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After Tuesday's Primaries, Democratic Divisions Take Hold In Midterm Battle

In last week's primaries, Republican internal divisions were highlighted. But Tuesday night, it was the Democrats' turn — and in some of the very places the party needs to win to take back the House.

In a handful of competitive congressional districts, progressive candidates defeated more moderate Democrats, signaling a primary season fought at the polls and the poles.

Midterms are driven by activists, and the enthusiasm is overwhelmingly with liberals. The question is whether that energy will be enough to win general elections in moderate places, like in the redrawn districts in Pennsylvania, where Democrats hoped to have half a dozen new targets, and in the Omaha, Neb., area, where a former Democratic congressman was defeated Tuesday.

It was again, though, not a great night for Republican congressmen either, with one denied a job promotion by voters and another with an underwhelming primary win for higher office.

Progressives push back

A big message out of Tuesday night — and one that has been brewing since Trump was elected — is that Democratic establishment efforts to hold back liberals are unlikely to be successful.

Democrats need to net 23 seats to take back the House in November. But in Nebraska's 2nd Congressional District, in particular, a seat Democrats hoped to put high on the target list may have come off the board.

Kara Eastman, a nonprofit director who campaigned on Medicare-for-all, upset the more centrist former Rep. Brad Ashford. This is a district Barack Obama carried in 2008 but lost in 2012. Trump won the district in 2016 by about 2 points.

Washington Democrats were hoping in this environment that Ashford could win in a rematch with incumbent GOP Rep. Don Bacon, who defeated Ashford in 2016.

A similar dynamic played out in Pennsylvania's 1st and 7th congressional districts, where it was an equally bad night for moderates. In the 7th District, John Morganelli, a district attorney, got caught tweeting something nice about President Trump, and that was it. He drew the ire of national liberal outside groups, and it cost him.

He lost in this blue-collar Pennsylvania district — that went from 8 points pro-Trump to plus-1 for Clinton after court-ordered redistricting — by fewer than 1,500 votes to Susan Wild. Wild supports a $15 minimum wage, is pro-abortion rights and is in favor of legalizing marijuana. But she wasn't the most liberal candidate in the race. That was Greg Edwards, a black pastor with the backing of Bernie Sanders.

In the 1st District, which has gone from a district Trump won to plus-2 Clinton turf after redistricting, moderate Rachel Reddick lost to Scott Wallace, a wealthy populist, who has dubbed himself a "Patriotic Millionaire."

And as with Wild, Democrats might not be all that unhappy with Wallace's win given his willingness to spend his own money.

But there is a changing dynamic with the energy on the left. It used to be that the party establishments could influence, if not outright pick, who the primary winner would be — with a surprise here or there. But this year, in the age of the Resistance, no one appears to be falling in line.

And that is just what progressives want. After all, conservatives made the argument — and won it — that they shouldn't have RINOs (Republicans in name only) because it watered down conservative enthusiasm. But even though conservatives were able to ride that kind of energy in the Tea Party-wave year of 2010, the districts have become even more structurally favorable to the GOP since.

So it's going to be tested if candidates with a D next to their name can try the same thing this fall, and whether more liberal candidates win competitive seats on election night will be a key measure of whether the Democrats' blue wave is crashing ashore.

Not a great night for Republican congressmen again

In Idaho, GOP Rep. Raúl Labrador, who ran to be "a governor who will get government out of the way," had released internal polling in January showing him ahead.

But on Tuesday, he lost to Lt. Gov. Brad Little by about 5 points. Labrador is yet another GOP congressman to be denied a job promotion by voters, following colleagues in Indiana and West Virginia who fell short in Senate bids last week.

And in Pennsylvania, Rep. Lou Barletta, an immigration hard-liner, won his GOP primary to take on incumbent Democratic Sen. Bob Casey, but by an underwhelming margin against an underfunded candidate. Trump congratulated Barletta on Wednesday morning.

Barletta, though, developed a reputation for not working as hard as he could in the primary. That will have to change in the general election if Republicans are to have a real shot at upsetting Casey.

Last week, four GOP congressmen went down to defeat — three looking to win Senate primaries and one outright beaten in a primary as he sought re-election.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: May 15, 2018 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous version of this story incorrectly gave Rep. Don Bacon's first name as Dean. Also, the candidates for Pennsylvania's 1st and 7th congressional districts were inadvertently transposed.
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
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