If Tuesday’s elections needed a slogan, it would be “make politics boring again.” In the hottest race of the night, the special election for Ohio’s 12th congressional district, Democrats failed to pull off an upset victory. Republican Troy Balderson, running to replace incumbent Republican Patrick Tiberi, squeaked out a one-point win over Democrat Danny O’Connor in a district that has reliably elected GOP congressmen since 1982. (It’s John Kasich’s old district.) Democrats take heart from the narrow margin—if Ohio 12 is this close, doesn’t that mean the Democrats will pick up less heavily Republican districts in November and cruise to control in the House of Representatives?
Quite likely. But the numbers right now suggest that control of the House may be as close run a thing as the election of Ohio 12 just was. The Cook Political Report lists seven Republican-held seats as “likely” to fall to the Democrats in November, with 24 Republican-held seats, including Ohio 12, rated as “toss ups.” (Two seats held by Democrats are also toss-ups.) Democrats need to pick up 24 seats to take control. This week’s outcome in Ohio doesn’t provide a very helpful preview: just as before, we know it’s going to be close. The 12th district itself will see a re-run of this week’s race, with O’Connor and Balderson facing off again in November.
(As always in such close races, there is a slim possibility that yet-to-be-counted provisional and absentee ballots will change the outcome after election night—but in the unlikely event that O’Connor pull ahead when the final tally is in, a narrow margin in favour of the Democrat instead of the Republican would not change the message of the race: namely, that Democrats have a good chance at but not a lock on winning the House in November.)
Results were similarly unexciting in most of Tuesday’s gubernatorial and U.S. Senate primaries. A push by Bernie Sanders and newly minted socialist celebrity Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez failed to win the Michigan Democratic gubernatorial primary for Abdul El-Sayed, a left-winger who dreamt of becoming the country’s first Muslim governor. Instead he won’t even be on the ballot in November, after losing the nomination to a conventional Democrat, Gretchen Whitmer, on Tuesday. She had been the frontrunner going into the primary, and whatever activist energy and media magic Ocasio-Cortez’s possesses just wasn’t enough to make up the deficit for El-Sayed. (Another Muslim running as a Democrat in Michigan, congressional candidate Rashida Tlaib, has done better, however.)
In general it was not a good night for “Berniecrats.” But progressives could take comfort from a surprisingly easy win in Missouri, where a ballot initiative to authorise a Right to Work law failed — a critical victory for labor unions, which might now try initiatives elsewhere as a way of stopping Republican-controlled state legislatures (like Missouri’s) from making their states Right to Work.
Also in Missouri, St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch, a 27-year incumbent, lost his primary race for re-election to Wesley Bell, a city councilman from Ferguson, the town where a young black man named Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in 2014. Activists accused McCulloch of failing to prosecute that case to the utmost, and now they have successfully replaced him with a progressive who advocates criminal-justice reform and is sure to be less sympathetic to police. Crime has been rising in St. Louis, however, so Bell will be a test of the left-wing approach to justice in a county that is already simmering.
One state over in Kansas was the most interesting Republican primary race of the night, pitting incumbent governor Jeff Colyer against immigration hardliner Kris Kobach, looking to move up from his present role as secretary of state. The race was within 1 percentage point, but as with the special election in Ohio, it’s hard to divine a clear meaning from the narrow margin. Colyer may have been the incumbent, but he isn’t an elected governor: he was lieutenant governor and advanced automatically to the governor’s mansion when Sam Brownback became President Trump’s ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. In the run-up to this week’s gubernatorial primary, Trump backed Kobach over the objections of the Republican Governors Association, which worries that Kobach may be vulnerable in November.
The vote-counting is now in overtime, with Kobach and Colyer too close for the race to be called. Kansas has a long tradition of pro-business conservatism and is home of the Koch Brothers, an environment in which a cultural nationalist like Kobach was always going to encounter some difficulty. But his performance indicates that even here, the Trump style of conservatism is rising.
Do Tuesday’s results taken together suggest that American politics is returning to “normalcy”—or is this a last gasp of conventional politics before the new era of democratic socialism vs. Trumpian nationalism fully commences? The latter is the better bet: insurgents do not have to win every battle to win the war, they only need to keep up the pressure, come victory or defeat. The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel notes that Abdul El-Sayed is only 33 and “He’s never run for anything before. He lapped a rich guy [third-place candidate Shri Thanadar—DM] who went after the same voters and spent $11m. We’ll see him again.” Whoever wins control of the House of Representatives come November, the battle over the speakership will reveal some fateful ideological fault lines: Nancy Pelosi, even should she become speaker, is nobody’s idea of the future of the Democratic Party. And on the Republican side, both Jim Jordan, the Freedom Caucus aspirant to the speakership, and the leading establishment contenders, notably Kevin McCarthy, feel the gravitational pull toward Trump. Already Paul Ryan is the ghost of a Republican Party past—or a Republican Party that never was: a technocratic, optimistic, Ayn Rand-lite GOP that only Beltway boffins ever imagined could the hearts of America’s voters.