Democratic voters have chosen establishment pragmatism over idealism to take back the Senate

Griffin Connolly
·6-min read
Getty Images
Getty Images

The battle lines for control of the US Senate came into clearer focus on Tuesday, as primary voters in Texas, Maine, and Alabama made their picks to face a trio of vulnerable incumbents this fall. Democratic voters across the country put pragmatism over the kinds of progressive ideas pushed by the likes of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

One thing is clear after Tuesday’s results: the national Democratic party continues to have its way in senatorial primaries, with Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s picks sweeping every swing state so far this cycle.

Perceived electability in the general election, above all else, has driven Democratic voters to the polls time and again this year in favour of Washington-backed candidates.

In Maine, Democratic state House Speaker Sara Gideon captured 70 per cent of the vote on Tuesday in her primary to take on four-term GOP Senator Susan Collins.

“I just feel like Sara Gideon has the best chance of beating Susan Collins in the fall, which is number one priority for me,” Democratic primary voter Kelly O’Connell told a local ABC News affiliate in Maine after exiting her polling place.

Another voter said he cast his ballot for Ms Gideon because "she has the backing right now, the money backing. And that, I think, is going to be the best chance to beat Susan.”

And in Texas, former Afghan War veteran and 2018 congressional candidate MJ Hegar held on to beat state Senator Royce West in the Democratic primary run-off to decide who will face Republican Senator John Cornyn in the general election this fall.

Money in the bank

Both have long had the backing of Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), which had more than $32m in the bank as of last month to spend on flipping the Senate blue this fall, per Open Secrets.

The DSCC’s hand-picked candidates in Kentucky (Amy McGrath), Iowa (Theresa Greenfield), North Carolina (Cal Cunningham), Georgia (Jon Ossoff) and Colorado (John Hickenlooper) also beat back progressive outsiders to earn their nominations.

Retired astronaut and gun control activist Mark Kelly, another Schumer pick, is poised to cruise to victory in his primary next month in Arizona, where recent polling has him topping GOP Senator Martha McSally by a comfortable margin in the general election.

And in Montana, term-limited Governor Steve Bullock, who briefly ran for the Democratic presidential nomination as a centrist, has turned his race against Republican Senator Steve Daines into a Tossup, even though Donald Trump won there by 20 points in 2016.

Democrats must net a four-seat pick-up or a three-seat pick-up plus the presidency – the vice president can vote to break ties in the upper chamber – to take back a razor-thin majority.

If they do, it’ll be on the backs of establishment-aligned candidates — not progressive foundation-shakers — at both the presidential and senatorial levels.

Early support from the DSCC for many of those candidates has been crucial for setting up functional campaign operations and, more importantly, signalling to outside groups and big-dollar donors that this is a person who is worth the investment of time and money.

“You need a ton more money" to run for a Senate seat than a House seat, said Amy Steigerwalt, a professor of political science at Georgia State University.

The earlier the DSCC backs a candidate, the more time that candidate has to call up donors and raise cash.

"You have to be able to buy into larger media circuits, you have to have a ground game which covers the entirety of the state. Name recognition becomes incredibly important,” Ms Steigerwalt said.

"It's really difficult without a lot of money and big endorsements, including the backing of the [DSCC]," she added.

Blue wave, part two?

A general election victory for Joe Biden and a Democratic takeover in the Senate would represent a logical conclusion of the 2018 “blue wave” in the House that swept in dozens of moderate Democrats in swing districts, many of which broke for Mr Trump over Hillary Clinton just four years ago.

Despite Republican campaign messaging, including from the president alomst daily, that moderate Democrats have been overrun by “socialists,” the opposite is true: Moderates keep beating progressives at the polls.

To be clear, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who at points earlier this year was considered the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, has exposed deep fissures within the party’s electorate.

Even some of the Senate Democratic establishment’s cast-asides nearly pulled off primary upsets in states where no one thought they had a chance just months ago.

Mr West came within 4 percentage points of Ms Hegar in Texas.

Ms McGrath squeaked out a 3-point win over Sanders-backed state Congressman Charles Booker of Kentucky.

Harnessing ‘energy and anger’

Both Mr West and Mr Booker, who are black, dominated their states’ urban hubs — Houston and Dallas, and Lexington and Louisville, respectively — as their messages against police brutality in minority communities appeared to resonate with voters fired up over the recent deaths in police custody of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, and several others.

Ms McGrath acknowledged after her victory in Kentucky that Mr Booker had "tapped into and amplified the energy and anger of so many who are fed-up with the status quo and are rightfully demanding long overdue action and accountability from our government and institutions."

She, Mr Ossoff, and Ms Hegar now face the daunting task of winning over the supporters of their primary opponents, to prove to those urban progressive voters they’re worth casting general election ballots for.

The fact remains, however, that most Democratic voters at both the state and national levels have largely chosen pragmatism over idealism.

They’ve selected candidates pitched by party elites as the ones who have the most crossover appeal with Republicans disaffected by Mr Trump and Independents who, polls show, tend to favour Mr Biden right now.

Democratic voters have become their own political strategists.

'Two Goliaths'

While mostly gracious in defeat and calling for party unity, the losing Democratic primary candidates who earned scant favour in Washington have expressed exasperation at fighting an uphill battle against the DSCC’s undeniable influence on voters.

“I felt like I was battling two Goliaths,” Mr West told reporters on Tuesday after conceding his race in Texas, alluding to the DSCC, which backed Ms Hegar, and Mr Cornyn, the Republican incumbent whose campaign spent thousands of dollars on ads in recent weeks tying Mr West to Mr Sanders and other so-called socialists.

Still, Mr West promised to support Ms Hegar in unifying the party for the general election.

"I have been working to elect Democrats for decades, and I look forward to turning Texas blue in November," he said.

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