Republican candidates who questioned, denied and challenged the results of the 2020 presidential election won a string of consequential primaries in Pennsylvania and North Carolina this week, a testament to the enduring power of Donald Trump’s voter fraud myth, which continues to animate the hard-right movement he started.
In a campaign season dominated by angst over the economy and frustration with leadership in Washington, several hard-right candidates successfully channeled conservative grassroots momentum, and are now in striking distance of positions that will have enormous influence over voting and elections administration in battleground states across the country.
Democrats, meanwhile, who face a grim electoral outlook dampened by Joe Biden’s dismal approval ratings, chose to elevate candidates who more closely reflected the party’s base, with progressives on the verge of growing their ranks in Congress.
Though not yet complete, the results from Tuesday’s highly anticipated election night delivered a composite portrait of a Republican party still in Trump’s thrall, even in races where his chosen candidate came up short.
In Pennsylvania, Republicans nominated Doug Mastriano, a hard-right election denier who was a key figure in the efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election in his state. He attended and helped organize Trump’s “Save America” rally in Washington on January 6 that preceded the deadly insurrection at the US Capitol, and has been subpoenaed by the House panel investigating the assault.
Mastriano’s victory sets up a high-stakes showdown with Josh Shapiro, the state’s Democratic attorney general. Should Mastriano prevail in November, he would be in charge of one of the most contested states in the country – one in which the governor appoints the secretary of state, who in turn oversees the election.
During his campaign, Mastriano embraced elements of Christian nationalism, staking out controversial positions on issues such as abortion, LGBTQ rights and public health mandates. In one debate, he suggested he would oppose any exceptions to an abortion ban, including in cases involving rape or incest. Shapiro has cast himself as a defender of abortion rights, an issue that is expected to play a key role in governor’s races this fall should the supreme court strike down Roe v Wade, as is anticipated.
In his victory speech Tuesday night, Mastriano lashed out at media outlets and commentators who referred to him as “extreme”.
“They like to call people who stand on the constitution far-right and extreme,” he said. “Forcing your kids to mask up, that’s extreme. Forcing healthcare workers to lose their job for not getting a jab. It’s extreme when you shut down businesses in our state.”
In the marquee Senate race, the Trump-backed celebrity physician, Mehmet Oz, was neck-and-neck with the former hedge fund chief executive David McCormick, with nearly all of the vote tallied. The conservative commentator Kathy Barnette had fallen far behind and was out of contention for the nomination.
During the campaign, the candidates competed to claim the Maga mantle. Both Oz, who touted Trump’s endorsement, and McCormick, who is married to the former Trump administration official Dina Powell, struggled to animate the former president’s loyal base, and spent millions of dollars of their personal war chests attacking each other in one of the most expensive intra-party brawls of the cycle.
That apparently left an opening for Barnette, who enjoyed a last-minute surge in the polls. Despite her Maga bona fides and endorsements from Trump’s allies, the former president warned voters that she was unelectable.
In response to doubts about the strength of her candidacy, Barnette said: “Maga does not belong to President Trump.”
In North Carolina, the scandal-plagued first-term congressman Madison Cawthorn lost his re-election bid despite Trump urging supporters to give the 26-year-old Maga firebrand a “second chance”. He was beaten by Chuck Edwards, a state senator who offered a record that was every bit as conservative but without the celebrity. It was a sharp fall for Cawthorn, once viewed as a rising star in the Maga universe, and a rare win for the Republican party’s old guard, which aligned against him.
Trump’s choice for Senate, the North Carolina congressman Tedd Budd, also triumphed. Trump’s early endorsement of the little-known House Republican reshaped the race, elevating a candidate who objected to the certification of 2020 election results in two states. He beat out the state’s former governor, Pat McCrory, who refused to say the 2020 election was stolen.
Budd now faces the former state supreme court chief justice Cheri Beasley for the seat being vacated by the retiring Republican senator Richard Burr. If elected, Beasley would be the southern state’s first Black senator if elected.
Trump’s choice in Idaho also came up short, failing to unseat the state’s Republican governor, Brad Little. Janice McGeachin, the state’s far-right lieutenant governor, who twice attempted a power grab while Little was out of state, had made Trump’s false claims of a stolen election a central plank of her candidacy.
While much of the focus was on Trump’s influence over his party, Tuesday’s results tested Biden’s appeal among the party’s base. In Oregon, a progressive challenger, Jamie McLeod-Skinner, appeared on track to unseat the congressman Kurt Schrader, a seven-term incumbent with a reputation for breaking with his party. Schrader was the first candidate Biden endorsed this cycle, and his loss would be a major victory for the progressive movement.
In Pennsylvania, Congressman Conor Lamb, an avowed centrist from the Biden wing of the party who won difficult races in Trump country, lost handily to the state’s lieutenant governor, John Fetterman, an iconoclastic progressive with blue-collar appeal.
Meanwhile, Pennsylvania state representative Summer Lee, running for an open House seat, appeared to have overcome a wave of money from outside groups aiming to counter the progressive movement. If she wins the primary in the solidly Democratic district, Lee would be on track to become the first Black woman to represent Pennsylvania in Congress.
“Our victory shows that we can overcome the billionaire class that wants to divide and conquer us all with fear and lies-for-profit, if only we come together across our differences for a positive vision of multiracial democracy,” Lee wrote on Twitter after declaring victory on Tuesday night. “We can have nice things, if we fight.”