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In the Latest Primaries, the Battle within the Parties Continues

Tuesday’s primaries delivered wins to Trump endorsed candidates and some progressives, signaling that the fight for the parties is far from over.

Sybil Davis

May 18, 2022
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Photo: Keith Srakocic

Amid a wave of unionization, attacks on reproductive, queer, and voting rights, a slower than desired economic recovery, and war in Europe, political stability seems increasingly out of the U.S. regime’s grasp. If the latest primary elections are anything to go on, this stability is still a long way away for either party. Proxy battles between the right, center, and left of both parties are being fought through just about every major primary as Democrats and Republicans go through a contentious reorientation for the current moment.

In terms of which wings of the parties came out victorious on Tuesday, the results — like so much else in party politics — are contradictory. On the one hand, Trumpism and “Squad-ism” scored some important victories, but so did the moderate wings of  both parties. In this sense, the battle for each party is still far from over and will continue to be fought publicly and privately in the coming primaries, midterms, and beyond. 

Republicans

The big story with the Republicans, as always, is Donald Trump. Trump sought to play kingmaker, presumably to test out how much political power he still has within the party ahead of 2024. He endorsed 27 candidates running in the May 17 primaries alone. Members of the Republican establishment, on the other hand, made it their mission to minimize Trump’s impact. Most notably, Mitch McConnell and George W. Bush traveled the country trying to convince people to run against Trump-endorsed candidates. In addition to simply having Trump-endorsed candidates in the mix, these primaries also featured a lot of out-and-proud Trumpists, including QAnon supporters, participants in the January 6 uprising, and many who openly contest the 2020 election results. 

Heading into Tuesday, Trump was riding high. He had a 55-straight win streak of his endorsed candidates last week, including a tough win for author (and racist charlatan) JD Vance in the Ohio Senate Primary. While Tuesday did complicate this record slightly, Trump unquestionably remains a major force within the Republican Party — though not the hegemonic leader on all issues that he was while in office. Among the races where he scored important victories was the heavily contested Pennsylvania Governor primary, featuring  far-right state senator, January 6 participant, and avowed opponent of trans rights and “critical race theory” Doug Mastriano. In keeping with recent attacks on democratic and civil rights, Mastriano has pledged to roll back trans rights and “re-set” the voter registry so that everyone has to “re-register” — a clear attempt at voter suppression. Mastirano has also been identified as a Christian Nationalist and represents the furthest right wing of the Republican Party. 

Despite eight other candidates participating in the Pennsylvania Gubernatorial Primary and the Republican establishment opposing Mastriano, Mastriano won by hundreds of thousands of votes and beat his closest challenger by nearly 20 points. This is an unambiguous win for Trump and the right wing of the party, even though Trump didn’t endorse Mastriano until late in the race, after Mastriano had already surged ahead in the polls. In this, we can see that Trump isn’t supporting Trumpists no matter what but, rather, only throwing his weight behind candidates he thinks can win. Indeed, in politics, Mastriano is actually closer to the Pence wing of the party, prioritizing social issues like attacking trans rights and abortion over the more right-wing populist politics of Trump.

Ted Budd, another Trump endorsee, won big in the North Carolina Senate Primary, beating former governor (and one of the architects of the anti-trans “Bathroom Bill”) Pat McCrory by over 30 percent. Budd is a 2020 election denier who voted against certifying the election in Congress and went so far as to text Trump Chief-of-Staff Mark Meadows to help organize the opposition to the election results. Interestingly, Budd was also endorsed by the Club for Growth, a Republican special interest group. The Club for Growth and Trump used to be fast allies but are now at odds over endorsing different candidates in the Ohio Senate Primary and the group running an anti-Trump ad in that race. As Trump put it: “It’s their right to do it, but it’s a rather hostile act. It doesn’t mean I have to like it.” However, the conflict didn’t harm Budd’s election, where both backed him and he sailed to an easy primary victory, thanks in large part to Trump’s early endorsement. 

Trump picked up another win in North Carolina when Bo Hines won the nomination for a congressional seat in the Raleigh area. Hines, a newcomer to politics, leaned on the Trump endorsement so heavily that he printed “Endorsed By Donald Trump” on all of his yard signs. 

Elsewhere in North Carolina, however, die-hard Trumpist and vocal far-right supporter Madison Cawthorn lost his primary to keep his seat in Congress. This result comes on the heels of a long period of seemingly non-stop scandals about Cawthorn, including his claim that Republican officials invited him to coke-fueled orgies, a leaked “sex” tape, and being charged for driving with an expired license. While this is a loss for a Trump supporter, it seems likely that Cawthorn’s own baggage cost him the election without being a referendum on Trumpism. 

One race where the outcome is still unclear — and seems headed to a recount —  is the Pennsylvania Senate primary. Trump-endorsed television “doctor” (and widely discredited peddler of quack pseudo-science) Mehmet Oz has a slight lead (2000 votes as of this writing) over hedge fund CEO Dave McCormick. While, obviously a too-close-to-call result is not as big a win for Trump as Budd or Mastriano, it is still notable that Trump helped a disgraced TV doctor with no political experience not only compete in the senate primary but seemingly come out on top of it. Notably, Club for Growth backed Kathy Barnette in this race and dropped a late-stage massive ad-buy in an apparent attempt to challenge Trump in their ongoing political struggle. Barnette finished third. 

Tuesday wasn’t all wins for Trump. His endorsed candidate lost by over 20 points in the Idaho gubernatorial primary, which follows a similar loss for a Trump endorsee in the Nebraska gubernatorial primary the previous week. This seems to indicate that while Trump candidates can win tight races when the establishment vote is divided amongst many candidates, they struggle to win when facing a unified establishment figure, like an incumbent. In this, it is worth noting that many of Trump’s endorsees, which give him such a commanding success rate, are incumbents, including some who ran unopposed. 

Along these lines, it is interesting that, as noted by the New York Times, win or lose, Trump endorsees tend to get around one third of the Republican vote in each primary. This seems to indicate that while Trump still leads a sizable portion of the party, he doesn’t necessarily lead the majority of it. That being said, while November will be the true test, Republicans appear willing to fall in line behind Trumpism when it comes to general elections — after all, in 2020, 94 percent of Republicans voted for Trump. Given this, Trump can (and, to some extent, does) lead the party with a minority — while two thirds might support other wings of the party, they aren’t so opposed to Trump that they won’t fall in line behind him. Indeed, 60 percent of Republicans say they still view Trump as the leader of the party. 

Democrats

The Democrats are in a less explicit battle for control than the Republicans — there is no Trump analogue, for instance — but the struggle between the establishment and the Left continues to be fought in many primaries. 

In the Pennsylvania Senate primary, moderate Connor Lamb ran a campaign based around his “electability” and ability to win Republican votes. Running as a centrist, Lamb — in what politicos are describing as “one of the worst campaigns [they’ve] ever seen run” — hoped to distinguish himself from the party left and build the moderate wing in the Senate, only to lose very badly to a progressive.  John Fetterman, the victor in that battle with more than double Lamb’s votes, is already being hailed as a potential “future of the Democratic Party.”  Even Jacobin has already praised him.

However, despite being hailed as a progressive, Fetterman isn’t much more progressive than any other mainstream Democrat in terms of his actual policies. Rather, he has become very successful at painting himself as a progressive through his dress and behavior. For example, he flew an LGBTQ+ flag with a cannabis leaf on it from the Lieutenant Governor’s office. He wears gym shorts and has tattoos, and he didn’t seek endorsements from other state officials. 

But Fetterman also opposes a ban on  fracking and supports only the most toothless reforms to policing. Reading his positions, you’d think that legalizing cannabis was all that was needed to end the war on drugs — as his website says: “Weed should be legal, nationwide — for jobs, justice, veterans, farmers, and revenue. It’s time to end the failed war on drugs.” But he doesn’t discuss a single other element of the war on drugs, most notably policing, which is completely absent from his website. 

Elsewhere on his website, Fetterman declares that healthcare is a “basic, fundamental, human right” that “everyone should have access to” but says nothing about universal healthcare. In this, we can see that claims of a new progressive face for the Democratic Party might be overstated. Fetterman is certainly more to the left than Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema, but he’s far from Bernie Sanders. 

The party left did win a few victories on Tuesday with Summer Lee, a DSA member, in a race that is too close to call in a congressional district in Pennsylvania, and Jamie McLeod-Skinner, a progressive and potential future Squad member in Oregon. As of this writing McLeod-Skinner seems to have an insurmountable lead. That he was able to take down a long-serving Biden endorsee is a sign that the Democratic establishment continues to struggle to gain support amongst their base. 

There is an increasing divide between the leaders of the Democratic Party and some sectors of their base, especially the highly politicized generation that is leading the unionization struggle. These young people decry the Democrats on social media but still show up to vote for them because they feel they have no other choices. Biden and his cronies have sold their base a bill of goods and are facing down a potentially devastating midterm where voters feel that Biden and the Democrats haven’t delivered on any of their promises — including urgent ones such as protecting abortion rights. Biden is facing incredibly low approval ratings, which even the war in Ukraine hasn’t been able to improve, and more and more people are looking for more sweeping changes than Biden and the Democrats are capable of. 

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Sybil Davis

Sybil is a trans activist, artist, and education worker in New York City.

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