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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Election deniers thrive even as Trumpism drifts: 5 primary takeaways

Dr. Mehmet Oz during his election night party in Newtown, Pa. He has refused to acknowledge President Biden as the legitimate winner of the 2020 presidential race.

By Reid J. Epstein

Pennsylvania’s Republican Senate contest, the biggest and most expensive race of a five-state primary night, is a photo finish between David McCormick, a former hedge fund executive, and Dr. Mehmet Oz, the celebrity surgeon. It appears headed to a statewide recount.

The night delivered a split decision for former President Donald Trump, with his choice for Idaho governor falling well short, Oz in a virtual tie and his candidates for Senate in North Carolina and governor in Pennsylvania triumphant.

On the Democratic side, voters pushed for change over consensus, nominating a left-leaning political brawler for Senate in Pennsylvania and nudging a leading moderate in the House closer to defeat in Oregon as votes were counted overnight.

Here are a few key takeaways from Tuesday’s primaries, the biggest day so far of the 2022 midterm cycle:

Republican voters mostly rewarded candidates who dispute the 2020 election results.

The Republican candidates who did best Tuesday were the ones who have most aggressively cast doubt on the 2020 election results and have campaigned on restricting voting further and overhauling how elections are run.

Doug Mastriano, the far-right candidate who won the GOP nomination for Pennsylvania governor in a landslide, attended the rally on Jan. 6, 2021, that led to the assault on the Capitol and has since called for decertifying the results of the 2020 election.

Rep. Ted Budd of North Carolina, who beat a former governor by over 30 percentage points in the state’s Republican primary for Senate, voted last year against certifying the 2020 election results — and, in the aftermath of that contest, texted Mark Meadows, then the White House chief of staff, to push the bogus claim that Dominion Voting Systems might have had a connection to liberal billionaire George Soros.

On Tuesday, Budd refused to say that President Joe Biden was the legitimate 2020 victor.

Voters in Pennsylvania’s Republican primary for Senate sent a more mixed message: Kathy Barnette, a far-right commentator who centered her campaign on Trump’s election falsehoods, trailed her narrowly divided rivals McCormick and Oz early Wednesday.

But Barnette, with roughly 25% of the vote, performed far better than many political observers had expected just two weeks ago, when she began a last-minute surge on the back of strong debate performances.

The GOP will feel bullish about the Pennsylvania Senate race. The governor’s contest is another story.

Republicans avoided what many saw as a general-election catastrophe when Barnette, who had a long history of offensive comments and who federal records show had finished ninth in the fundraising battle in Pennsylvania’s Senate race, slipped far behind McCormick and Oz.

Both McCormick, a former hedge fund executive, and Oz, who was endorsed by Trump, have largely self-financed their campaigns and could continue to do so, though neither would have much trouble raising money in a general election.

The eventual winner will face Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a Democrat who has long been a favorite of progressives but has recently tacked to the center as his primary victory became assured.

With nearly all of the vote counted, the margin between McCormick and Oz was well under one-half of one percent, the threshold to trigger automatic recounts for statewide races in Pennsylvania. Before that can happen, thousands of mailed-in votes are still to be counted from counties across the state.

Whoever emerges from the Republican Senate primary will be on a ticket with, and will probably be asked to defend positions taken by, Mastriano. He has run a hard-right campaign and enters the general election as an underdog to Josh Shapiro, the state’s Democratic attorney general.

Trump’s endorsement is still worth a lot. But Republican voters often have minds of their own.

In Ohio this month, J.D. Vance received 32% of the vote. In Nebraska last week, Charles W. Herbster got 30%. And on Tuesday alone:

— Dr. Mehmet Oz was hovering around 31% of the vote in Pennsylvania.

— Bo Hines took 32% in a House primary in North Carolina.

— Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin of Idaho lost her primary for governor with about a quarter of the vote.

All of these candidates were endorsed by Trump in competitive primaries. And the outcome of these races has established the value of his endorsement in 2022: About one-third of Republican primary voters will back the Trump candidate.

In some races, such as Vance’s for Senate and Hines’, that’s enough to win and for the former president to claim credit. Elsewhere, as in Herbster’s bid for governor, the Trump-backed candidate fell short.

To be sure, Trump has won far more races than he has lost, and he saved face Tuesday night with his late endorsement of Mastriano as polls showed the Pennsylvania candidate with a strong lead.

Trump’s early endorsement of Budd in North Carolina’s Senate race choked off support and fundraising for Budd’s establishment-minded rivals, including former Gov. Pat McCrory.

But in Nebraska, Herbster and Trump could not compete with a local political machine and millions of dollars from Gov. Pete Ricketts. In Pennsylvania, some local Republicans never warmed to Oz despite the Trump endorsement.

None of this bodes well for Trump’s Georgia picks, who are facing cash disadvantages and, unlike in the primary contests so far this year, entrenched incumbents. The Georgia primaries are next week.

Conor Lamb said electability matters most. Voters agreed — and chose John Fetterman.

When he burst onto the national political scene in 2018 by winning a special election to a House district Trump had carried by 18 points, Conor Lamb presented himself as the Democrat who could win over Republican voters in tough races.

Lamb made electability his central pitch to Pennsylvania voters in this year’s Senate race. Democratic voters did not disagree — they just decided overwhelmingly that his opponent, Fetterman, was the better general-election choice in the race.

Fetterman, who left the campaign trail Friday after suffering a stroke and had a pacemaker installed Tuesday, outclassed Lamb in every aspect of the campaign.

The lieutenant governor raised far more money than Lamb, even though the congressman employed the same fundraising team used by Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader. Fetterman’s muscular liberal agenda also energized more voters than Lamb, who, from the day he entered Congress, distanced himself not only from Democrats’ left wing but also from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whom he refused to back as the party’s leader.

Madison Cawthorn found out the hard way that voters have a limit.

Two years ago, Rep. Madison Cawthorn burst into Congress like a rocket, winning an upset victory over a Trump-endorsed candidate in a primary for his western North Carolina district and became an instant national media sensation.

On Tuesday, he lost his primary and left his election-night party without giving a concession speech.

In the end, even the Trump-friendly Republican voters of western North Carolina had had enough. The flurry of embarrassing videos from Cawthorn’s personal life, which emerged after he angered fellow Republicans with wild claims that members of Congress had used cocaine and held orgies, turned out to be too much.

This was not an instance of Republicans choosing electability over a firebrand. Cawthorn was in little danger of losing a general election, though Democrats would have thrown a ton of money against him to try.

Instead party leaders, in both Washington and North Carolina, sought to rid themselves of a problem child in their midst by coalescing around Chuck Edwards, a state senator backed by Sen. Thom Tillis and an array of other North Carolina Republicans.

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