How the press is getting it wrong about the Democratic primaries

Stacey Abrams
Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. (Photo: John Bazemore/AP)

If you’re a political junkie — the kind who, say, subscribes to Politico’s breathless Playbook email blast — you may have been slightly confused when you read the side-by-side summaries of the latest midterm primary results highlighted in Wednesday morning’s digest:

WAPO’S MICHAEL SCHERER and DAVE WEIGEL: “Democratic voters reject tradition, choosing outsiders in their quest to regain power

[POLITICO’s] STEVE SHEPARD: “Top takeaways from Tuesday’s historic primary night“: “It was a pretty good night for the Democratic establishment”

At first glance these two headlines would seem to contradict each other. By definition, “outsiders” are not members of “the establishment,” so when one group performs well, you would assume the other performed poorly.

And that’s certainly how the coverage of this year’s Democratic primary season has largely been framed. In the first election cycle to take place in the down-is-up-and-up-is-down world where Donald Trump is president of the United States, every congressional and state legislative race is being analyzed for insight into the direction of the Democratic Party after Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Every result is another data point; every morning after, another opportunity to cram that data point into some all-encompassing narrative. The establishment is winning! The outsiders are taking over! Democrats are veering left! Moderates are making a comeback! And so on.

The press isn’t really to blame for these simplistic, zero-sum story lines, even though it’s perpetuating them. Our relentless media machine runs on so-called takes: the quicker and clearer the better.

But the reality about what’s happening in these Democratic primaries is more complicated, as reality often is. Turns out it’s neatly reflected in Tuesday’s results — and the dueling headlines that allegedly captured them.

That’s because the most interesting thing about the latest Democratic developments is that outsider and establishment forces are both notching victories. In fact, it isn’t always clear who’s who. And this says a lot about the future of the party.

Take Tuesday’s marquee primary: the battle of the “Two Staceys,” Abrams and Evans, for Georgia’s Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

Supporters of Stacey Abrams at a primary election night event in Atlanta. (Photo: Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)
Supporters of Stacey Abrams at a primary election night event in Atlanta. (Photo: Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

National reporters had largely framed the race as competition between a black candidate (Abrams) and a white candidate (Evans) with differing views of how to win statewide in November.

Abrams, the thinking went, would boost turnout among minority voters who comprise a growing share of the Georgia electorate but who tend not to show up in midterms. Evans would pursue the more traditional path for Southern Democrats, appealing to white workers and suburbanites souring on the controversial Republican president. Thus, when Abrams trounced Evans Tuesday night, the press tended to portray her as an outsider who had overcome the establishment.

It’s true that Abrams’s achievement could portend a historic result this fall: If she defeats Republican Casey Cagle, she will become the first female African-American governor in U.S. history. Winning as a black woman is harder than winning as a white woman (or man). But look a little closer and the whole outsider vs. establishment narrative begins to blur, as does the near synonymous “liberal vs. moderate” dichotomy.

For instance, Evans and Abrams were virtually indistinguishable on the issues, and while Evans boasted endorsements from former Democratic Gov. Barnes and former Democratic Sen. Max Cleland, Abrams had establishment supporters as well: three of Georgia’s four Democratic members of Congress, a bevy of state legislators, U.S. Sens. Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand and Chris Coons — and Hillary Clinton. (No current U.S. senators and only one congressman chose to back Evans.) Abrams was also the former minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives — and the frontrunner for pretty much the entire race. To claim her as an outsider would be an exaggeration, to say the least.

Tuesday’s other most-watched primary was a similar story. Located in the Houston suburbs, the Seventh Congressional District made waves earlier this year when the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee intervened on behalf of primary candidate Lizzie Fletcher, releasing an opposition-research memo attacking her main opponent, the progressive activist and writer Laura Moser. The backlash among grassroots liberals was enough to propel Moser into Tuesday’s runoff — but it wasn’t enough to power the self-branded insurgent to victory. According to the final tally, Fletcher wound up with twice as many votes as her rival.

On paper this looks like a clean victory for the so-called establishment — Moser was fond of brash “resistance” rhetoric, while Fletcher favors reaching out to disaffected Republicans and independents — and that’s certainly how the coverage is casting it. But again, reality isn’t quite so clear-cut. Like Moser, and like many of the rest of this year’s resistance candidates, Fletcher is a first-time female politician who was inspired to run in response to Trump’s election. After meddling in February, the DCCC backed off, and it never added Fletcher to its Red to Blue endorsement program; it never attacked Moser again either. On balance, the establishment probably made Fletcher’s life harder, not easier, by nationalizing the race and driving activists toward Moser. In a different context, Fletcher might have been the outsider herself.

Lizzie Fletcher
Lizzie Fletcher giving her acceptance speech in Houston Tuesday night. (Photo: Elizabeth Conley/Houston Chronicle/AP)

Elsewhere in Texas on Tuesday, the distinctions between outsider and establishment were just as hazy. Congressional primary winners included an openly lesbian Filipina Air Force intelligence officer (Gina Ortiz Jones) and a black civil rights attorney who once played in the NFL (Colin Allred). Both seem on the face of it like outsiders, but both were backed by the DCCC. In Kentucky, the former fighter pilot and rookie political candidate Amy McGrath defied conventional wisdom by upsetting Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, who was recruited by national Democrats, while state Rep. Clarke Tucker — another DCCC Red to Blue congressional pick — clobbered several candidates to his left in Arkansas’s only contested Democratic primary.

So what conclusions should political junkies draw from Tuesday’s results, if not the reductive ones preferred by the press? Perhaps something a little less polarized and a little more accepting of outcomes that don’t fit into one box or the other. Yes, there are more outsiders running, and winning, this year; the rise of rookie resistance candidates is one of the biggest stories of the cycle. And yes, Democrats as a whole are moving to the left; that much was clear as soon as Hillary Clinton started co-opting Bernie Sanders’s positions in 2016.

The thing is that the establishment recognizes these realities, and it is responding in kind. That’s why it didn’t go to the mat against Moser, or for Gray; that’s why the white gubernatorial candidate in Georgia got less support from national Dems than her black rival, and why the DCCC immediately released a memo showing that McGrath would be a strong general-election contender.

Politics is always going to be local, to some extent. And good candidates who understand their constituents are always going to outperform their less talented, less tuned-in rivals. What those constituents want might be shifting. What those good candidates look and sound like might be evolving too. But the establishment is adjusting in response. For Democrats, the story of Tuesday’s primaries — and this year’s primaries as whole — isn’t that outsiders and insiders are pulling the party apart. The story is that, slowly but surely, they’re starting to move in the same direction.


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