They call it a primary election for a reason – maybe a couple of reasons. One is its priority. It comes first, preceding the “general” election by about six months. More importantly, primaries separate the wannabes from the winners. Almost anyone can run in a primary but running in a general means you won that primary. That’s why the puny fraction that vote in most primaries have such an out-sized influence on our politics. They decide whom we get to vote for in the fall election – and whom we don’t.
Here are five takeaways from Pennsylvania’s 2018 primary:
1. Turnout was again abysmally low, ranging from the teens to 25 percent among the counties – and this with some of the most competitive and exciting races seen in years. The vast majority of eligible voters didn’t vote; so in the fall their choices are choices made by the tiny minority that did vote. Many believe there are some serious problems with American democracy. Not voting is one of them.
2. A Pennsylvania Referendum on President Trump was guaranteed by the results of the Republican primary nominating Scott Wagner and Lou Barletta for governor and U.S. Senate, respectively. Wagner, a blunt hard charging conservative, has modeled himself after Trump and his policies – while Barletta is a long time Trump supporter who made his reputation as an immigration hard liner. Elections should be referendums and this year they will be.
3.Women candidates running in congressional races were enormously successful, bringing historic change to Pennsylvania, a state often loath to elect women. Statewide eight women won nomination, seven Democrats and one Republican. In the Philadelphia suburbs, five of six women, mostly running as progressives, won their Democratic primary races. In most cases these female candidates were a reaction to the Trump presidency- increasing the likelihood that the fall election becomes a referendum on Trump. The present Pennsylvania congressional delegation has 18 men and no women. Tuesday’s results virtually guarantee that will change.
4. Lou Barletta vs. Bob Casey is fated to a premier national U.S. Senate race in 2018. As a Trump supporter, Barletta is unique. He espoused Trumpian views before Trump himself did. As mayor of Hazelton, he gained national prominence confronting the federal government over immigration policy and went on to co-chair the Trump campaign in Pennsylvania. Barletta and Trump are joined at the hip on the issues, while Barletta will face in Bob Casey one of the senate’s leading Trump critics.
5. Political history was made when the Mayor of Braddock John Fetterman handily won (38%) election among a field of five Lt. Governor candidates including the scandal-mired incumbent Mike Stack. No incumbent Lt. Governor had previously lost a bid for re-election. Fetterman is a colorful progressive Democrat, who received endorsements from Bernie Sanders and former governor Ed Rendell. He should increase turnout among Sanders’ Democratic followers in the fall. While some analysts wonder if we need the office of Lt. Governor, Governor Wolf may be happy he has this one for a running mate.
Trump will not appear on another Pennsylvania ballot before 2020 at the earliest, but Tuesday’s results ensure he will be on the minds of many voters on November 6th. The results in the Republic primary especially at the statewide level for governor and U.S. Senator will offer voters clear choices between strong supporters and equally strong opponents of the president. In addition, most observers agree this primary confirms the virtual takeover of the Pennsylvania Republican party by Trump supporters. Love him or hate him, Donald Trump now owns the Pennsylvania Republican Party – and the party owns him.
At the same time, the increasingly pervasive presence of “progressives” among winning Democratic candidates must be noted. Much ink has been spilled describing how (and why) the Republican Party has drifted so far right and towards the policies of the president. Less noticed but equally portentous is the steady drift of Democrats to left – liberal positions. The ideological divergence increasingly characterizing the two parties sets up often-stark choices for voters. Some believe this is what modern democracy now needs.
We may find out.