WASHINGTON — With this year’s primary season now officially closed, the seven months of Democratic and Republican contests from Texas in March and New York on Thursday offer rich lessons about each party’s most loyal voters.
They appear angrier and further apart than ever, setting up a titanic clash in November’s crucial midterm elections for control of Congress, now just eight weeks away.
Here are five key takeaways from the primaries:
1. Trump is the GOP’s everything
The Republican base now belongs to President Donald Trump and the GOP has placed a big bet on turning them out in November.
Nearly a decade after the insurgent Tea Party movement began challenging the Republican establishment on ideological grounds over issues like taxes and the size of government, the GOP primaries were all about one person: Trump.
“The importance of being loyal to Trump in this year’s GOP primaries is remarkable,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist and former adviser to Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. “Many of the primaries boiled down to which candidate appeared most in line with Trump’s brand of politics. Past arguments like conservative credentials or electability were not very salient messages.”
The president almost single-handedly helped Rep. Ron DeSantis win the GOP nomination for Florida’s governorship. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., who has been critical of the president, lost renomination after attacks from Trump. In Kansas, Trump helped push controversial Secretary of State Kris Kobach over the finish line, even though other GOP officials favored his opponent.
And Trump even stopped candidates from running entirely, like Sens. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Bob Corker, R-Tenn., two of Trump’s most vocal critics in his own party who decided not to run for re-election after realizing they couldn’t overcome voters’ loyalty to Trump.
“I could not win in a Republican primary. That’s the bottom line,” Flake said on MSNBC. “You can’t question his behavior and still be a Republican in good standing.”
2. Turnout surges
The primaries offered important real-world data about the kinds of voters who are likely to show up in November.
That’s crucial, especially for Democrats, since their supporters tend to stay home when the presidency is not at stake.
This year, though, Democrats are breaking records across the country. In Arizona, where the party is hoping to flip a Senate seat, almost 150,000 more Democrats voted in this year’s primary than in 2016, compared to a surge of 64,000 Republicans. In Florida, the perennial swing state home to key Senate and gubernatorial contest, Democratic turnout was up a whopping 67 percent over 2014.
After 31 primaries had been completed by July, a Pew study found that Democratic participation came close to doubling that of 2014, rising from 7.4 million to 13.6 million. Republican turnout grew but more modestly, from 8.6 million to 10.7 million.
Kyle Kondick, an analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, cautioned that while primary turnout is not necessarily predictive of general election turnout, the trend is clear when taken with other data, like fundraising, polling and even hiring on K Street, the Washington home to many lobby firms, which are rapidly recruiting Democrats in anticipation of change of power in Congress.
“When you put the primary turnout in the context of other indicators, you get a lot of data pointing in the same direction — toward a promising political environment for Democrats in the fall,” he said.
3. The Democratic establishment lives on
Democrats are trying to channel the energy of the anti-Trump “resistance” to the polls in November without being burnt by it, and they cleared the first hurdle in the primaries.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s victory over a progressive challenger Cynthia Nixon in New York Thursday occurred eight years to the day after the unelectable Christine “I’m not a witch” O’Donnell famously won a GOP Senate primary that cost her party a winnable Delaware Senate seat.
It’s a fitting echo after a Democratic primary season that, unlike the 2010 Tea Party wave that O’Donnell was a part of, saw mainstream candidates win more often than not, especially in swing districts and states, such as in Michigan’s gubernatorial primary.
The strength of the establishment was especially notable in the early presidential nominating states, which suggests the Democratic electorate in those places may not be clamoring for another Bernie Sanders-style insurgency in 2020.