Tuesday night's primaries in Pennsylvania, Oregon, Idaho, and Nebraska lacked the spectacle of Republicans trying desperately to keep alleged or actual criminals off the general election ballot. But they still had major implications for November's elections.
For the most part, both parties appear to have avoided nominating any obvious liabilities in critical races. The stage is now set for whatever will happen in November, when voters will return their first national verdict on the first two years of the Trump administration.
For most of the evening, all eyes were on Pennsylvania, where the state Supreme Court threw out the GOP-drawn, gerrymandered district map that sent 13 Republicans and five Democrats to the House in 2016 — despite the state being evenly divided between Republican and Democratic voters. While a number of suburban Republicans would have been endangered anyway in what looks to be a difficult environment for the GOP, this new, fairer map could net Democrats as many as five or six seats out of the state alone. They need to net 23 seats to flip the House, halt the Trump agenda, and bring back genuine oversight of the executive branch, and Pennsylvania is ground zero for that effort.
Democrats were hoping for massive turnout last night as they look for signs that their yearned-for blue wave is building. But making predictions based on primary turnout here is difficult. For Democrats, the absence of a contested gubernatorial race may have driven turnout down. In the few districts with contested Democratic primaries in both 2014 and last night, turnout was up in some and down in others. For example, in the 5th district, more than 56,000 votes were cast in the Democratic primary, as opposed to 33,000 in 2014. But in the 12th, it was down from more than 48,000 in 2014 to around 24,000 last night. The fact that the district lines are somewhat different makes apples-to-apples comparisons even harder.
One ominous sign for the GOP was depressed turnout at the top of the ticket for the gubernatorial race. In their last contested race for governor in 2010, just months before the red wave swept Nancy Pelosi's Democrats out of the House, GOP candidates Tom Corbett and Samuel Rohrer combined for 857,000 votes. Corbett went on to win the general election decisively over Dan Onorato and then lose re-election to Democrat Tom Wolf in 2014. This year, Republicans Scott Wagner, Paul Mango, and Laura Ellsworth totaled just 730,00 votes. But political scientists have never found any clear relationship between primary turnout and general election results — generally, primary turnout is more indicative of the competitiveness of that particular race, rather than what will happen in the fall.
It seems to have been a pretty good night for the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. In the 7th district, EMILY's List-endorsed Susan Wild appears to have eked out a narrow victory over Blue Dog John Morganelli, even though she was splitting the progressive vote with pastor Greg Edwards. The race in Pennsylvania's 1st district, which encompasses the Philadelphia suburbs in Bucks County, lacked a clear left-center-left storyline. Millionaire philanthropist Scott Wallace defeated Navy veteran Rachel Reddick for the right to take on GOP Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, who beat back a challenge from Trumpist candidate Dean Malik. Democrats will feature seven women trying to win seats in the House (there are currently zero from the state), yet another sign that 2018 might be the Year of the Woman. The Democratic Socialists of America also saw several of their candidates win downballot races, including Liz Fiedler in the state's 148th House District. Democrats and Republicans each flipped a seat in the Pennsylvania State House of Representatives.
Progressives also had to be thrilled that John Fetterman, the former mayor of small-town Braddock who had run a shockingly strong Senate primary campaign against eventual nominee Katie McGinty, unseated sitting Lt. Gov. Mike Stack. And outside of Pennsylvania, single-payer-backing Kara Eastman secured a narrow victory over centrist former Rep. Brad Ashford in Nebraska's 2nd congressional district. While that news might not have thrilled party leaders, it will provide a test of how competitive a full-throated progressive can be in a swing seat.
In Oregon, establishment Republicans were able to get their preferred candidate in the race against incumbent Democratic Gov. Kate Brown, who is likely to retain the office, as Rep. Knute Buehler easily held off businessman Sam Carpenter. Overall it wasn't a great night for Republican outsiders running to the right of the party's preferred candidates. Republican Marty Nothstein narrowly defeated Dean Browning, who made a more aggressive play for the Trump crowd in PA-7, while establishment-favored Rep. Lou Barletta won the race to challenge Democratic Sen. Bob Casey in Pennsylvania. Casey is considered the overwhelming November favorite.
Ultimately, the import of many of last night's races won't be known until November. Will nominating the more progressive candidate in Nebraska help or hurt Democrats? Would sending a group of Trumpier conservatives onto the general election have been better for the GOP's chances of holding the House? Anyone who says that they know the answers to these questions is lying. Candidates do matter in individual races, but a lot of this will be settled by the national political environment. While Republican fortunes have improved on closely-watched surveys of the generic congressional ballot since December, massive Democratic over-performance in special elections gives Team Blue hope that those polls are missing the disproportionate enthusiasm on the left, or screening out voters who might have stayed home in past years. More states will hold their primaries in the coming weeks. Stay tuned.