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Extreme candidates gaining ground in key May primaries

Republicans are at risk of squandering a golden opportunity in Pennsylvania. And two moderate Democratic lawmakers could lose primaries, putting their seats in play for the GOP.

Kathy Barnette takes part in a forum for Republican Senate candidates at the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference in Camp Hill, Pa., in April. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
May 10, 2022, 6 p.m.

Watching the trajectory of both parties in this month’s primaries, I’m reminded of the memorable Casey Stengel quote about his 1962 New York Mets: “Can’t anybody here play this game?”

Republicans are on the verge of jeopardizing their chance to win a critical battleground Senate seat in Pennsylvania, while all but throwing away an opportunity to pick up a pivotal swing-state governorship.

Democrats, meanwhile, are getting closer to ousting two moderate incumbents in Oregon and Texas for not toeing the progressive line, making it more likely Republicans will win two critical House seats in November. Their once-acclaimed Pennsylvania Senate recruit, famed for his ability to win over Trump voters in a tough district, is on track to get trounced in a Democratic primary against a popular progressive opponent.

The success of far-left and far-right candidates within both parties is a testament to the fraught political moment we’re now in. President Biden has failed to maintain much public support amid sky-high inflation, while letting progressives run roughshod over him during his first year in office. With Republicans out of power, GOP voters have become radicalized, often fueled by the progressive excesses they see around them. Extremes are feeding extremes. To quote the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, following the chaos after World War I: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

The renewed debate over abortion rights, intensified after a leaked draft suggested the Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade, is an example of how neither party is able to capture the middle of the electorate. National polling shows that most Americans favor some restrictions on abortions—including support for a 15-week abortion ban, the subject of the Supreme Court litigation—but oppose an outright ban on abortion.

Yet this week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell came out in support of a federal abortion ban, while noting that it he wouldn’t change the filibuster rules in the Senate to do so. Meanwhile, the White House and most Democratic candidates aren’t willing to show they’d support any restrictions on abortion at all, including Democrats running in swing and Republican-leaning states. The bill Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is bringing to the Senate floor to codify abortion protections would go well beyond Roe—and is too far left even for abortion-rights-supporting Republicans like Sens. Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski.

Next week’s primaries for governor and Senate in Pennsylvania are illustrative of how the political middle has collapsed. According to polling and conversations with leading Republicans involved in Pennsylvania politics, Republicans are likely to nominate state Sen. Doug Mastriano, the most extreme candidate in a crowded primary field. Democrats view Mastriano as such a weak candidate that their nominee, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, is airing an ad touting Mastriano’s MAGA credentials in an effort to boost his fortunes in the Republican primary.

Mastriano, a retired Army colonel, has participated in a rally connected to QAnon conspiracy theorists, bused supporters to the Capitol on Jan. 6 before the riots, and led efforts to audit the Pennsylvania election results. He backs a total ban on abortion, with no exception for rape, incest, or the life of the mother. He boasts a passionate faction of supporters, and in a field of nine candidates that may be enough to prevail. A newly released primary poll, conducted by the Trafalgar Group, shows Mastriano leading by 10 points over his nearest competitor, former Rep. Lou Barletta. There are no Republican outside groups seeking to puncture Mastriano’s prospects, akin to the millions spent by the Republican Governors Association to boost sitting GOP governors in primaries. If Mastriano wins the primary, the RGA is unlikely to spend on his behalf against Shapiro, according to two sources familiar with its thinking.

The Senate primary looks just as treacherous for Republicans. As the Trump-endorsed Mehmet Oz and former hedge-fund owner David McCormick spend tens of millions to beat each other up on the airwaves, a third candidate, Kathy Barnette, is sneaking up on the two front-runners despite a gaping fundraising disadvantage. Barnette, a former congressional candidate, has generated attention for staking out the most conservative ground during the debates, while also speaking compellingly about her antiabortion position drawn from her own birth story, as the byproduct of a rape.

Compared to Mastriano, Barnette is more of a wild card if she shocks the establishment to win the primary. As a Black conservative woman who has commanded the debate stage, she would present a powerful example of the growing diversity of the MAGA movement. But she’s also staked out positions well to the right of the average Pennsylvania voter. A Mastriano supporter, she has similarly championed baseless allegations of voter fraud on conservative networks like Newsmax and OAN. Republicans fear there’s a lot more baggage that could come out if she’s the nominee, given that she hasn’t faced the same degree of scrutiny as her better-known rivals.

Democrats find themselves held captive to their own base, as well. Rep. Conor Lamb, a battle-tested Democrat who President Biden once likened to his own son Beau, is lagging in his Senate primary against the more-progressive lieutenant governor, John Fetterman. (Fetterman, it should be noted, has run a pragmatic Senate race, but his base of support is concentrated among more-progressive voters.)

The Pennsylvania Senate race will come down to which party will end up nominating the more-mainstream candidate. If Republicans nominate McCormick, it’s easy to see him pivoting to the middle for a general election and capitalizing on the favorable political environment for Republicans. If Barnette prevails, leading Republican officials anticipate Fetterman would start out as the front-runner.

On the House side, Democrats are growing increasingly concerned that the leaked Supreme Court draft on abortion makes the task of two moderate lawmakers facing May primary challenges from the left even more difficult. Reps. Henry Cuellar of Texas and Kurt Schrader of Oregon have both been losing support in multiple Democratic surveys conducted since the news broke, according to several Democratic operatives familiar with the data.

Cuellar, the last remaining antiabortion Democrat in the House, must get past progressive attorney Jessica Cisneros, who trailed the incumbent by 2 points in the March primary. Schrader, a Blue Dog Democrat who supports abortion rights, is up against a well-funded challenge from attorney Jamie McLeod-Skinner. Both challengers have been endorsed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and they support the Green New Deal and Medicare-for-all. If they prevail in their primaries, their progressive positioning will be problematic in these competitive districts with sizable culturally conservative constituencies. President Biden carried Schrader’s newly drawn district by 9 points, and prevailed by 7 points in Cuellar’s seat.

An upcoming Pittsburgh-area House primary is another example of the Far Left gaining a foothold into Democratic politics. State Rep. Summer Lee, a candidate whose anti-Israel rhetoric has concerned Pittsburgh's sizable Jewish community, boasted an early edge against a more-moderate opponent, Steve Irwin. Lee’s record of supporting left-wing causes—she won her state legislative race with support from a local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America—suggests that if she prevailed, she’d fit in well with the Squad. And while any Democrat in Pittsburgh should be able to coast to victory, Lee’s ideological disposition is concerning enough that The Cook Political Report noted the general election in a deep-blue Biden +20 district “could be worth watching” if she wins the nomination.

Regardless of the exact outcome of the midterms, next year’s Congress is already shaping up as even more ideologically polarized than it is today. Retiring establishment-oriented Republicans, like Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio and Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan, will likely be replaced by MAGA-oriented lawmakers. Moderate Democrats will be disproportionately defeated in a Republican wave, making the Democratic caucus smaller and more progressive. Meanwhile, Donald Trump is waiting in the wings for a presidential comeback. If he runs, it would make it all but impossible for either side to calm the ideological passions that are taking their parties to the brink.

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