paxton carried Gohmert’s district by a 2-to-1 margin over Bush. In Houston’s Harris County, where Bush’s grandfather won the family’s first race in Texas, Paxton won 73 percent of the vote.
The loss wasn’t personal. It was ideological. Bush, who entered Texas politics with a smashing 2014 victory as land commissioner, had endorsed in-state college tuition breaks for undocumented immigrants. In 2019, he clashed with conservatives over potential redesigns at the Alamo and endorsed moving the cenotaph. That issue didn’t matter much to national Republicans, but it became toxic in Texas, with Paxton using it against Bush in his final TV ads.
“Brad Raffensperger defied Trump. Georgia voters rewarded him for it,” by Amy Gardner
The triumph of the man who refused to find 11,779 fake votes.
“How Brian Kemp crushed Trump in Georgia,” by Alex Isenstadt
Behind a 52-point landslide.
“Wisconsin Republican quits election board over party’s 2020 falsehoods,” by Rosalind S. Helderman
A dramatic resignation with possible 2024 impacts.
“Brian Kemp and Stacey Abrams are in a rematch. A lot has changed since 2018,” by Annie Linskey and Josh Dawsey
The tale of two wave years.
“The rise, fall and (sort of) rise of Mo Brooks explains GOP gun politics,” by Paul Kane
Which way, Alabamian man?
“After years of preparation, Pence looks poised for launch with Georgia validation,” by Tom LoBianco
The ex-VP borrows a bounce from Brian Kemp.
New Hampshire. The state has to draw one line — one — to complete its 2022 congressional redistricting. But on Thursday, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu once again rejected a map produced by the GOP legislature, which roped Rep. Chris Pappas (D-N.H.) and Rep. Annie Kuster (D-N.H.) into the same district.
“The citizens of New Hampshire will not accept this map,” Sununu explained. “Our races have to be fair, which is why I will veto this map.” That decision will let the state Supreme Court draw the map for this year’s elections.
Ohio. The state Supreme Court once again ruled against Republican-drawn maps on Wednesday. The impact: The state will probably carry out midterm legislative elections on maps that have been declared unconstitutional five times. Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, whom some Republicans have threatened with impeachment for consistently casting the swing vote against their maps, said in a statement that voters who’d passed ballot measures preventing partisan maps might just try to do it again.
“Having witnessed the ways in which constitutional reforms may be frustrated by hyper-partisanship and the power of inertia, Ohioans have the power to change those dynamics,” O’Connor wrote.
Glenn Ivey for Congress 2022, “Glenn Ivey on Gun Control.” Glenn Ivey, a Democrat and former state’s attorney running for a safe open seat in the D.C. suburbs of Maryland, points to that experience as proof that he can “tackle the root causes of crime.” He doesn’t get very specific in the ad, and the one thing dating his service (it ended in 2011) is a photo of him at an event with Barack Obama. But the implication is that he was in power when crime was lower, and he can “do it again.”
314 Action Fund, “Forecasting.” Meteorologist Eric Sorensen is getting a six-figure boost from the climate-focused 314 Action, which portrays the Democrat running in Illinois’s 17th Congressional District as a fighter for the environment and against conservative misinformation — represented by Donald Trump. “You can’t get hurt by extreme weather,” Trump says in a clip at the start of this spot, which doesn’t feature Sorensen’s own voice. It’s up to a narrator to explain that the first-time candidate will “lead with science,” and it’s up to that Trump rally clip to personify what Sorensen is up against.
The Maine Republican Party, “Janet Mills’s Radical Lesson.” Democrats won complete control of Maine’s government in 2018, and this ad goes after a policy change that wasn’t really debated that year — gender mainstreaming in public education. The bulk of this 60-second spot consists of video produced by Kailina Mills, a kindergarten teacher at Whitefield Elementary School (who is unrelated to the governor), as part of an online resource package created for teachers in 2020. In it, the teacher defines a transgender person as someone “the doctors made a mistake about when they were born,” and a narrator suggests that the governor spent $2.8 million on content like this. That was the total outlay for a series of videos, which aren’t part of school curriculums, but the ad suggests that the material is replacing actual schooling.
Joe for South Carolina, “No Exceptions.” Former representative Joe Cunningham (D-S.C.) was one of the least liberal Democrats in the House during his single term, but this ad focuses on a traditional liberal issue — keeping abortion legal. Cunningham warns that Gov. Henry McMaster (R-S.C.) wants to sign a complete, no-exceptions ban on abortion, while “I’ll use my veto pen to stop Republicans from taking away a woman’s right to choose.” Democrats can get tripped up when asked if they favor any limitations on abortion, and are far more comfortable warning that they would stop an unpopular outright ban.
Herschel Walker for U.S. Senate, “Work.” As they failed to defeat Herschel Walker’s bid for the GOP nomination in Georgia, rival Republicans argued that Democrats would destroy the candidate with negative opposition research. Walker’s first ad goes after Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.), but not over anything personal. The jab is that Warnock pledged to work with members of both parties, but has voted more than 90 percent of the time with Democrats — which doesn’t contradict the senator’s promise. (For example, a vote for the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure package was also a vote for Biden’s preference.)
Young Kim for Congress, “Safe and Affordable.” California’s new congressional maps pushed a few incumbents into new districts. Rep. Young Kim, a Republican who narrowly won an Orange County seat in 2020 after losing it in 2018, was one of those incumbents, running in a different part of the county where Greg Raths, another Republican, didn’t get out of the way. Kim is now hitting Raths to secure her own spot in the November runoff and to reduce the chance of a Republican-versus-Republican race where Raths could run to her right. The attack here: Raths raised taxes, “just like Biden and the liberals.”
“Do you favor or oppose laws that allow most people to carry concealed handguns without needing to obtain a license?” (Marquette Law School, May 9-19, 1,004 adults)
Strongly favor: 9%
Somewhat favor: 10%
Somewhat oppose: 19%
Strongly oppose: 61%
Texas is one of 25 states that has passed “constitutional carry” legislation, a political term for allowing anyone legally allowed to buy a gun to carry it outside their home without a license. After that became law, a Quinnipiac poll found that 74 percent of Texans opposed it, and this national poll finds the same skepticism across the country. Just 1 in 3 Republicans favors the idea when it’s described this way, and every single demographic group opposes it. There’s majority support for the right to carry a gun outside the home with a license, which is how this reform is often sold, as a Second Amendment compliant strike against New York-style gun laws that limit where firearms can go. But take away the licensing, and support collapses — a fact that might matter soon, when the U.S. Supreme Court rules on the constitutionality of New York’s century-old restrictions.
“Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States at this time?” (Gallup, May 2-22, 1,007 adults)
Satisfied: 16% (-6 since April)
Dissatisfied: 83% (+6)
It’s been 20 years since most Americans told Gallup they were satisfied with the direction the country is going in. (The months after 9/11 aren’t remembered as a particularly happy time, but data is data.) The most miserable moments in America over the past 20 years, according to this poll, came during the 2008 economic crisis and the 2011 Republican standoff over the debt limit. We’re not back to those levels yet, but it’s close, and it’s because of Democrats, who mostly approve of Biden, becoming despondent about the direction of the country. Just 24 percent of them now say they’re happy with “the way things are going,” which is responsible for the decline since April.
“You got me on a bad day,” said Alexandra Rojas.
It was Wednesday morning, and Rojas, the executive director of Justice Democrats, was coming off two of the hardest races the left-wing group had ever fought — both of them too close to call. Rojas, who took over JD when she was just 24, had helped recruit Pennsylvania state Rep. Summer Lee (D) and Texas attorney Jessica Cisneros to run for Congress.
In each race, the plan was to build a grass-roots movement around an exciting, next-generation candidate who would join “The Squad” in Washington. Each race become phenomenally expensive, after pro-Israel and centrist groups bought millions of dollars in ads, warning voters that these candidates would be ineffective and dangerous if they got to Washington. Justice Democrats and their allies, like Emily’s List, had to spend millions to fight back.
As of Thursday afternoon, Lee had declared victory, and Cisneros was looking for enough potentially viable absentee ballots to erase Rep. Henry Cuellar’s (D-Tex.) lead of fewer than 200 votes. Rojas talked with The Trailer about the year so far, the way outside spending had changed JD’s plans, and just how furious liberals should be about House Democrats working to defeat a pro-abortion rights challenge to the last antiabortion Democrat in Congress.
The Trailer: Justice Democrats started targeting Henry Cuellar in 2019. Why did the district look winnable then?
Alexandra Rojas: This is a community that’s been left behind, where 30 percent of people are under the poverty line, at least in Laredo. There is a rising generation of young Latinos, young working-class people, progressive or not, whose lived experiences are so different from those at the top, like Henry Cuellar. And they’re being told to wait their turn by a political class that hasn’t actually improved conditions. The ripple effect for us was, what would it mean to not just win this one congressional seat, but what would mean for the region?
TT: Did your thinking about the district — what it would take to win there — change after it moved toward Trump in 2020? Or after the March primary?
AR: It was always going to be tough. Henry Cuellar has been in office for 20 years. People were voting in an elementary school, literally, that is named after him. Jessica ran a campaign that was true to lived experience and her story. She didn’t pivot. But last time he didn’t see us coming, and this year he did.
TT: What role did abortion and Roe play in this race? It’s not like many other solid Biden districts; most don’t have as many culturally conservative Catholics who vote Democratic. But what did you take away?
AR: Jessica is a trusted messenger, someone who is obviously staunchly pro-choice, but has also grown up in this community. What we learned in 2020 is that we needed more time and resources to be able to make that case. We needed the same thing this year because there was a barrage of money from corporate super PACs. Henry dumped his whole war chest into ads, basically lying about his position on abortion.
I think we’ve proven that it actually is a more competitive issue in parts of the country where people might not want to campaign on it. And I think it was a huge mistake that all of leadership chose, while Roe v. Wade was falling, to campaign for an anti-choice Democrat. It was absolutely disgraceful and disgusting. And Jessica deserved better.
TT: In each race, Cuellar did progressively better in Laredo and the Rio Grande Valley, and Jessica did better in San Antonio. Is there a Justice Democrats strategy to win the voters who stick with someone like Cuellar over abortion and immigration? You don’t just recruit people to win — the candidates commit to some social issue positions that those voters don’t have.
AR: I don’t think that we’re going to change our values just because of the electorate. Look, he invested a lot more resources than he did last time around in his key strongholds. That’s something that we expected. Jessica wasn’t going to lie about what she stands for there. I think our strategy is going to be: Continue to find trusted messengers and invest in the places that the Democratic Party has left behind. We’ve got to be able to lean into the debate a little bit.
TT: Justice Democrats targeted a couple of seats that were wiped out in redistricting, after you’d recruited candidates and spent money. It happened in Tennessee, where the Nashville seat got split by Republicans, and it happened in New York, where the Manhattan seat you’re targeting was made harder to win. Why target seats that weren’t guaranteed to be around in November?
AR: It’s not like we’re in the backrooms. We’re not the people that are in power yet. So, yeah, we were bound to get caught flat-footed. That’s why we start 12 to 18 months out in some cases, to support people that we believe in. This is our first year going through redistricting, and we can see that they absolutely [expletive] us in every single state they could. They went in and cracked every district, including where we won for Summer. They literally carved out her house! They will do whatever they have with their power to keep that power. And we can’t keep having the Nancy Pelosis or the Steny Hoyers build a party that’s reflective and gets young people excited.
TT: And how has the redistricting changed your strategy, where you’re concentrating your resources?
AR: AIPAC and DMFI spent $18 million so far on the primaries. So I’d expect another $20 million at least. I hope I’m wrong. We’re still going to try to win as many as we can. Despite all the odds against us, Greg Casar will get sworn in next year and Summer Lee will get sworn in next year. We’re doing pretty damn good, but we do have to protect our incumbents. We saw what they tried to do with Jamaal.
TT: You’re referring to how Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.) was encouraged to run against Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), after the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee announced he is running in Jones’s district.
Yes, and they are absolutely going to come after all of us. We don’t have the same level of resources and money, so all we need to do is stay competitive. That’s what I’m focused on. In Summer’s race we lit $4.5 million of their money on fire. We have to do that in every single race. We’ve got to get the money and the volunteers out the door, much sooner. We’ve got keep the five cylinders running at every single moment on the hard money side, and we’ve got to be ready to throw a big-ass punch on the independent expenditure side. And now we have to be ready to do that for incumbents, too.
TT: You’ve been talking about it, but could you respond directly to the argument Pelosi makes, that the Democratic Party should have a tent big enough for Cuellar?
AR: I just wish they’d fight the literal fascists and the insurrectionists and the Republicans trying to destroy our democracy as hard as they fight me and my team. There are members of our own party that are standing in the way of reproductive rights when Roe is being stripped away from us. Kids are being butchered, and they say they have no power to do anything about it. They need to get their heads in the game.
TT: When I talked to Jeff Weaver about this, he asked whether the Democrats would make the left give up on challenging them internally, and run third-party candidates against them. It’s easy to find that attitude online — just give up on electoralism. What’s your response to that?
AR: The reality is that we have a two-party system in this country. Like it or not, whatever my personal feelings are, this is what we have to deal with if we want to be able to win federal power. It seems very difficult to do that through the third-party route. And our people don’t have time. We need to win, now. The reason that they’re spending us into oblivion is because they know that we’re coming.
… 12 days until primaries in California, Iowa, Mississippi, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico and South Dakota
… 16 days until the special House primary in Alaska
… 19 days until primaries in Maine, Nevada, North Dakota and South Dakota, and the special election in Texas’s 34th Congressional District
… 26 days until primaries in Virginia and runoffs in Alabama, Arkansas and Georgia
… 33 days until the special election in Nebraska’s 1st Congressional District
… 160 days until the midterm elections