A survey of the political-opinion landscape after a series of consequential primaries in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oregon, and Idaho would leave most observers with the impression that the radicals are on the march.
The Republican nominee for governor in Pennsylvania, Doug Mastriano, is an “election denier” and an “insurrectionist” who has surrounded himself with people more concerned about relitigating 2020 than governing the Keystone State. Like Mastriano, Oregon’s likely Republican nominee for U.S. Senate, Jo Rae Perkins, was recklessly close to the Capitol Building on January 6, if not inside a restricted area. On the Democratic side, progressive activist Jamie McLeod-Skinner easily defeated incumbent Rep. Kurt Schrader, in part, because he supported carving the popular bipartisan infrastructure package out of the unpopular Build Back Better plan. If she wins her still too-close-to-call race, Summer Lee, a progressive with a borderline anti-Semitic fixation with Israel’s domestic security policies, will likely represent Pennsylvania’s 12th District in the 118th Congress.
And yet, the number of would-be radicals rejected by their respective electorates has not received the attention it deserves.
In the race for the Republican nomination for Senate in Pennsylvania, late polling that found right-wing activist Kathy Barnette surging into contention proved illusory. Pennsylvania’s voters soundly rejected her, her penchant for controversial comments, and her refusal to support the party whose nomination she sought. They may even have rejected the Trump-endorsed candidate (his second endorsement in this race, after his preferred candidate collapsed amid the weight of his own scandalous past). Despite his narrow lead, Mehmet Oz, a dual Turkish national who promised to be an ineffective presence in the Senate because he would voluntarily forego classified intelligence briefings, may yet lose. If he does lose, it will be to a hedge-fund manager, a former undersecretary in the Treasury Department, deemed an “establishment figure” by the local press.
In North Carolina, the scandal-plagued Rep. Madison Cawthorn lost his party’s nomination to three-term State Sen. Chuck Edwards. This upset was due in no small part to Sen. Thom Tillis’s intervention on Edwards’s behalf. Tillis devoted time and resources to unseating a figure he implicitly rebuked for his “consistent pattern of juvenile behavior, outlandish statements, and untruthfulness.”
Idaho Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin’s antics—such as dispatching the national guard to the U.S.-Mexico, banning private businesses from imposing mask mandates at the height of the pandemic, and appearing alongside white supremacists—may have ingratiated her to a particular subset of Republican voters. But it wasn’t enough to propel her to victory over incumbent Gov. Brad Little, to whom she lost by 20 points.
Elsewhere in the Gem State, longtime Rep. Mike Simpson survived a challenge from Bryan Smith. Though the two candidates agreed on much when it came to policy, Simpson said he had confidence in the 2020 election results while Smith insisted that voter fraud on an “enormous, giant scale” gave Joe Biden the keys to the White House. Simpson ran explicitly on his experience in Congress and his ability to get things done behind the scenes and, importantly, off-camera. He won by 22 points.
Candidate for Oregon governor, Stan Pulliam, also wore his conspiracy theorizing on his sleeve. When his opponents either recognized Biden’s legitimacy in office or danced around the question, Pulliam burnished his MAGA bona fides by presenting himself as the only candidate “willing to say the truth,” that “the 2020 election was fraudulent, completely fraudulent.” He earned just over 10 percent of the Republican primary vote.
Beyond Lee’s still tenuous hold on the lead in her district, progressive “Squad-type” candidates are equally bereft of victories. Kentucky State Rep. Attica Scott, who pledged to “defund” local police and “dismantle the whole sick system” as a state-level lawmaker, and who campaigned against “a militarized police force that was birthed out of keeping Black people enslaved,” lost handily in her bid to succeed retiring Rep. John Yarmouth.
Likewise, North Carolina candidate for the U.S. House, Nida Allam, lost her race to a candidate who emphasized the importance of experience over revolutionary zeal. Allam, who enjoyed the support of figures like Rep. Ilhan Omar, also found herself in a share of scandals involving allegations of anti-Semitism and sought (bizarrely) to make Israel into a midterm-election issue. Unsurprisingly, the voters of North Carolina’s 4th Congressional District had other priorities.
The political press has largely responded to this “mixed bag” of primary results by noting the extent to which Donald Trump’s influence over Republican voters knows limits. There is something to that, but a more convincing theory of the case—one that explains progressive failures as well as MAGA’s—is that voters have more tangible and urgent concerns in 2022 than those that dominate the minds of the activist class. If this tendency becomes a trend, it will be a wholly welcome one.