Women, progressives, and Democrats generally had a good night in last Tuesday’s primaries, but some rain fell on their parade: Most of the women who won will now face GOP incumbents in red-trending districts, where they can prevail only with a strong blue wind at their backs; they’ll be fighting uphill in November.
That wasn’t the case on this Tuesday night.
In Pennsylvania, a state with an all-male House of Representatives delegation, women won the nomination in four of the six races where Democrats are given the best chance of toppling a Republican, and in a couple more districts where victory will be tough, but still possible. In state legislative races, four women backed by the Democratic Socialists of America defeated male incumbents in their Democratic primaries. Three don’t have Republican opponents, meaning they’re almost certainly headed to Harrisburg. More than 100,000 more Democrats than Republicans turned out on primary day.
Meanwhile, in red Nebraska, Kara Eastman defeated Brad Ashford, a former US House member who was supported by the Democratic establishment. That race is shaping up to be a test of the party’s focus on so-called “electability”; the moderate Ashford was seen as more palatable to Nebraskans than the progressive woman candidate (even feminist groups like Emily’s List and NARAL Pro-Choice America stayed out of the race). Obviously, the district’s Democratic-primary electorate disagreed. “We’re assessing the race,” Emily’s List campaign-communications director Julie McClain Downey told me in an e-mail after Eastman’s victory. “It’s a tough seat, but we were excited to see Kara win her primary.” In another upset, Nebraska voters chose a Democratic woman, Lincoln City Council member Jane Reybould, to challenge incumbent Senator Deb Fischer.
In Idaho, progressive State Representative Paulette Jordan crushed a moderate opponent to become not only the first female but the first Native American Democratic nominee; if she wins she’d be the state’s first female governor and both the state’s and the country’s first Native American governor.
And in Oregon, incumbent Governor Kate Brown defeated two primary opponents, while first-time candidate Tiffiny Mitchell, backed by unions, environmentalists, and Emily’s List, won an upset victory for a State House seat.
The Pennsylvania House races got the most attention, because they were the first after the state was required to draw new district maps, since a court found the old maps favored Republicans. Air Force veteran, former teacher, and businesswoman Chrissy Houlahan, whose primary opponents dropped out, has the best chance of winning, since incumbent Representative Ryan Costello retired after the new maps were drawn, and also after the filing deadline, so the only Republican candidate is virtually unknown. State Representative Madeleine Dean has an almost equally good chance in November; she crushed her primary opponents to face newcomer Republican nominee Dan David, in a newly drawn district within whose borders Hillary Clinton prevailed by 20 points.
Allentown City Solicitor Susan Wild defeated the conservative anti-choice, anti-immigrant, Trump-friendly John Morganelli as well as Our Revolution–backed Gregory Edwards in Pennsylvania’s Seventh District, where Democratic turnout was twice that of Republicans.
School board member and attorney Mary Gay Scanlon beat Bernie Sanders–endorsed Richard Lazar in a 10-way primary. She’ll face Republican candidate Pearl Kim—meaning whatever happens in that race (Scanlon is favored), a woman will break into Pennsylvania’s House delegation.
Two Emily’s List candidates apparently lost Tuesday night: Navy prosecutor Rachel Reddick was defeated by lawyer and philanthropist Scott Wallace, progressive presidential candidate Henry Wallace’s grandson. (Wallace was considered the more progressive of the two.) Perhaps the biggest disappointment was the apparent defeat of strong progressive Shavonnia Corbin-Johnson, who trails retired Navy officer and Lutheran pastor George Scott for a York County seat, though the race hasn’t been called yet. Two more Democratic women won upset nominations in heavily Republican districts: Sanders-backed Jess King, a Mennonite pastor, won in a district Trump carried by 26 points, and Bibiana Boerio, chief of staff to former Representative Joe Sestak, won an upset in a district Trump carried by 29 points. It’s uphill, but in a wave election, they have a shot.
Meanwhile, in state legislative races, Democratic Township Supervisor Helen Tai flipped a House seat in Pennsylvania’s Bucks County, beating Republican Wendi Thomas to replace retiring GOP Representative Scott Petri—the 41st state seat that’s flipped from red to blue since November 2016 (though Democrats lost another special election the same night). In the night’s most exciting state legislative news, four women backed by the Democratic Socialists of America defeated four male Democrats, three of them incumbents.
In the Pittsburgh area, African-American lawyer, labor organizer, and DSA member Summer Lee beat incumbent Paul Costa, while women’s advocate Sara Innamorato beat Costa’s cousin Dom. Neither has a Republican opponent in November. And around Philadelphia, former public-radio reporter Elizabeth Fiedler beat incumbent Jonathan Rowan; she likewise has no GOP opponent. DSA-backed Kristin Seale also won her primary and will challenge Representative Christopher Quinn.
Seale and Fiedler were also endorsed by Emily’s List, which saw six of the eight women it endorsed in Pennsylvania’s state legislative races win Tuesday night.
Meanwhile, in statewide races, Pennsylvania Republicans backed Trump-style demagogues, nominating immigration hard-liner US Representative Lou Barletta to face Senator Bob Casey, and Trump-friendly State Senator Scott Wagner to challenge Governor Tom Wolf. That’s a stark contrast with 2016, when incumbent GOP Senator Pat Toomey, in a close race with Democrat Katie McGinty, refused to endorse Trump. Casey and Wolf ran unopposed, but Sanders-backed John Fetterman, the progressive mayor of Braddock, won the nomination for lieutenant governor.
Of course, within the Beltway, where good news for Democrats is always turned into a “Dems in disarray” story line, all of this winning is being spun as… losing. “The far left is winning the Democratic civil war,” screamed The Washington Post on Wednesday morning. But none of the women who won US House nominations in Pennsylvania can be termed “far left.” Susan Wild is excoriated for attacking the anti-choice, anti-immigrant Morganelli, while the fact that she beat an actual Our Revolution candidate is ignored, since it doesn’t fit the narrative. Scott Wallace is attacked, essentially, for being Henry Wallace’s grandson, and for declaring after his victory: “Arise, ye children of starvation…” Just kidding. Wallace declared: “Together, we can make America sane again.” Is that really “far left” today? And sure, Nebraska’s Eastman is well to the left of Ashford—but Ashford already lost the same seat, to Republican Don Bacon in 2016. He sure doesn’t have a magic formula for victory.
Even the normally clear-eyed folks at FiveThirtyEight got into the act. “The question…is whether those more liberal candidates will hurt the party’s chances in November.” Another question is more intriguing, to me: Will these insurgent newcomers energize voters who haven’t bothered to turn out—or who have turned out for the GOP in the past? Especially in red states, Democrats can’t afford to snub new candidates who are exciting a new coalition of voters. Let’s save the hand-wringing until we see what happens in November.
Correction: An earlier version of this article inaccurately stated that Kara Eastman had been backed by DSA. She has not been endorsed or supported by them. The text has been corrected.