As various states begin holding their primaries, we’re starting to get a sense of how the midterm elections will turn out this fall. Will Republican voters swing toward more establishment-friendly nominees or follow outsider candidates? Will we see the Democratic Party gain enough momentum in these races to take them through to the fall or even 2020?
In this S+ Extra podcast—which is exclusive to Slate Plus members—Chau Tu talks with Slate senior writer Josh Voorhees, who’s been covering all the primaries so far. He discusses the races he’s been following, the power of Trump’s influence on these ballots, and possible dark horses in the 2020 election.
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This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Chau Tu: So we’re right in the thick of the primaries. How are you holding up so far?
Josh Voorhees: I’m a little tired but doing well. The end is a long way off on the horizon, but I can almost see it.
Obviously, these primaries are big deal because they’ll set the tone for the elections in the fall. So, what have the primaries indicated so far?
Well, I mean, I guess I’ll start with the caveat that despite my previous whining, it is still really early, or after tonight, after this next batch of four, we’ll only be about a fifth the way through the primaries. We’re still looking at kind of a pretty small sample set.
That said, on the Republican side of things, it’s been interesting to see—and this is kind of an oversimplification—but the outsider and the insider lanes in the age of Trump, they’ve merged into one. That’s kind of what happens when you have a man like him that is the de facto leader of the Republican party at this point. You’re going to have your exceptions: You always have your Don Blankenships, these people that are just so far out there with their “Cocaine Mitch” ads, but generally speaking there’s just not a lot of room out there further, at least in terms of tone, than Donald Trump. So, when Trump and Mitch McConnell are backing the same person, everything kind of folds into itself in weird way, which I think we knew was going to happen, but it’s been interesting to see it kind of play out.
Then over on kind of the Democratic side, we’re seeing kind of a lot of the energy we thought we were going to, and it’s kind of this weird amalgamation of a lot of different things. You’ve got kind of your anti-Trumps, you’ve got your grassroots left, you’ve got the Parkland kids, you’ve got the #MeToo movement, and obviously a lot of these overlap but not always completely, so there’s room for some tension. But I’ve been a little surprised there that there hasn’t been quite as much tension as I’d expected.
There have been some exceptions. You had the primary of Rep. Lipinski up in Chicago. He’s anti-abortion and he had kind of a strong challenge to the left that he beat back but, with the exception of that, you’ve seen a lot of first-time candidates really in some crowded primaries, and for the most part, everyone seems to be getting along or getting along as well as, you know, you could expect in a campaign.
Yeah. You’ve noted that Democratic women have been having some noticeable success lately, right?
So the first primary of the year was in Texas, and they put up some historic numbers there. On primary night, looking at the results, in each and every one, there seemed to be one or two women in these crowded four- or five-person fields, they’d be at the top. The momentum slowed a bit in Illinois, but then we just had this last batch of four last week, and they again put up some really, really big numbers.
It’s tough to know whether that’s a result of that female candidates are actually better positioned this year with the #MeToo movement, which is possible, or it could simply be that we finally have a lot of female candidates, which then just statistically you’re going to have more female nominees. So, it’s something we can kind of keep watching as the primaries play out.
I think it’ll be really interesting to see, though, a lot of these women that are winning the nominations will be up against Republican incumbents. It’s just really difficult to beat an incumbent in any year. Americans say they hate Congress, but apparently they forgive their own congressmen a lot.
Then there’s also just the dynamic that these women are going up against the Republican incumbent, so they’re by definition competing in a Republican-leaning district. As much as we’ve seen the polling suggest that more and more Americans kind of are dropping these outdated sexist views that women can’t be leaders, ultimately that still hangs there and in the limited polling there has been, it seems like Republicans are perhaps less open to the idea of women leaders or they’re a little bit more hesitant. Those are still going to be the voters that these female candidates are going to have to pick off, at least the slightly more moderate ones, come the general [election]. So, it’ll be interesting to see if they can keep that momentum going.
Right now you’re prepping for this week’s primaries, where Idaho, Nebraska, Oregon, and Pennsylvania are having elections. By the time we release this podcast, we’ll likely know the results, but what are you kind of foreseeing right now?
Well, this is almost kind of an anti-climactic bunch. There’s not a lot of excitement in them. Pennsylvania, I think, is going to play huge come the fall, and there’s still kind of some residual energy from the special election when Conor Lamb won. I think that was over a month ago now, everything kind of blurs together.
The big thing with Pennsylvania is the State Supreme Court ordered them to redraw their map, because it was horribly gerrymandered in the Republicans’ favor. So, for the past decade it’s traditionally been kind of 13 Republicans, five Democrats in Congress of the delegation, which is far more Republican than you would expect from a swing state. That was because of this map. So now, we’ve got this new map, and everything has been scrambled. The map is definitely for more advantageous to the Democrats than the previous one, but it also has bumped a bunch of incumbents into new districts. Even Conor Lamb, he just won in I think it was the 17th, but now already he’s running in a different district.
Everything has kind of just changed, where the big reason that incumbents get to stick around is the name recognition. People know, or they’re vaguely aware, of their congressman. They go into the ballot box, they see the name, and they get excited, and they click it. Now you’re going to see some Republican incumbents for the first time in a long time having to introduce themselves to voters. So that’s really scrambled things. I mean, if you look at kind of the Cook Report or some of these other nonpartisan handicappers, they’re predicting the Democrats could pick up as many as five, six, maybe even seats in the fall. Given that they only need to flip about two dozen to take control of the House, I mean it really feels as though Pennsylvania is a place where they could and perhaps even should make some really big inroads there.
Have you noticed any trends in voter issues coming up quite yet? Or is that going to come later in the further elections?
Well, within the primaries it’s interesting. Obviously, a fault line within the Democratic party—abortion still is always there. We saw that in that Lipinski race I mentioned earlier. When you look at some place, for instance Conor Lamb in the special election, he found the weird kind of half-workaround, half-cop-out of saying that he supports women’s rights to choose, but he doesn’t personally favor abortion, which is kind of Joe Biden–type answer to that question. So, you’ll see lots of that answer, and then you’ll see a candidate who is far more pro-choice and pro–women’s access to these things, and they don’t have that personal caveat. That creates kind of an interesting issue that isn’t new by any means, but that’s always been there.
On the Republican side, it really feels as though everything is a litmus test on which candidate was with Trump earliest and which is with him strongest. I think it is in Idaho tonight, there’s a gubernatorial race, and there are three Republicans, none of which voted for Donald Trump in the Idaho primary two years ago, but all of which are bragging to voters about how much they are now on Team Trump. I don’t want to boil down the Republican race so simplistically, but it does just come up over and over again.
We saw, even with Don Blankenship in West Virginia last week, you have Don Blankenship, a man that Trump is urging voters to vote against. You have Mitch McConnell trying to spend money to defeat him. Still, up until the very end when Donald Trump finally came out with his tweet, I think it was day before the election, Don Blankenship was still basically aligning himself with Trump. Even when it came time to kind of lash out at Trump, he kind of forgave him. He’s like, “Oh, the insiders are leading him wrong, they’re misinforming him,” and then still branding himself as Trumpier than Trump.
It just becomes this one thing, like the old saying in elections is: Everyone is always running the last election. It seems as though Republicans just saw Donald Trump with the White House, and so everyone certainly thinks that’s the winning ticket right now for them.
What are some of the big races that you’re gonna be keeping your eyes on particularly?
The Senate map is both interesting and static at the same time, as much as the House, where it seems as though the Democrats could pick up a couple seats to not control the House or it could have a huge blue wave and pick up, who knows, 30, 40. There’s a lot of unknowns there. It seems on the Senate side the map just favors Republicans so much they’re only defending a handful of seats. It looks like Democrats right now only have a chance to gain three seats, and they would need to gain at least two to gain control of the Senate. Meanwhile, they have senators from 10 states that Trump won up for election. It looks like four or five of those are going to be tight fights. So that map is kind of just oddly static, as you have more known, more credible candidates in those races.
On the House, everything is just always a little bit more of a grab bag. Ultimately, there’s probably a hundred races that are competitive or could be competitive this November, which is just a massive number. With a D.C.-based press corps, everyone’s spread out so thin that there’s so many that just go kind of under the radar, because you just can’t be everywhere. Like a Todd Akin–style gaffe in the Senate, everyone’s going to catch, but in the House it might go unnoticed.
But as far as one place in the House that seems really, really important, I mentioned Pennsylvania earlier, but California seems to be another place where the Democrats are going to pick up, take control of the House. It would really come down to how they do in California and, oddly, not necessarily how they’ll do in November—although obviously that matters—but November performance really depends on their primaries, because in California unlike pretty much everywhere else, they don’t have partisan primaries. They have what’s called a “jungle primary.” That’s coming up June 5. Everybody—Democrats, Republicans, everyone running for district—they’re all on the same ticket. Primary voters from both parties get that ticket, they select their person, and then the top two go through.
So, there are about a half-dozen seats out there. Most of them in Southern California and these Orange County Republican-type districts, and normally this would seem like a great year for the Democrats to pick up a couple of those, but right now there’s so much energy on the left that you have on these nonpartisan tickets, you have six or seven really good, qualified, interesting Democrats, and there’s a chance they’re going split the vote and allow both the incumbent through and then maybe the top Republican challenger. So the Democrats could be just locked out of the ballot in these otherwise winnable districts. Whether the DCCC can help sort that out in the next weeks as they’re trying really will go a long way whether, I think, the House is really gettable for the Democrats.
Do you have like a cheat sheet of all the primaries that’s been going on? It seems like there’s all these different rules that happen in different districts and all that.
I would like to pretend that I am a man with an organized cheat sheet, but it really just involves frantic Googling every morning, trying to remember what I’ve already forgotten.
That makes sense. What do you think is the toughest part of your job right now?
I mean, I think it’s really just kind of keeping track of everything. The Senate, it’s pretty easy, if you’re following it day to day, to kind of have a handle on it. Again, there’s only maybe half a dozen races that are really kind of crucial. It’s rare that something happens in two of those on the same day, so it’s easy to kind of get a rhythm and keep track of them.
But with the House, I mean, it’s just chaos happening all the time. It was nice that the first primary was just a single state, Texas, and the second was Illinois. I was feeling good, thought I had my hands on everything, and then all of a sudden now we’re up to these four-a-night-type things. I cover the results from my kitchen table normally with headphones on and CNN blaring. It’s rare for me to get flustered enough where I start crying, but, you know, I’m not going to say it hasn’t happened.
You were also talking about how difficult it is to be reporting on the ground, but you actually got to see L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti recently, because he came out to Iowa for what looks to be like an early start on the 2020 campaign trail. What did you learn from seeing him?
Yeah, that was a couple weeks ago. I drove over to Des Moines, it’s about two hours away, when he was coming in. I was kind of expecting him to kind of just—not flop, in the sense that people wouldn’t like him—but I just thought no one would care. I mean, we’re in the midst of a competitive midterm, 2020 is so far away. He’s the mayor of L.A.—yeah people are vaguely aware of him, but he’s not the type of guy like you think Des Moines is going to go crazy for. But I caught him at like a local Democratic meet-and-greet at a dive bar at 11 a.m. on a Saturday, and it was a packed house. These weren’t your Eric Garcetti superfans by any means, but they were all there with maybe like one piece of information that they liked about him, and they were just generally excited to hear from him.
I think that speaks to a little bit of just how weird Iowans are with their pride about the caucuses. These again were people that are involved in the local Democratic party, so this is not necessarily your just average person, but at the same time I do think it suggests of how kind of eager and how much appetite there is for 2020 in this new field. I think everyone in that room has probably had a favorite between your top line candidates, whether it’s Biden or Warren or Bernie, but they’re still out there and they’re so interested. Ultimately, there’s this giant mass of 15 or 20 other possible candidates that the Democrats could put forth. I think that everyone, even when they have their favorite this far out, is still shopping around, which I think surprised me a bit.
Any other early 2020 candidates that are catching your ear? Someone surprising kind of like Garcetti maybe?
To be honest, as far as the true kind of dark horses, which I would put Garcetti in simply because he’s a mayor, and this might be the recency bias here, but I think he seemed to connect with voters in a way that was stronger than I expected. I think that’s what would kind of happen from there. Then there’s kind of that next wave. I certainly think that Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris are well positioned. They’re big enough names where they’ll be able to possibly compete kind of financially with your Bernies and your Bidens and your Warrens, but at the same time like they are a fresher face, they’re much younger. I do wonder about those top candidates that come 2020, there will be a little bit of a burnout that people will want something slightly fresh, in which case someone like Gillibrand or Harris I think might present that for them.
Concerning your beat in politics in the primaries right now, what do you think goes often misunderstood by the audience, by regular readers and listeners?
I’m based in Iowa and most of Slate is in D.C., and so I like to lord that over everyone as though I’m a real man of the people out here in the heartland, but certainly I’m on the same kind of news consumption diet that everyone else at Slate is. The one kind of divide I’ve noticed between how I experience the world and how a lot of the voters and even the candidates I’ve talked to when you get farther away from D.C., it’s the Russia investigation. It is massively important obviously, and it could literally shape the course of history, so I don’t by any means want to undercut that, and I think we should be covering it with as much frenzy as we are, but I do find it interesting that the people out here in Iowa, they’re not following the twists and turns.
When I’m at an event, people aren’t interested in the latest Michael Cohen gossip. Maybe they’re paying attention, or maybe they’re just probably one half-step removed, and they’re letting it play out. Obviously, if Donald Trump were to do something wild like firing Robert Mueller, or if when we finally see some of these concrete conclusions come out from the report, I think that certainly will play into these races and shape opinions out here, but as much as Trump hangs over everything and the Mueller investigation hangs over him, day-to-day campaigning out here he goes less mentioned that I think I certainly had expected when I started going out to events.