Slow waves, high turnout and no lockouts: Four lessons from this week's primaries

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Here’s what we learned from Tuesday’s big primary night:

Democrats aren’t sick of voting yet. Neither are Republicans. One of the cycle’s major trends continued this week: As in most of the country, Republicans improved slightly on their last midterm turnout — and Democrats improved a whole lot more.


Democrat Kathleen Williams attends a primary watch party in Bozeman, Mont., on Tuesday. (Rachel Leathe/Bozeman Daily Chronicle/AP)

In Montana, where Democrats are competing for a House seat that Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte won narrowly last year, 110,883 voters turned out for the primary that nominated former legislator Kathleen Williams. It was easily the highest midterm turnout for a Democratic primary in this century.

In New Jersey, where Republicans were cheered by a relatively weak primary victory for Sen. Bob Menendez (D), the president’s party saw turnout grow from 145,307 votes in a sleepy 2014 race to 222,395 in 2018. But Democratic turnout more than doubled, to 417,858.

The turnout jump probably had less to do with Menendez than with House races where Democrats are competing seriously for the first time. Democrats cast 28,253 votes in the 2nd District, for a seat vacated by Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R); 39,042 votes in the 7th District, where Rep. Leonard Lance (R) is seeking reelection; and 45,456 votes in the 11th District, which is being vacated by Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R).

Those weren’t the only races where Democrats outvoted Republicans. In New Mexico’s 2nd District, which has been represented by Rep. Steve Pearce (R) since 2010, Democrats cast 34,693 votes while Republicans cast 32,268. In Iowa, where Republicans avoided primaries for their key races, 176,292 Democrats cast ballots in their race for governor — the highest vote total in the recent history of midterm Democratic primaries. And in California’s 49th District, where Rep. Darrell Issa (R) is retiring, Democrats outvoted Republicans in what had always been safely red turf.

About that:

California’s blue wave is rolling — very, very slowly. Every two years, armchair analysts make the same mistake about California: They look at the election-night count and assume all the votes are in. Not so. In 2014’s primary, more than 1.1 million ballots were counted after Election Day. That’s why there are no Associated Press calls in three House districts and probably won’t be for days.


The Los Angeles Democratic Party holds a post-election party on Tuesday. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

But that hasn’t stopped anyone from pronouncing a Democratic washout in California. In two separate memos to reporters, the Republican National Committee declared “waning enthusiasm” for Democrats after “Republican candidates outvoted Democrats in six of the seven House districts in that state that are considered critical in the battle for the House majority.”

The thing about that spin is that it’s technically true. In 2016, Hillary Clinton carried seven California districts that had been drawn with Republican incumbents in mind. Yesterday, Democrats outvoted Republicans in only one of those, the 49th.

A closer look at the numbers, however, shows a latent Democratic vote — one that usually sits out primaries — turning out in a big way. As Steve Singiser first pointed out for the left-leaning Daily Kos, Republicans increased their usual margin in only one district, the 21st. In the other six districts, the GOP’s average vote share fell by anywhere from 2.5 to 6.9 points relative to 2016.

Take note: They fell relative to 2016, a year when Democratic turnout was goosed by a competitive presidential primary between Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Republicans this cycle expected turnout closer to 2014 — a midterm where the party won statewide but lagged in conservative areas.

“There wasn’t a big get-out-the-vote effort in 2016,” said Scott Baugh, who ran against Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R) in the 48th District. “That certainly won’t be the dynamic in 2018.”

But Tuesday had a distinctly 2016 feel to it. In Orange County, where most of the counting dramas took place, election officials expected turnout to be 50 percent higher than in 2014. And in each competitive race in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties, Democrats increased their turnout. Here’s how it looked in the five Southern California swing seats, before as many as a million late ballots are counted. (The numbers don’t always add up to 100 because in some races, third parties collected the rest of the vote.)

CA25
2014: GOP 64.7%, Dem 32.2%
2018: GOP 52.8%, Dem 47.2%

CA39
2014: GOP 70.6%, Dem 29.4%
2018: GOP 54.1%, Dem 44.2%

CA45
2014: GOP 68.9%, Dem 28.6%
2018: GOP 53.2%, Dem 44.4%

CA48
2014: GOP 68.0%, Dem 32.0%
2018: GOP 53.0%, Dem 46.1%

CA49
2014: GOP 61.9%, Dem 38.1%
2018: GOP 48.3%, Dem 50.4%

It’s true to say that Republicans outvoted Democrats across these districts. It’s also true that Democrats who, until 2016, had not been competitive in any of these races, are now competitive in all of them.


John Cox, right, stands with a supporter for a picture during a San Diego Republican election party. (Gregory Bull/AP)

Trumpism triumphant, even where voters don’t want it. As they searched for something to celebrate last night, California Republicans looked to John Cox — a businessman and frequent candidate who rode a presidential endorsement into a gubernatorial runoff with Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. The party of Ronald Reagan and (say this part more quietly) Richard Nixon had avoided the humiliation of a statewide lockout.

But Cox’s success represented a sharp right turn for Republicans. Starting in 2003, when Republicans forced the recall that installed Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor, the party ran four statewide elections with nominees who explicitly rejected their party’s hard right. Schwarzenegger played that role twice. In 2010, the job went to Meg Whitman, who would go on to become a “Never Trump” donor and activist. In 2014, the party boosted Neel Kashkari, now a center-right Federal Reserve president, out of fear that right-wing Assemblyman Tim Donnelly would lose by a landslide and alienate non-white voters.

This year, there was no debate about how to brand the party. Cox ran as a standard conservative Republican — he doubted whether humans caused climate change, opposed legal abortion, supported a wall on the Mexican border and talked mostly about cutting taxes. Despite voting Libertarian for president in 2016, he said that he’d come around to Trump based on his performance in office. Rather than moderating to reach swing voters, Cox, like the rest of this year’s Republican ticket, seemed to bet everything on a voter revolt against the state’s new gas tax.

The gas tax isn’t popular — it helped Republicans recall a state senator Tuesday — and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said Wednesday that it could power the party through November. But there’s a lot more recent history for voters splitting their ballots between referendums and the candidates who back them than there is for Californians backing a pro-life, anti-immigration reform candidate for governor.

The DCCC’s long national nightmare is over. The Democrats’ House campaign arm, which had become a punching bag for conservatives and liberal insurgents alike, had one job Tuesday: avoid a lockout in California. It pulled that off, with four strategic decisions.

First: It encouraged TJ Cox, who lived in the 10th District, to run instead in the 21st, a play that probably prevented a lockout in what had been a crowded primary. Second: It endorsed Gil Cisneros in the 39th District and spent money to bring down the numbers of every Republican except Young Kim, who had surged to first place. Third: It endorsed Harley Rouda in the 48th District and spent $1 million to attack Scott Baugh, a GOP leader in the district who finally conceded the race Wednesday afternoon. Fourth: It attacked every Republican in the 49th District except Diane Harkey.

This has all been widely reported. What surprised Democrats was how little Republicans intervened to screw it up.

Democrats expected higher-than-usual turnout but feared, correctly, that voters excited by the midterms had little idea whom to vote for. Indeed, thousands of voters in the 49th District backed candidates who had already quit the race, while nearly 3,500 voters in the 39th District supported Herbert Lee, a candidate who made few public appearances and spent $750,000 of his own money on ubiquitous lawn signs. They were also confident that at least one Republican would make the runoff in each race; as soon as the local Republican parties endorsed Kim and Harkey, they expected them to secure first place.

What worried Democrats, and what never materialized, was an effective campaign to befuddle and suppress their turnout. But GOP groups put money toward getting out their own voters, not targeting Democrats. The closest they ever got to that were tweets from Republicans in the 48th District advertising Rouda’s history of donations to the GOP — something that had always been part of his résumé, even at Democratic Party forums.

Looking forward: Voters go to the polls next Tuesday in primaries in Maine, Nevada, North Dakota, South Carolina and Virginia.