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Analysis: Winners and losers of the 2018 primary season

The Washington Post logoThe Washington Post 9/14/2018 Amber Phillips

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With Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) win in New York on Thursday against liberal challenger Cynthia Nixon, the nearly year-long 2018 primary season is, finally, over.

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We sorted through dozens of the year’s high-profile political battles, surprises and flameouts to bring you the biggest winners and losers of the season. Among the winners and losers are trends that could carry over into November’s congressional elections, where Republicans' majority (and the final two years of President Trump’s first term) are on the line.

Winners

Trump at a rally in Indiana in May. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, File) © Charles Rex Arbogast/AP Trump at a rally in Indiana in May. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, File) Trump: He proved his hold in 2016 on the Republican Party was no fluke. In Republican primary after primary, Trump played kingmaker and career-destroyer. From Rep. Martha Roby in Alabama to Rep. Mark Sanford in South Carolina to former governor Tim Pawlenty in Minnesota, Republican politicians who dissed Trump in 2016 raced to backtrack, and those who didn’t do it convincingly enough lost their primaries. (Of those three candidates, only Roby won her primary.)

"He carved out a path on how to win elections for Republicans,” said Republican strategist Eric Beach, whose pro-Trump group Great America PAC won eight out of the 10 races it played this primary season.

The big question, of course, is whether Republicans' ties to Trump backfire when they face a different electorate this November: Some polls show 60 percent of voters disapprove of the job Trump is doing as president.

Diversity, especially for Democrats: Women, black and LGBT candidates matched or broke records this primary season at all levels of government, according to a Washington Post analysis. A number of these candidates are poised to make history in November, too, says Kelly Dittmar of the Center for American Women and Politics: A number of states could elect their first woman of color to Congress, first Native American woman, first Muslim woman, and first female governor or senator.

But almost all of that energy was centered on the left. If you were a Democratic woman running for the House of Representatives this year, you were more likely to win your primary than any other group (Democratic man, Republican woman or man), according to the Center for American Women and Politics. By contrast, Republicans didn’t come close to their records on diversity.

Democrats outpace GOP 3 to 1 in female House nods © /The Washington Post Democrats outpace GOP 3 to 1 in female House nods

Dittmar cautions that even if a sizable chunk of this more diverse crowd wins election in November, it will only put a dent in the outsize representation white men have in politics; women represent just 20 percent of Congress despite making up more than half the population.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez campaigning in Queens in September. (Peter Foley/EFE-EPA) © PETER FOLEY/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock/Peter Foley/Epa-Efe/Rex/Shutterstock Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez campaigning in Queens in September. (Peter Foley/EFE-EPA) Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: The Democratic nominee for a congressional seat in New York City is synonymous with so many trends in the Democratic Party: diversity (she’s a Latina who grew up in the Bronx), youth (she’s 28), liberal values (she was one of the first winning candidates of the primary season who wants to abolish the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency). And she became a household name on the left when she ousted one of the highest-ranking Democrats in the House to win her primary.

Since her June win, Ocasio-Cortez has lent her star power to other challengers of the Democratic establishment, not always successfully. But if there’s one name that defines the energy on the left in 2018 — and the sense that anything is possible — it’s hers.

Polarization: Republican candidates raced to out-Trump one another, and major Democratic candidates ran on far-left issues such as universal health care and abolishing ICE, so it’s little wonder that polarization is a big winning trend in 2018.

The poles of both parties are exemplified in Florida’s governor’s race, where both sides surprised election analysts by nominating two of the most extreme candidates this primary season. Democrat Andrew Gillum, who wants to abolish ICE, won despite not leading in a single major poll. Republican nominee Ron DeSantis surged ahead after a tweet endorsement from Trump. And DeSantis ran an ad teaching his toddler daughter how to build a border wall.

What’s most surprising is how this is happening in Florida, a swing state where statewide races are often decided by one or two percentage points.

Losers

Former White House strategist Steve Bannon campaigns for failed Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore in December. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post) © Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post Former White House strategist Steve Bannon campaigns for failed Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore in December. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Stephen K. Bannon: I’ll let Trump’s former chief strategist and self-described leader of the Republican insurgency explain why he’s one of the primary season’s biggest losers:

Last October, Bannon declared “war” on nearly all 2018 Senate Republicans, promising to prop up primary challengers to unseat them. “We’re coming after all of them, and we’re going to win,” he thundered.

That never materialized. In June, just a few months after that threat and as Republican incumbent senators were easily winning their primaries, Bannon acknowledged to the New York Times that this just wasn’t his time: “People are starting to realize that the anti-establishment thing is kind of a luxury we can’t afford right now.”

Members of Congress seeking higher office: It was a bad primary season to be a House Republican seeking a promotion. Five House Republicans running for higher office lost their primaries, a reflection that the anti-establishment sentiment that helped launch Trump past a dozen more practiced politicians and into the White House is still going strong — even if it’s not the power-toppling insurgency that Bannon had hoped for.

In Indiana, Republican voters rejected two members of Congress in one race. In West Virginia and Idaho, sitting members of Congress failed to get their party’s nomination for senator or governor. Same with Tennessee, where Rep. Diane Black lost her party’s nomination for governor to a business executive. It’s not a coincidence that Trump handily won all of those states in 2016.

Washington Post graphics © Washington Post graphics/ Washington Post graphics

Democrats who disconnected from their constituencies: Liberals didn’t enjoy total success against their party’s establishment, either. But it was a bad year for leaders of the Democratic Party to be caught flat-footed. The powerful congressman ousted by Ocasio-Cortez admitted that’s what happened to him: “I didn’t talk about what I had done to help people in my district. . . . I just took that for granted, I think,” Rep. Joseph Crowley said shortly after his loss.

Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-NY) on Capitol Hill in February. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post) © Matt McClain/The Washington Post Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-NY) on Capitol Hill in February. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

In Massachusetts, city councilwoman Ayanna Pressley could be the state’s first black female member of Congress after she upset longtime incumbent Rep. Michael E. Capuano to represent Boston’s majority-minority district. And Florida and Georgia Democrats nominated black candidates over white ones in increasingly diverse states.

In New York, Cuomo had the benefit of going last, so he had time to buffer himself against this trend. He steered his platform to the left as he faced actor Cynthia Nixon. In her concession speech, Nixon called it “the Cynthia effect.”

This was a year in which Democratic politicians who were disconnected in some ways from their constituents, whether by age or ethnic background or ideology, paid the price.

“The age of the polished politician is behind,” said Carolyn Fiddler, communications director for liberal-leaning politics blog Daily Kos.

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