Rebuke, Rebirth, Rejection, Rematch: The Last Primary Night of 2014

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo listens during a news conference on medical marijuana on Thursday, June 19, 2014, in Albany, N.Y. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
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So last night marked the final primary night of 2014 (not counting Louisiana’s “Jungle Primary” that coincides with general Election Day), ending a cycle that began in Texas on March 4. Despite many efforts to impose a national “narrative” on the primaries, none really stuck. Some observers have insisted on a “Republican Establishment Defeats Tea Party” meme. But Eric Cantor’s loss, some ideologically ambiguous Senate winners, and a notable lurch to the Right by many “Establishment” candidates, make this claim questionable, and perhaps if true rather meaningless.

There were, however, plenty of mini-dramas throughout the year, not least on this final night. You could classify these as stories of a rebuke, a rebirth, a rematch and a rejection.

The rebuke was to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who despite a vast advantage in money, name ID, and institutional support, struggled to win 60 percent in a low-turnout primary competition with progressive activist Zephyr Teachout. He barely ran ahead of his little-known running mate for lieutenant governor, Kathy Hochul. Since the benchmark for an “embarrassment” of Cuomo among most cognoscenti going into the primary was Teachout reaching 30 percent of the vote, her 35 percent performance (with 88 percent of precincts reporting) certainly qualifies. And it verifies the strong progressive opposition to any presidential campaign by Cuomo — who is reliably reported to have seen a future president of the United States in his bathroom mirror each morning for many years — in the near future, thanks to his conservative fiscal policies, coziness with Wall Street, and perceived indifference to the New York Democratic Party.

The rebirth was of the political career of Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, who famously and astonishingly blew a special Senate election in 2010 to former Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA) that nearly derailed enactment of the Affordable Care Act, and caused legislative shortcuts that are still causing legal problems for the ACA. She won the Massachusetts gubernatorial primary last night, though not with many votes to spare, and will be strongly favored over Republican Charlie Baker in November unless she is truly accursed.

The rematch will be in the first congressional district of New Hampshire, where former Manchester mayor Frank Guinta won the Republican nomination for the third straight time, having beaten Democrat Carol Shea-Porter in 2010 and lost to her in 2012. This will presumably be the rubber match.

The rejection was of Rep. John Tierney (D-MA), whose ensnarement in his wife’s legal problems nearly took him down in 2012 and almost certainly led to his primary loss to Seth Moulton. Tierney was the fourth House incumbent but the first Democrat to lose a primary this year, the three Republicans being the over-the-hill Ralph Hall of Texas, the “accidental” Kerry Bentivolio of Michigan, and the hubristic Mr. Cantor.

With the primaries concluded, political junkies may now devote themselves to a general election in which the overall battleground is tilted towards the GOP thanks to at least seven separate factors: (1) a wildly favorable Senate landscape with seven Democratic seats up in states carried by Mitt Romney in 2012; (2) a House majority entrenched by redistricting, incumbency, and superior Republican “efficiency” in voter distribution; (3) a Democratic “midterm falloff” problem based on eternally lower participation rates in non-presidential years by younger and minority voters; (4) a long history of second-term midterm struggles by parties holding the White House; (5) relatively low presidential approval ratings; (6) an economy perceived by most voters as not-yet-recovering from the Great Recession; and (7) a host of international problems the president will be held accountable for not instantly resolving.

If Republicans meet or exceed expectations, of course, most will cite none of these factors and will instead claim a “mandate” on issues ranging from health care to immigration to “entitlement reform,” and vindication of their conspiratorial accusations about Benghazi! and the IRS. By then, however, we will have fully entered a presidential cycle, and a whole new ball game with many arrows immediately shifting to an opposite direction. So the true legacy of this cycle will only be determined when its influence over the next one is fully absorbed.

Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger for Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog, Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist, and a Senior Fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Earlier he worked for three governors and a U.S. Senator. He can be followed on Twitter at @ed_kilgore.

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