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The Sweep: What Does J.D. Vance’s Victory Tell Us About the Midterms?
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The Sweep: What Does J.D. Vance’s Victory Tell Us About the Midterms?

Plus: Elon Musk and shifts in the political spectrum.

Ohio: What Does It Mean?

Last night, J.D. Vance won a heavily contested and crowded GOP primary. The race pitted Ted Cruz and the Club for Growth, which endorsed Josh Mandel, against Donald Trump. Donald Trump won. But in isolation, it’s hard to know what we learned—especially when it comes to Trump’s endorsement. Trump’s endorsed candidates in Georgia and Pennsylvania are both running behind at this point. So what gives?

Based on my read of the available data, Trump’s endorsement was worth about 3-5 percentage points in terms of people who immediately switched their vote. But the real value was with undecided voters. Trump’s endorsement gave them a reason to look at Vance. That momentum started consolidating the field—and not just for Vance. Matt Dolan, the most moderate candidate, jumped 10 points in the wake of Trump’s endorsement. 

So what made Ohio different? Ohio’s primary had a bunch of candidates running their first statewide race, and with low name ID. Trump’s endorsement was one of the few things many voters were going to know about any given candidate. At the same time, the frontrunner for most of the race—Mandel—and his allies blanketed airwaves running ads against Vance by saying that he was ‘“NeverTrump.” So when Trump endorsed Vance over Mandel, it cut Mandel’s legs out from under him.

Compare those dynamics with Georgia, where both gubernatorial candidates—incumbent Brian Kemp and former Sen. David Perdue—have held statewide office and are well-known to GOP voters. Not surprisingly, Trump’s endorsement of Perdue has proved less valuable. In Pennsylvania, it’s largely a two-man race between Trump-endorsed Dr. Mehmet Oz and business executive David McCormick. That means the voters less influenced by Trump aren’t splitting their vote like they did in Ohio’s scrum. 

But we’ll see. As we learned in Ohio, a lot can change in those final weeks. Trump had a good night last night. And whether he repeats the performance in Georgia and Pennsylvania or not, last night mattered in terms of his continuing influence with GOP voters in 2024 and beyond.

Will Overturning Roe Change 2022? 

There has been this assumption among the commentariat that a Supreme Court decision overturning Roe would create a massive political backlash for Republicans, potentially saving the House and Senate for Democrats in the fall. Maybe. 

I thought that after the Texas abortion law went into effect, we’d see some backlash against Republicans. But then New Jersey and Virginia happened. 

Why was I wrong? I think it’s because I missed that the political backlash already happened. Abortion was not a Republican or Democratic issue when Roe was decided in 1973 or even in its immediate aftermath. Dozens of House Democrats still voted for Hyde Amendment-like restrictions of the federal funding of abortion even as recently as 2009. But today there are only two pro-life Democrats left in the House. In fact, I am hard-pressed to think of any issue that is a more consistent identifier today between the two parties than abortion. So if that self-sorting already happened over the last 20 years, then it’s hard to see how there would be any voters left who both consider abortion a vote-changing issue and haven’t already been voting for their team. 

The best argument is that—while this may not change any votes—this will increase Democratic turnout. Again, maybe. There is certainly evidence that younger voters in particular are disillusioned with Biden and that could lower turnout. But turnout in 2018 and 2020 was the highest it’s ever been in modern times. There just aren’t that many more voters left to find and it’s not at all clear that the ones who stayed home in 2020, for example, would be singularly motivated by abortion rather than, say, inflation. 

That being said, while it is certainly the case that Democrats have run plenty of failed campaigns on the possibility that Roe could get overturned (see Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Terry McCauliffe in 2021), it’s different when it actually happens. Maybe Texas’ bounty-hunting bill didn’t have the same cache as Roe. And, of course, we don’t actually know what the final decision of the court will be.

Worth the Read: Lawrence R. Jacobs, the director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota, wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post headlined, “Instead of boosting democracy, primary elections are undermining it.” It’s a great history of party primaries but here’s the punchline: 

The rise of the primary produced a fundamental shift in political power and incentives. It forced ambitious politicians to court the voters who would show up to select party nominees in races for Congress and the presidency.

These changes seem to have proved the early-20th-century critics of the primary correct, fueling partisan polarization and stratified and ideological parties.

Why? Because primaries feature low turnouts. Only a quarter to a third of Democrats and Republicans turn out for primaries during presidential campaigns; about half of that during midterm elections. And the voters who show up are activists and those with extreme views. In 2010, far-right tea party candidates scored several upsets over establishment Republicans in primaries with turnouts generally under 15 percent. On the left in 2018, political newcomer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) won a stunning primary victory over the more moderate Rep. Joseph Crowley, a member of the Democratic leadership, in an election with only 12 percent turnout.

True rule by the “people” isn’t attainable under such a system that prioritizes the extremes, and the results end up feeding perpetual cycles of disappointment, populist attacks and promises of democratic renewal that prove meaningless. 

I Guess We Learned Nothing: Maryland’s GOP Gov. Larry Hogan gave an interview to Axios in which he said “he envisions a 2024 presidential primary field with 15 or more Republicans — not necessarily including former President Trump — scrambling for Trump’s base, while ‘I want to go in a completely different direction, and I think that lane is wide open.’” I really couldn’t believe what I was reading. Had a time machine taken me back to 2015? 

The answer is clearly a resounding “yes” because then I turned on my TV and there was 

Arkansas’s Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson saying that “he’s weighing a White House bid in 2024 and that he would still consider running even if former President Donald Trump enters the race.” 

Here’s what I learned in 2015, in no particular order:

  1. There is no such thing as “lanes” in presidential politics. Voters don’t fit neatly into the categories that politicians want them to and so there is no more “evangelical lane” or “fiscal conservaitve lane” … if there ever were such things. 

  2. Fifteen people running against Donald Trump only ends one way: with Donald Trump as the Republican nominee. I think there is a real chance that Trump could lose in a head-to-head race. I absolutely believe that Trump wouldn’t have gotten off the ground in 2015 if only one of Rubio, Walker, Bush, Cruz, and Christie had run and been able to build momentum by that summer. Instead, they all focused fire on each other. At first, they did it because that’s who they thought they needed to beat to win the nomination. Then, they did it because they each thought they could outlast the others and get a one-on-one with Trump. 

  3. Anyone willing to run for president truly believes he or she can win and would be head and shoulders better than anyone else running. And that’s why they all run. Weak parties in a post-campaign finance reform world means that individual incentives trump what’s best for the party or the country. And here we are.

Utah, U-Turn: Last week, “Utah Democrats, pulling hard to defeat Republican Sen. Mike Lee, took the unusual step Saturday of spurning a party hopeful to instead get behind an independent, former presidential candidate Evan McMullin.” The vote among the Utah Democratic delegates wasn’t even very close: 782-594.  In a one-party state, such endorsements make so much sense that the only surprising thing is that it doesn’t happen more often. But the problem is how to balance picking someone who can win over the opposing party’s voters while being as far outside the party’s ideology as possible. 

McMullin had no serious chance of beating Lee in a Republican primary right now, which is why he didn’t try. A recent poll from the Deseret News/Hinckley Institute showed Lee with 67 percent and six challengers splitting the remaining 33 percent. Instead, McMullin is running as an independent who has promised not to caucus with either party if he is elected, which also would be unique. 

Does he have a shot? Hard to say. Sure, “McMullin, a former CIA officer, captured 20% of the vote in Utah when he ran for president in 2016 — including a protest vote from Lee, who was then a Trump critic.” But a lot has changed since 2016. Just ask Lee, now an ardent Trump supporter who was working with the Trump White House as it tried to challenge the results of the 2020 election—although he did vote to certify the election results in the end. 

If McMullin wins, or even makes a strong showing, it will be interesting to see if other state parties consider following suit in statewide elections. 

Was Elon Right?

Sometimes, data is in the eye of the beholder.

So who is right? Both? Neither? I think this is an area where our own subjective experience might actually be a better gauge. In my view, the answer is that political ideology doesn’t lend itself very well to math. Both parties have changed A LOT in the past 10 years and I have no idea how to quantify that change. They’ve changed on tone, on issues, and on which issues they prioritize.  

Matt Yglesias had a nice summary of the left from last year: 

I would say that far and away the best description of the past 15 years or so in American politics is that the Overton Window has gone to the left.

That’s most famously true on LGBTQ issues, where Barack Obama’s 2008-vintage position on marriage equality is now almost unimaginably right-wing, and the current debates about accommodating trans athletes were just not on the agenda. Even though people didn’t pay a ton of attention to it at the time, Obama abandoned his longstanding support for cutting Social Security benefits as part of a comprehensive deficit-reduction deal in June of 2016, and instead, he adopted the position that the program should become more generous. Hillary Clinton had already adopted that position earlier in the primary, and Donald Trump ran and won with a Social Security platform (no changes) that was to the left of Obama’s old position but to the right of his new one. 

So the Democratic Party has moved leftward. Even super-liberal Chris Hayes agrees that “At the same time, the Republican Party is moderating on policy. On a host of issues, the left is winning.” But that can’t be the end of the story for anyone living in America over the last seven years. Here’s the rest of what Chris had to say: 

The Republican Party is radicalizing against democracy. This is the central political fact of our moment. Instead of organizing its coalition around shared policy goals, the GOP has chosen to emphasize hatred and fear of its political opponents, who—they warn—will destroy their supporters and the country. Those Manichaean stakes are used to justify every effort to retain power, and make keeping power the GOP’s highest purpose. We are living with a deadly example of just how far those efforts can go, and things are likely to get worse. 

So how do we put that into an infographic for Elon?

Correction, May 4: This article initially referred to Matt Dolan as Mike Dolan.

Sarah Isgur is a senior editor at The Dispatch and is based in northern Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2019, she had worked in every branch of the federal government and on three presidential campaigns. When Sarah is not hosting podcasts or writing newsletters, she’s probably sending uplifting stories about spiders to Jonah, who only pretends to love all animals.