What did Democratic primary voters across the country say in key races Tuesday night? Mostly that their enthusiasm has not flagged, despite some polling victim to the contrary, and that the party’s much-discussed big leap to the left is going to have to wait awhile.
For anyone watching the results through the lens of control of the House of Representatives next year — which, for Democrats, is the obvious key metric — the party comes to have come out of Tuesday night unscarred. This is because as I write, it looks as if the Democrats were not shut out in any of the seven California congressional districts where they have hopes of picking up a Republican seat.
California’s voters adopted the “jungle primary” system in 2010, an idea backed by the Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, governor at the time, under which all candidates run in one big primary and the top two finishers compete in November regardless of party. The goal was to elect more moderates, which has happened in some cases, although scholars point to other reasons for this.
But this year in certain districts, Democratic contenders crowded the field. In one district, for example, six Democrats were chasing the Democratic vote, while only two Republicans were splitting the right-leaning vote. Heading into Tuesday, Democratic operatives feared their candidates might be shut out of the November election in as many as four districts.
That didn’t happen. The district I describe above was the 10th, in the central component of the state south of Stockton, which Hillary Clinton won by three points but is currently in Republican hands. As of Wednesday morning, a Democrat, Josh Harder, was in second place, ahead of a Republican, Ted Howze, by 1.3 %, or about 850 votes (the Republican incumbent, Jeff Denham, was first).
In all the other races, including three in pivotal Orange County districts Mrs. Clinton also won, Democrats simply finished second, meaning that a major batch of embarrassing headlines was averted.
Most notable in Orange County is Katie Porter, running in the 45th District. She was endorsed by Senator Elizabeth Warren — like the senator, she is a bankruptcy law professor — and beat a candidate backed by the state party. Ms. Porter will face Representative Mimi Walters, who said earlier this year that “it’s debatable if the foreign governments have been involved in our elections,” in a district Mrs. Clinton won by six points. This will be a closely watched race in November.
Ms. Porter aside, though, the leftier branch of the Democratic Party didn’t fare especially well Tuesday night. This was especially so in New Jersey, where Democrats hope they can flip four seats now held by Republicans.
In two districts, the 4th and the 7th, establishment Democrats handily beat opponents backed by Our Revolution, a leading Bernie Sanders-affiliated group. The Democratic winner in the 4th, which encompasses the central swath of the state, is a Navy veteran, Joshua Welle, who called himself “a centrist at heart.” In the 7th, which covers much of the northwest component of the state, Tom Malinowski defeated Our Revolution-backed Peter Jacob. And in the 2nd District, in the southern part of the state, Democrats chose a pro-gun, anti-same-sex-marriage nominee, State Senator Jeff Van Drew, over a more liberal opponent by a huge margin.
This trend continued in Iowa’s 3rd District, taking in Des Moines and the southwest part of the state, where Cindy Axne won with a long list of mainstream endorsers and Pete D’Alessandro, who was backed by Mr. Sanders, finished a distant third. Ms. Axne will face the Republican incumbent, David Young.
What does all this mean? It is impossible to know whether Democrats nominated their most viable candidates in all these races. And insofar as every district I’ve mentioned is right now in Republican hands, these races are uphill battles.
But the results prove that the conventional story line about the Democrats charging damn the torpedoes to the left is overstated. That may well be true of most (though not all) of the putative presidential contenders at this point, and it’s certainly the case that any American political party’s direction is largely set by its presidential nominee.
For now, though, the only real candidates are congressional ones, and they are a mixed lot, reflecting the point — which I never tire of making, because some people seem not to want to accept it — that while the Republicans can gain a House majority with only conservatives, the Democrats can’t do so with only liberals. There easily aren’t enough liberal districts or voters.
That’s the price of a Democratic majority — a few Jeff Van Drews. I’d think that after watching this Congress and this presidency for 15 months, most liberals would accept that.