Trump hits another snag: 6 takeaways from a big primary night

How to buck Trump and live to tell the tale

Two weeks after Donald Trump was humiliated in Georgia’s primaries, a lower-profile collection of Republicans on Tuesday were putting a finer point on the limitations of Trump’s influence over the GOP.

It’s still enormous, of course. But five of the 35 House Republicans who voted to create a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol appeared on ballots on Tuesday. And all of them appear to have survived to fight another day.

In Mississippi, Rep. Michael Guest was narrowly trailing a Trumpian challenger, Michael Cassidy, who hit Guest directly for his vote for the commission. With 89 percent of the expected vote in, he appeared headed to a June 28 runoff. And it was too early in California to see how Rep. David Valadao, who bucked Trump to vote for both impeachment and the Jan. 6 commission, will fare.

For the most part, Republicans who crossed Trump were not suffering for their infidelity.

In Iowa, Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks ran unopposed. In South Dakota, Rep. Dusty Johnson drubbed his hard-line challenger, Taffy Howard. And in New Jersey, where Trump once sought to encourage a primary challenge to Rep. Chris Smith, the veteran incumbent beat back a challenge from Mike Crispi, a Republican podcast host backed by Roger Stone. [One inspired headline from the state on Tuesday night read in part, “Crispi creamed by Smith.”]

It was little better for Trump beyond the House five. In South Dakota, Sen. John Thune, who infuriated Trump when he said his effort to overturn the 2020 election would “go down like a shot dog,” thrashed the also-rans who challenged him.

“[Thune’s] a popular incumbent that is very connected to his state and is conservative,” said one South Dakota Republican familiar with both the Thune and Johnson campaigns. The Republican said that mattered more than “the bloviating from Florida.”

As for what Tuesday said about Trump’s influence on the party, Bob Heckman, a Republican consultant who has worked on nine presidential campaigns, said, “I think the jury’s out now, and it wasn’t before.”

“If I were a candidate, I’d certainly rather have Trump’s endorsement than opposing me, but there’s a lot of other factors beyond that,” said Heckman, a close friend of Smith. “Before, it was perceived to be a done deal that Trump could kill you, and now it’s not so clear.”

Democrats have a turnout problem

Democrats began worrying last week about their turnout problem in California, which was lagging last year’s gubernatorial recall by several million votes.

It looked even worse on primary day. According to the California-based political data firm Political Data Inc., about 3.3. million ballots had been returned by early morning Tuesday, far less than at the same point last year.

Primary turnout has traditionally not been a good predictor of general election turnout. One explanation for the lack of interest in Tuesday’s primary is that the races in California were simply too boring to care.

But California is not an insignificant state for Democrats. It’s a bastion of progressivism that has bent over backwards to enact policies making it easier for people to vote. For Democrats already confronting a bleak midterm election landscape nationally, any sign of apathy there is reason for concern.

California-based Doug Herman, who was a lead mail strategist for Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns, said it “portends turnout trouble for the fall if the primary [turnout] is this low.”

He said, “It is a red flag for sure.”

A brushback for liberal prosecutors

It wasn’t so long ago that progressive prosecutors were the hottest thing on the left.

There was Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, George Gascón in Los Angeles and Kim Foxx in Cook County, Ill. Progressives wanted to overhaul the criminal justice system, and they targeted district attorney races to do it.

But in a sign of how quickly politics is shifting around criminal justice this year, the movement took a major hit on Tuesday. In San Francisco, one of the nation’s most progressive enclaves, Chesa Boudin was recalled — down by a margin of more than 20 percentage points as returns came in.

A former deputy public defender, Boudin had become a leader in criminal justice reform efforts nationwide. But amid a surge in violent crime nationally, even voters in San Francisco had enough.

The movement is far from dead. In New Mexico, Bernalillo County District Attorney Raúl Torrez, who was a beneficiary in 2016 of mega-donor George Soros’ effort to elevate reform-minded prosecutors, won his primary on Tuesday for state attorney general.

San Francisco isn’t going to become any less Democratic after Boudin’s ouster, either. The city’s Democratic mayor, London Breed, isn’t likely to appoint a law-and-order Republican to the seat.

But ever since it became clear that Boudin was on his way out, progressives in California and elsewhere have been grimacing. His defeat will embolden critics of criminal justice reform, not only among Republicans, but moderate Democrats, as well.

Kristi Noem’s flex

The most interesting thing about the 2024 presidential primary wasn’t anything that happened in Tuesday’s primaries in Iowa, the first-in-the-nation caucus state. Rather, it was what Kristi Noem did in South Dakota, one state over.

Noem, the South Dakota governor and potential presidential or vice presidential contender, was never in any real danger of losing reelection. But to say she’s had a turbulent first term would be an understatement. Noem infuriated conservatives when she waffled on legislation to ban transgender women and girls from playing women’s sports, and she frustrated them again when she delayed a highly politicized review of the state’s social studies standards. Then there was the controversy surrounding Corey Lewandowski, the adviser Noem cut loose following accusations he made unwanted sexual advances toward a woman at a charity event last year.

Noem’s victory in the state’s Republican gubernatorial on primary was a show of force and should give her something of a reset.

Her opposition was somewhat marginal. Steve Haugaard, the Republican state representative and former speaker of the state House who ran against Noem from the right, was badly under-funded. The election, one longtime Republican activist in the state said Tuesday, amounted to little more than a “referendum or protest-type vote.”

But Noem beat it, winning 76 percent with 96 percent of the expected vote in. And after nearly losing the gubernatorial election in 2018, she is expected to cruise in November.

Choose your own political adventure

Political parties have a rich tradition of mucking around in each other’s primaries, particularly when they see an opportunity to elevate a candidate they believe they can obliterate in the fall. Josh Shapiro, the Democratic nominee for governor of Pennsylvania, sought to do that just that this year, when he aired an ad designed to lift Republican Doug Mastriano in the primary.

But the gamesmanship is on another level in California, thanks to a top-two primary in which the two top vote-getters advance to the November general election, regardless of party affiliation.

Two Republicans, Rep. Young Kim of Orange County and David Valadao of the Central Valley, entered Tuesday at risk of being shut out of the general election altogether — with Democrats doing their best to help Republicans perceived as weaker candidates finish ahead of them.

In the Valadao race, the Democratic leadership-aligned House Majority PAC has spent money to boost Chris Mathys. In Orange County, Democrat Asif Mahmood ran ads focusing not on Kim, but another Republican, Greg Raths.

The effort may prove futile. In the earliest returns, both Valadao and Kim were in position to advance. But it was still early in California, and given the potential payoff for Democrats if either incumbent falters tonight — a weaker candidate in either of two districts Joe Biden carried in 2020 — it was probably worth the cost.

Caruso’s risky runoff

Billionaire developer Rick Caruso was leading Rep. Karen Bass in the race for Los Angeles mayor, with both advancing to a November runoff.

But Caruso may regret he couldn’t finish Bass off in the primary. Had he received a majority of the vote, he would have won outright.

Instead, Bass has life. When the Associated Press called the race at 10 p.m., Caruso was running ahead of her by only about 3 percentage points, 41 percent to 38 percent, despite spending more than $37 million of his personal fortune.

In the nation’s second-largest city, voters gravitated to his promises to crack down on crime and homelessness. But the runoff could prove tricky for Caruso. Bass is a well-known Democrat with a long history of activism in the city. In a runoff, without other progressive candidates to siphon votes away from Bass, Caruso will have stiffer competition.

Lara Korte contributed to this report.

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