Politics

And We’re Back!

It was the first big primary night in America. Here’s what we learned.

Side by side photos of Madison Cawthorn, John Fetterman, and Mehmet Oz
Madison Cawthorn, John Fetterman, and Mehmet Oz: One lost, one won, one is still in limbo. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Jabin Botsford/Washington Post via Getty Images, Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images, and Stephanie Keith/Getty Images.

Tuesday night was Primary Night in America, aka “Politics’ Big Night,” with the biggest slate of high-profile races that we may ever see. Well, or at least until next week, when there’s more. Oh, and then there’s June 7, that’s a megaprimary night … and some good stuff June 14. Every Tuesday in August is also loaded. Oh, and then there’s some big election night in the beginning of November?

OK, well, what there were last night were primaries in five states: Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Idaho, Oregon, and Kentucky. We don’t know the winner of all of the key races yet, one most notably. But let’s try to run through some takeaways of what we do know.

A Trump Endorsement: Nice to Have, but Not Determinative

Because Donald Trump has successfully and permanently rejiggered the chemical makeup of America’s political brain, much of these primary nights are devoted to tracking Trump’s endorsees to determine the extent of his hold on the Republican Party. This might seem like a stupid media game—and that’s not wrong—but do keep in mind that Republicans, from those in congressional leadership to those considering running for president in 2024, are also constantly tracking the extent of Trump’s hold on the Republican Party. So they know the risk of crossing him.

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There are different flavors of Trump endorsements. The vast majority of them are “Trump endorses the guy who was already going to win so he can take credit.” For example, Trump endorsed a lot of incumbents in the House and Senate who weren’t up against meaningful competition, including members like North Carolina Rep. Richard Hudson or senators like Rand Paul. He also only endorsed Doug Mastriano in the Pennsylvania governor’s race a few days before the election when it was clear Mastriano was going to cruise.

Then there are the riskier cases, where Trump, for one reason or another, goes out on a limb. One thing that’s clear is when Trump and the Club for Growth, a deep-pocketed conservative group, are on the same page with a risky case, they have a good chance of getting that candidate across the finish line. That was the case with Bo Hines, an ambitious 26-year-old whom Trump adores and who won a crowded congressional primary for a district outside Raleigh, North Carolina. It was also the case for Rep. Ted Budd, who won the North Carolina Senate primary.

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When Trump’s endorsements go awry, he is often trying to force through a challenger few asked for. Was the Idaho Republican electorate really clamoring for a replacement to Gov. Brad Little because of some early-pandemic stay-at-home orders? And did they really need that replacement to be Trump-endorsed Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, a white-nationalism-curious extremist who has tried to usurp the governor’s power while he was out of state? Apparently not, as Little crushed her. This trend will be the one to keep in mind for next week during the Georgia gubernatorial primary.

Oh, so the GOP Can Police Its Own?

North Carolina Rep. Madison Cawthorn, the troublesome 26-year-old freshman Republican who is constantly either running into legal trouble or accusing his colleagues of weird sex stuff, narrowly lost renomination to state Sen. Chuck Edwards. The reason that happened is because the Republican Party decided to do it—this one time.

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Leading figures in North Carolina Republican politics decided Cawthorn was too much of an embarrassment to salvage following his possibly spurious allegations that his fellow Republican congressmen have invited him to do cocaine and participate in orgies. A coordinated hit job—a term the hit-jobbers themselves use to describe it!—ensued, and now Cawthorn is gone. (Cawthorn is often described as “Trump-endorsed,” but he wasn’t, really. Trump felt bad for the kid, but wasn’t ready to expend real capital on him.)

For whatever reason—she doesn’t have as many head-humping videos laying around?—this same coordinated attack is not being performed against Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene ahead of her primary next week. Something to consider for the next cycle!

At Least It’s Not Kathy Barnette

As we type, the result of the night’s main event—the Pennsylvania Republican Senate primary—is far from determined. The good news for Republicans interested in retaining their Pennsylvania Senate seat, though, is that the nominee won’t be Kathy Barnette, the relatively unvetted, “ultra-MAGA” newcomer who had been surging in the closing stretch of the race. The last-minute, joint effort between the party establishment and Trumpsters like Sean Hannity, Ric Grenell, and, well, Donald Trump has limited her to a third spot.

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What remains to be seen is whether Mehmet Oz, the TV doctor, or Dave McCormick, the hedge fund CEO, will prevail. As of Wednesday morning, Oz has about a 2,500-vote lead over McCormick out of 1.3 million–plus votes cast.

How will this shake out? One GOP strategist I reached out to Wednesday morning, Vince Galko, suggested things were heading in McCormick’s direction based on what’s outstanding—namely, mail-in ballots.

“It seems like it’s trending for a McCormick win with mail-ins and military to come in,” Galko said. “McCormick’s best chance was his ground game, which appears to have delivered a strong mail-in effort for him.”

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Suddenly, mail-in ballots putting a new guy ahead days after election night is acceptable, huh?

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If Oz finds a way to pull it off, Trump could throw a ticker tape parade through the streets of Philadelphia—to celebrate himself, of course, not Oz. (He is already pushing Oz to declare a win so that it’s harder for “them to cheat.”) If McCormick wins, though, this would be more of a strategic lapse than a sign that Trump endorsements have no juice. Trump’s endorsement may have been the only thing keeping Oz competitive, after all. Just imagine—and many Pennsylvania Republicans will note this!—if Trump had done what so many other big shots from his administration did and endorsed McCormick. McCormick could’ve breezed to a win, and Trump could’ve had a clear-cut victory to take for himself. But Trump couldn’t resist endorsing someone who had a well-rated TV show. Relatable.

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Either way, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell feels comfortable winning the seat, in this horrible environment for Democrats, with either Oz or McCormick on the ticket.

Democrats Drew Mastriano! Oh, God, Democrats Drew Mastriano …

Republicans may be relieved Barnette lost, but they got their worst-case scenario in the governor’s race. Doug Mastriano, who may be a bigger Trump election denier than Trump himself, cruised to victory in the Republican gubernatorial primary.

Pennsylvania Democrats, who nominated Attorney General Josh Shapiro for governor, had been working to elevate Mastriano in the field, knowing he will be the weakest opponent in the general election. Election forecasters, like the Cook Political Report, quickly shifted their rating of the race to “lean Democratic.”

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Well, Democrats better hope Mastriano is as beatable as he appears on paper. Because if Mastriano wins, and presides over the 2024 presidential election results, it’s going to be awfully hard for a Democratic presidential candidate to get the state’s electoral votes even if they win the state.

A Not Terrible Night for the Left

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Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman does not identify as a progressive, even as he holds some quite progressive platform planks. Many progressives adopted him as one of their own, though, because he was certainly more suited to their interests than Conor Lamb, the sort of Marine-turned-prosecutor moderate whom lefties so often have to hold their nose and vote for in a competitive Senate race. Things never took off for Lamb, though, and Fetterman crushed him from a hospital bed Tuesday night in the state’s Democratic Senate primary.

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Elsewhere, Oregon Rep. Kurt Schrader, one of pharma’s best Democratic pals in Congress who objected to much of the Democratic agenda this Congress, is substantially trailing his challenger, Jamie McLeod-Skinner, with about half of the vote counted. And in Pennsylvania’s 12th District, a comfortably Democratic Pittsburgh seat, progressive favorite Summer Lee ever so narrowly leads Steve Irwin. Lee had been the target of heavy spending from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which has taken progressive challengers head-on this cycle.

Note that the result in these last two nights could change, which could make it—and this is a professional politics term—a “more bad” night for the left. But at least they got Fetterman over Conor Lamb.

Cryptocurrency??

There was some weird, expensive primary for a new seat in Oregon featuring a “crypto-backed political newcomer.” I don’t know what this means or where this fits in on the progressive-moderate scale or whatever, so read Ben Mathis-Lilley’s story about it!

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