Pundits should avoid, at all costs, the sin of “premature evaluation.” The May 7 primaries did not send a simple or unambiguous message. One thing remains clear, however: In November, the Democrats’ fate depends largely on turnout.
Dems have a good chance of retaking the House of Representatives this fall, but that’s by no means certain, and the Senate is more of a stretch. With Democratic support reportedly falling among millennials and turnout a lingering problem for voters of color, complacency may be the party’s biggest threat.
What other lessons can be drawn from May 7’s results?
Richard Cordray, former director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, defeated Dennis Kucinich for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Was that a victory of the “establishment” over populism, as some pundits argued?
Not so fast. Kucinich’s positions on everything from economic justice to LGBTQ rights – positions that earned him the scorn of liberal lions at the time – have been vindicated by history. (A painful video of John Stewart mocking Kucinich on trans issues, uncovered by Adam Johnson, is Exhibit A.) While many of his views have now become mainstream, Kucinich’s candidacy was always a long shot.
Cordray, for his part, is hardly a corporate Democrat. While he leans right on gun control, he ran with strong labor support and is a confirmed member of the Democratic Party’s Warren wing. “You demanded change,” Cordray told supporters, “and we heard you and we want the same.”
CNN’s Gregory Krieg was right when he wrote that Ohio progressives would be “waking on Wednesday as winners -- yet again -- no matter who celebrates on Tuesday night.” Cordray’s opponent is slightly favored to win in November, but the race is still very much in play.
Lesson: Cordray's victory is a progressive win.
Democratic incumbent senator Joe Manchin won his primary race, as expected. But his left-progressive opponent, political novice Paula Jean Swearingen, had a strong showing. Swearingen won 30 percent of the primary vote, despite her lack of experience or name recognition and a near-blackout in media coverage.
Swearingen’s results should not be a surprise. Bernie Sanders decisively won the West Virginia primary in 2016, despite a strong environmental platform that targeted the coal industry.
Speaking of which: Republican voters rejected coal magnate and ex-convict Don Blankenship, who served time in prison for criminal negligence. That’s an unsurprising result; Blankenship’s greed, malfeasance, and fraud led to the deaths of 29 miners in the heart of coal country. Blankenship also used racist language during the campaign. His loss to Attorney General Patrick Morrissey deprived journalists of a juicy storyline – and Democrats of an easy win.
Republican turnout in West Virginia was up significantly from the party’s last off-year primary. That may be a sign of an increasingly energized Republican base, or may simply reflect the fact that this was a more hotly contested election.
Lesson: Progressives can win in red states, but they’ll need better exposure and a solid candidate to do it. It’s not clear what the rise in GOP turnout means, but Democrats should not assume they’ll have the edge on enthusiasm or voter participation in November.
Warning Signs, and Hopeful Ones
There’s a danger in reading too much into these primary results. Roughly 1.5 million people voted in the Ohio Democratic primary, while less than 300,000 people voted in West Virginia’s. By contrast, more than 83 million people voted in the 2014 election – and that was the lowest voter participation this country has seen since World War II.
Women continued to do especially well in Democratic primaries, which could help nudge Congress a little closer to gender parity (it’s a long way off). The presence of strong women candidates, including progressives like Indiana's Liz Watson, could also help boost turnout.
What do other indicators say about Democrats' chances in November? Democrats continue to outperform Republicans in generic congressional matchups, although recent polling suggests that their advantage has fallen sharply. While some analysts argue that this interpretation is inaccurate, one thing is certain: record sums of money will be spent between now and Election Day, in ways that could dramatically alter the political landscape.
Democrats should be concerned about the decline in voter participation among African Americans in 2016. The change was to be expected, given Obama’s absence from the 2016 ballot, but if that trend continues it could have devastating implications for the party. In another troubling sign, turnout remained low for Hispanic and Asian voters as well.
How can turnout be strengthened among voters of color? A recent Harvard-Harris poll showed that a majority of Democratic voters want the party to move left. Significantly, Hispanic and African-American voters were more likely to feel that way than white Democrats or Democrats as whole.
Dems should also be concerned about polls showing that millennials are drifting away from the party. A Reuters/Ipsos poll released on April 30 shows millennial support for Democrats slipping 9 points over the last two years. They’re not moving to Republicans in large numbers, but many are drifting more toward either voting third party or not voting at all.
A Way Forward
One way to appeal to millennial voters would be to support tuition-free higher education and propose to cancel $1.5 trillion in student debt.
Student debt hurts African-American as well as white borrowers, along with their families and communities. A recent analysis published by the Levy Institute shows that student debt cancellation would also give the economy a major boost and create more than a million new jobs.
Democrats and their media allies should also focus much more of their attention on governors’ races than we’ve seen so far. 26 of the governors elected this year will have the power to accept or reject congressional district maps, which will be redrawn after the 2020 census. That could shape congressional power for the next ten years.
In a related development, Ohioans voted overwhelmingly on May 7 to end that state's highly gerrymandered system and replace it with a bipartisan system. 75 percent of voters supported Issue 1, a ballot measure that will replace Ohio’s rigged district lines with a three-stage process designed to ensure that fairer voter representation in Ohio’s congressional delegation. As John Nichols writes in The Nation, “Ohioans have provided a model that grassroots activists and honest elected officials can advocate for at the state level.”
Three-quarters of Ohio’s swing-state voters supported a strong affirmation of democratic principle. Numbers like that suggest another promising road forward for Democrats. If they are willing to propose bold electoral reform, as well as new rules that “un-rig” the economy for middle-class voters, they’re more likely to turn opportunity into victory in November.