No Congress for Old Men

And other lessons from the 2014 primary season.

Neel Kashkari
Republican Neel Kashkari’s primary win in California means the party won’t have a statewide candidate embarrassing them down the ballot.

Photo by Sam Hodgson/Reuters

The California primary and most of the Deep South primaries are behind us, which means the parties have largely settled on their candidates for 2014. There have been few upsets and few disasters—easy to forget, as the next three weeks will be spent on the GOP’s Mississippi runoff agony. Viral videos have seen mostly positive results, lifting Iowa’s Joni Ernst to a Senate nomination but failing to elevate Alabama’s Obamacare-shooting businessman Will Brooke into a congressional runoff. (This while 2010’s viral video star Dale Peterson looked set for a runoff for state auditor.)

And what else did we learn?

This is no Congress for old men. For all of the bed-wetting and teeth-gnashing about “Tea Party upsets,” you can count the number of incumbent Republicans beaten in primaries on two hands. What do they have in common? Well: At the times of their defeat, Rep. Cliff Stearns was 71, Sen. Bob Bennett was 77, Sen. Richard Lugar was 80, and Rep. Ralph Hall was 91. (There are exceptions, like Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who was 53 on primary day but returned to the Senate as a write-in candidate.)

Sen. Thad Cochran is only 76, which makes him only the 11th oldest member of the Senate. But he is a whispery, work-not-talk politician who seemed a little confused once national reporters showed up in Mississippi and started asking horse race questions. He avoided debating the much-younger Chris McDaniel, and TV coverage pointed to the reason why, as an affable but raspy Cochran meandered through interviews. On primary night, with more national media in the room than at any Cochran election ever, the senator opted not to give a speech. That detail went into the early political obits, along with the fact that Democrats who voted in their party’s primary can’t vote in a June 24 Cochran-McDaniel runoff. (Polling suggests Democrats would much prefer to see McDaniel in the general election.)

OK already, time to stop viewing elections as “Tea Party versus establishment.” The Mississippi Senate runoff was a fat wet inkblot on the perfectly polished story most national media were ready to write. The “establishment” had defeated the Tea Party.  This was an “establishment-strikes-back” kind of year. The Chamber of Commerce had gotten the candidates it wanted; veterans of Mitt Romney’s campaign had exorcized the ghost of Todd Akin.

This isn’t wrong, and absolutely the gubernatorial primary in California and the Senate primaries in Iowa, Montana, and South Dakota ended the way the Chamber of Commerce preferred. That doesn’t mean that moderates won. As Ben Jacobs (and not many other national reporters) noticed, Joni Ernst’s march to the nomination in Iowa took her through the swamps and marshes of the right (where she was pretty comfortable). She enters a general election as an opponent of the Farm Bill, the Clean Water Act, and the Environmental Protection Agency. A narrative-drunk Businessweek profile of Neel Kashkari portrayed him as a wonky moderate, unlike state Rep. Tim Donnelly, who channeled Republican “anger about the governor’s plan to build a costly, high-speed rail link between the Bay Area and Southern California.”

Might be worth mentioning that Kashkari’s TV ad— which apparently won him the race—ended with him literally chopping a toy model of the “crazy train” to pieces, with an ax.

The “establishment” isn’t holding on by appealing to the moderate natures of the GOP base. It’s joining them on the right. Really, we need to move on from this idea that the Chamber of Commerce, that enemy of EPA rules and the Affordable Care Act and torts, is nudging the GOP toward moderation.

Progressives sort of have their act together, at last. For all sorts of structural reasons, the left struggles to drive the Democrats’ agenda the way that the right owns the Republicans’ strategy. After Montana Sen. Max Baucus resigned for a diplomatic post in Beijing, and Sen. John Walsh was appointed to replace him, former Gov. Brian Schweitzer insisted that a primary between Walsh and progressive Republican-turned-Democrat John Bohlinger was “too close to call.” It was not. Walsh won by at least 41 points. The left is unlikely to upset an incumbent or “establishment” pick this year—see also New Jersey’s first congressional district, where party machine candidate Donald Norcross easily won a primary.

Yet in races where the establishment was weak, the left found ways to win. In New Jersey’s 12th district, safe blue turf, labor and progressive groups backed Bonnie Coleman, who will likely become New Jersey’s first black female member of Congress. In Iowa’s 1st district, being vacated by Senate candidate Bruce Braley, Democrats nominated a state senator who ran as a “proven progressive.”

And in California (where, if you were curious, Sandra Fluke advanced to a runoff for the state Senate), Democrats avoided some disasters. In 2012, Democrats punched each other out and failed to make the runoff in the 31st district, which they should naturally win. This year, as support for former Blue Dog Rep. Joe Baca flat-lined, Redlands Mayor Pete Aguilar made it into the runoff. In 2012, Democrats accidentally sent a check-bouncing businessman into a runoff with now-Rep. David Valadao. They corrected the mistake this year and advanced Amanda Renteria. And yet …

The Democrats’ turnout problem hasn’t been fixed yet. Kashkari’s primary win in California means the party won’t have a statewide candidate embarrassing them down the ballot. (We all remember how a similar situation worked in 2010, when Carl Paladino won the GOP gubernatorial nomination in New York and became a national laughingstock.) That’ll inspire a few Republicans who are now in runoffs against incumbent Democrats who failed to win as much of the vote as the combined GOP total in round one—Reps. Ami Bera and Scott Peters. The total Democratic vote in the gubernatorial race, around 56 percent, is less than Barack Obama won in his 2012 re-election campaign.

Still, Democrats will be largely OK in California. They might be more nervous in the swing states. In Iowa’s 1st District, which should be safe for the party, so far 27,690 ballots have been counted in the Democratic primary. The race for the almost worthless GOP nomination attracted 30,701 votes. Yes, a lot of that can be traced to the competitive Senate primary. But look north to Montana. Sen. Walsh had a more competitive primary than Rep. Steve Daines had for the Republican nod, but the ballots cast: 75,005 for Democrats, 132,224 for Republicans. Compare that to 2006, the year Jon Tester won a competitive Democratic Senate primary that brought out 108,198 voters. Only 97,473 Republicans went to the polls to renominate Sen. Conrad Burns.

It’s fun, in a small way, this weekly trawling through primary results. But the story of 2014 remains the Democratic turnout gulf. Either the party figures out how to make the electorate look more young and diverse than it typically does in midterms, or it loses.