The Bellwether Primaries

Democracy Examined

America is in a democratic crisis, and the primaries happening five days from now may clarify each party’s strategy to lead us out of it. Republicans are determining whether their party will head toward the pro-Trump but more moderate style of politicians like Glenn Youngkin, or dive headfirst into pro-Trump populism with candidates like Marjorie Taylor Greene. Democrats, meanwhile, are acting like a ship without a keel, drifting between conventional, establishment politics and an untested progressive agenda after hemorrhaging blue-collar support over the past decade. 

We’ll have to wait until November to get a full picture of where the parties stand, but this upcoming Tuesday, three primaries in Pennsylvania and North Carolina might tell us which way the wind is blowing. Are Democratic voters turning on progressivism? Do Republicans want to lean into the media-focused culture war candidates, or are they interested in pragmatists? 

1. What’s a Trump Endorsement Worth? (Pennsylvania Republican Senate Primary)

On the Republican side of the Pennsylvania Senate race, primary voters will have their pick from the crowded field of everything the party has to offer. Among the more moderate candidates is Jeff Bartos, the real estate developer who wouldn’t be out of place in the Republican party of Mitt Romney or John McCain. He’s polling in a distant fifth. The four candidates in front of him, meanwhile, all went on the record saying that we still shouldn’t move on from disputing the 2020 election result.

The two early favorites in the race were Dave McCormick, the former CEO of the hedge fund Bridgewater Associates, and Dr. Mehmet Oz, the TV personality.

McCormick is running as a pro-Trump, America First candidate, but his record tells something different. While his website says “Dave has been tough on China his whole life,” he advocated for closer economic ties with China during the George W. Bush administration, saying, “When China succeeds, the United States succeeds.” Lately, he’s tried to lean into the culture wars and critiqued the “Extreme Left” for attacking conservative values, yet at Bridgewater, he welcomed progressive policies, like funding employees’ gender transitions. As one critical Fox News piece put it, “McCormick pledged to ‘stand up against the wokeness’ in big business, but his firm was leading the charge.” McCormick might call himself “America First,” but his commitment to the agenda seems skin deep. 

All of this is fuel for Oz, who wants to label McCormick as a RINO. But Oz has his own history with left-wing policies he has to contend with. In 2019, Oz seemed to defend Roe v Wade in a radio interview and endorsed a New-Zealand-style ban on semi-automatic rifles. Yet by 2022, he is resolutely pro-life and a proud defender of a maximalist interpretation of the Second Amendment. 

Oz is benefitting from a coveted Trump endorsement, but his commitment to Trumpism doesn’t seem much more sincere than McCormick’s. Like McCormick, he’s gambled that America First is the clearest path to Washington and election denialism is key to any successful platform. 

While Oz and McCormick were battling in a two-man race, a third candidate sprung onto the scene as a last-minute contender. Kathy Barnette is the Pennsylvania GOP’s newest star, whom Steve Bannon mused is “pure MAGA — in fact, [she] may be ultra-MAGA.” On her campaign website in a section on “Medical Freedom,” presumably related to vaccines, the Black candidate asks, “Who are we, if not slaves, if we can no longer even question what happens to our own bodies?” As Politico reported, she’s linked her campaign to front-running gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, a state senator with ties to the QAnon conspiracy, joining him on the campaign trail and exchanging endorsements.

The rise of Barnette is a shock to Pennsylvania Republicans. While Oz and McCormick have spent a combined $24 million on television ads, making this the most expensive Senate race this year, Barnette has spent barely more than $100,000. Just one month ago, she was polling at about 6.5 percent support. Now, she’s skyrocketed to second place with 21 percent support, sandwiched between Oz at 23.3 percent and McCormick at 20.3 percent. The race is a dead heat, and Barnette has all the momentum.

All three candidates contest the 2020 election result, have thrown their support behind Donald Trump, and promise an America First agenda, but they’re hardly identical. McCormick is a successful businessman with ties to the pre-Trump Republican party and a surprisingly progressive history. Oz is a celebrity with a knack for television but little political experience. And then there’s Barnette, the only ideologically pure “Ultra-MAGA” candidate in the field whose victory could ironically prove humiliating for Trump since she will have defeated his endorsed candidate. 

No matter who wins in Pennsylvania’s Republican primary, it’s clear that election denialism is a prerequisite for contending. The question remains whether the party will coalesce around candidates like McCormick who try to make Trumpism more palatable, or culture warriors like Barnette. While no candidate that disputes the results of free and fair elections can strengthen our democracy, Pennsylvania Republicans are about to show just how far into the rabbit hole they want their candidates to go.


2. Are Dems Going Progressive? (Pennsylvania Democratic Senate Primary)

Unlike Republicans, Pennsylvania Democrats face a choice between two unexpectedly different candidates: a Bernie Sanders-style progressive and a younger, more traditional moderate. 

Facing off on the ballot are Congressman Conor Lamb and Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman. Lamb represents the establishment—he served as a Marine before becoming a federal prosecutor and entering Democratic politics. The national party likes him because in 2018 he won a special election in a House district that Donald Trump carried by nearly 20 points in 2016. 

Fetterman, on the other hand, is opening up a new frontier for Democrats. He’s a 6’8” giant who mostly wears Carhartt clothes, lives in a depressed former steel town, and married a woman who grew up as an undocumented immigrant. He’s commonly labeled a progressive (a label he’s trying to shake) and supports legalizing cannabis at a national level, a $15 dollar minimum wage, and expanding unions. But it’s his man-of-the-people image that makes him a Democratic prototype the Left is excited to test. Already, he’s earned profiles in the New York Times, the Washington PostTime magazine, and Rolling Stone. Democrats are wondering if candidates like Fetterman are how they can win back blue-collar voters, as they certainly haven’t forgotten that 15 percent of the electorate swung from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016. 

If polling is any indication, it’s Fetterman’s race to lose. Right now, he is polling at 43 percent support while Lamb is at just 12 percent. And if that advantage holds, it could be a sign that the party’s soul searching after the rise of Trump has led them toward atypical candidates like Fetterman. While it’s clear that candidates like Lamb can connect with the broader public even when the political winds blow in the other direction, we’ll find out in November if a progressive candidate with a blue-collar background like Fetterman can connect with key constituencies beyond the democratic base. 

3. The Embattled MAGA Warrior (North Carolina District 11 Republican House Primary)

There was a promising young man from North Carolina who earned himself admission to the Naval Academy. Then one evening, a friend crashed the car they were riding in and left him for dead in the inferno. He survived but he never regained the ability to walk, losing his scholarship to Annapolis. Still, the young man persevered, and at 25 years old defied all odds by becoming the youngest member of Congress in more than half a century.

This man isn’t real, but he does have a famous imposter: Madison Cawthorn. 

The real Cawthorn never won admission to the Naval Academy and was pulled out of the crash by his friend, but Cawthorn campaigned on both lies in 2020. While faking a backstory like that might land you in some trouble with your constituents, Cawthorn never slowed down. Since taking office, reports have revealed that Cawthorn:

All of this is quite the headache for the Republican Party, but the Cawthorn dilemma was thrown into overdrive in March when he said that members of Congress he used to look up to (presumably Republicans) snort cocaine and host orgies.

Since then, the Republican establishment has reportedly conspired against Cawthorn, leaking some of the damaging evidence against his character. Though they are apparently fine with Cawthorn repeating that January 6th rioters are “political hostages” and threatening “bloodshed” if “our election systems continue to be rigged,” the Republican national party drew the line at him slandering his fellow members.

But even that might not be enough for the party to stop Cawthorn. He has outraised and outspent all of his challengers combined. In office, Cawthorn has typified the new MAGA House members, like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz, who are much more interested in political theater than legislating. When Cawthorn first took office, he sent an email to a colleague stating that he “built [his] staff around comms rather than legislation.” He’s a political troll with an office in the Capitol and the power to vote in Congress.

A Cawthorn victory over his more conventional (if still MAGA) challenger, Chuck Edwards, would be a massive vote of confidence for candidates treating our democracy like a reality TV show. It would portend a deeper descent into the lunacy of political showmanship, where shock value matters more than legislating.