Democratic voters looking to retain the Senate might have something unusual next year: options.
Unlike in recent years, when Washington Democrats anointed privileged Senate candidates early and more or less cleared the main field for them, the party now faces overcrowded nomination contests in some of the key states that will determine which party controls the upper chamber.
At least 10 Democrats are vying for a chance to face vulnerable Republican Senator Ron Johnson in Wisconsin, a state Joe Biden won last year. Four leading Democrats are vying for the nomination in Pennsylvania, where Republican Senator Pat Toomey is retiring. And two Democrats have already raised more than $ 1 million each in North Carolina, with at least four others vying for a vacant seat vacated by Republican Senator Richard Burr.
The party apparatus in Washington insists that it is not, for the moment, choosing sides.
“While we keep all of our options on the table, at this point the DSCC assesses key areas, maintains open lines of communication with each candidate, and builds the campaign infrastructure our prospective candidate will need to win the general election. “said David Bergstein, communications director for the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee.
Republicans are no strangers to boisterous primaries, dating back at least to the rise of the Tea Party movement in 2010, and some this year have already turned nasty. National Republicans have generally adopted a lighter touch in primaries and have said they will stay out of intra-party contests this year.
But it’s a new approach for Democrats, who have bragged about rallying behind a candidate early – even when it irritates activists and disadvantages candidates – and often called attention to the chaos on the GOP side.
Senator Chuck Schumer, DN.Y., now Senate Majority Leader, attributed his success leading the party’s campaign efforts in 2006, when Democrats reclaimed the chamber, to his heavy hand in the primaries.
“Of all the things (the former Democratic Leader of the Senate) Harry Reid and I discussed the day I took over as DSCC, I think an aggressive selection of candidates – both through recruiting and ‘intervention in the primaries – helped win a majority in the Senate more than any other (even more than our fundraising advantage, which was important, of course.), ”Schumer wrote in a post strategy note. -election.
But since then Washington’s power brokers have found it harder to weigh in, as candidates can now build their own online fundraising and support networks.
And, this year a number of well-trained Democrats have entered Senate races particularly early – including some who have done so in an attempt to get ahead of the big boys in their party.
In Wisconsin, the land includes Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes – the first African American to hold the post – state treasurer Sarah Godlewski and Alex Lasry, the 33-year-old son of the billionaire owner of the Milwaukee Bucks and an executive superior with the champion NBA team.
In North Carolina, which re-elected a Democratic governor last year as Biden lost the state by just over a percentage point, Democrats are currently divided between Cheri Beasley, the former chief justice of the State Supreme Court, and the State Senator and Former Army. Major Jeff Jackson.
Beasley, who is black, has the backing of Emily’s List, the powerful group that supports women candidates, and the Congressional Black Caucus. Jackson, who is white, has drawn large crowds and has already raised over $ 2 million, much of it online.
And in Pennsylvania, perhaps the Democrats’ best pickup opportunity, there are four officially declared candidates with viable nominations: Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, U.S. Representative Conor Lamb, State Representative Malcolm Kenyatta and the Montgomery County Commissioner, Dr. Val Arkoosh.
The Republican primary for the open Senate seat has turned acrimonious, although former President Donald Trump endorsed Sean Parnell on Thursday, and some are worried about a similar outcome on the Democratic side.
“At the end of the day, I don’t think it’s wise for our candidate, whoever he is, to be a damaged candidate before the general election,” Pennsylvania Democratic Representative Ryan Bizzarro said last month after. approving Lamb at an event in Erie. “So I hope everyone will be aware of what he is saying and the impact that will have on a general election.”
Lamb, a former federal and marine prosecutor, won a high-profile special election in 2017 and entered the Senate race with flying colors last month.
So far, the Pennsylvania contestants have mostly played nicely.
Arkoosh, a physician who now runs one of the state’s largest counties in the prosperous northern suburb of Philadelphia, positions herself as a moderate or pragmatist like Lamb, and regularly resists demands for contrast with her rivals.
“I totally understand why you are asking this question, but I think voters don’t care about labels or lanes,” she said in a recent interview.
Fetterman, a 6-foot-9 Pennsylvania lieutenant-governor, goatee and tattooed, is running for the Senate as more populist or progressive. He took a subtle approach in a fundraising email sent the day after Lamb announced his candidacy, pointing out their policy differences without mentioning him by name.
“We’ll tell you, of course, clear as day – whether it’s Conor, Malcolm Kenyatta, Val Arkoosh or anyone else on the Democrats’ side, they’d be way better than Toomey as a senator,” Joe Calvello, a spokesperson for Fetterman, said last month after Lamb entered the race. “I think we’re going to talk about John’s record and make sure people know where he stands on things, because he’s been around, and he has a record, and he’s been talking loudly about it.”
Kenyatta, meanwhile, the grandson of a famous civil rights activist, is said to be the state’s first black senator and openly gay man. And at just 31, he would be one of the youngest senators ever elected.
Mike Mikus, a Western Pennsylvania-based Democratic strategist who is not involved in the primary, said Washington Democrats stay out of the primary because candidates have their own strengths and weaknesses.
“Conor Lamb had some tough races. John Fetterman is an interesting candidate. Malcolm Kenyatta would theoretically be able to help with involvement in the Philadelphia area and with African Americans. And Val Arkoosh would undoubtedly be able to help the new part of the Democratic coalition, in the suburbs, and in particular the women of the suburbs, ”he said.
Mikus said thinking about competitive primaries has evolved among party insiders. As fears over candidates emerging from a rocky “bloody and broke” primary dominated, the scales began to tilt a little towards arguments that competitive primaries can also be beneficial by giving the prospective candidate a “step forward.” not ”before the general election.
“Now, with the increase in online fundraising, these Senate campaigns can recharge quite quickly,” he said.
David Pepper, the former chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, believes primaries can be advantageous if they are allowed to proceed without interference from state and national leaders.
The contested primaries are gaining more media attention, giving candidates without statewide name recognition a chance to get it early and for free. And, in his mind, a candidate who walks out of the field without institutional support has a better story to tell in a general election.
“What is the advantage of not having a primary?” You don’t spend any money, but I think you are much less on the voters’ minds than later in the campaign, ”said Pepper, who prefers Rep. Tim Ryan to progressive lawyer and activist Morgan Harper in the Ohio Democratic Senate primary.
“If the other party is fighting,” said Pepper, alluding to the ultra-competitive Ohio Senate primary on the GOP side, “the risk is that, even if you saved the money, once the primary over, you lose 20 points in the polls, because people don’t know who you are.