National Democrats backed winners in Senate primaries. Now what?

Some primaries left splits nominees must heal

The DSCC-backed Mark Kelly ran unopposed in Tuesday’s Democratic Senate primary in Arizona.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The DSCC-backed Mark Kelly ran unopposed in Tuesday’s Democratic Senate primary in Arizona. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 5, 2020 at 9:00am

National Democrats continued their perfect primary streak Tuesday with party-backed candidates winning Senate nominations in Arizona and Kansas. 

Both retired astronaut Mark Kelly and state Sen. Barbara Bollier were endorsed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee before Tuesday’s primaries. Kelly was unopposed in his bid take on Arizona Republican Sen. Martha McSally, while Bollier easily dispatched a primary challenger in Kansas.

The DSCC has been particularly aggressive in picking favorites this election cycle, endorsing 15 candidates before their primaries. Eleven have faced primaries so far, and all won their party’s nominations.

With most of the contested Senate primaries in the rear-view mirror, the candidates the DSCC endorsed now have to prove the committee was right to weigh in, while also uniting the party after some contentious races. Some Democrats don’t think that will be a problem.

“If you’re a Democrat, you want to send a message to Donald Trump,” said Jared Leopold, a Democratic strategist who worked for the DSCC in 2010. “Certainly, you should fight for the candidate you believe in in the primary. But the vast majority of people recognize the stakes for both the presidential and Senate races this November.” 

Taking sides

The DSCC’s preferred candidates faced a range of primary challenges, from Kelly having no opposition in Arizona to Amy McGrath winning a narrow victory in Kentucky over state Rep. Charles Booker, who was backed by prominent liberal lawmakers such as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

McGrath and Air Force veteran MJ Hegar in Texas had the closest primaries of all of the DSCC-backed candidates. Other endorsed candidates who had opponents all defeated them by nearly 20 points or more, although Democratic outside groups spent millions in some states to bolster preferred candidates.

Some strategists said the lack of close contests could be explained by the national party heading off primary challenges while recruiting candidates and discouraging others from running.

“It’s really hard to go against the establishment, especially in statewide races,” said progressive strategist Rebecca Katz, who worked for John Fetterman, now Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor, when he ran unsuccessfully against the DSCC-backed Katie McGinty in 2016.

Texas state Sen. Royce West said after losing the Democratic primary runoff to Hegar last month that he was “battling two Goliaths,” one of them being the DSCC, which endorsed Hegar back in December.

The national party’s endorsement can help connect a candidate to consultants and provide a fundraising boost by signaling to donors who the committee considers the best general election candidates. The DSCC does take a candidate’s own fundraising into account when weighing an endorsement, along with support from within the state, the campaign team and grassroots support.

In the Texas race, for example, Hegar led the crowded field in fundraising. But the DSCC faced some pushback for taking sides in the primary and backing a white candidate over other candidates of color, including West, who is Black.

Jesse Hunt, the spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, suggested the contentious primaries exposed divides in the Democratic Party that may not be overcome by November.

“Chuck Schumer’s dark money groups and super PACs spent many millions of dollars to steamroll several minority candidates in competitive primaries,” Hunt said in a statement. “That’s not something Schumer & Co. should crow about, and the intraparty wounds on their side won’t necessarily heal any time soon.”

DSCC-backed candidates do risk being directly tied to the national party, which could be a problem in Republican-leaning or swing states where candidates want to show they are independent of their party. But some Democratic strategists said an endorsement isn’t a general election liability, since Republicans would tie those candidates to the national party anyway.

And while Democrats conceded that complaints about diversity have to be taken seriously, they argued that of the 15 candidates the committee backed before their primaries, five are white men, five are men of color, and five are women.

“It is harder for them to credibly levy that accusation when the committee chair is a woman of color herself,” said a Democratic strategist with experience in Senate races, referring to Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, the first Latina to lead the DSCC.

On to November

For the DSCC, the decision to bolster early those candidates seen as the strongest general election contenders is already paying off as competitive Senate races shift in their direction.

“More than a dozen Republican-held Senate seats are competitive because Democrats have the strongest candidates running in states across the country,” DSCC spokesman Stewart Boss said. “Beating Mitch McConnell and making real progress on the issues that matter means nominating strong candidates everywhere to expand the map and flip the Senate.”

With the primary behind them, these Senate candidates now have to unite the party. Katz, the progressive strategist, was confident the party could rally around the goal of flipping the Senate.

But she added: “Unfortunately, once again, it’s up to the left that has to suck it up instead of maybe a centrist for once in their lives voting for some lefty candidate.”

Some Democratic strategists noted the task might not be so difficult since Democratic primary voters have one goal: to win.

Leopold said that unlike in 2010, when Democrats controlled the Senate, primary voters this year may be thinking more strategically about how to win back the chamber.

Voters in 2010 “felt more comfortable to choose which Democrat they preferred in the primary and to tell the national party to go pound sand,” Leopold said. This year, he said, a party endorsement could actually be helpful.

In 2010, Leopold worked for Cal Cunningham, who lost a North Carolina Senate primary despite having the DSCC’s endorsement. (Leopold didn’t blame the loss on the committee’s involvement.) Cunningham was once again endorsed by the DSCC in his Senate run this year, and he beat a more liberal primary challenger by 25 points.

“Democratic primary voters are in a ‘just win, baby’ mode, to quote Al Davis,” said Leopold, referring to the late owner of the NFL’s Oakland Raiders. “A national party endorsement in a Senate race can convey who seems the most likely to win.”